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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  3. AJ Kandy says:

    Eric, there's a lot to your proposal that makes sense. A few years ago, I wrote this article for The Creative Forum which parallels some of your thoughts:

    I agree that design schools need to agree on equivalent curricula, but there's a lot that's immeasurable here. Would a graduate of a more moneyed school not be better off in terms of connections and career starters than an equivalently skilled designer with a degree from an obscure community college? How do we level the playing field so that it's more meritocratic?

    Where I have an issue with your approach is the "designers need to know x, and y, and z, and some Cyrillic lettered items too" is that falls into the "Army of One" fallacy... There's nobody out there who's an expert in all the areas we "ought" to be, certainly not straight of out school, no matter how lauded or Ivied.

    To stereotype broadly, engineering, accounting and computer science are largely populated by people who follow rules and score well on standardized tests. Designers (and musicians, dancers, composers, writers, etc) usually don't. In fact it's one of the advantages of the profession that you, to use that horrible phrase, "think outside the box."

    Design is also a moving target. What do we test on? Their ability to create HTML, CSS and Flash when in 10 years all of those things may be obsolete? Or do we go back to more of a classical, liberal-arts education of solid design principles?

    To return to an earlier point, no-one is an expert at everything unless they want to be, and while some may gain satisfaction from being a Javascript ninja, I prefer to be the generalist who knows when to put the right interaction component in the right place with appropriate wording.... I've always tended to work as part of a team where disciplines are split across different members. In a well-run organization, every one of those members contributes to make the best possible product for the customer, and each brings unique insight to the table that another might have missed. I don't think you can teach that in school, nor should we focus on turning out graduates who are interchangeable widgets.

    The big thing lacking in my mind is the ability to put together good ad-hoc teams to bid on projects, and secondly, given how most of our clients are small-to-medium businesses nowadays and not design-literate 1960s corporations, we need to be able to educate clients more on what we do and why.

  4. Thinking outside of the box is horribly overrated. Many use ideas like these as a means to avoid gaining a capacity for their profession. Designers are not artists; they are planners who facilitate outcomes. Doing so effectively requires clarity of mind as well as knowledge and practiced skill. Yes, the need for experimentation and more abductive thinking is necessary, but that doesn't make it "art."

    Additionally, design isn't really a moving target. The fundamentals are quite consistent, even if means of implementation change. Then of course, every industry sees this. Even if the tools or the approaches change, there is core knowledge that must be gained, that tends to be universal, or at very least transferable.

    You point to HTML, CSS and Flash, and yes, these may change. Let's remember, though, that those aren't fundamentally design considerations--they belong in the domain of developers. We have to stop confusing development for design. Those who try to do both rarely master either.

  5. AJ Kandy says:

    I agree 100% that designers ought to be thought of as planners who facilitate outcomes...the issue is often that non-designers (and wannabe or naive designers) think it's about decoration, or some form of wibbly "creativity," and I never said it was art, rather, it's craft. Craft can be artfully done, even beautiful, but it's not there for its own sake.

    Maybe I should clarify. When designers get hired to 'think outside the box' it's really to be able to think outside someone *else's* box (or see without blinders, if you prefer), most usually the clients'! Usually you end up having to advocate for the user's side of the equation, where the clients (esp in small to medium sized businesses where they're focused on manufacturing or developing something, maybe for a B2B market, etc.) are too focused on specs and requirements and sales targets to actually remember that someone has to use this stuff in the end.

    You say you don't think design is a moving target - maybe in the abstract, but seriously, unless you're running your own firm, do you think anyone gets hired purely to be an abstract thinker about design?

    I feel like your definition of design is far too broad. Do you mean graphic design? Typography? Poster design? Book & publication design? Industrial design? Architecture? Information architecture? Information design? Interaction design? Game design? Sound design? Motion graphics? Film storyboarding and editing? All of these might credibly fall under the "design" rubric, but each have their own craft lore that don't always overlap. Many of these don't fall into neatly ascribed function boxes, and what design school would expect a graduate to be equally proficient in all of them? (Having seen a lot of recent graduate work, most of them aren't even proficient in spelling..)

    Plus, where do aesthetics and emotional affect come into the equation? They're important parts of the experience, but can that be taught and tested in a standardized way without also dragging in the entire toolset of anthropological observation, testing methods, and statistics (which frankly, I think the field needs desperately) but that design schools are ill-equipped to address?

    On top of that, there's the recurring cry (recently repeated on that designers ought to also be coders. And then there's umpteen job postings on the internet looking for "UX designers" that read more like calls for back-end programmers. It's clear that clients and potential employers don't understand what to ask for. I agree, we should stop confusing development for design, but it'd be nice if everyone else would, too.

  6. Beeb says:

    Design is anything but superfluous but it IS different than the professions.

    It comes down to professional liability where human safety and human sustainability is concerned. Professionals have a responsibility to serve their clients in an unbiased way and be accountable to society. They also have to serve more than just their clients. They have to serve humanity as a whole which reaches far beyond just the needs/demands of their clients. An architect designs a building to last at least 100 years; a teacher teaches a student but also a nation; a journalist reports a story but does so with a rigor to report the truth not just just get a story done. A professional receives a specific professional credential designation through a rigorous program of academics, apprenticeship, and examination/certification.

    Engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers etc. they can be held liable if they are found to be negligence - sometimes criminally. That is because their work has a direct impact on human safety and sustainability.

    While it would be great to develop and promote standards for designers (other than the professions who do design) in terms of the product they deliver, this should come from within. Regulatory bodies often stifle creativity and fortify an 'old boys' network where the offering/approval of credentials is tight fisted at best. This discourages newcomers and prevents spontaneity an innovation (usually during the prime moment of a person's career creativity).

    Ultimately where human safety is not involved, the market will decide where the best value is offered by designers. What should happen is relentless promotion of the value of design. Just as it is easy to read a book but much harder to write one, it is easy to use a tool and much harder to design one. Most people do not understand this because they have neither tried to write a book nor tried to design something.

    Making a standardized education might be good for the basics but it is unlikely to succeed based on the value design places on newness/freshness/innovation/change with little collateral cost. But a credential based system like professional designation and certification would do nothing but enhance the already powerful status quo and would just unnecessarily and harmfully weed out anyone with 'deviant' ideas.

  7. Erika Rathje says:

    As someone who went through a four-year accredited design program, I can speak to the multifaceted education it gives a young designer while allowing them the time to develop skills and have them evaluated while still in a program. At the same time, the way my program was organized didn't allow a student to receive a well-rounded education (e.g. in print, typography, motion and web design inclusively) without taking summer courses. Not only that but our full workload often had students resorting to "shafting" a particular course when the most time-intensive ones occurred close together. Thus the time and energy devoted to a typography course was stripped in favour of a print design course ocurring the previous day that, in the end, offered me little because of a subpar instructor, my own web-based direction, the lack of time spent on the typography course, etc. To make up for both after graduation, it has been a long slog.

    There were a lot of areas lacking, which leads me to believe that students during and especially after graduation need to evaluate their programs in-depth. Of course we can't expect to learn everything necessary within those four years -- nor should an employer expect us to know everything. I spent my first studio job trying to prove myself to my employer, strangling my design process and stifling my growth. There is little worse than that, I think.

  8. No one special says:

    Actually, the reality is similar with engineers/programmers. They are not highly skilled plug and play employees. They must learn their craft in between classes. And they go through the same deceptions after graduation.

    The solution isn't better education. The problem has that we've stopped growing craftsmen. We've got accustomed to go buying careers at university and expecting returns on our investments. What we need are guided apprentices and people who do actually care to help them grow.

  9. Matthew Gerber says:

    I think your proposal fails to take into account the most important metric of all: inborn talent.

    The idea that anyone can go to school to train to become a designer is flawed from the get-go. Any program that claims to train anyone to be a designer, leading to fame and fortune, should be investigated for fraud. Without an innate sense for design (any medium will do) no amount of training will produce a true design professional. A great program might produce a set of technically proficient hands to help turn a creative idea into a reality. Those hands will need lots of help and guidance along the way to get it right.

    I have reviewed countless portfolios of prospective designers. They have been full of identical school projects, with no personal work to be seen. No extra time taken, no creative thoughts in sight. Even if the prospect has been out of school for some time, perhaps working outside of the industry, without a school assignment to prompt them to action, they are not producing individual, compelling design.

    And the money they expect!

    I always end up digging for information...trying to find out if they have any experience or creative hobbies which might translate into the skills I need, or what motivated them to train for design. Based on the answers I hear, I have come to this standard conclusion: It seemed like an easy way to go. This is not the person I will choose or recommend.

    Perhaps instead of standardized accreditation or mandatory on-going testing and education, your proposal would be better served by requiring an aptitude test prior to training. And I don't mean "Draw Skippy". Produce some work done as a younger student. Write an essay about why you are passionate about designing "X" and supply thumbnails which are a creative solution to designing "X" ("X" being sign design, or Web layout, or whatever). Make the prospective student show that design is what they want to do, not just a seemingly easy way to get through a college education.

    Talent will out. Those with money to attend a training program but no innate skills will be weeded out by me. No amount of industry connections bought with a fancy certification can really make up for a lack of talent.

  10. Matthew, I fear that you're confusing talent and drive.

    In my experience, talent is largely a fallacy, but at times a useful one, as those who believe they are "talented" tend to practice more.

    I doubt there's such a thing as a "born designer." Then of course, I don't believe in the Easter Bunny either. There's little need to subscribe to the fantasy of mystical gifts handed out arbitrarily at birth.

    People driven to do something--who practice accordingly--improve. If they do so for long enough, they can become good. And with the right guidance, they can become great.

    The notion of institutionalizing more rigorous training isn't about "fancy" certification, as you describe it; nor is it about money. Instead, it's about building more clear pathways for those who want to practice a profession.

  11. Steven McG says:


    I have been reading your blog for a little over a year, while I am not a designer I always find your posts thought provoking. For the first time I think I have something useful to add to the discussion. In my career, the two most important qualifications I have are interesting case studies in terms of what you propose.

    I studied Mechanical Engineering at University and seriously considered getting chartered when I left. However in the UK - unlike Canada - there is no legal requirement to be chartered. It is seen as a 'nice to have' by some companies and most don't care. I therefore did not pursue becoming chartered, there were no real benefits for me. Ultimately, I would have had to pay an annual subscription fee, for a magazine and some letters after my name.

    On the other hand once graduated, I studied Six Sigma in two companies and obtained 'Black Belt' certification. The problem is that there is no central body regulating the content or requirements for certification. So while people have a general understanding of what it means, there is no industry standard. The reason that there is no set standard is because there is no impetus to implement it. The current system, where certification from some companies is more prized than others (e.g. GE and Allied Signal) works sufficiently well.

    Therefore there are two problems with your proposal:
    Firstly you need to persuade individuals that it is worth pursuing. The easiest way to address that issue, would be to follow the lead of engineering in Canada and make 'designer' a protected term. If you could only call yourself a designer once you had achieved professional certification, it would become a job requirement. The difficulty of this, is that because it is not currently a protected term, there would be outcry if you tried to make it so. Overnight no-one could call themselves a designer until they registered, which would likely be an expensive and time consuming process.
    Secondly you need to create the impetus for regulation in the industry. In the other examples of professional registration you included, the impetus is largely driven by one thing; professional indemnity insurance. The bottom line is it is very easy to sue an Engineer for a failed design or a Doctor for a botched operation. I suspect it is much harder to sue a Graphic Designer for a badly designed brand or a Six Sigma Black Belt for a bad process improvement. It is much more subjective and much harder to prove damages in both of those cases.

    I fully agree with the sentiment of your post, I just think it would be very difficult to build support to implement what you propose.

    PS An interesting sidetone is, that often un-chartered Mechanical Engineers in Canada have the job title of Mechanical Designer.

    PPS There is a lot of research to backup your argument that persistence and practice trumps innate talent. It is nicely summarised in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

  12. Winnie Lim says:

    Your proposal sounds like architect training, typically five years of institutional education with three years of internship before being recognised professional.

    I feel that it is a very ideal idea, it will give us the foundation and credibility the design profession so sorely lack.

    However, one of the most beautiful aspects of design is its low barrier of entry. Of course, everything is a double edged sword, with the low barrier of entry you get drones of designers with unprofessional practice or behavior.

    Yet, it allows many of us, who never had a proper chance to go through formal education to have an equal shot at being an accomplished designer. I believe many of us had unconventional pasts and perhaps lack the emotional maturity to go through a structured process of education in our earlier years.

    Many of us went through that serendipitous, raw process of self-discovery – that unquenchable thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiousity to learn – through lots of hands-on work and interaction with like-minded people.

    If this was a profession that required such stringent accreditation, there will be many of us left out – just like I am sure there are many who dreamed of becoming architects but were unable to do so because of pragmatic restrictions.

    Besides, not many accomplished/experienced designers are great mentors. Learning from someone who can be a wrong fit can be detrimental instead.

    Perhaps it is worthwhile practicising design principles on a designer's education – balancing structure with creative freedom. Or perhaps allow natural selection to take place. Isn't it about the portfolio? A good client goes out of his/her way to find a good designer/agency (and not rely on a big-name traditional agency for example).

    I believe young designers who have the desire and drive to succeed, will. Those who have plainly rely on their prestigious college degrees, or have 'vague notions on how to improve their lacklusture portfolio' may not be suited for this career anyway, and will not be helped by any 'rigorous training process'.

    It is easy to be a designer, but not easy to stay as one, and even more difficult to be a successful one.

    Besides, every now and then, we get stunned by some young uneducated talent at the age of 16++. We wouldn't want to be deprived of this, would we? :)

  13. Former Designer says:

    Hi Eric,

    I agree there needs to be a lot of changes ...

    And I commend you on your commitment and enthusiasm to your profession.

    But, I don't think your proposal would work.

    I received my academic and formal training from 1988 to 1994 in Visual Communications.

    From my experience, the enormous COST of my education was a HUGE disadvantage for me.

    Because of low wages and a lack of initial opportunities, I wanted to leave the industry and pursue something else ... But I was stuck in debt (11 years to pay off student loans).

    It is a small, tough, overcrowded, competitive industry ... And I have seen many solid creative studios dissolve over the decades.

    Lots of talented people from my graduating class are successfully doing something else.

    Thankfully, I am now one of them.

    The key reason your proposal would not work ... Funding.

    There are not enough clients in western Canada willing to sustain your vision.

    There are also not enough medium or big sized creative studios in western Canada to effectively mentor individuals.

    There are only a handful of companies that WANT, NEED, & CAN AFFORD to communicate themselves with visual sophistication to their audience.

    Everyone wants to look like "a million dollars" ... But not many companies are prepared to pay for it.

    For most potential clients that provide products and services, "Price" and "Profit" are often the biggest determining factors.

    Lots of profitable companies "get by" with their existing "identity" and "creative campaigns" ... Too many businesses look at "Visual Communication" as merely an expense.

    Sadly, "Quality" and "Creativity" are often left behind in their strategy :(

    Because of the affordability of new technology, there is always someone willing to "design" cheaper and faster than you.

    And the sad truth ... the odd time ... they might even do it better.

    Companies can now save more money than ever before on Communication Design ... And they can also hire an in-house designer for a fraction of the previous cost.

    It is definitely a buyers market ... But as we all know ... It is also buyer beware.

    Computers have brought enormous creative possibilities and has made publishing media available to all of the masses.

    Our field of "Visual Communication" is not a specialized vocation anymore.

    My former boss said quotes are often lower than prices from the 80's ... Yikes!!!

    Compare that to rising housing costs :(

    Typography houses, film strippers, and other various pre-press operations are extinct.

    Maybe the large or medium independent design studio is next? ... Then again, maybe not ...

    Today, I honestly belief anyone with good computer skills and a sophisticated eye can become a designer.

    To become a designer today, you need:

    · a detailed eye

    · strong computer skills (and your own computer)

    · strong organizational skills

    · good social skills

    · a will to learn

    · an open attitude

    · a flexible mindset

    · perseverance

    I have met a few AMAZING designers with NO formal training ... and I have seen a few sad Master Degree portfolios.

    Throwing excessive money at an overpriced education is NOT the answer ... it can be a very BAD investment.

    Believe me, I've done it.

    If you want to be a designer, start doing it ...

    Create your own blog or website.

    Document "Good" design ... and communicate why it is effective.

    Document "Bad" design ... and show how it could be improved.

    Later, you could create your own projects for friends or family (logos, websites, etc).

    Your next step... do freelance projects for small companies.

    If your expenses are too high (student loans), you do not have the freedom to freelance.

    Most design studios do not hire someone without a couple years of experience anyway.

    Remember, your freelance years could be an extension of your initial education.

    And lots of designers are happier doing freelance instead of working in a studio.

    Some designers are even happier being "in-house".

    The key is to learn BY DOING ... NOT by paying for something you can't afford.

    With the internet, libraries, magazines, open education, etc ... you can learn from anywhere.

    Communication design is not rocket science ... no one dies from a bad project ... and believe me ... every designer has created something crappy.

    And if you do design something good .... the CEO's wife would rather have it purple ;)

    A design license isn't going to change that.

  14. Eric: First I'll agree that design education often seems inadequate. I see designers some with portfolios that just scream "I went to so-and-so school" because they're taught a style, not a process.

    Next, I'll agree that all designers need to work in the real world, through apprenticeships--and on their own directly with clients--like hair stylists do in cosmetology school. Then real people can come off the street to get their hair done for a fraction of the price a professional needs to charge--knowing full well they're getting student work. But doing this allows the designer to learn what it's like to actually deal with clients directly--rather than just doing apprentice work in an angecy where they only hear about, and never really experience the client relationship.

    As for standardization--this is where I disagree. Putting in place suggestions as to a well-rounded education is one thing, telling teachers what they can teach and how to teach it is another.

    Finally--Every student learns differently, and while they should be exposed too the wide range of elements they will need to be a design professional, they don't have to go to school to learn it. An apprenticeship may be all they need. And some people are better as autodidacts, learning on their own.

    When you start licensing, schools start to teach how to pass the test. And passing the test is no real indicator that they can do their job.

    As proof--just look at architecture. All working architects today must be licensed--yet a great many of them are not doing a very good job for their clients, or the environment.

    If licensing was an effective way to assure quality work, then why are a majority of new buildings so bad. Ugly, poorly thought out, inefficient. You can't blame that on clients wanting "cheap" buildings--because cost has nothing to do with basic techniques for making a building practical, efficient and beautiful--those are based on ideas.

    So rather than rules and legislation, professional designers need to take the responsibility to help new designers, in school, or out. Be willing to volunteer to work with them and let them work with you. That’s the best way for them to learn.

  15. Love the conversation around this!

    It would be interesting to see something visualized around this discussion. What might it look like for any given segment of design to meet some form of "standard?" Where would there be a shared foundation and where must the disciplines diverge (for example, how do industrial designers, communication designers and architects find a common ground to start from before garnering more specific training?).

    And what if we were the ones held responsible for creating this new licensing and educational process? To suggest the change is one thing but to create the change quite another. Daunting perhaps but exciting and relevant, yes? Perhaps if we got out that pencil and sketch pad we could create an image of what it might look like and what it would require? I don't suggest this as blind optimism but as a means to hopefully move some of these ideas forward in a way that encourages the next generation of designers who want to participate but often don't know how. Collaborating with those who hold a stake in the outcomes might yield some interesting possibilities.

  16. Niko Nyman says:

    What would you count as (some of) the consistent fundamentals of design?

  17. Bob says:

    The Dutch professional organisation for designers (the BNO) only offers membership to graduates from accredited design schools (all of which are 4 years or longer to my knowledge).

    If you're self-educated, the board will consider admission based on a good look at your work and skills.

    The list of schools and programmes is diverse (graphic, product, interaction, scientific, art-schools), so it's a diverse club where you can really learn from each other but there is at least a basis of quality, rigour and commitment.

    Works pretty well, in my opinion. And it seems to be rather similar to what you're proposing here, Eric.

  18. Bryan Rees says:

    Thanks again for a really thought provoking article, Eric. I definitely understand and sympathize with your pain about seeing a profession (GRAPHIC Design) that we love so much, seemingly falling to the wayside due to oversaturation and inexperience. If others don't at least see this in the article, then I'm afraid they're either not fellow designers or may be part of the problem.

    I commend you too for taking the time to look beyond yourself and throw out ideas of how we can preserve our trade for those currently in the struggle day-to-day and those coming up behind us.

    Those of you attacking specific applications of design, I feel are really missing the point. First off, if you know Eric, or his studio, it's pretty obvious he's speaking in the realm of GRAPHIC design. However, specific tools within our trade like typography, the Adobe Creative Suite, CSS, HTML, etc. are simply TOOLS in our trade, and yes there must be a proficiency with these, but that is beyond the point.

    First, something that non-schooled designers (for lack of a better term) are missing out on, is all of the theory that is taught in art school—composition theory (how elements relate to each other spatially, and visually), color theory, etc.. These principles apply no matter what your trade is—interior design, motion design, graphic design, etc. Argue all you want for 'born-with' talent, but no level of talent can replace knowing the concrete principals that govern the basics of design.

    Second, something schools are lacking to provide for their students is real-world, hands-on training. Real clients, real feedback, real design solutions. Most require internships, however the level of learning associated with these is entirely dependent on the agency assigned to the student, the attendant assigned within the agency (if any), and the effort put forth by the student. I went through two internships, one of my own choosing, and another required, and both revealed completely different yet useful sets of disciplines that I now carry with me on a daily basis. Eric's point, I believe, is how do we make sure that more in the design field get these same opportunities, and how do we make sure they get the most out of them.

    Lastly, hopefully without getting as long as the original post, I'd like to say that just as much responsibility lies on the clients and those that purchase our design services, as the designers themselves. Educating the general public on what good design is, the evils of crowdsourcing, etc., are just as important. A more educated public will look past those with less experience and help us weed out the weak.

    Lots to think about. You did it again Eric. Keep it up.

  19. defifee says:

    I'm a 2nd year student of a design program called digital media in Germany and as the semesters pass I get more and more doubts if this program is right. Our schedule is crammed with lectures on design theory, concept thinking and programming and photography, web design, flash game projects.

    But there is no time to go into depth, everything is treated superficially. We are being told that we are the new generation that will combine the old print design business with the new technology design.

    Of course I'm trying to practice things with more detail while I'm not at school and I'm reading a lot. But what I'm missing is exactly the practical training mentioned in the article.

    Our teachers know this and they keep complaining about our lack of e.g. photography, print process skills. I think they are very helpless about this situation too and just try to make the best of it.

    I don't want to complain about these conditions, it depends on what I make of it but sometimes I get very worried if what we are learning makes sense at all.
    I guess the only chance to gain some practical training is the 6-month obligatory internship.

  20. Hello Eric,

    I am a design student in my final (4th) year of design education and I could not be more thankful for my time in the college. It has surrounded me with the notion of being a professional designer, I have had some fantastic opportunities which may not have presented had I not gone to college. I have no doubt that by attending my course I have chosen the best option available to me here in Ireland. Yet, This all pertains to I.

    I do not feel that this is applicable to everyone attending my college or course. There are some who will come out and not do anything related to design, there are some who will struggle to get a job, and a few who will do well. I suppose that is basic maths, it's social economics.

    I wouldn't say my college is the best in terms of it's tuition or contemporary design awareness, the tutors seem somewhat out of touch and this can be frustrating. My college tutors openly admit they do not Art Direct, for they say they do not want to impose their own tastes. I believe that there are universal truths that need to be enforced, when students are not corrected on their mistakes it makes you second guess the system that churns out 'designers' on an annual basis.

    I find it increasingly frustrating when I see substandard work left unremarked or rather unguided. It makes me wonder if the tutors even know it's wrong or do they have some sort of undesign standard that doesn't notice the mistakes being made.

    To ease this annoyance, I have come to the conclusion that design is rather like cooking. A good chef takes his ingredients, amongst other things he will understand how they relate to each other, the delicacy of flavors, the balance of texture, the importance of substance, nutritional value and the presentation. Similarly a designer should understand all the ingredients and requirements of a brief. He will take these ingredients and by using acquired knowledge, experience and some personal taste he will create any sort of tasty solution. Simply,

    Good design is like good cooking, taste is subjective but quality is not.

  21. Simon Coyle says:

    I don't have much to say about this piece overall.

    While I agree that a more structured approach to design education would be preferable, in my opinion the cream usually rises to the top, especially in the internet age, where geographic location is largely irrelevant and the potential audience is huge. A person who is passionate, driven, creative and generally excels at what they do will eventually be recognized, locally or globally.

    But there are two things I want to say. The first is that there is a wide, wide spectrum between "artist" and "planner who facilitates outcomes". If I was the former, I wouldn't make a living as a designer. If I was the latter, I wouldn't want to make a living as a designer. This is a creative field, where spontaneity, inspiration, artistry and craft play as large a role as planning and process.

    Secondly, you don't have to be a mystic to believe that some people are just wired better than others for certain things.

    To follow your logic to it's conclusion, we could say that inside every single person is a potential Mozart, Rand, Shakespeare, Usain Bolt, Lennon, Picasso, Mohammed Ali, Einstein and Ansel Adams, all at the same time, the only difference being the degree of practice in one field versus another.

    Surely that is mystical thinking as opposed to acknowledging that our organic, highly malleable, insanely complex brains are as unique as any other part of us, and most of us are potentially very good at a few things, decent at a number of others and some things we will never achieve no matter how much we work at them.

  22. AJ Kandy says:

    I disagree. I think there's a lot of (anecdotal, to be sure) evidence that some talents and skills are heritable, others are nurtured (we often see families of sportsmen, scientists, musicians, writers, etc.) and many are likely in-between.

    Yes, if you practice something for 10,000 hrs, according to Mr. Gladwell, you will become good at it. But will you love what you do? Will you care?

    I am reminded of all the introverted violin students I knew in university, who could play all the notes perfectly but who would never actually write any music of their own, in their lives. I'm sure they can find a career playing someone else's music, but the lack of creative spark saddens me.

    In a design context, I've interviewed many people for junior positions. Some were more technically competent than others -- the usual -- but the worst interviews were always with people who seemed to evince no personality or opinion of their own; no drive to improve, no (although it's a sin!) envy of other designers who produced something they wished they had.

    I agree that an aptitude test and a good letter of intent / formal interview would be of great help during the recruitment process. Restricting enrollment would be another tactic, if for no other reason than to maintain smaller class sizes and provide more individual attention.

    Again, since the "army of one" idea is a fallacy, I'd encourage students to get a common grounding in design principles, concepts and vocabulary, then allow them to stream into specializations, but always then regrouping for team projects that are cross-disciplinary.

    To agree with an earlier post of yours, Eric, writing would be one of the criteria for entry, and taught as part of the curriculum. Designers who can't explain things succinctly are frankly useless!

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  24. I must say, simon has made a very relevant point.

  25. Erich Lehman says:

    I did my my Master's research on this very topic back in 1999 through RIT's School of Print Media, in conjunction with the School of Design. Specifically, it was about the idea of a print production certification system, completely voluntary, but universally recognized. It was met with many of the same thoughts/feelings listed above. I'll email you the PDF, Eric.

  26. There have been a lot of thoughtful comments here, and I apologize for not responding to more of them. I have only two excuses: The first is that in some spots I'm just curious to see what others have to contribute. The second is that it was lovely today, so we spent it outside with the kids.

    A few brief responses, though:

    @Steven McG: I agree; the logistics of instituting such certification certainly could be arduous, and perhaps a bit of a tall order. They do exist in other professions, though, which seems to imply that it is possible. Meanwhile, even if it never happens, the discussion seems worth having, no? ;-) And with regards to your second postscript, Gladwell's Outliers does make a highly compelling argument.

    @Winnie: The low barrier to entry is great, as it allows many to tinker, and there's little wrong with that. For those, however, who wish to move past that, I worry that the path to doing so is awfully unclear. While it's important that all can expose themselves to design, and explore personally, I still feel that those who want to practice professionally would benefit from more structure, particularly upon completing schooling.

    @Former Designer: Many of us have seen first hand what you describe. Although I can't speak definitively about this, I have a hunch about what's occurring. My feeling is that there's a huge commoditization afoot in design, particularly as it relates to production related tasks. Additionally, professional-seeming results are easier to achieve now than ever before. As a result, we find that buyers can easily access quite passable seeming visuals at very low prices. This isn't in fact bad, as for some, it's all they really need. The trick for designers is to concentrate on the less tangible value of their offering. Yes, anyone can create a logo; fewer, however, can craft a message that augments behaviour. The latter is certainly harder to achieve. It's also a service that fewer can offer, and therefore, can be sold for a much greater sum.

    @Daniel Will-Harris: When I suggest standardization I don't mean it to be rigid or homogenized. Instead, I believe that we need more clarity in terms of what design students can expect from programming, and a higher level of assuredness when investing so much in a school.

    @Kara: I love that idea. You're at ECU--how would we get such a thing started?

    @Niko: Isn't that covered (at least somewhat) in the section titled "Today’s designer"?

    @Bob: Nice to hear that--even better if they had the apprenticeship component. :-)

    @Bryan: Thank you!

    @defifee: That's really unfortunate. I must say, though, you can fill in a great deal on your own. It sounds like you haven't really received what you signed on for, which sucks, but don't let it stand in your way!

    @Youssef Sarhan: Even if your instructors don't want to imbue their personal tastes on student work, they should be able to address and articulate weak (and strong) points in a design, or ones that may be conflicting with the design's purpose. If they don't do that, they're lazy or incompetent. (Or, students aren't really listening to what's being said.)

    @Simon: You're right, every person likely isn't the next Paul Rand. Nevertheless, one needn't be Rand to be a capable designer. The challenge I have with this "talent" notion is the common fantasy that talent is all that's needed, and that it can can lead to success without work. Let's use athletics as a comparison. I knew a kid growing up, who was a gifted athlete. He simply had a bigger "motor" than the other kids, and as such he won a lot of races. But (and this is a big "but"), he didn't want to work for it. As the years went by, hungrier kids with less of a gift slowly narrowed the gap. By the time he quit, there was little possibility that he would ever touch them again. They just wanted it more. While I agree that some have a natural aptitude for certain pursuits, my bet is still on those who commit to disciplined and applied practice.

    @AJ Kandy: You ask: "If you practice something for 10,000 hrs … will you love what you do? Will you care?" My feeling is that if you didn't, you certainly wouldn't practice that much. ;-)

    @Erich: Thank you--I've received it and will give it a read!

    And I'll add just one more thing--to all those who've read and commented. Your notes and insight regarding these posts overwhelms me (in a good way). It's fun writing these articles, but the subsequent discussions are what I really enjoy. Thanks for taking the time to contribute--and for adding so much to them!

  27. AJ Kandy says:

    re: practicing for 10,000 hrs -- not everyone chooses their profession. Sometimes your parents choose it for you, sometimes the state chooses it for you (depending on where you live). Quite often people just fall into the vocational-career treadmill, doing something not really because they love it but because it's within their grasp / ambition and they aren't encouraged / supported to make a riskier choice.

    While I have no doubt that a good design education gives people a great headstart, most of one's 10,000 hours will happen outside the classroom. Going beyond the hit-or-miss world of internships, the idea of a student-run agency, overseen by instructors and visiting professionals, is a good one (as someone mentioned upthread). Built-in startup incubators are gaining ground in B-school, and D-school could take a leaf from their book; maybe even offering a joint programme in professional creative management (god knows we could use more competent traffic managers, producers, etc.)

  28. Design defined as form-giving is the most useful (and defendable) definition of design.

    Only when the creative process employs consciously directed design, where designers are employed to add value to content does it makes sense to talk about the value of design.

    It makes sense to talk of the design of the iPod because we know that Steve Jobs employs Jonathan Ive to attend to the design of Apple's products. Steve Jobs, not Jonathan Ive is responsible for the creative imperative of Apple's products, he has an exceptional understanding of how and where design adds value to Apple.

    Because someone has created something and given it form it does not mean that design is responsible for the existence of the thing. An argument that claims design is responsible for all created things is the same argument religionists use to demonstrate the existence of God – that because things exist they must have been created by a consciously directing agent, hence the absurdity of the creationist-backed 'Intelligent Design' movement. It may be useful to talk of the design of something that has been given form but outside of a design-oriented environment talk of the value of design should be more tightly measured.

    Design often gets projected onto created material by designers because designers have a vested interest in promoting design. Most designers promote design well beyond what design can deliver. It should come as no surprise that clients are often confused by what they can expect designers to deliver and that the quality of service varies dramatically from designer to designer. This is a problem unlikely ever to be competently resolved by an educational or professional standards setting body.

    Other than content required to define design, design should not be confused with generating content. Design may well assist in enhancing the form of content and in this sense it generates a very particular type of content. This is content generation but only insofar as the terms of design have been employed to develop and enhance the form of created material.

    The direct and literal tools of design appear to provide the most solid basis for understanding the limits of design. With a definition of design as form-giving exclusively we can more easily grasp how design adds value to content. Anyone who uses design-oriented tools and presents their work as design, at whatever competency level, should be regarded as a designer.

    With such a view of design the problem of a licensed designer is not so important. More important is an understanding of how designers add value to content. A study of the value added within design-oriented environments will most likely reveal that although perhaps added by a creative-led designer, the type of content usually lies outside the remit of design, where the tools of design are not required. The content will most likely have been generated by the designer's grasp of the creative imperatives of the specific project, such as knowledge of a specific market, a particular client's needs, project management, production techniques, and an understanding of the value of design-directed form-giving.

    To try to establish a licensing body to qualify design over such a broad range of activities is over-ambitious and mis-guided. Trying to work out where the one activity starts and the other ends is difficult enough.

    Practitioners of design may actively involve creative content generation to ensure design is closely associated as an effective and worthwhile activity but design and creativity are best understood as different types of activities. Creative people do not need to design things to be effective, they need to give form to content to express content but the generation of content is not necessarily by design.

    Designers would do better to sell design-oriented creativity rather than design as the total value of their creative offering.


  29. Chuck Green says:

    I say we license designers right after we license bloggers.

    Seriously, I understand your desire Eric--I've considered it too. But as soon as you attempt to define the term design, you begin to see how difficult what you propose would be to institute.

    We certainly don't need some sort of institutional mandates on what design is, who should practice it, and how much it should cost. It sounds good on the surface, but then you must tackle questions such as who determines what constitutes good design and creates the rules that separate those worthy of a designation from those who are not?

    I prefer to let the market decide. If organizations want to require certain levels of expertise, more power to them. But I would hate to ever get to the point that the person with a bunch or letters next to their name was awarded an account over someone who had superior skills but without the resources or desire to enlist in the institutional system.

    The vastly complex design community has survived and thrived thus far without the constraints of licensing. Do we really want to attempt to package the creative process?

  30. @Chuck Green: You ask, "Do we really want to attempt to package the creative process?"

    No, but I'm not suggesting that we do. I'm proposing that we should have more defined steps for prospective designers to follow, so that they aren't left without the prospect of fairly compensated work.

  31. Bryan Rees says:

    Seems to me that many who are getting bogged down in the creative process as a WHOLE and all that comes with practicing design professionaly need to go back to Eric's first point.

    "Many professionals run through a comparable set of steps before being able to practice professionally. Doctors, lawyers, accountants..."

    I think it's a very logical comparison. A lawyer must pass the BAR Exam, an Accountant must pass the CPA Exam, etc. These exams don't inform their audience on HOW to practice respective disciplines, but rather teach them the guidelines they must abide by in order to legally participate in their desired field. At the same time this is a mark of credibility for prospective clients to feel confident the person they are entrusting their problems (and money) with has accomplished the minimum amount of training in their field, thus allowing for fairly compensated work. I see the benefits of this as innumerable and tough to cover in any one blog post or comment thread.

    THEN it is up to the individual to determine HOW he will implement the training acquired and increase his learning through further study, potentially more certification, etc.

    Makes sense to me...the hard part is definitely figuring out what are the universal guidelines of design. However, I don't see this as an impossible task, just a difficult one. But who would argue determining what to cover on a BAR Exam or CPA Exam, does not regularly meet much difficulty and constant input from its respective community of professionals?

  32. Designers do go through apprenticeships. They're called jobs.

    Big difference between professions such as doctor, engineer, lawyer etc: no one ever died from a bit of bad typography. It's not that important, and even if we said it were, it would require everybody else in the world to subscribe to that point of view to avoid people working as designers without the "right" to.

    The issue then though is what do you mean by design? Product design? Interactive? Graphic? They're all different.

    Writing both as a design educator, and a self-taught designer who wouldn't have "qualified" under a formal scheme, I can't see how this would work.
    Having said that, I do think that industry assumes too much from graduates and ignores the role it has in offering decent on-the-job training. Which returns me to my original point. We don't need "apprenticeships" for designers, we need career-long training to develop skills.

  33. @Jonathan: I appreciate you taking the time to comment--I really do. I have to ask, though, did you actually read the article?

    I felt those examples in the third paragraph were pretty compelling examples of how much damage bad design can do. Or, perhaps you thought it was better that Bush won the election?

  34. @Eric - but Bush didn't win the election because of what most people would call bad "design". The whole US electoral system was to blame - look at the decisions in different states regarding electronic voting machines and how no redundancy is built in. Look at how decisions on who can vote and who can't are left to partisan officials...

    For me, "design" is too broad a term to be a licensed trade. Service design, for example, isn't just done by "designers" in the old fashioned sense of the word but by sociologists, psychologists etc and often they are the better designers for being focussed on the end user and the system as a whole rather than the technical skill etc. Hence my (badly made) point. The election example, though, is a good case of a need for a complete redesign of the system, not of the machines. The issue wasn't so much the hanging chads as the sheer complexity of the ballots. (As evidence I cite the Scottish elections two years ago which had two ballot papers, one a single transferable vote for the Scottish parliament, the other a first-past-the-post vote for the local council. The sheets were designed okay from a typographical point of view but people were confused (myself included) because the process was so damned confusing.

    Rather than licensing I instead think the whole of design education should be uprooted away from "the pencil" to the head. Seeing design in the broader sense so that it isn't just attracting people who can draw but not much else.
    A bad drawer who thinks can always be taught to be a good designer. A good drawer who doesn't cannot.
    And designers need to be able to articulate their ideas in different ways - some with a pencil, some with flowcharts, some with words... You can't argue for a rethink of the importance of design without allowing for a rethink of what it takes to be a designer, and sadly as long as we think it begins and ends with a portfolio, or that Bush would have been defeated by a better ballot paper, that's not going to happen.

    Such a complex area and it's late here in the UK but another point about employers' complaints: there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that employers are dissatisfied with graduates but very little hard evidence. In my experience the dissatisfaction comes from the gap between what employers think they want and what they end up getting. It is rare these days to see a truly graduate-level job in design. Unlike the other professions, design has not yet come to terms with what it really needs graduates for.

    Thing is I agree with you. But the moment you mention "licensing" the argument becomes about something else entirely!

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  37. Eric T. says:


    Let me start by identifying myself as a designer and an optimistic realist, if ever there was one.

    I applaud your viewpoint. I support the idea and you make some very valid and timely points that I wish more people would take seriously. The design profession is changing for the worse I'm afraid.

    Now for the "but." (You knew it was coming.) It seems that our industry will never allow licensing to happen. Here's just a few reasons why, in a nutshell...

    There are too many people working as designers, who would be fearful of pursuing accreditation. Factors such as time, cost and possible threats to their own vision of success, would hinder them from committing to a new order.

    There are too many greedy institutions who are more concerned with the number of students they crank out, than "who" and "what" is taught. These institutions would not want to see their business models threatened, even for the good of the design profession.

    Lastly, who decides what entity will license designers? That is the high impact question as I see it. That question leads to power struggles of epic proportions.

    The thing is, I would welcome a change. I would welcome licensing for our trade for numerous reasons I could site within just 11 years of my experience.

    However, the reality is that humans have this really bad trait that continues to mess things up - they can't agree on anything.

    Would licensing be any different?

    I wonder.

  38. After reading through all of the comments, I recognize how difficult, complicated and (potentially) infeasible it is to implementing a graphic design accreditation program. However, as a recent grad who learned all too late that her very expensive "graphic design program" did not remotely prepare her for work -- I have to agree that SOME standard should be instituted for college/university degree programs.

    I went though a four-year program where only a ten-week course in typography was required. Ten weeks? I am ashamed to say that I didn't even know Helvetica existed until my fourth year of school, a time when some of my classmates turned in senior capstone project files that were 72 dpi (for a printed poster). I never learned pre-press file preparation techniques (despite BEGGING our instructors to offer a course) or set foot inside a print shop. A course on the history of graphic design was an optional elective offered once every 1-2 years.

    I was fortunate to have an internship under a phenomenal mentor early on in my education, who exposed me to many aspects of the craft not taught in school. My passion for design leads me to study and read voraciously so I can fill in the gaps in my design education as best (and quickly) as I can -- but the point is -- how can a school say they offer a graphic design program, when the curriculum will not adequately prepare students to enter the field?

    Perhaps I should have researched the program better before enrolling, or transferred out once I realized how poor it is. The repercussions of those decisions are my onus to bear. But, when you are brand new to a craft -- how well can you critique a program?

    I agree that designers don't HAVE to receive a degree in order to practice -- but, if you choose to invest money in an education, shouldn't there be some sort of assurance that you'll learn a solid foundation?

  39. First of, I love your blog, and I love what you do!

    Have you spoken to recent graduates about their education? I had to take the same course twice because there weren't any other OPTIONS. I graduated with my Bachelors of Design from Emily Carr... pretty much dazed and confused. I was lacking many practical skills (good web design skills at emily carr is scarce, perhaps rare). And the next few months I spent polishing up my portfolio...There simply isn't enough time to learn everything within 4 years.
    A five year program would have been perfect. Also, keep in mind that design isn't only about creating things. Business courses, presentation and public speaking courses, internships, and even Toast Masters are all a must because you also have to sell your ideas to people - whether their clients, or your creative directors!

    Luckily, I've been learning a lot at Hangar18Creative, where I've started as an intern. I feel like I am still learning and still a student, even though I'm not in a classroom setting. Education should be for a lifetime, really.

    Never think you will stop learning.


  40. Former Designer 2 says:

    Some after midnight banter ... please excuse the bad grammar, typos, etc. ... the medication is kicking in :)

    C O-O P P R O G R A M S

    Some engineer schools and other institutions have "coop programs." Maybe it's time for Design to consider this too?

    As a former designer that carried a lot of school debt, this option would have helped me immensely with my long years of my education (88-94).

    I did have a long, enjoyable, thorough education. the workload was staggering. For instance, in the first semester of my third year, I took 8 credit classes (fine art students only needed 3 to be registered as full-time students).

    Throughout my education ...

    · I studied :
    · 7 of semesters of colour, theory, philosophy, analysis and (process of design ... flexibly generating a variety of ideas)
    · 6 semesters of typography,
    · 8 semesters on photography,
    · 9 semesters on design drawing,
    · 6 computer classes
    · 1 semester of production design for print,
    · 1 semester on a group project with a print, interface and industrial designer (multi-media component)
    · 1 semester of Advertising and Marketing (unit plan + creative campaign group project)
    · 1 semester on a case study of a local creative studio
    · 1 semester of Professional Practice (sending quotes, getting contracts signed, understanding copyright, etc.
    · 2 semesters of writing applications
    · 2 semesters grad project
    · 2 semesters portfolio development

    ... the only thing we didn't know about upon graduation ... the internet or coding ... and that was a year or two after our grad in 94.

    B A C K T O C O-O P S

    These collaborations ease some of the problems of funding. They can also help initiate the mentor process (within the different studios) ... many people feel this element is missing today.

    I am not sure how students would be assigned to different studio?? Any suggestions??

    Once the students graduate, there needs to be some standardized contract with their "sponsor" studio.

    The specific amount of time (3 months, 1 year, 2 years, etc) and wages would have to be given a firm and fair configuration for both parties. After this stage, the studio has the option to further develop the relationship with the former student or new employee.

    The downside ... some studios do not like training someone ... or losing them to other firms. Some studios like to hire only previously trained designers. Clearly, the scale of wage has to be a win/win scenario for both the student and studio.

    S E T T I N G G U I D E L I N E S

    Having the a school and professional members of the industry come together would also establish realistic expectations for graduating students (setting guidelines, skills, abilities, goals, etc).

    These expectations should be clearly communicated to the students so that they can produce relevant material during their program ... and help ease themselves into their chosen profession.

    Maybe the schools should do a survey and get some qualitative data about what the industry expects from graduates? ... How schools can benefit from these relationships? ... and even what do students expect from the school and industry after grad? ... and realistically find out if they can work out a fair and equitable relationship between, the students, the schools and the studios.

    G E T T I N G D A T A

    And I am not talking about 3 or 4 flashy case studies from successful students that schools now use for recruitment... I'm talking about looking at hard data ... and using this measured information to make informed decisions for students.

    From this on-going research, the design community could measure the success or failure ... and identify ways to refine their many solutions. Flexibility needs to be accommodated into the system. People need to acknowledge the model will not be perfect in the initial testing.

    Point people from creative studios will initiate the training of specific day-to-day skills that were identified from this collaborative research.

    S U S T A I N A B I L I T Y : Message to Schools

    The schools have to take more responsibilities for creating a sustainable creative environment for the future of design.

    When I first started school, this was a priority for most of them. Sadly ... it is turing into a "Cash Gouge."

    The 4-year Design program was especially hard to get accepted ... there were face to face interviews and portfolio meetings ... it was very thorough. They were actively recruiting top people to represent their school.

    When I was a student, there were only around 15 people in my graduating class. Learning from each other was the real magic in school. This is hard to do in a big classes with 30, 40 or more students (likely scenarios today).

    People have told me this has changed so much ...

    Maybe the schools should now consider the impact of their behaviour (churning out large numbers of graduates)? Are they helping or hurting the industry? I know they used to consider this ...

    When I was in 2nd year, the faculty actually had the balls to fail over half the 4th year class ... and these individuals weren't allowed to graduate. The faculty felt their work wasn't up to the school's calibre.

    When I graduated there were only 2 four-year programs in Western Canada ... and possibly 3 two-year schools with competitive programs ... and there still wasn't enough jobs available for everyone.

    Is there really a need for all these NEW design schools? Are too many people cashing in on our young generations' dreams.

    Schools, it seems, are not standing up for the integrity of the industry anymore. They are doubling the class sizes and they are marketing heavily to international students (bigger money ... they often pay three times as much tuition).

    The big question ... how to we create these relationships between the industry and the various schools? ... Are there schools that are excluded? ...
    Ideally, the quality of the future graduates would clearly identify the success of the best schools ... and the graduates would have more economic opportunities ... the industry would be buzzing with new, knowledgeable talent.

    Ideally, I'd like to see design get back the respect and ideology it once had.

    Eric, you are a very talented individual and I think (over time) you can make some valuable changes.

    If you every want to bounce perspectives from a formery idealized designer (my very first poster was with rubylith overlays) ... you have my email.

    Good luck fighting the good fight! You are doing a good job!

  41. Molly says:

    Eric has made a great post, I always thought designing should be licensed. Two interesting points from the comments stuck out to me:

    - 'Engineers, doctors and lawyers are "study and follow directions" kind of people, whereas designers and artists tend not to be, so is licensing such a good idea for designers?'
    I would say yes to this, because that is inherently the point of having a license - that you've studied, followed directions, and mastered the basics in a way that has nothing to do with talent or interest but knowing x, y and z. I think a lack of knowing and appreciating "the basics" is what people who are pro-licensing are all about. That's what creating a standard is all about.

    - 'Design is a moving target, and it is impossible to master all aspects of a field (regardless of what field you're in).'
    This is a fact, but already accounted for by other professions that require testing (medicine, law, etc.) The tests change every year, and there are specific tests for specific areas. So if design followed the medicine format, for example, we'd have the basic proficiency test to become licensed (like doctors have "the boards"), and then there'd be additional options for specific areas. So we'd have the "web boards" the "print boards" etc. And if we wanted to follow the medicine format even more, wouldn't it be great if you had to be licensed in an area in order to bill! That would account for those license-skeptics who ask "how could you make designers and clients care about/require a license?"

    Someone else said "Good design is like cooking: taste is subjective but quality is not."

  42. Able Parris says:

    Was just reading Milton Glaser's "Ten Things I Have Learned," and the last point he makes reminded me of this post.

    "If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do."

    His essay was a refreshing read, and he covers some things I've been thinking lately, but unable find words for.

    God bless Milton Glaser.

  43. Dwayne says:

    I think this would be the AIGA's stance one the matter. Standards would be nice. But whose to adopt? I think print design could be reeled in to some degree. It may have been getting there before the internet came along. Web design is just out there. It seems to be a cross between IT and Creative Arts. I recall taking a Photoshop class in college in 1996 and they were teaching HTML. What was that?

  44. Karin Jager says:

    Well, there are always many sides to every story. I think there are bigger issues here. As an communication design educator at Capilano University, and M.Ed. graduate student at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, BC), I’m working on a study to establish a profile for graphic design education in Canada. There are many factors that need to be considered – Do students understand the professional options available to them – and the volatility of our profession? How should educators prepare students for the profession? Should we focus on developing life-long learners? What kind of emphasis do educators place on skill development? On business practices? Critical thinking? Exploration? – Canada doesn’t have national standards for post-secondary education. This is a challenge for both students and educators – especially when the field is evolving so rapidly. In the US, AIGA is an affiliate of NASAD (National Association for Schools of Art and Design). They have established national standards for art and design education and are an accrediting body. In fact, in searching for schools on the AIGA site, you’ll be directly linked to the NASAD site.
    My research will be in part based on data from a detailed survey of educators from many kinds of design programs across Canada. I think these results will help build a foundation for further investigation into the relationships between scholarship and our field that could enrich design education, our profession, and the careers of graphic designers.
    In Australia, there have been a couple of studies conducted by Smith & Whitfield (2005) about the “profession” of graphic design, and sadly it is largely misunderstood. Smith & Whitfield state if design is to achieve professional status, the role of education and the development of design occupations need clarity in order to achieve advocacy from practicing designers. The authors intimate that although Australia has two national design associations, neither is in charge of educational standards or professional practice codes of ethics. The results of both studies suggest that a professional accreditation/registration body for design professions is needed and would bring forward a greater understanding and relevancy to the profession as a whole.

    Smith, G., & Whitfield, T. W. A. (2005a). The professional status of designers: A national survey of how designers are perceived. Design Journal, the, 8(pt. 1), 52-60.

    Smith, G., & Whitfield, T. W. A. (2005b). Profiling the designer: A cognitive perspective. Design Journal, the, 8(pt. 2), 3-14.

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