Introduction

Each year enthusiastic and passionate design students enter the industry they've long admired—one that they've worked hard to prepare for and have strived to be worthy of—in time only to meet with disillusionment. Why?

Given the reasons so many of us became designers in the first place it is perhaps easy to consider design to be more of a passion than a profession. While for most designers this perspective is not meant to deliberately diminish or exclude the professional aspects of what we do, it does often distract us from paying proper attention to matters of professionalism. Not surprisingly, this inattention brings dissatisfying consequences.

Professional disillusionment would seem to be a fait accompli for designers. Too much of what passes for compulsory preparation leaves designers underprepared and mis-prepared for the profession. What's more, designers are consistently led astray by both educational institutions and popular social organizations. When viewed from the interior, the flurry of activity in design programs and social organizations would seem to amount to something consequential and constructive. However, an objective examination and comparison of these factors to professional standards and responsibilities reveals most educational programs to be largely irrelevant. The same examination reveals most design organizations to be little more than insular, self-promotional cliques, whose preoccupations tear at the fabric of the profession and whose established guidelines distort and mislead rather than lending clarity and responsible guidance.

It seems that accompanying all that is good in the design profession are very common examples of shallow professional acumen and compromising conventions…all held up as exemplary. Over time these conventions have led to the formation of some misguided and unprofessional industry traditions; compromising and destructive, yet they persist. Part of what makes these negative features so damaging is that we often grow up with them during what passes for our professional preparation. So their otherwise-questionable features seem to melt into the landscape of our practice. Instead of habitually questioning these ideas, traditions, and habits we tend to regard them as compulsory, to the detriment of our success and ongoing satisfaction.

Those of us just entering the profession quickly find that many aspects of our work would seem to require understanding and conventions for which we lack preparation. We find that the standards at our places of employment are only ever involved with deliverables production and the volume of projects, to the exclusion of professional values and integrity. This factor is mirrored in project process and especially in agency-client relations.

So we make do, and satisfaction suffers. We then build the habit of making do and taking what we can get, and soon we find it easy to equate getting projects (at whatever cost to our integrity) with attaining success. In this manner we craft a career of compromised integrity, which of course inevitably leads to ongoing dissatisfaction. It should not be so.

Each week I have conversations with designers of all ranks; from agencies, in-house with companies, and from the freelance world. The most consistent feature of these conversations is frustration with the compromised components of work life. I note that almost all of their frustrations are concerned with client-relations or agency/company culture. These are things over which we each have complete control, yet inadequate professional development, flimsy internal standards, and character flaws lead us to place the blame elsewhere; as if we are simply pawns in a larger, inaccessible game played by our betters. In doing so we craft our own irresponsibility, which then becomes an important feature of our work and a prime arbiter of its results.

My time spent talking with peers around the world and with students reveals that most designers have little or no idea what it means to be a professional or even what the characteristics of a profession are, or how those characteristics comprise something other than the average vocation. Ultimately, most of us settle on the idea that getting paid to design things or having a title like Art Director is what it means to be a professional. Having met those basic requirements, I find that too many designers tend to simply endure whatever idiocy comes their way and comply with whatever compromises are expected of them in the course of their work. Sadly, it is a widespread and popular idea that these negative aspects of work are simply the inevitable costs of doing what you love. Most of us simply put up with these things, but I believe that at some point earlier in our lives we all expected something better. And not without good reason!

It seems that most of us imagined that as design professionals we'd be special; that we'd be doing special work for special clients and that we'd be treated as professionals, maybe even regarded as gurus. As professionals, we imagined, we'd be captains of our own destinies living lives of integrity and prosperity, with work to match.

Too often, though, we've found that we are regarded as vendors or commodities and treated accordingly. Instead of being sought after as founts of specialized knowledge and skill, many of us are regarded as mere production staff by both our clients and employers. Instead of doing special, consequential, fulfilling work we too often find ourselves in careers that are merely tolerable.

This is not the profession we dreamed of. The sad fact is that the fault is our own and we alone can fix it, but fixing it requires that we have some clear idea of what we're aiming for. By evidence, that idea is not to be found in any recognizable, codified form in our institutional or organizational traditions and publications.

Regardless of what resources or systems are available, it is immoral and destructive for any profession to blithely endure and accommodate the institutionalized lack of professional practice and behavior by its members. Where sanction is impractical, education is imperative, yet our profession seldom offers the much-needed education. As a result, the design profession as experienced from the inside and perceived from the outside is grossly unprofessional.

There is a better way.

This treatise is my effort to fill this conspicuous void and to offer aspiring and practicing professionals a set of standards useful as hand-holds to gain purchase in climbing toward a more effective, more responsible, more satisfying, and more professional career. But I'll not just offer standards and suggestions; I want to put to rout that which is not acceptable by making a point to say so—case by case—throughout. Just as professionalism demands an uncompromising approach, though, so will the standards expressed and the suggestions offered here be uncompromising. Therefore, much of what you will find in this treatise may challenge you.

The components that allow for successful and satisfying practice are surprisingly simple. But simple does not mean easy; uncompromising standards are quite difficult to maintain. Your initial inclination may be to chafe against and take issue with what may sometimes seem like obtuse standards or requirements. These commonplace reactions are surely part of the reason that there are so few actual professionals in our industry.

Be wary of irrelevant, popular models for “professional.” Being a skilled and widely celebrated designer does not equate with being a design professional. Skill is a prerequisite, but is only one small component of professionalism (and celebrity has absolutely nothing to do with it). That which is left in the balance is lost on many. I aim here to reveal and clarify the important features and components of professionalism and offer a clear definition and path toward better results and a more satisfying practice.

This is not to say, however, that it will be an easy journey. Like all uncompromising endeavors, professionalism cuts a straight and narrow path. Developing the discipline to stay on that path takes practice. Luckily, as you will find, the ideas and ideals prescribed in this treatise are mutually supportive. With sufficient practice, reflection, and experience I should think that all of what is presented in the text that follows will make perfect sense to you as a useful Gestalt. That is my sincerest hope.