Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Blowing It

March 4, 2011

I had something of a perfect opportunity on Thursday, but I blew it. My appearance on The Big Web Show was, in my mind, going to be a unique chance for me to clearly and candidly articulate through a very personal medium some of my ideas on professionalism and capitalism in design. But what happened was that I too often strayed into rambling incoherence in response to the questions from my hosts.

Nerves or live-show vertigo…whatever the cause, it was kind of a train wreck and I find that I’m filled with regret. It’s all very disappointing because I recognize that this is not the sort of opportunity that comes along every day. I supposed I must simply recognize that I blew it, seek whatever lessons I can distil from the experience, and move on.

Additionally, though, I want to make some small effort to correct a couple of mistakes here, if that’s even possible. My gracious hosts were tossing me big, fat softballs and somehow I wiffed on a few of them. While my periodic incoherence during the live show is embarrassing for me, it more importantly does an injustice to the topics we were then discussing. That injustice deserves redress.

The issue of free product vs. professionalism

In reference to Jeffrey’s initial questions, there is no necessary friction between design professionalism and the desire to create things to then share freely with others. The relevant friction occurs according to how some explain that one’s work should be given away or in how some may criticize someone for demanding payment for the product of their work or genius.

Everyone enjoys sharing things they create. What’s important to understand, though, is that if it is assumed that what you create is not yours, but rather is community property—and this explains why you’re sharing it—you’re not sharing anything. You can share only those things you own. If it already belongs to the community, you’re not sharing; you’re simply delivering to others what they already own. And if in your mind no one owns it, then it has no value so then neither your act nor its motivation has any value. That notion and the ideas that create it are problematic.

This is not necessarily an issue of professionalism, but of capitalism. The two are linked on moral grounds, but sharing one’s property is simply a nice thing people do. And that’s a good thing.

On the absence of professionalism in the design industry

When I spoke of moving from the retail industry into the design industry I remarked on how I found a distinct lack of professionalism in the design profession and noted how I also found the wrong behaviors being celebrated in the community. In explaining it, I cited giving away work/product for free and I’m not sure why I did that.

The actual things I had/have a problem with on that score are things like pretending to have integrity, but demonstrating professional compromise at every turn (with client choice, client dealings, deadlines, delivered “designs,” etc…). I saw a lot of lip service being paid to maintaining professional standards, yet a widespread comfort with justifying compromise in every aspect of what was supposed to be professional work.

What I hold with, and what I still see very little industry consistency with, is that professionalism requires an uncompromising adherence to professional practices that are based on core values and everyone’s best interests. Too many folks, I believe, don’t understand that every professional compromise brings harm to everyone involved. When a professional has an ethical duty to look out for his own best interests and his clients’ best interests, compromise is the end of professionalism.

It is disappointing (and telling) to find so very few people in our profession who are willing to acknowledge the vital importance of uncompromising practices in the day-to-day features of our work.

On proper preparation for running a design agency

Dan asked me something along the lines of how I thought I was prepared to run a design agency, as it differs so greatly from retail (the bulk of my background). It was an interesting question and, much to my chagrin now, I simply stumbled all over it. The fact is that running a small corporation for 12 years was actually excellent preparation for running just about any sort of business, especially with regard to how one, as an owner, deals with or manages employees.

Designers are just people with an important job to do. It’s the owner’s job to do what’s necessary to allow them to do their best work. The same is true in retail, so the many distinctions of business type and specific job are pretty irrelevant. I was lucky as general manager for the retail chain to work for very conscientious owners who were very good at managing and dealing with their employees. It was excellent training and I owe them a lot for the quality of what I was able to learn from them. I employ those lessons every day in my dealings with the team in my agency. As evidence of success, I can only point to the fact that our folks are big fans of how Angela and I run things at Unit and everyone we’ve ever hired is still with us and (apparently) very happy to be here.

* * *

Finally, I want to thank my hosts Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin for having me on their show and for the opportunity to talk about some consequential issues with them. It’s my fault that I didn’t rise fully to the occasion and I hope I one day get the chance to try again. Even with my silly ramblings, it was a blast being on the show.

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