Why Should Web Design Be A Profession?

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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 … More about Andy ↬

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Why can’t design simply be a technical service industry, free from the fussy standards and constraints peculiar to a profession? Andy Rutledge believes that in order to understand the profession’s imperative and place, we must fully understand how nonprofessional services fit into our industry.

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.

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.
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 Mager.

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

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 Commodity
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 Hickey.

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 standards and constraints. 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

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 source.

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

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 ideals and how they publicly proclaim adherence to an objective, ethical, social contract.

There is no Moral Compass App
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 Tester.

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 source of picture on front page.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, jc, mrn)