The Opposite of Professional
August 22, 2008
Much has been written, discussed, and debated lately about the ostensive necessity of academic education in whether or not one exhibits design professionalism. But for all of the exchange surrounding this issue I’ve not seen reference the overriding, vital fact: the two are wholly unrelated. Never the twain has met. They are non-relatives from different cultures. The one is to the other as dancing is to geology. In short, higher education does not produce design professionalism. Never has, never will. Yet the various aspects of academics, and other wholly irrelevant factors, are always the primary recurring themes debated in these discussions.
For caring design professionals, this should all be very disappointing. The design profession has enough problems of identity and character without its members flirting with butchering the spirit and definition of professionalism, or misdefining its source. So to answer a question put forth repeatedly in these recent discussions, a college degree can in no way confer professionalism. Oh, and nor can simply adopting a code of ethics, having a mission statement, or catering to top-tier clients.
No, professionalism is an animal of a different species altogether. Yet in every case I’ve come across, discussions of design professionalism revolve solely around irrelevant factors while avoiding any of the relevant ones. I intend to remedy that here …and elsewhere, as I’ll describe later in this piece.
The thing with academics is…
Professionalism is not taught in design school or design degree programs at university. On the contrary, design program graduates are built to be design technicians (and, regrettably, often technicians schooled in antiquated techniques) rather than design professionals . Now, since designers should be skilled technicians, this fact is not necessarily so very troubling—except when we compare being merely a technician to the requirements of professionalism. Being a technician can be positive in many respects, but as David Maister once astutely observed, “the opposite of the word professional is not unprofessional, but rather technician.”  So when one first enters the profession as little more than a technician, there is clearly much work left to be done with respect to professionalism.
Every designer must learn how to behave and work with professionalism and learn to appreciate the many components of professional practice. One is not afforded that opportunity at design school, no matter the level or quality of the education. Even for those who have additionally pursued a business degree, a lack of tempering in the forge of experience renders that academic education initially rather impotent. The place to learn professionalism is in the ongoing company of good, successful (and poor, unsuccessful) professionals, over time, while mutually engaged in enterprise.
The place to learn professionalism is in the ongoing company of good, successful (and poor, unsuccessful) professionals, over time, while mutually engaged in enterprise.
Becoming highly professional in one’s practice first requires the formation of a core set of relevant, uncompromising principles and values; many of which relate specifically to design and business practice and others that are fundamental, human/cultural values. Many of these principles must be learned over time and this sort of core cannot be formed without broad, hands-on experience, sober reflection, and an honest and dispassionate evaluation of the results of one’s experience (both first-hand and observed). Furthermore, this sort of experience should ideally include initially strict guidance from respected mentors and in an environment of professional, commercial expectations.
Now, some just emerging from university or design school may profess that they’ve already formed that core and that the “crucible of college” has steeled them to a sufficient degree. I have no doubt that there are some who truly believe that they’re thus prepared to behave with uncompromising professionalism. And let’s say that they are experts at all manner of business interactions, too (highly unlikely). Even so, there’s that uncompromising part that, my experience shows, will crumble like dry cake when our hero is sitting across a table from the humorless (or even worse, compelling) owner of a $100MM company who is requesting something that is not necessarily in his best interests. The same is likely true when our hero is sitting across a table from the owner of a tiny, informal operation. Professionalism requires that the two individuals be treated to the very same sort of experience, but my observation shows that this is highly unlikely in the case of beginning professionals. In any event, the facets of professionalism I’m touching on here just scratch the surface of comprehensive design professionalism.
Full disclosure: I confess that it is hard for me to conceive of what that early, professionally naïve experience for most beginning designers is like. My own experience was likely quite different from that of the average person entering the design profession. I did so with the benefit of a prior 20+ years of customer service and 10 years of corporate management experience. Luckily, this experience gave me insights into things as a beginning design professional that most beginning designers cannot fathom or don’t know that they should appreciate regarding client interactions, running a business, and issues of general professionalism. But even with this head start, it took some time for me to fully appreciate what it means to be a design professional.
So while I was fortunate enough to begin my design career with a solid foundation in professionalism, most do not …certainly not those with only the benefit of a mere design degree. Professionalism consists of acquired traits—acquired in the proper context and under the proper conditions. What’s more, professionalism requires the right sort of foundation; a foundation that is typically established well before college or design school. Because of this fact, not everyone is cut out to be a professional. Many may try, not all will succeed. But there are some key first steps that can help designers succeed, or fail, in the cultivation of professionalism.
How to fail: start with freelance
As a general rule, I believe no designer should begin his or her career as a freelancer. My experience and observation shows that doing so amounts to a very unprofessional beginning and greatly limits one’s potential for growth as a professional.
I suggest that aside from being a very unprofessional entrance into the profession, starting as a freelancer does great harm to both the individual and his or her clients.
The sort of requisite experience spoken about earlier is not found within a freelance practice. In a solo practice, one is largely beholden only to one’s own (often shallow, naïve, ignorance-based, and misguided) standards. The solo freelancer is denied the right sort of formative environment and pressures necessary early on for positive growth as a designer. I suggest that aside from being a very unprofessional entrance into the profession, starting as a freelancer does great harm to both the individual and his or her clients. This sort of mistake lays a poor foundation for what must follow in professional growth.
It is therefore best that beginning designers limit the harm they may do to themselves and their clients while maximizing exposure to the wide spectrum of designer/client dealings and details of business operation—inside of an agency with professional peers. Starting in an agency allows for a very important step in any trade or craft career: apprenticeship (or what passes for it in the design profession). Apprenticeship is a fixture in trades and crafts because it is proven to work, being a vital component to progress and, especially, integrity. Of course, in most agencies apprenticeship amounts mostly to mentorship, but the principle still applies.
It is also likely that in this process of working with and among one’s peers one is afforded the opportunity to examine not only highly professional behavior and its results, but also highly unprofessional behavior—and its results. There are lessons in either circumstance that are vital to a designer’s professional development. By contrast, starting as a freelancer more often cultivates and affords little more than fetish in one’s practice. And yet, naiveté leads many beginning designers to do just that.
In fact, my recent survey of more than 600 designers from 57 countries indicates that 84% of freelance designers started out as solo freelancers. This is a frightening statistic. Professionally speaking, most of these individuals are (or were) likely practicing with varying degrees of irresponsibility, both to themselves and to their clients. And yet, this sort of practice goes on freely, without professional sanction, and without much in the way of criticism from the professional community.
Why does this even matter?
As professions go, design is an odd bird. For instance, the design profession lacks two of the primary and seemingly vital characteristics found with other professions (like law, medicine, etc…). The first is the fact that there is no formalized gate-keeping function in place as a barrier to entry. Anyone may set up shop and call himself a design professional, without qualification. Secondly, unlike most other professions, there are no formal sanctions in place to discourage or penalize unprofessional or publicly harmful behavior in the design profession. Therefore the clear, overriding message our profession communicates to all of our potential clients is, “buyer beware!” True design professionals should be incensed at this fact.
It is therefore incumbent upon design professionals not to exacerbate the situation by entertaining vacuous ideas and faulty reasoning with regard to what confers professionalism on members of our industry or what constitutes professionalism in our practice.
This means that the design profession is ever ripe for distortion and great corruption from within and without. It also means that unwitting clients of the profession run a significant chance of being harmed in all sorts of ways, which of course harms our profession as well—making it something of an untrustworthy profession. Untrustworthy profession should be a non sequitur, but all of us—practitioners and clients—agree to ignore this fact.
This is a very poor way for a profession to exist. It is therefore incumbent upon design professionals not to exacerbate the situation by entertaining vacuous ideas and faulty reasoning with regard to what confers professionalism on members of our industry or what constitutes professionalism in our practice.
These sorts of issues concern me greatly and I lament the lack of widespread concern I perceive from the design community. So for the past few weeks I’ve been working on an outline and assembling notes for a treatise I’m planning on the specific topic of design professionalism. My plan is for it to be both an examination and a guide for design professionalism.
As is likely clear, I have strong opinions on professionalism issues. My opinions are based on what I consider to be relevant experience as both a participant and observer of our profession. I believe that this experience combined with my current regimen of surveys and interviews with designers and other professionals will allow me to present something worthwhile; a gestalt and food for thought for others to take, run with, and build upon.
I’m not generally a fan of proclaiming what I’m “going to do,” but I share my intention here for a couple of reasons. First, I will appreciate the added burden of having expressed an intention that I’ll be expected to fulfill. Secondly, I’m quite sure that some of you have thoughts to share on these matters. I look forward to
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Yep, that's right, I don't in this article define what I deem to be design professionalism. That is an issue that requires a sober examination and much room and time to do so. That will be left to the book I'm working on. Sorry to tease. :-/
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1. I note that time spent at university and in a degree program brings all sorts of benefits, so I hope you will not mistake my criticism here as an indictment of higher education in general.
2. David H. Maister, True Professionalism, Free Press, 1997