Is design a profession? It seems strange to ask that question now, but it was bandied about a lot in the 90s, when the conventional wisdom was that no one knew what graphic designers did (including their own mothers). But that was before Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart and the Macintosh with its pull-down font menu and the World Wide Web and a million B-school consultants with their newfound obsession with branding. The internet may have been the single biggest graphic design educator in history. Suddenly millions of people were grappling with the implications of graphic design: a website, after all, is 100% pixels/0% bricks. Overnight everyone became a connoisseur. Ironically the design explosion of the last 20 years has transformed the situation from no-one understanding graphic design to everyone becoming a graphic designer. What was once imperilled by obscurity is now threatened by ubiquity.
Moms everywhere not only know all about it, they’re practicing at home. If everyone does it, what separates the professionals from the hacks?
The right answer is: Nothing. Professionalism is an artificial wall wrapped around a huddled mass of designers clinging to the remnants of self-regard. If only we could devise some standard practice we could officially conclude who is a real graphic designer and protect ourselves from the onslaught of the amateurs. We need a test. But for the life of us, we can’t decide what the questions should be.
After the war – that’s WWII – the great theorist of the professional class, C Wright Mills, observed, “United States society esteems the exercise of educated skill, and honors those who are professionally trained … [I]t also esteems money as fact and as symbol, and honors those who have a lot of it. Many professional men are thus at the intersection of these two systems of value.” A nascent, postwar graphic design tried to bust into the American professional dream the old-fashioned way: it went to university, got a good job, bought a suit and played by the rules. We tried to ingratiate ourselves by imitation. A title or an acronym after a name would be our class signifier, denoting position and community approbation. An organised profession would legitimise our sense of privilege.
Professionalism is usually sold as a service to clients, protecting them from charlatans and swindlers, while in fact, professional organisations serve their members by limiting competition, excluding alternative practices, and legitimising higher fees. To achieve this guild-like solidarity, we struggled to develop a specialised jargon and mysterious trade practices, drawn first from the ancient language of the printer and the type shop. But our secrets kept getting outed. One of the great fears about the Macintosh and desktop publishing was that it would initiate others into our secret language of fonts, rags, picas, and leading. (That is, of course, exactly what it did.) That old, technical talk has now been replaced by the ever more vaporous ‘expertise’ of branding and crowd-sourcing and social media.
In the attempt to maintain a separate identity, graphic design was once defined by elimination: not art, not illustration, not photography, not industrial design, not writing, not architecture, not printing, not typesetting and – especially – not advertising. We occupied the interstitial. But suddenly that territory was infiltrated by emerging hybrids: artist/webmasters, blogging fashionistas, logo-making DJs, culinary-event-designing gallerists. Now to be one thing is so extremely dull. Tell someone you’re a designer and the response is: And?
This massive deprofessionalisation of design has left the old professionals in the lurch. Value has shifted to the naïve and the homegrown. Unschooled trumps schooled. The dropout outpaces the graduate. Around the conference table all the grey heads turn to the 20-something intern to figure out what to do next. All that work to make ourselves presentable now renders us passé.
It was all a pipe dream anyway. We never really had a leg to stand on (or any science to back us up). Graphic design is continually challenged by the introduction of ideas from outside: radical technological disruption and artistic innovation. One year’s certainties are next year’s embarrassments. Since definitions of what design is, and should be, are in flux, arbitrary standards have always been a naïve attempt to project stability in a gelatinous realm.
The current state of deprofessionalisation means we must jettison the dream of a singular definition of design practice. And why should design have some unified field theory anyway? We must view design as an elaborated speech or writing, a common activity, shared by all, on many levels. Writing is practiced eclectically, from poetry to graffiti, to novels, newspapers, tabloids and love notes. There is academic writing and experimental writing and religious writing and profanity and ‘bad’ writing that comes over time to be considered ‘good’ writing. I can appreciate, in differing amounts, both the back of the cereal box and a structural analysis of it. We celebrate the diversity of writing but bemoan the paucity of so-called good design. We must accept that there is no single correct way to make graphic design, and no sure way to gauge its value. It’s all a negotiation. Who is, and who isn’t, is only a matter of the doing. The best becomes obvious over time as surely as the cream rises to the top.
Michael Rock is principal of New York design consultancy 2×4. See 2×4.org