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Why Should Web Design Be A Profession?

When one goes to the professional, one expects to invest in his expertise. This investment requires no great leap of faith, as it is supported by a trust acknowledged among the general populace and duly warranted by the traditions of the profession. The standards and practices of an individual professional in the fields of, say, law, medicine, or aviation seldom present any great challenge to their clients’ preconceptions. Strict standards and regimented practices are the baseline assumption for all involved. Moreover, the results of those relationships generally support the ideal.

Unless we’re referring to the design profession. In which case, you can discount all of that.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Design, by comparison to other professions, is an odd and disappointing institution. While design exists as a profession in name at one end of the institutional spectrum, it also exists as a commoditized technical service industry at the other. And this is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a construct of the market. It’s appropriate only within a very narrow context and far narrower than is generally assumed. But as I’ll argue in detail later, both designers and the public benefit from this commodity service aspect to the industry.

The problem with this situation is that there is no definitive guide for potential clients, detailing the differences between the commodity designers/agencies and the professional designers/agencies. To make matters worse, many who claim to be design professionals lack any understanding of the term and, therefore, erroneously claim it. As a result, those paying for a designer’s expertise often don’t know whether they’re working with a professional or a nonprofessional until some matter of vital import in the midst of a project makes it abundantly clear. At that point, the entire community of designers either triumphs or fails in the eyes of some very important people: those who need our responsible expertise and have gone to the trouble to pay for it.

You see, the uncompromising standards of design professionalism are highly constraining, expensive, and sometimes even off putting. Yet for the sake of our reputations and our clients’ fortunes they are our industry’s most essential traits. Therefore, the constraints of professionalism must be embraced and the costs paid. I submit to you that the design profession is an imperative.

It's Rough for Web designer.5
The lack of transparency regarding professional standards in the industry means that the entire Web design community is held responsible for the mistakes of individuals. Image source: Andrew Mager6.

Many would disagree. I understand that for any of this to make sense or even matter to you, you’ve got to believe that design should be a profession. Moreover, you’ve got to know why it should so that you can substantiate your belief. But why hold with this belief? It begs the question: why can’t design simply be a technical service industry, free from the fussy standards and constraints peculiar to a profession? It so often does fine as just that! Why is it important that design be a profession?

My effort here will be to answer that important question in a compelling and convincing way. I believe that in order to understand the profession’s imperative and place, we must fully understand how nonprofessional services fit into our industry and, by the same token, understand the voids created by the inadequacies of that approach. I also believe that this examination must take into account the motivations behind factors that promote unprofessional ideas and practices. So to start, let’s look at the most familiar and most commonly encountered facet of the design industry: the nonprofessional world of technicians.

Design as Commodity Service Industry Link

The opposite of professional is not unprofessional, but rather technician.
– David Maister, True Professionalism

Designers and just about everyone who employs them are familiar with the concept of designer as technician or service provider. Need a graphic? Tell the designer what it should look like and he can bang it out for you. Need an image gallery on a web page that wasn’t made to accommodate it? Show the designer how it should work and she can make it happen. Need a newsletter head mast font that communicates authority? Call the designer and he’ll send you 5 new authoritative candidates from which you can pick your favorite.

Multitudes of bosses, supervisors, and would-be clients already know what they want; they just don’t have the technical ability to make it. Call the designer!

Employing designers as technical service providers is an attractive prospect because it’s relatively easy, quick, and inexpensive. It’s easy for the designers too. Nonprofessional production service is light on obligation, plentiful, and often profitable. Design as a technical service industry addresses a market need and in this respect it’s necessary and beneficial. One could build a business doing this sort of work exclusively, and many freelancers and even agencies do just that. So long as the project’s scope and process aren’t too complex and the object of the work not significantly critical to anyone’s success, nonprofessional technical service may just fit the bill.

Keep in mind, though, that one feature of technical service employment, in contrast to professional employment, is that the designer gets managed. Working in a technical service capacity means the designer is there to provide little more than technical service, according to the standards, instructions, or whims of the one employing him. Design technicians need to be kept on task, on time, and their work moderated to reflect fluctuating supervisor preferences or customer preferences—whichever carries more weight. As in, “WAIT, lemme see… Well, the circle needs to be a darker blue. And can we make it more of an oval? Great. That page is going live in 30 minutes. Just send the graphic off to Jan when you’re done and she’ll put it up.”

Design As Commodity7
The non-professional designer can provide quick, cheap fixes necessary to fast-paced businesses. As a design technician they aren’t constrained by artistic integrity. Image source: Jason Hickey8.

This plentiful, light-on-obligation technical-service work brings with it certain tradeoffs. Costs, to use professional parlance. These costs are paid almost entirely by the customers, as they get results that are fractional to what could be realized in a professional relationship. The designers in these instances function merely as enablers to those costs and maybe even get paid well in the exchange. But there are some costs for the designers, too. They must suffer the potential indignity of having much of their expertise ignored and discounted, for instance.

For many, the benefits outweigh these costs. One of the more popular benefits is liberation from professional standards9 and constraints10. For example, as technical service workers, designers and agencies have the luxury of taking on customers rather than clients. One does not discriminate among customers; all are welcome. In the commodity-design service realm, designers are engaged for their technical skill rather than for their uncompromising standards, depth of understanding, or ethical scruples. Therefore, one need not have years of experience or a rock-hard backbone to meet the minimal project requirements, which seldom include more than technical expertise. Technical skills are comparatively easy to project and maintain. Uncompromising moral and ethical standards, not so much. Those professional traits tend to chafe against the customer’s authority and strong will anyway (the customer is always right) and could jeopardize customer satisfaction and designer income opportunities. By contrast, the “I can do whatever you want me to do” approach is often more attractive.

Perhaps the most common articulation of nonprofessional design is subcontracting. Many designers and even agencies devote the majority of their project work to employing or being employed as subcontractors. Sadly, most subcontracting arrangements are not just nonprofessional but highly unprofessional, as they are set up to circumvent designer authority and critical communication in a fog of dishonesty. However, as long as the project context accommodates expediency and requires no significant investment or obligation, nonprofessional subcontracting (and no, there’s no such thing as professional subcontracting) can bring relative ease and speed to a simple project.

Subcontracting also extends the liberation of commodity service to larger projects and can thus expand profit opportunities. The results are inevitably mediocre, but there can be no denying that economy and expediency often outweigh quality concerns. There is a large and thriving market for “good enough,” especially when it preserves a strong-willed customer as the decision maker or obviates uncomfortable complexity in a project.

This arrangement can work so long as the results need be no better than what the customer or subscontractee can conceive of and allow. In these instances the designers are not expert decision makers, but rather the idea presenters and technical tool operators. Many designers are quite happy in this limited and comparatively safe capacity. Sometimes (most times?), however, clients need or are looking for something more dependable and more substantial than commodity design service. Professionalism is hard and many of its constraints present hurdles too great for designers to consider. But while designers typically balk at its constraints and obligations, the idea of professionalism is certainly attractive.

The Idea of Professionalism in Design Link

Without question, designers of all stripes love the idea of professionalism. It’s just that most prefer that idea remain as vague as possible in practical definition and application. The result is that the concept gets relegated to a station of subjectivity and cited merely for its halo effect.

I find that the vast majority of designers, when asked to define it, associate professional design practice almost exclusively with technical quality or “seriousness,” ignoring the uncompromising ethical, process, discrimination, and accountability factors. This is an unfortunate and disappointing sentiment, as professionalism has absolutely nothing to do with technical quality; which should merely be one positive result of projects involving professionals.

The reason for this preference is not so deep or difficult to understand: professionalism is expensive for designers. Proper preparation takes years and requires institutional guidance from senior professional peers. Professional standards impose grave responsibilities on the designer and are difficult to uncompromisingly maintain. They also tend to challenge the preconceptions of just about everyone who encounters them; designers included. According to the character of those brushing up against them, requirements for the professional conduct of design projects can be refreshingly positive or intensely off-putting.

Design is craft
Design is craft, but no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. Image source11.

The refreshingly positive part is easy enough to understand. The off-putting part is due to the fact that few people inside or outside the industry expect designers to employ discrimination or to eliminate compromise with regard to moral, ethical, business, or process standards. Most potential clients and most designers believe that designers should simply behave as merchants; eagerly following whichever path the profit opportunity leads. Because unprofessional and nonprofessional employment has ever dominated our industry, most potential clients believe they should run their own project and make the design decisions after being presented with options. Most designers believe they should simply be told how high to jump and which hoops to jump through. Note: there exists no profession within those ideas.

As to expense, one unpopular result of maintaining professional standards is that a freelancer’s or agency’s viable client pool gets significantly reduced…which is nuts in the minds of most folks. Prevailing wisdom finds fault with any practice that deliberately limits opportunity for profit by applying what cultural convention perceives or defines as obtuse discrimination. Going along to get along makes far more sense. Why would anyone invite the difficulty of uncompromising standards into their life or their design practice? How does it even make sense that design should be a profession?

The Professional Imperative Link

When you think beyond the apparently easy money, cultivated expediency, and low-obligation assumed for some design projects, a couple of things beg for consideration:

  1. these qualities can ethically describe only the most insignificant of projects, and
  2. design results and the processes required for realizing them impact the experience and fortunes of real people.

People’s household incomes, staff payrolls, and economic futures often hinge upon how competent, how ethical, and how uncompromising their designers are.

These facts place a grave obligation on designers and on the industry itself. Every employment of a designer is an investment that demands a positive and profitable return. Designers have an obligation to meet that demand in prepared fashion. The fact is many projects—most, I’d argue—require understanding, skills, standards, and obligations beyond what is typically assumed. The commodity design service industry ignores this fact.

Uncompromising standards are the rule where quality and ethics matter, because these things are not bargaining chips. A designer’s comfort with or allowance for compromise has no place in a consequential design project. Since the commodity service approach is built on compromise and expediency, consequential projects can in no way be served by that segment of our industry. What’s more, common customer assumptions brought to commodity services are inappropriate in professionally run projects.

The ethical constraints for such projects do not allow for clients to compromise or circumvent the professional’s standards and prescriptions. This logical standard reflects the extension of the profession’s obligations into society and allows a design professional to demonstrate responsibility by not allowing the client to harm himself or others by deliberate choice and yet remain as a client. Despite how design organizations typically choose to define social obligation, it is established not on emotional or preferential grounds, but on moral and ethical grounds.

These moral and ethical grounds reflect practical mechanisms. For instance, clients need some acknowledged institutional assurance that their designer or agency will not abuse their relationship for financial advantage; that the fees paid and the work delivered amount to a mutually profitable exchange and not simple opportunism. They need the same reasonable assurance that their designer’s or agency’s work or process is not tainted by any conflict of interest. Moreover, clients need some acknowledge institutional assurance that their designer is worthy of the authority they’ve invested in him and that he is qualified to make the many crucial decisions in the project.

These qualities should be widely understood to be as associated with a specific segment of our industry; gathered up as the acknowledged professional qualities of members of the profession rather than happy exceptions that clients find by hit or miss. The term “design professional” should have an objective definition acknowledged by the public. Therefore, this segment of our industry must be devoted to a codified set of uncompromising standards. Design professionals should be identifiable to their client pool not because of how they lay claim subjectively to the term, professional, but by how they approach their dealings according to vital moral ideals12 and how they publicly proclaim adherence to an objective, ethical, social contract13.

There is no Moral Compass App14
Ethical responsibility is not a now-you-use-it now-you-don’t proposition. To secure the long-term trust of clients professionalism requires that standards be rigorously kept. Image source: Jason Tester15.

To survive, these qualities must be cultivated in institutional fashion. Otherwise they reside only in individuals, locked up rather than compounded among peers over time. The profession and its culture are created in agencies and studios run by design professionals. It is not created in schools or universities, organizations, or magazines; despite what those merchants would otherwise proclaim.

As professionals, designers then have obligations to society, to their clients, to their peers, and to the profession itself. These obligations are imperative and they require a culture that respects, upholds, and reinforces them with a frequency and pattern not dependent on individual-member whim. Ultimately, professionals are defined by how they meet and uphold the fullness of these obligations in the conduct of their work, and by no other measure (as great design quality must be one’s baseline assumption).

Though this is not the primary thrust of my article, I’m compelled to suggest here that few are well served and a great many ill served by the existence of a design profession in name only. With the character and concept of “professional” so greatly varied throughout our industry, designers’ self-described professional efforts often undermine the ideal. Far too many potential clients have rightly developed a cynical view of the design profession. Designers of all sorts fight this view and sadly have to shape their approach and process to mitigate it. This is a failure, as our practices should not be shaped by cynicism.

This is what you get when truly professional practice is represented and perpetuated not by thriving, consistent culture inside agencies and studios as a rule, but by disparate examples that are often refuted by the most common case. So while an actual design profession exists, it doesn’t in any cultural sense in the industry. This must change if our profession is to have any articulate and objective meaning in society.

As I referenced at the start of this article, it requires no great leap of faith or perceived gamble for a client of a legal, surgical, or aviation professional to invest requisite trust and confer full contextual authority in their dealings. These investments are assumed and required if a professional is to cultivate a positive or successful outcome for his clients. The cultures and traditions of those professions facilitate that permission. The cultural tradition of design is inconsistent on this point and that must change if designers are to be widely allowed to deliver the fullness of their expertise.

Technical service in a commodity market can work and can produce positive results. Designers can find profit and many customers can find satisfaction there. I submit to you, though, that the design profession as a distinct and conspicuous segment of the design industry is not just a commercial imperative, but a cultural and moral imperative. Professional should be not some vague, inarticulate idea or an exclusive and elite qualification beyond the reach of the average designer. It should be an expected compulsory station for most designers, fueled and perpetuated by the mainstream culture of our industry.

Image source16 of picture on front page.

(al) (jc)

Footnotes Link

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Andy Rutledge is a principal at Unit Interactive in Plano, Texas. When not working, road cycling, or banging on the piano, he's usually found ranting about design or professionalism on his personal site, Design Pro. You can follow Andy on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Great article Andy.

    Totally agree that we need to get away from this idea of being a “technical” resource.

    I find though that this can be achieved if the designer has the right mindset. A lot of my peers seem to get pushed around a lot. They compromise their work…and simply accept it and moan over a pint in the afternoon.

    “Sure that’s how it is. Clients. What can you do?”

    I think one of the first steps a designer can take to creating this “non technical” environment is to simply push for it. It took me a few years in my early 20’s to come to this realisation. But once I did, I found myself going into interviews with the mindset of “this is the type of thinking I want in a company”, or only accepting work from agencies that I thought were on the same wavelength as myself.

    It was a process of flushing out the dirt really. And it did work. Not perfectly though. I still have my ups and downs, but I’m now operating as a professional. My clients expect it. They respect it. And it’s very rewarding.

    By the way, I love your site. Especially your redux section. I check it regularly for inspiration.

    • 2

      “I find though that this can be achieved if the designer has the right mindset”

      Exactly; the difference between a “technical resource” and a “professional” lies in good communication skills.

  2. 3

    Perhaps there could be a charter, trade association or regulator of some sort that web designers and agencies could sign up to, though perhaps any guidelines set by such an organisation may stifle creativity.


    I suppose it would be better if everyone just did their job properly, in all aspects.

    • 4

      Jamon Holmgren

      October 30, 2012 5:07 pm

      You could start with Andy’s Code of Professional Conduct.

    • 5

      Jennifer Stewart

      October 30, 2012 10:16 pm

      Designers actually are certified in Canada. They hold a CGD designation after undergoing a board review,

      There’s also a movement in the US to have a certification. You can read about it here

      • 6

        Uh, no. The SGDC is basically the Canadian equivalent of AIGA, it’s absolutely not a professional order like the Ordre des médécins de Québec or the Ontario Bar Association.

        There are no constraints in Canada on who can work as a graphic designer, what level of experience you need to practice, nor are there legal repercussions, complaint departments or boards of inquiry to “disbar” you if you’re not good at your job.

        It’s a capitalist, market-focused field. You either know your job, behave professionally and keep your clients happy, or you don’t make money. I suspect that’s something Andy would agree with.

        The recurring calls to ‘professionalize’ the design field, though, strike me as the wrong solution to an ill-defined problem.

        Is there some epidemic of fly-by-night design carpetbaggers taking clueless clients for a ride? Does the field need “regulation” like a noxious polluter or a public utility?

        If design needs to be organized with professional titles and job classes, then naturally, we’re constraining the supply of designers. Unions naturally follow; greater OSHA compliance or insurance-mandated improvements for ergonomic design workspaces (check out what the Scandinavian minimum standards for offices are, btw), limitations on hours we can perform repetitive-motion tasks, mandatory overtime pay, noise protection, vacation days, minimum salaries… oh yes, and collective negotiation, strikes and lockouts from time to time.

        And what does that open up? The spectre of ‘unlicensed’ designers working under the table, or, as is already happening, the outsourcing of the low-end, ‘technician’ work to overseas suppliers.

        I will say that Canadian universal healthcare, and the tax code, does make it a lot easier to be a freelancer and/or start your own business. And you can get supplementary insurance at pretty reasonable rates. So there’s that…

  3. 7

    Well done sir.!

    This is one of the best readings I´ve had for a while and it made me understood/explain our industry bit better.

    I´m a young designer, 24, and if I look back at my 4 year career so far…I see, that I also..started out as a “technical-designer”..but I think it´s just how things are….in the beginning you don´t have the skills or the mind-set to be a real professional..and for some reason..nobody expects you to be one..even though I´ve trained to be a professional designer..2 even a degree!

    Over the time you gain experience and grow in every aspect. And right now I can say that I´m 75% professional designer and 25% technical designer…and I belive that its pretty good, there´s room for progress…but unfortunately the mindset of our employers and clients is like it is…

    So, article worth reading and spreading around community. Thank you so much for it!

    Best wishes from Estonia.

    • 8

      Being a professional in any field is about respect. Respect and communication.

      Respect is not given, it’s earned; it’s earned through communicating your design decisions effectively and those decisions having a worthy basis, not just being fluff. If you can’t effectively communicate your decision to place a component somewhere, or make a certain size or certain colour (or whatever) then your boss’s/client’s reason to reject it is more valid than your reason to keep it — until that is not the situation, you’ll never get their respect.

      A lawyer will never face such a situation — unless they’re dealing with another lawyer — because your average layman has no idea about the law. Anyone can say they do or don’t like a picture.

      The big problem is, that’s not something that is taught in any sort of art/design degree. What that means is that you can’t leave uni/college and become a respected “professional”. You need to learn on-the-job for a while.

  4. 9

    Great article, I can say no more than that. As an aspiring young designer/developer I find what you’ve written inspiring. The hope is that we approach clients with a education first mentality but, we all know we live in a McDonalds Drive through society where, “we want it now..and cheap” are the cries of the needy…

  5. 10

    I work with people not for them. I think there is a difference. The first one earns respect; the second money. If you can do both then you’re onto a winner.

  6. 11

    Interesting ideas presented.

    Unfortunately we live in a world where any 13 year old with a cracked version of photoshop can call himself a designer. Why shouldn’t he? I’m sure there are some 13 year olds who are producing better work than some 20+ design school graduates.

    Web design is still a new industry, as far as I’m concerned. And as any new industry we’re still trying to find our feet and gain the respect we deserve for the work we do. As when carpenters, plumbers, butchers, bakers etc. started out as an industry we too must make sure we just do the best job we can.

    I’ve always liked idea of accreditation. You wouldn’t let an unaccredited mechanic fix your car, would you? Why should you let an unaccredited designer design your business? You shouldn’t.

    If you want to be a “professional” designer, then perhaps you need to obtain accreditation for an official body. Perhaps there ARE solid guidelines to determine whether someone is knowledgeable enough to be accredited.

    I don’t know. I’m speaking from the point of view as an early 20 something designer who’s landed a series of “service industry” style design jobs, and almost all clients and potential clients spoken to expect that style of work.

    I love our industry, but it’s tough, especially when gaining any respect.

    • 12

      The article left me thinking that some kind of accreditation might be necessary. When he cites doctors, lawyers, and engineers as people who are automatically conferred authority, they also have a lot of education behind them. Yet you seem to need at least a Masters in design to get any of that respect, and even then you can’t break from the fact that everyone thinks they have a valid design opinion.

      What else can you do? A private certification? An oath?

      What would the standard of accreditation be?

      Lot of questions unanswered, and I’m afraid that if the answer is too institutional it might have the wrong effect.

      • 13

        Jamon Holmgren

        October 30, 2012 5:12 pm

        Coming from the architectural design profession, I can tell you pretty confidently that there are many licensed Architects with a very poor sense of design and professionalism. There are many unlicensed architectural designers who are fantastic (they can typically design homes, apartments, condos, light commercial buildings as I did).

        Accreditation is rarely the answer. Industries without such artificial constraints find better ways to prove their value. Web design is one that is just coming into its own in the last ten years and we are finding ways to do this. For example:

        • 14

          I agree. Accreditation may be the answer for some professions ( I would never trust a surgeon without one), but I really think it’s only harming web design. Students are often pushed towards all sorts of expensive “licenses” rather than encouraged to focus on hands-on experience. As Jamon found with architects, so too are there “certified” web designers that don’t understand how to successfully express their vision to clients.

          As a web designer, you are supposed to be *the* web design authority, this means doing your homework and not showing up with 5 designs and asking, “so…which is best?”

          If you do, you’re communicating that you *are* a technician. If your clients knew what was the most user-friendly and technically sound, they would have the right to treat you like a technician.

          • 15

            Accreditation could be imposed on design businesses/companies as opposed to individuals. This way, the person(s) holding the certificate (or whatever it may be) are held responsible for all the work their business produces. This includes the works which have been completed by un-institutionalized workers, and screened by them.

            This could work in a similar manner to a mechanic, where training at an institution is a small (and could become non-existent for designers) part of their training, and they instead gain knowledge through their workplace (which have a standard of work they are required to produce).

    • 16

      I fully agree with the idea of accreditation. It’s something I’ve talked about from the start of my design career.

      I began my career as a designer at a Product Design & development firm that emphasized the importance of the professional accreditation of its employees – Industrial Designers joined IDSA, Human Factors Engineers joined HFES, and Graphic Designers joined AIGA.

      We’re now seeing the shift in the design field towards UX – as a result you see groups such as IXDA and UXPA cropping up. However, the “web design” profession has no such correlated organization.

      How does one validate their skill set, awash in a sea of people who call themselves web designers? How does one advance their profession, short of writing a book and going on a speaking tour? Right now, you can’t. This is an immense problem. Books and speakers on tour are not enough to lend legitimacy to a profession.

  7. 17

    Great article. I think we’re coming on a time where people are starting to catch on to crap design done by people who call themselves designers because they have a copy of Photoshop. With the era of start ups, business owners are starting to realize that crap design will not do. I see a global change happening and soon in the design industry. A small example would be responsive design. I personally haven’t seen a responsive site design that was garbage. The people who take time to plan out how a site will look, typically seem to take time to make sure the site looks nice. That’s just my opinion.

    • 18

      I agree, some are starting to catch on but it’s still abundantly horrible (and many seem to not notice or care). I find, as I continue to learn, that looking nice is, a lot of the time, not the problem. The problem usually lies in the areas of usability, responsiveness (as a whole, not just media queries), content strategy etc. I find that while many websites might look nice, as a professional, you instantly pick up on the lack of thought put into these areas. It’s no secret why, time money and expertise are hard to come by, but that’s what it takes.

  8. 19

    How is it that you can expect the industry to adhere to a certain standard when the market that it survives on does not only demand it? There are these “technical” shops all over the place because this is what fits in the budget of thousands of small businesses. Like you have stated, “professional” design requires a lot more than “technical” design.

    I fail to see how we should be surprised or disappointed in the fact that the majority of this industry is technical. One cannot simply jump into professionalism. There is a barrier there, it’s having an income!

    Besides, who can even determine what is professional and what is not? Design itself is subjective. Find 10 professional design agencies and ask them what they’re development process is. I would bet that they are all unique in their own way.

    I think this article is quite silly and the author sounds arrogant as hell. I’m not saying professional design is a bad thing, but coming across as if technical design is a bad thing is ridiculous.

    • 20

      I think you’re wrong in stating that the article is silly or the author is arrogant.

      Having said that, I do agree with you that the situation we’re in is not just a lack of professionalism on the designer’s end, it’s a result of market forces. Like any office job nowadays, it is rapidly being commoditized and globalized. So as a client, you buy this “service” against “good enough” quality for the lowest prize. There’s little room for professionalism in that market. You may raise your prizes and market your extra value, but it’s definitely swimming against the stream.

      So ultimately, the client gets what he pays for.

  9. 21

    I have nothing to add and nothing to take way. I just want to say BRAVO and thank you for making some of us feel less isolated.

  10. 22

    I think you are preaching to the choir, but whats the answer?

    Accreditation? Supposedly thats what you go to college for. But as you pointed out, we all know the shit that graduates from there.

    The problem is art can be subjective and hard to define. While there are principles and standards – at the end of the day the viewer judges whether he “likes it” or not. And their taste and knowledge of design principles vary.

    So lets say you form a new standard of accreditation outside of a college degree. Who makes those decisions to say one person is talented and the other isnt. Is that person talented himself? Can we trust him to tell the difference? Who elects him? I think this idea goes full circle back to the original problem.

    • 23

      People have different means and ways of studying design. Much as we shouldn’t criticise those who don’t go to College or Uni, nor should be criticise those who do.

      I studied design at Uni and I worked extremely hard for my degree, so to see people like you making comments such as “we all know the shit that graduates from there” I find extremely offensive.

  11. 24

    Outstanding article. I recently left a steady contract because they only wanted a technical designer, not a professional designer, and I was never able to illustrate the difference to where they understood it. I’m half tempted to forward this article to them.

    What’s ironic is that most of the ads in the sidebar are created by and catering to the ‘technical’ designer. Some even toward what I would call the ‘ethically challenged’ designer. I know this is a function of smashing mag and not the author, but it’s interesting nonetheless. We’re not going to get far as an industry when we help to advertise the Walmart of ‘design’ sites offering ‘cheap’ and ‘free’ websites.

  12. 25

    Fantastic points, and a discussion well worth having.

    I did have a question, or possibly a quibble. If you are, as I am, a very small design operation, then there may come a time when subcontracting certain aspects of a large project is the only realistic way to get it done on time and up to the quality standards your clients expect. As long as creative control and creative direction are maintained by the design agency, is this really a sacrificing of all accountability and professionalism? Honestly, I don’t think so. It’s not much different from being a creative director with a large staff at any respected design agency. The only difference is, your subcontractor works at a remote office. Assuming you’ve chosen good people to work with; which is always key.

    I think it’s more about the implementation than it is about the structure of your business.

    Just had to say that. On the whole, I’m very glad you brought this up and I look forward to the continued discussion.

  13. 26

    I think we all start out as “technical” designers and if we’re serious about our work, we evolve into “professional” designers. Like gaining levels in an RPG!

    Most of the web designers I’ve met don’t really have that hunger to learn new things and evolve. They definitely ‘want’ to evolve into a professional designer, but they procrastinate and prefer resting on their laurels. Like how we all want to go to the gym, but so few of us actually do!

  14. 27

    I agree with TJ. Design is subjective. Granted, there is and should be a design standard. But accreditation? I’m sorry I have to disagree. Web design does not fall under the same type of services as being a doctor or lawyer. Plus, who gets to decide this accreditation? I know some amazing designers who did not go to design school. Likewise, I know some design-school graduates who still make rookie mistakes in their designs on a regular basis.

    The “Web Design” industry is very rarely just about design. More often than not, employers (not just small businesses looking for something on the cheap) want someone who is not only a “designer” but also a “coder”. I don’t know a lot of good designers who are great at coding and vice versa. Therein lies the “technical design” aspect I guess.

    The fact of the matter is, in a crappy economy like this many small businesses fail to see the validity in having a strong online presence or don’t have the coin for high-end design. Companies and people who do have the coin and / or find validity in having a strong web presence will pony up the dough for the high-end design.

    The same can also be said for web developers. There are developers who write sloppy code and sell their programs for dirt cheap. It’s sad, but it happens.

    On another note — It is entirely possible to work hard at being a better designer and coder. I for one am not going to discourage anyone from doing what they love, especially if they are working hard at getting better.

    I think the bottom line is that consumers and companies need to do their research and look at their options before buying. Shouldn’t they have some responsibility here?

  15. 28

    The issue as I see it is that the general public usually can’t compute the idea of design being a “profession”.

    A Pilot is known as a professional because he either flies the plane without issue or lots of people die.

    The Doctor is a professional – either he keeps you fit, healthy, cures your ailments and gives sound advice or he doesn’t.

    Even a relatively uneducated person can understand what each of these professions does to a reasonable degree. There are usually visible, concrete results. Either success or failure.

    “Design” on the other hand spans so many different mediums and territories. Graphic Design, UI design, UX design, designing applications, marketing, e-commerce. All of it comes under the broad umbrella. It’s also all really rather subjective. Even in “Web Design” do you simply “design”? Likely no. You’ll do the “design” but often a lot/all of the code too. You’ll do the research into trends and best practices. There’ll be many strings to your bow usually by necessity.

    It is also a new and, frankly, immature industry/profession. The standards are not fully set and they fluctuate from month to month. The work you did a few years ago probably appears comical to you now. Very likely, you don’t design in the same way now.

    Designers and web professionals/workers perceive this but so does the client/customer/person in the street.

    • 29

      “Even a relatively uneducated person can understand what each of these professions does to a reasonable degree. There are usually visible, concrete results. Either success or failure.”

      And that is why it actually makes sense to “Professionalize” our industry.
      You make interesting points, but they aren’t as strong as they could be, especially considering that despite this being an ‘immature’ field, it’s one of the most highly-relied upon for business, communication, and information in this day and age.

      The subjectivity of art makes it a bit grey, and I see where you are coming from. Bad design to one is average or okay to another, but that is only because most have not been taught the basics of design (Hence that website we all have to help a friend’s brother’s mother’s sister’s uncle know, the on with the flashing .gif images and orange and yellow text)..But that does NOT mean that we shouldn’t try to impart some knowledge and sensibility with each project. In the same way a community partnership can revitalize a neighborhood, we can revitalize the sense of ‘design.’

      If it’s not a laptop, it’s a tablet, and if not that, it’s a smartphone. Most, if not all of those are connected to the internet, and the internet displays websites, designed by designers. We are everywhere, and the world relies upon us. It’s time we justify our place as viable contributors and workers in a world that needs us. The modern world might shut down if we all took a day off.

  16. 30

    This article makes a strong argument, but I don’t agree with it. Comparing the web design industry to “legal, surgical, or aviation professional(s)” does not seem valid. Web design is very subjective, and the client’s size, goals, and budget are immense determining factors in each project. This is radically different from the above kinds of professions where subjectivity isn’t even a factor, and goals are far more easily defined.

    Many of today’s most ethical, talented, creative and professional web designers never took a course at all, but learned and continue learning directly from the thriving community to which we all belong. The industry changes so quickly that accreditation would actually impede development and growth. It is hard to imagine accreditation being necessary less frequently than every two years, and the time spent getting the accreditation will rob the time currently spent developing new techniques, posting how-to’s on blogs, and creating new tools. I think pursuing this type of “professionalism” will only put money in the pockets of another bloated, bureaucratic organization.

    I would support the development of a centralized resource for helping clients and customers determine whether they need a technician or an agency, and educating them about what other things to consider for their project far more than I would support accreditation. Such a resource could grow to fit the needs of clients and customers, rather than restricting designers and technicians to labels that fit in the uneducated client/customer’s box.

  17. 31

    As a few already pointed out design is always going to be a deeply personal matter – for both, the designer and the business (hiring the designer). In fact this ‘wisdom’ is so ancient that the Romans had a proverb for it: de gustibus non disputamus – we do not discuss our (different) tastes.
    And yet the web designer’s business model revolves exactly around the opposite of what even Romans knew not to do – discussing tastes.
    My own personal take on the uneasy relationship is that of empathising with both camps – the designers and the design-uninitiated customer.
    Designers become designers because they want to express their talent for creating beauty. But when a client comes along whose design ideas are out of line with their own aesthetic ethics they are faced with a painful choice – to compromise or not to compromise (and risk losing that income). It’s an ethical and existential choice rolled into one – and I certainly wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when they are deciding. But I respect their choice – whichever way it went.
    As for the clients (I belong in that camp), they too have their very own aesthetic vision of what their brand (website) should look&feel like and although they want the input from the designer they ultimately want the website to be uniquely representative of who they are (as opposed to serve to showcase the work of the designer).
    And therein lies the ultimate problem – the needs and desires of the two camps directly cancel each other out. The designer wants to stand proud by all the sites they’ve designed, they want the sites they created to be conveying their own designing style; while at the same time the client wants no recognisable trace of anyone else’s creativity but the imprint of their own unique individuality (they want their site to look like no one else’s site).

    • 32

      This is exactly the job of a designer (a professional designer). To learn and understand the client’s brand and communicate its message to its audience in the most clear, succinct, positive and memorable way possible.

      If the designer is wanting to implement a new style/look/feel that is dispersed from the client’s original brand, then this is somewhat a failure on the designers behalf (unless an entire rebranding is what the client is after).

      If the client set on imposing something *completely* unique and never before seen, then this is likely not going to conform to general graphic design rules and values. In which case it is the job of the designer to communicate the importance of these standards.

      • 33

        Hi Kelly, thanks for direct response.

        You describe really well the very essence of the dilemma I faced in the past as a client (or client representative), which is: is a graphic designer an artist or a technician.

        I personally always saw graphic/web design as an art form – and designer as an artist – in which rules are there to be broken. Nothing is out of limits and the more outside the designing standards the client’s spec is the more exciting the project is for the designer. She revels in the challenge and follows her artistic intuition and wisdom to create something new and beautiful. Is this not how a designer sees herself too? Or am I just romanticising a highly specialised and technical profession?

        • 34

          There is certainly a lot of freedom in this industry, unlike other industries. But it is also similar to many industries.

          If I may be absurd here, as an example, and directly compare graphic design to medicine; medicine obviously has a lot of rules, regulations and practices which doctors, nurses, management etc must conform to/follow. However, it is up to the doctors to solve an issue, using these rules. This means, that whilst there are common practices, not all cases are going to be similar, in fact every single case will most likely be different. This means the doctor must use their knowledge to solve the problem at hand, and as every problem/patient is different, inevitably they are going to solve the problem in a different manner. There are commonalities among patients and problems, but there is no single set of rules that a doctor will follow to cure someone.

          I find this not unlike graphic design. The client (patient) has a problem and it is up to the graphic designer to solve this problem. There are common rules and practices in which we turn to for an immediate solution, but every client and problem is different and thus these solutions need mending, altering and tailoring in order to successfully fulfill their task: solving the problem.

          Being creative plays a huge factor in this, but I believe it comes in the form of problem solving more than in the form of creative expression (as is more prominent with an artist, for example).

          This is also where I think the dispersion between technical designer and professional designer comes in. A technical designer has limited knowledge of these rules/commonalities and therefore is less likely to provide a valid solution to a client’s problem. The client, however, is unaware of this. As you would be if an untrained doctor (acting as a legitimate doctor) prescribed you medication, the client is unaware that the solution proposed is not going to work successfully.

          • 35

            Hi Kelly, thanks for your further commentary – it helped me see where our two points were initially parting and where I was wrong. All along I took the technical designer to be the one with the expertise in rules and standards while the professional someone with the artistic/creative flare on top of that (knowing the rules). I think we are now on the same page – or near enough :-) thank you for clarifying

  18. 36

    Great article!

    Designers are getting higher rates nowadays and I think the demand of hiring offshore designers/developers would even increase in the next few months too. I’m saying this because if you can take a look at this interactive infographic it explains the salaries of tech developers around the world, and who would not want to fly off to Australia and work as a senior web designer if you aimed for high-paying jobs.

  19. 37

    You cant make an industry “professional” that changes every two seconds. The reason you have professions in other industries is more to do with the fact that the core components of those disciplines do not change. The laws of physics will not change. Law changes at a snails pace. The basics of finance changes rarely change. If you left law or accountancy in 1998 and came back now you could still practice your trade to a high standard. Try that with web design or software development.. its a whole different world!

    Computers, tooling and convention change way too much for them to be defined as a profession. Furthermore there is no inclination for this to happen because its not like anyone is going to lose their life or all their money / assets if you bodge up a design job. On the other hand, if you mess up a plane flight, a medical procedure or a gas installation the consequences will almost always be severe.

    Finally, the market often demands the opposite of what “professionalism” means. Being a professional means you know and stick to rules and standards and can therefore guarantee a standard of work. However in design based fields quiet often the client does not want the “same” as before. Where is the competitive advantage in producing the same standard work for a client. They would often want you to break convention and in turn break the rules to bring something new and exciting that they can use. The nature of design kind of means you have to break rules and I dont see that web design is much different.

    The reality is people call for the concept of “Professionalism” when they want protection from competition in their industry. If you need a bar exam or a doctors certificate to get in the game you automatically constrain the amount of workers in a field and then in turn push up their salaries. Unless it is a matter of life or death I don’t see the need unless you want to protect your job. And if you are “that” good you shouldn’t have to hide behind the wall of a professional certificate to prove it.

    I’m not a web designer (rather a software developer) but I’ve seen the same thing happen with Microsoft exams etc… Waste of time really as the market (especially with MS) moves so fast it renders these certificates useless after 5 yrs.

  20. 38

    Great article, and something myself and my business partner have been debating for a while now (as I’m sure most designers have). I saw a comment above about Canada having a certificate to show their status within the design industry, that is something that I would personally like to see implemented more often, more vigorously, and on a broader scale to fully professionalize the industry.

    It surprises and frustrates me how for the majority of other professions, there is generally a level of authentication or certificate to promote their level of expertise. I guess one could claim this is what a portfolio is, but the fact is the general public (and in turn, clients) don’t understand or know good design. It’s something which ultimately goes unnoticed and therefore under valued.

    Degrees (studying) does this to a certain extent, but even then a designer straight out of study is going to have no where near enough experience to warrant a fully professional individual within the design industry. Not to mention a lot of educational institutes are more concerned about money and not quality of graduates these days, so this too creates a lot of dispersion.

    The only solution from this point onward, that I can see, is not but getting rid of all the bad design(ers) but is by moving those who are classed as “professional designers” (as defined within this article) to a new status altogether. Whether it simply be “professional designer” or something entire new, to completely separate them from the perception of a “technician” designer.

    Although, to achieve this, you would need a way to prevent these technician designers from claiming that they are professional designers. Because if it is simply a term coined by the top-tier designers to differentiate themselves, then it is obvious that they would simply claim this title (as they have done with the current term of “graphic designer”). It also amazes me that the term “design” has such a profound and succinct meaning, yet is thrown around so thoughtlessly and is thus so misunderstood that it has nearly lost all meaning.

    This is something I am, as I’m sure most of you here are, quite passionate about. I would be interested to see more views on the next step; to move professional designers away from the clouded perception of graphic design being technical assistance.

  21. 39

    At the risk of repeating what has already been said, this is an outstanding article and one that has needed to be written in this day and age. To say that our industry and work is often trivialized and not given the credit due is the understatement of the century.

    In a day when every person and their dog (we all know one) has a facebook page and wants to customize their tumblr, WordPress Blog, and even Wix (LOL) page, we as a group of people are more important than ever. No advertising or marketing team in 2012 can operate without a web designer on the books, or without some member of the team possessing the savvy to make a minor HTML or CSS edit. My group of friends and acquaintances is chock full of designers and artists, all of whom have dabbled or worked professionally in the field of web design- and I can promise that 100% of them have thought about the issues this article mentions. We have half-jokingly considered started our own Designers Union in the Philadelphia area due to questionable treatment from clients (poor or NO pay, lack of respect, impatience, etc.).

    Some mention the field is almost too broad for us all to band together, but that argument almost makes no sense. When you consider that most of you like me spend the time researching/developing brands, creating style guides for sites and collateral, managing the UI (and UX) experience, as well as actually designing ALL of the graphical elements, THEN coding them (HTML), styling them (CSS), and finally programming them (Javascript)…….which is the job of at least 5 capable human beings…..It makes sense that we should be given what we are due for completing the assignments. Notice I didn’t mention putting up with BS from clients that come to us for our expertise….

    All I know is that you go to the dentist when you need work done on your mouth. You don’t tell him/her how to do his/her job, and you still have to pay them a solid amount of change for their craft which was perfected over thousands (more like hundreds) of hours. We are rarely afforded the same luxury while most people who can’t identify a molar from a canine are the first ones to complain and yell about a page not refreshing when they haven’t cleared their cache. I’m rambling now, but I think there’s a point in there somewhere.

    I would join a group of responsible, forward-thinking designers in a heartbeat.

  22. 40

    At the end of the day, the first step in this to me is Web Standards. (nod Jeffrey Zeldman) accreditation aside, all of these “professions” have accepted standards everyone agrees to, we need to have unified standards as a base to even begin establishing the level of respect you give to an architect or surgeon.

    Hopefully will finally become that.

    Aside from that, in my experience true professional respect comes ultimately from client management and communication. Surgeons have course after course on bed side manor, Lawyers have classes based solely on how to invoice and frame the billing issue that forces their clients to NOT WASTE their time. As a professional in the industry who also teaches night classes at the local college, what is missing to me is the education portion that teaches upcoming designers how to maintain control over their projects. I other words, how to say NO to a client in a way that garners respect and trust.

    Thanks for the time and effort put into this article!

  23. 41

    I am also with TJ on this one, this is all a bit snobby. Using the terms technical designer and professional designer is demeaning and unnecessary. ‘Designer’ and ‘high end designer’ sounds better. There is nothing wrong with being an supposedly ‘ordinary’ designer. They exist because they are needed. If every designer became a top end designer there would be a huge gap in the market because a lot of companies can’t afford/may not even need a top end designer. They might just want a decent logo and some good headed paper designed for them and not some huge brand presence. I know design purists would gasp in disgust at this but it’s true.

    There is of course a place for high-end design agencies/designers. I am sure the designers put in a lot of hard work and come up with some great, inspirational designs. But, if they really are great then their greatness should be self-evident and they should not have to put people down in order to make themselves look better. Also just because someone is a technical designer now, it does not mean that they won’t become a high-end designer of the future. And if they don’t become high-end designers? Well, so what? It is no big deal. It doesn’t mean their work is not worthwhile.

    I don’t think accreditation for web / print designers is a good idea. Surgeons, doctors, airline pilots etc. might need accreditation but that is because they may be involved in life or death situations or at least situations where they are responsible for other people. A person designing a website or leaflet does have certain responsibilities (being careful about using copyrighted images etc) but it is hardly in the same league. I mean, seriously! It is hilarious. It does not even compare.
    Overall, pure design is not a technical enough profession to warrant accreditation because how can the accreditation be awarded? I could (almost) understand accreditation for a front end web developer to test their knowledge of coding or a programmer to test their knowledge of a programming language because there are right/wrong answers in those areas, but even then it would not always work as things change so quickly and even in the area of web development things are not always black and white. So how accreditation would work in the field of pure design I don’t know. Also, I learned css, html and javascript not only through studying them but also by working with them. I would never have got any good at them otherwise. This is the same for pure design jobs. Accreditation might stop people learning how to do something on the job and from entering industries (or is this what the top end designers want?).

    I come across this sort of design snobbery a lot on the web. I am sure design snobs would call me a ‘technical designer’ but I do not care. I get to do a job which most of the time I like doing (I am a designer and front end web developer) and I feel happy to be doing this rather than some of the much less interesting non-design/web jobs I have had when I first started working.

    It seems to me as if some designers are just worried that so-called ‘non-professionals’ might creep up and do some designing, which, perish the thought, might actually turn out to be GOOD, while they are not looking.

    • 42

      I think you have completely misunderstood this article (either that, or I have). The article agrees with you, to a certain extent. It is not being derogatory toward technical designers, it is simply stating that there is a difference between a technical designer and a professional designer. The problem is that a lot of technical designers claim to be professional designers, and that professional designers are being seen as technical designers.

      I also feel you are mixing art with design. Design is very specific in its nature. There are rules, there are things you do and things you do not do. This is not personal preference (you could argue this, but you would be wrong).

  24. 43

    Great Article!!! Totally agree with your point of view!!

  25. 44

    I agreed. Great Article. Can’t stop myself to go through the article through the title itself. It make me to think on accreditation.


  26. 45

    Great Article! really enjoyed it.

  27. 46

    I think accreditation in (web) design should be handled by one’s portfolio. That is only part of the equasion though. Perhaps one has a portfolio of “pretty” web designs. That’s not enough to judge the quality of a designer though, only partly. Plus, beautiful web design has been commoditized as well. You can buy it off the shelf. Tweak it a little for the client, and there it is. Done. The fact that web designers massively copy design trends from each other only proves this point. We had the web 2.0 style, then the grunge style, and now the clean look style.

    Therefore, the essential ingredient missing is proof of the effectiveness of a design. You would present it in your portfolio like this:

    “I redesigned, after which sales conversions increased by 30%’

    That number is important. In fact, numbers in general are important. In cases where your customer is taking design decision without knowing design, present numbers, for example from A/B testing. Numberize the whole thing. Take the emotions and opinions out of it, make them facts. Then, if your customer still ignores facts, it’s his call.

    Like anything in this world, design comes down to numbers. It’s not as vague as you think. An investment in design should lead to better business numbers. If not, it failed. Translatign design into numbers is not exactly easy, but using modern analytics a lot is possible.

  28. 47

    Reading the more recent comments I think this debate is really about whether a designer is an artist or a technician. And that has been my very own dilemma too – as a client and as a client representative (project manager).
    I personally always saw graphic/web design as an art form – and designer as an artist, a creator of beauty – in which rules are there to be broken. Nothing is out of limits and the more outside the designing standards the client’s spec is the more exciting the project is for the designer. She revels in the challenge and follows her artistic intuition and wisdom to create something new and beautiful. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that as the 21st century unfolds we’ll see an ever more technically able users & clients leaving professional web designers having to differentiate themselves from competition through their artistic ability to create unique pieces of art i.e. web designs.

  29. 48

    Victoria web design is a great choice if you want to look for effective services for your sites. It helps a lot in the promotion of your business in the online market. You have to actually present your website properly to your clients to get their attention as well.

  30. 49

    I find it a shame when you offer your professional advice to clients and they will 9 times out of 10 totally disregard anything you’ve said and instead dictate to you what to design/put on their website.

    Everyone seems to think they are a web design guru at one stage in their lives and maybe it’s just me … but I seem to get ’em!

  31. 50

    yes, i also agree that until the designer wouldn’t be professional he even can’t get a single project by other companies . Thanks for sharing

  32. 51

    “Professional should be not some vague, inarticulate idea” — it’s not.

    I feel like this article misses both the meaning of profession and professional — I won’t waste my time explaining them, Google is not far away.

    “Employing designers as technical service providers”

    The article falls down for me mostly in the respect that it seems to assume a designer should be an artist, but an artist is effectively someone who does as they please and has no boss. A designer has a boss, and it’s their boss they are designing for. That’s not “unprofessional”.

    If you want to be a designer, learn to pick your battles, learn how to lose gracefully or learn to better communicate your point of view. A designer — unlike an artist — requires great communication skills. That is why it is a profession and not just a job. If you want to win all the battles by not having to fight them, go be an artist (and probably starve).

    The lack of confidence in the design profession stems from non-professionals declaring themselves as professionals, without the requisite qualifications — something a doctor or lawyer rarely has to fight against — and giving all a bad name.


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