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’ preconce- ptions. 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.
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.”