Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

The Licensed Designer

The Licensed Designer
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Engineers need to complete a certain amount of schooling, coupled with applied practice, before earning their “ticket.” After doing so, they gain increased responsibility as they’ve worked through a structured and rigorous training process. I want to make the case for similar training and accreditation for designers.


Many professionals run through a comparable set of steps before being able to practice professionally. Doctors, lawyers, accountants… such a construct certainly isn’t uncommon. If you’re an engineer or doctor such training is clearly important as it keeps people from dying. Not having such measures for accountants and lawyers could ostensibly result in businesses being bankrupted, or folks left facing rather precarious circumstances due to ill prepared practitioners.

Is design so different? Most all of us have been on a website that was so difficult to use that we abandoned our purchase and went somewhere else. (It’s reasonable to assume that the owners of these websites would have preferred otherwise.) It has also been argued that poor design resulted in the dangling chads that changed the face of the 2000 American Presidential election. One might also cite those dozen people who died in a Düsseldorf airport, because they couldn’t find the fire exits.

Only those ignorant to what designers actually do will claim their efforts to be superfluous. Some might even say we’re in the heart of a design renaissance. Today the average person not only makes purchases because of design, but even discusses the merits of one design over another. Yet, even at such a time, design training is a mess, with little clarified for the young person considering a career in design. Design certification is even more haphazard (and largely non-existent), leaving no standard by which the buyer can verify the skills of their chosen designer.

I have to ask if it’s time for our profession to rethink how we train designers. I’m of the mind that such a task needn’t be particularly groundbreaking; in fact, we may benefit by looking at these other professional practices and how they structure the process of certification. Isn’t it reasonable to think that the approaches that have worked so well in other pursuits might adapt equally well to our industry?

The current arrangement sucks

Design is an important area, seemingly in greater demand than ever. Perversely, however, design training is largely “un-designed.” Programs come in all flavors. Duration ranges from a single year to many, with some offering certificates and others degrees. What few stray from, however,  is the habit of making grand promises of exciting and fulfilling careers. Prospective students often have limited means by which they can evaluate institutions that might actually afford the experience—and career options—they hope for.

All programs are not created equally, and this ultimately leaves a deluge of “trained” graduates fighting for experience, but often left with few interested employers. Regardless of the sum paid for an education, short programs (often with outrageous associated costs) tend to puke out students who simply aren’t employable. Lofty dreams are quickly dashed, as young hopefuls learn that their experience is lacking and their investment poorly made.

Employers are equally frustrated with this scenario, as a surplus of applicants is often misrepresentative of what is actually a scarce availability of capable individuals. Is it really reasonable to take on a new staff member who won’t generate an hour of billings for at least six months? Should the employer be held responsible for the slack left by questionable curriculums more concentrated on the bottom-line than actually training young designers?

Eventually, the recent graduate with a sub-par portfolio either secures a position that allows him to occupy a pale version of the role he believed to have trained for. Or, he takes some lumps and goes for further training (or starts the ever-common process of self-educating). Alternately, he goes on to another career that is more lucrative. Likewise, employers looking to hire will either wade through the “wood” and find a capable designer, or make an investment in a candidate who they believe to have a strong aptitude and desire, in spite of their lack of capacity.

Those who really suffer are those looking to buy design services. They’re left with little measure of whether the firm they choose is one of seasoned professionals, or one that simply talks a good game. They can sift through past projects, call references, and meet with each firm, but the methods for evaluation are largely happenstance, and thus, they leave a great deal to chance.

Today’s designer

A capable designer needs to be able to command a pencil and sketch out their ideas. These ideas, however, have to come from somewhere. Hence, training in ideation and conceptual development is necessary for any designer. This is how one moves past the belief that any random act is somehow “creative.” This rarely happens without applied practice in critical thinking—the act of which helps one gain a stronger command of communication, allowing them to verbally articulate their convictions and decisions.

Few will get far without learning planning methods and strategic thinking. Without the former, one’s ability to meet a deadline will largely be predicated on luck; without the latter, solutions will be based on personal preference and fashion, instead of sober and defensible logic. Needless to say, forming sound strategy is largely dependent upon one’s ability to leverage knowledge of past cases, while understanding design fundamentals, design history, industry standards, and a myriad of other concerns.

Although technology is only one small aspect of a designer’s training, she must achieve a command of these tools in order to successfully bring a project to fruition. In addition to this training, prospective designers often need to be familiar with printing and preflight processes, online considerations, understanding of documentation, and numerous other areas.

If I addressed each one here, I’d expect to lose your attention rather quickly. I could talk about the necessity for some basic photographic skills; or, I could note that many designers end up running their own studios, and that they’d benefit from some basic business training. More than anything, what I’m trying to convey is the depth of knowledge required by the practicing designer.

My proposal

In reading this past section, the message is likely implicit: a year or two of design training (regardless of price paid or how “accelerated” or “intensive” it may be) is simply inadequate. Moreover, it may be irresponsible to offer programs of such brief durations for anything other than training in production practices. Considering all a designer needs to know leaves me with the steadfast belief that less than four years of institutional training is insufficient.

Such training needs to become more standardized, with more accountability taken on behalf of the institution surrounding the commitments they’ve made to students. Clearly, there’s a business model to be found in promising illustrious careers, charging a premium, and then operating an assembly line that pumps out prospective designers. I argue that education operates in a space similar to health care, though, as the needs of those who pass through the system must supersede profits on behalf of the institution. I’d even argue that as an industry, we have a responsibility to call out those who offer bogus or substandard programs to unsuspecting students. They do us all a great disservice.

Back to my point; after working through standardized academic training, I argue that young designers would benefit from mandatory apprenticeships. Instead of tossing newly trained designers into the fray to fend for themselves upon graduation, such a step would buffer their experience and allow them to put their theoretical learnings to the test in a controlled environment. I’d imagine that such apprenticeships would occur at studios helmed by other accredited designers, who would be familiar with the program’s processes and standards.

During these years of applied practice, students would be able to work through some of the more “grunt”-like tasks, while being exposed to a professional environment. In doing so, they’d be able to learn under the tutelage of experienced individuals who would also have gone through a similar experience and, as such, understand that their role was one of guidance and mentorship.

The advantage to designers

At the completion of this process, the new designer would have amassed six years of academic and applied experience, prior to being unleashed to practice professionally. In doing so, they’d have had the time to be both introduced to principles, and explore them in a real-world setting. Along the way, they’d have access to the same resources from their training institution, as well as continued testing and evaluation, allowing them a clear understanding of what areas required improvement or further study.

Contrary to what you may believe, such a proposal is in stark contrast to what many young designers experience today. They enter programs with grand aspirations, only to complete their programs and find few prospects. At this juncture, they are faced with limited guidance and vague notions of how to improve a lack-lustre portfolio. Those in the institutions are done with them, while those in industry rarely have the time and impetus to give them the harsh feedback they may so desperately require.

As a result, these poorly trained folks are left scrounging for whatever morsel of employment they may find. In these positions, they get trained by the wrong people, learning inaccurate rules and bad habits that will take years to unlearn. These individuals—who would otherwise stand the same opportunity to become competent practitioners—find themselves led further astray. Like a comedy of errors, one choice made badly leads to the another, becoming a self-perpetuating set of missteps and dead-ends. You may think I’m exaggerating here, but I’ve seen the portfolios of those who’ve gone down one path and the other. Believe me, such directions are hard to break from, without drastic and (uncommonly) deliberate action.

Young designers would benefit greatly from a more rigorous and guided process, prior to earning their designation. Accreditation could also have broader implications. The design industry is comprised of many lone-guns, learning in isolation, rarely connecting with their peers any way but digitally. Many toil away in the glow of an oversized display, trying to make sense of trapping techniques and other design related minutiae. I’ve never been particularly interested in team sports, but have always admired the camaraderie associated with such groups. Having shared such experience brings people together and starts to contribute to a shared legacy. Might a more ritualized certification process also contribute to this?

Why it works for clients

What I’ve said little of is the pride and respect that comes with professional designation. Although I’m often suspicious of those who append educational designations to the end of their names, I can’t argue with the fact that they stand for something. These titles come with a proverbial thumbs-up from a body of respected practitioners. However erroneous this may be at times, such titles do command respect. There’s value in this for all, as evidenced in the CGA brand, which has been carefully built into a sign of professionalism worth looking out for.

Perhaps a certain amount of periodic testing would be required in order for one to maintain their designation. Annual readings could be assigned, with evaluation of one’s skills, knowledge, and awareness of changes in industry, happening at predetermined intervals. All of this would help clients know that they were making a responsible choice—that choosing a registered designer would give them access to a professional who had undergone significant training, testing, and continued learning in their area of expertise.

On this last point, just think of how many clients have been led astray by a more traditional (and slow-to-change) firm purporting to have a capacity in digital—only to botch the job completely. Such lifelong learning philosophies could mitigate these sorts of instances by maintaining certain core standards. Such a professional body might also serve to lobby on behalf of clients dissatisfied with the performance of a particular designer. (And really, ensuring greater accountability would be good on an awful lot of levels.)

The outcry

Some will quickly remind me that one can gain RGD status through RGD Ontario, or gain similar “letters” via the GDC. I’d imagine that similar attempts at such a standard can be found at all corners of the world. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that these are largely just attempts. Few look upon such designations with the weight one might of a CGA (Certified General Accountant) or a RPF (Registered Professional Forester). Without more rigorous standards and universal adoption, such constructs will command little attention or respect.

Others might think me an elitist, standing behind education in fear of those who’ve sidestepped such routes. I’d be quick to remind such folks that I in fact have little formal design training. Although I have a background in fine arts, my design knowledge is almost completely the result of extensive reading and personal trial and error. I’ve gained a lot of experience along the way, but even having done so, I’d argue that a more defined combination of academic training and applied practice would be beneficial to those who’d follow such a route. In fact, were I able to do it all again, such an option would certainly be of interest to me.

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