Professionalism is something defined by your every commercial and industry-centric decision, action, and association. Not just with your clients, but with your non-project activities in your agency and even in social dealings with your peer community. For instance, there are some commonly-encountered industry and community practices that are often assumed to be compulsory and that designers seldom question, yet these practices are antithetical to professionalism.
Dont allow popular convention to lead you into corruption. Remember that integrity is something defined by your consistency. If you are consistent in your project/client dealings, but your other industry dealings seem to conflict with those standards and values, it indicates a lack of integrity. Such a thing should…you know, concern you.
The unhealthy preoccupation with industry or association contests and awards is a common mistake that leads designers into unprofessional practices and distorts functional ideals. Though they're often considered to be innocuous or even compulsory activities, participation in contests and the pursuit of awards are largely destructive and unprofessional endeavors. They set inappropriate standards for success and distract from what actually matters in professional practice.
Yes, it is heartening to be recognized by your industry peers, yet only seldom are awards and recognition based on the efficacy of a design's results. Therefore most of this activity hovers around decoration and daring. Oh, it's often design quality that is cited as the evaluation criterion, yet it is almost never the actual design effect that is measured. Rather, it's the quick, subjective visual impact of a design effort or the ballsy tactic employed by the designer or agency that is the most common criterion dominating evaluation and discussion. Like tennis' Anna Kournikova, this stuff often looks shit-hot and makes for great promotional material, but the tangible results simply never materialize (and are therefore not mentioned). This is all something a professional should neither aspire toward nor allow himself to be associated with (including association with the organizations that promote these unhealthy activities).
Here's something that is plainly evident to those with discriminating minds, but that your social organization hopes you don't realize: there is no such thing as a design competition. A design that is created to be judged and not used is not a design, but rather competition art or mere decoration. The winners of these events are, without question, highly-skilled decorators and artists, but let us not get into the habit of pretending decoration equals design. The only valid evaluation of a design is found it its ultimate success in the marketplace or as demonstrated by the satisfaction of those who willfully and with specific intent have “used” the design (however that might contextually be defined). A design professional is required to be uncompromising in all things. Social associations included.
Partly At Fault: Organizations
Most of these unprofessional activities are either centered around or highly promoted by so-called professional design organizations. Members and especially administration of these social organizations tend to be overly concerned with introspection and navel gazing. Ever preoccupied with the promotion of peer accolades—to the exclusion of what actually matters to design—organizations tend to maintain a culture consumed with notions of designers being notable and doing notable things rather than being useful and crafting effective design results.
Not surprisingly, the easiest and most effective generators of edifying energy are…you guessed it: contests and awards. See clearly, look deeply, think critically, and be careful when you consider organizational membership. Social organizations can be fun and entertaining, but in no way do they support or fuel professionalism. Aspire toward integrity. All else reflects poorly on you.