1.1 What is a profession?

Given the purpose of this treatise, a mere attempt to define or simply to conduct an examination of design professionalism would, I believe, be inadequate. In order to responsibly define design professionalism we must first fundamentally understand what a profession is and what conditions are required for it to exist.

Let's examine the vital, identifying characteristics of a profession and see how, as a collection, they combine to create something distinct from the average vocation.

From Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary (via Dictionary.com)


Pronunciation: /prə-‘fesh-ən/
Function: n

  1. a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation
  2. the whole body of persons engaged in a calling

As a concise and very general definition, this one above serves quite well. There is, of course, much more to a profession. During my research, however, I found the many lists describing the characteristics of professionalism to be filled in every case with irrelevancies, contradictions, non sequiturs, errors, or all of these! Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to encounter such a troubling situation and it left me with a crucial task to accomplish here.

Given that (apparently) all other such examples are lacking in logic, integrity, and morality, I have undertaken the task of assembling what I submit as the essential list of characteristics of a profession. It differs from what you will find elsewhere by way of its integrity. Moreover, it will serve as the body of characteristics used in this treatise as the baseline for reference throughout.

The fundamental characteristics of a profession:

  1. Great responsibility
    Professionals deal in matters of vital importance to their clients and are therefore entrusted with grave responsibilities and obligations. Given these inherent obligations, professional work typically involves circumstances where carelessness, inadequate skill, or breach of ethics would be significantly damaging to the client and/or his fortunes.
  2. Accountability
    Professionals hold themselves ultimately accountable for the quality of their work with the client. The profession may or may not have mechanisms in place to reinforce and ensure adherence to this principle among its members. If not, the individual professional will (e.g. guarantees and/or contractual provisions).
  3. Based on specialized, theoretical knowledge
    Professionals render specialized services based on theory, knowledge, and skills that are most often peculiar to their profession and generally beyond the understanding and/or capability of those outside of the profession. Sometimes, this specialization will extend to access to the tools and technologies used in the profession (e.g. medical equipment).
  4. Institutional preparation
    Professions typically require a significant period of hands-on, practical experience in the protected company of senior members before aspirants are recognized as professionals. After this provisional period, ongoing education toward professional development is compulsory. A profession may or may not require formal credentials and/or other standards for admission.
  5. Autonomy
    Professionals have control over and, correspondingly, ultimate responsibility for their own work. Professionals tend to define the terms, processes, and conditions of work to be performed for clients (either directly or as preconditions for their ongoing agency employment).
  6. Clients rather than customers
    Members of a profession exercise discrimination in choosing clients rather than simply accepting any interested party as a customer (as merchants do).
  7. Direct working relationships
    Professionals habitually work directly with their clients rather than through intermediaries or proxies.
  8. Ethical constraints
    Due to the other characteristics on this list, there is a clear requirement for ethical constraints in the professions. Professionals are bound to a code of conduct or ethics specific to the distinct profession (and sometimes the individual). Professionals also aspire toward a general body of core values, which are centered upon an uncompromising and unconflicted regard for the client's benefit and best interests.
  9. Merit-based
    In a profession, members achieve employment and success based on merit and corresponding voluntary relationships rather than on corrupted ideals such as social principle, mandated support, or extortion (e.g. union members are not professionals). Therefore, a professional is one who must attract clients and profits due to the merits of his work. In the absence of this characteristic, issues of responsibility, accountability, and ethical constraints become irrelevant, negating any otherwise-professional characteristics.
  10. Capitalist morality
    The responsibilities inherent to the practice of a profession are impossible to rationally maintain without a moral foundation that flows from a recognition of the singular right of the individual to his own life, along with all of its inherent and potential sovereign value; a concept that only capitalism recognizes, upholds and protects.

Moral and Ethical Foundations

As one means of classification, everyone on earth falls into one of two categories: those who hold with moral absolutes and those who do not. Those who believe in moral absolutes have a moral core articulated by various core values. When those values are mutually consistent, the individual then, by definition, has integrity. Those who do not hold with moral absolutes can have no moral core and no corresponding core values or integrity. Those individuals behave according to moral relativism; responding to issues as if they are disconnected, discrete items to be evaluated in a vacuum. “Open-minded” is the term sometimes referenced in describing this approach; and as such the term is misused.

Anyone entertaining an appreciation for open-mindedness should make sure that they understand that having an open mind is a passive/potential factor, not an actionable one and has nothing to do with evaluations and decisions. Instead, open-mindedness is the healthy idea that there remains the possibility one does not possess all the information. An open-minded person is ever willing to become better informed and learn more about something, and then allow that new information (filtered by moral, qualitative discrimination) to impact decisions. In the face of whatever information is at hand, however, every decision, evaluation, and requirement must flow from the designer's core values. Without such a basis, his every action and decision will lack credibility and must be regarded with suspicion.

A professional must hold with and operate according to the inviolate principles of his moral foundation—and be free to do so. What's more, since professionals trade sovereign value for sovereign value, a so-called professional lacking a capitalist morality is a hypocrite. In any event, only those in the former group—those with integrity—can be professionals. The latter group cannot be trusted in a professional capacity…or any other for that matter.

Common definitions of professionalism reference ethical codes of behavior. What these definitions invariably omit is that a code of ethics in practice is only as strong as the individual's moral base. When one's core morality is based on relativism, any ethical constraints become impotent because then any behavior or practice can be justified according to its relative value and appropriateness. As should be obvious, such behavior contradicts ethical constraint.

True, one could theoretically be an immoral person and yet adhere strictly to ethical constraints in the course of professional practice. As history shows, however, this sort of theory does not meet with actual results. At best such individuals function merely as useful idiots in how they knowingly or unknowingly facilitate the incremental influx of immorality and irrationality into environments and circumstances where they participate. Perhaps you've heard of a few.

Ethics in practice

An ethical code is a rational construct built upon a foundation of values. Those in the habit of moral discrimination—the practice of automatically comparing issues to their own core values and deciding and/or acting accordingly—are people of integrity. But not everyone is practiced at or has disciplined themselves to evaluate and make decisions in this manner. There are many who approach each situation afresh and evaluate based merely on immediate factors and/or emotional primacy. This fact is one reason why so few are suited to a profession.

It is probably quite obvious to you that rules and codes of conduct are not made for circumstances where it is easy to do what is right, but rather for when immediate factors might otherwise render the proper move unclear or obscured by ideas of expediency. More to the point, codes of conduct are made to guide us toward consistently proper or ethical choices so that we habitually avoid difficult and ambiguous situations. However, despite rules, constraints, training, or promises, human beings can only be trusted to act in accordance with their morality. Since a professional must unfailingly adhere to the rules of professional ethics, perhaps you can perceive the potential for problems presented by any allowance for relativism.

A code of ethics precludes merely immediate factors in favor of inviolate standards. In order to be of use or relevant to a professional, a code of ethics requires internalization and habitual reference. Specifically, it requires a strong, consistent internal standard; quantifiable, integrated into every element of practice, and each component related to the others. The result of this standard put into practice is known as professionalism.


In response to the lack of any workable and morally consistent ethical code for designers, I've created the Code of Professional Conduct. I encourage design professionals to read, consider, and then publicly procliam their support and adherence to it.

A definition of professionalism

The short definition is that professionalism means behaving in an ethical manner while assuming and fulfilling your rightful responsibilities in every situation every time, without fail. To get a bit more granular, one can say that it means, in part, conducting your affairs in such a way as to engender trust and confidence in every aspect of your work. It means having the requisite ability to be worthy of the confidence others place in you. It means having already made the right choices so that you attract the right sort of client and work under good circumstances rather than having to continually make the best of bad circumstances and take whatever is tossed your way, regardless of its quality.

Perhaps most importantly, professionalism means, in every situation, willfully gathering responsibility rather than avoiding it. Doing so is important because if you don't acknowledge and assume the onus of responsibility in every aspect of your work you will seldom if ever make the right choice to do what is necessary to achieve consistent success for your employer, your employees, your clients, or yourself. Quite simply, if the buck doesn't stop with you, you're not a professional.

For example, you might now be thinking:

“This is silly, you're making this all too complicated. I'm not the CEO of a corporation, I'm just a designer. As a design professional, my job is to create beautiful designs for my clients. It's not my choice who the sales guy gets us as clients so it's not my fault that half of them don't trust my designs and want to fiddle with them too much. It's not my fault if the owner of my agency always changes my designs before we show the client. It's not my fault if the project manager gives me a ridiculously short deadline or if the client didn't explain her business to me well enough so that I could understand what she really needs. I do the best I can with what I have and all I really need to know is how to design really well.”

Something like this is probably a common response to the challenges put forth in this treatise, but any portion of this sort of response would be the wrong response. Yes, you will always make do with what you have, but what you have is entirely of your own making and it always will be.

If the response above could have come from you, remember that you choose to work where you work. You choose to work with the people you work with. You choose to take on the clients that the sales team feeds you. These are your choices and you've chosen to hold to them rather than to make different ones.

It's your responsibility to demonstrate your competence and professionalism to your clients before you ever start designing for them. Otherwise you'll seldom be allowed to give them your best work. If you know that most of the clients you work with are business owners, it is your responsibility to study how to run a business in order to better understand and serve their needs. It is your responsibility to know how to conduct discovery in order to determine how best to design for your clients. It's your responsibility to present your design decisions in a compelling manner so that your clients don't needlessly corrupt your work. In short, it's all you…every time and in every circumstance.

I hope that after reading and digesting this treatise you'll come to appreciate just how important it is for you to assume all of the responsibilities for your work, and how assigning blame to others completely undermines your ability to work professionally.

Here are some important distinctions between professionals and those who are not:

  • A professional makes deliberate choices where others have choices made for them or they simply react to what comes their way.
  • A professional is afforded the luxury of making deliberate choices because he has made deliberate preparations.
  • A professional can make deliberate preparations because his understanding of and familiarity with the relevant (professional) landscape informs him on how to prepare. Also, like the chess master, he is trained to understand the inevitable results of hundreds of different patterns; he has disciplined himself to observe the whole board and not just the most immediate features or the area with the most tension in the game.
  • A professional is seldom caught off-balance. The discipline for deliberate preparation and the understanding that comes with it allow that even when something unexpected or unfamiliar is introduced, a professional can quickly understand its basis and easily extrapolate the appropriate tactic, strategy, or process for ethically and successfully resolving issues.
  • In this capacity, and most fundamentally, a professional habitually makes the right choices because all of his choices are based on the integrity provided by his moral and ethical foundation. Any choice of expedience over integrity can quite easily be recognized by anyone as the wrong choice. Here, the professional simply acknowledges what is obvious, makes the right choice, and acts deliberately (and now we're back at the start of this list).

If we know these features of professionalism, we can then use them as a guide to build a fundamental blueprint for design professionalism. So let's do that!