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

A Sense of Non-Commitment

March 27, 2008

One of the recurring themes in my articles and podcasts revolves around unprofessional practices and behaviors that permeate the design profession, and how this allows design to be robbed of professionalism. Since this theft of our profession happens due to a designer’s own behavior, it really means that some designers are just giving our profession away. This week I noticed another facet of this sort of unprofessional behavior and I think it warrants examination.

Actually, I didn’t notice it just this week. It’s a practice that is quite common and has been for a long time. It’s not something I’ve ever agreed with, but I’ve not really given it much thought until now. What gave me pause this week was a rather startling example that made me stop and think about how this practice fits into and colors our profession.

What I’m talking about here is how someone will be an employee of some design agency or studio, sometimes holding a very prominent or senior position, and at the same time operate an independent design consultancy, on the side. Sometimes, their “side job” design consultancy will even be a branded company rather than just under the individual’s own name.

Let me state now that I question my own perception on this one. It may not in fact be flatly unprofessional behavior I’m witnessing, but rather something everyone else (including all of our potential clients) understands, while I do not. But my reliance on core values for assessing things tells me that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

To be clear, I’m not talking about the common practice of employed designers taking on personal side projects. It is a common feature of our profession that in addition to being professionals, we’re also passionate and expressive enthusiasts of our craft. That sort of enthusiasm can seldom be contained within, say, an agency job. Side work—either personal or for profit—is likely to never be limited by anything other than one’s own preference and free time (or an employer’s firm policy). This article is not meant to criticize this largely innocuous practice.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the common practice of employed designers taking on personal side projects. It is a common feature of our profession that in addition to being professionals, we’re also passionate and expressive enthusiasts of our craft. That sort of enthusiasm can seldom be contained within, say, an agency job.

I’m talking specifically about actively displaying clearly conflicting loyalties in our professional practice; e.g.: being employed by XYZ Corp. as a Web designer and operating and promoting one’s own Acme Designz on the side. This practice smacks of irresponsibility and non-commitment. It reflects poorly on both the individual and the agency that employs him. Yet this is not an uncommon practice, even among otherwise respected and highly visible designers. Why?

The example that got me thinking about this can be found here. Now I’m not working to throw Luke under the bus. I know the man only by reputation and that reputation speaks well of him and I could not say otherwise with any authority. I’m citing his example because it is quite striking and I expect his reputation can weather the examination. One does not get to be Senior Principal of Product Ideation and Design at a company like Yahoo! without significant skill and trustworthiness. But the fact that he operates his own design business on the side (complete with the royal “we”) just makes both his consultancy and Yahoo!’s design practice look a bit dodgy. Most of all, it makes him look flighty and unprofessional.

Since he would not otherwise seem to be an unprofessional person, why invite this sort of stigma? Those not familiar with his reputation will likely assume the worst. And rightly so. Again, I’m using Luke’s example for its magnitude—not to cast targeted aspersions, for there are many other examples in our profession and I’m sure every one of you reading can cite several. Perhaps even your own.

“Design” Professionalism (not the real kind)

I think that there’s a disconnect or disharmony in motivations and a certain obliviousness to (or ignorance of) facts among many designers. I think that many designers believe that building a reputation as a designer is the same thing as building a reputation as a professional. It’s not; certainly not as demonstrated by many designers.

Launching a full-fledged design consultancy on-the-side/outside of one’s employment might do wonders to build or extend one’s reputation as a designer, but it soils one’s reputation as a professional. It speaks to characteristics that are contradictory to professionalism.

Professionalism requires and implies dependability and trustworthiness. It requires and implies commitment and focus. It requires and implies integrity. These characteristics are compromised by the desire and will to operate a competing or distracting formal enterprise. This obvious conflict tears at the fabric of professionalism and that sort of feature has no place in one’s professional persona. Yet so many of us are eager to make our conflicted loyalties and apparent flakiness public. I think it’s a mistake. This behavior is one of the reasons that our profession is often regarded as plebian and unprofessional by the very audience we work to reassure and impress. At best, this approach is naïve and irrational.

Crafting perception

Having these sorts of conflicted professional loyalties makes people wonder which one commands your primary commitment and attention. It makes people wonder what sort of person maintains such a blatant representation of their divided loyalty. It makes people wonder what sort of company or agency employs this kind of person and allows this unprofessional behavior among employees.

From the side-job studio perspective for instance, this practice clearly communicates the idea that if I contract you to do some design work for me, you may become distracted by some other appealing opportunity and leave my project for greener pastures. Or perhaps things at your real job might get so backed up that you have to leave my project languishing while you take care of your real work. Knowing this about you also makes one think that your employer doesn’t pay very well or that you’re actively looking for some other opportunity and don’t care who knows it. This is not the picture of professionalism.

I think a profession is best served when suspect behavior indicates suspect reliability—because it does.

By the same token, think about what sort of impression this behavior leaves on the agency that employs these sorts of individuals. For instance, imagine that you need some repair work done on your car. You find a mechanic shop, but learn that most of the mechanics on staff run their own personal mechanics shops on the side, too. Does this make the shop seem more professional? No, it makes the shop seem fly-by-night; like it might fold any day when the staff members decide to bail in favor of their “real” interest.

Would you confidently trust your beloved car’s repair needs to a shop run by a staff with that sort of professionally conflicted interest? I doubt it. Now certainly, auto mechanics find occasion to do mechanical work outside of their place of employment. But that’s different from them opening up their own business storefront. It’s a lot different. The first shows their enthusiasm and helpful nature. The second shows their divided or indeterminate loyalty and lack of professional commitment and integrity.

So why is this apparently okay among Web designers? Well, I put it to you that it’s not okay. Rather, it speaks to the ill-conceived and unprofessional approach that many designers bring to their practice. Our profession suffers for this. Some of us lose good clients because of this and some of us garner the wrong kind of client because of this unprofessional behavior.

There’s a better way. I suggest that our reputations and our practice will benefit greatly if we simply exhibit a clear professional commitment. I think a profession is best served when suspect behavior indicates suspect reliability—because it does. I think better clients prefer designers who exhibit integrity and professionalism rather than characteristics that imply flightiness.

If you’re one of those designers seeking better clients and a better professional reputation, it's probably a good idea to examine your approach and your professional persona with respect to these issues. Maybe you’ve got no problems in that department. Perhaps, however, you might find that actually professional behavior works better than professionally schizophrenic behavior. In short, don’t shit where you eat.

Okay, so where did I go wrong here in my assessment? It’s certainly possible that I’ve missed some crucial factor that makes this sort of behavior okay for designers when it’s not okay for any other profession. I’m sure there are a million reasons that designers could cite to justify this sort of behavior. Some of them might even be truly justified and righteous. Fine, something might mitigate this unprofessional approach. But I’m darned if I know what it is.