1.2 Quantifying the Landscape

As mentioned before, a professional makes deliberate choices based on his understanding and integrity where others have choices made for them. In order to be allowed to make deliberate choices, you must first make…

Deliberate Preparations

In order to make deliberate preparations as a design professional, you've got to become familiar with and learn to understand the landscape and environment in which you'll be operating. This environment can be defined by detailing the issues that impact the activities you'll be engaged in as a professional. For instance…

A design professional works directly with people (clients, partners, & coworkers), which requires expert communication. This involves issues of:

  • Public speaking
  • Vocabulary
  • Behavioral psychology (required for client interactions and UX design)
  • Professional ethics and responsibilities
  • Idea communication, support, & defense
  • Written communication
  • Business etiquette

(These issues are covered in more detail in the Education section)

A design professional is often directly involved in business mechanisms and often works to directly influence the market prospects of clients, which involves and requires understanding of:

  • Economics
  • Market/economic trends
  • Fundamental business practices and laws
  • Marketing fundamentals
  • Market segments and corresponding demographics
  • Market-specific demographic buying habits
  • Branding fundamentals
  • Project management

(These issues are covered in more detail in the Education section)

Web designers are, by definition, riding the leading edge of technology and information, requiring a constantly updated understanding of:

  • Popular digital devices
  • Browsers and OS
  • Device vs. media (and associated user experience) issues
  • Form interactions
  • HTML & CSS
  • Scripting & rich media (and rich experiences)
  • Accessibility
  • The daily news of the world

(These issues are covered in more detail in the Education section)

Understanding the design professional's landscape allows you, with either academic or self-directed study, to focus on areas important to your professional competence. As stated earlier, the likely result of this deliberate preparation will be that you're afforded the luxury of making deliberate choices. At that point, you will have functional professional competence.

But functional competence, even when coupled with a moral core, is not the end-all-be-all of professionalism…as we'll examine next.

Pro or Not?

If you interact directly with your clients from start to finish in the course of your projects, you are a design professional. Otherwise, you are but a technician.

A design professional needs first-hand information and exposure in order to fulfill responsibilities and do a credible job. This is not possible if the designer is not able to directly interact with the client. Those who interact only with members of their own agency or are insulated from the client by go-betweens and informational briefs are simply technicians (by definition, the opposite of professional). [1]

If as the lead designer on a project you or a designated design professional peer define the project process, you are a design professional. Otherwise, you're not.

Only a design professional can determine the best course for a design project to take. If left to the client or someone other than a design professional—and especially if no one assumes full responsibility for defining the process—probabilities for success diminish greatly. It is both irresponsible and unprofessional to enter into or participate in such a project.

If the creative or strategy brief (if you employ such a document) for your projects is prepared by you, you are a design professional. Otherwise, you're not.

The brief should be an accounting of project specifics as understood by the designer, not his proxy. It should be reviewed by the client and, if accurate, the client should sign-off on the brief. The idea that a brief is an internal informational document prepared by someone other than the designer, but used by the designer, is vacuous. Such practices are unique to unprofessional environments.

If your practices or documentation work to gather responsibility, you are a design professional. If they work to deflect or obscure responsibility, you're not.

A design professional pursues and actively collects responsibility. Professional relationships with clients are built upon mutual responsibility. As it is the design professional's place to define the project process, he must also define the inherent responsibilities for both parties. This means purposefully assuming much responsibility and, of course, knowing from experience what those responsibilities must be.

(Agency Principals and Freelancers) If you require that your clients meet certain standards and criteria, you are a design professional. If not, you are but a merchant.

A design professional has a responsibility to achieve success and maintain integrity, and not merely to provide product in exchange for pay. Success is what clients want to pay for, but success is not possible with every potential client. It is the design professional's responsibility to maintain standards associated with successful outcomes and require that clients meet these standards. To do otherwise is disingenuous and, therefore, unprofessional. Potential clients whose character, expectations, habits, demands, ideas, or attitudes will not allow for success should be turned away regardless of the dollar figure associated with the potential project.

If you choose profit over standards in any situation, you proclaim that your standards and values are nothing more than bargaining chips. You are, therefore, no professional.

Always choose to adhere unfailingly to your standards and choose reputation over income. The alternative reflects poorly on you and everyone associated with you.


Design professionalism is not abstract or conceptual, but tangible. Uncompromising professionalism is something that, if properly maintained, should easily be perceived by anyone around you. The people you work with, your clients and potential clients; all will get a sense of your integrity and corresponding value.

To be a design professional is to behave and conduct your affairs in such a way that your clients are reassured. The totality of interactions with you and your enterprise and the glimpses or insights into your approach should allay questions and inspire confidence. If your clients do not perceive your professional quality by the time they must make the decision to work with you, it indicates that either your personal quality and/or process quality are lacking. Pay attention to your results and reflect on your practices.

Do not allow foolish choices to be made for you. Do not place yourself into a position where you have little or no influence on how your projects are set up. Use the information offered in this treatise as the basis for your deliberate, ongoing preparations. Then, having made appropriate preparations, make deliberate choices in pursuing your work as a design professional.

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  1. David H. Maister, “True Professionalism,” 1997 Simon & Schuster