It’s time for designers to become professionals

If designers want respect, they must cast off notions of artistic grandeur and embrace chartered status

The Chartered Society of Designers’ move to set up and maintain the Register of Chartered Designers [whereby designers will earn the right to use the letters CDes after their name] has met with a great deal of comment, which has in itself prompted searching questions as to the nature of design and the way in which designers see themselves in relation to the world of commerce.

Since its inception in 1930, the Society has striven to achieve a recognised profession of design, still one of the key objects of its Royal Charter granted in 1976 in recognition of its efforts to this end. The semantics of the Society’s nomenclature over the years is inter­esting in relation to the current argu­ments as to achieving a chartered status.

The Society first opened its doors as the ‘Society of Industrial Artists’ – it said what it was on the tin – namely artists working for industry. In the 1960s the word ‘designer’ was added to its name to become the ‘Society of Industrial Artists and Designers’ and in 1986 references to industry were dropped in favour of the ‘Chartered Society of Designers’.

Designers and the UK economy
What was lost during this transition was the reference to industry and commerce, reflecting the design sector which also disposed of terms such as commercial artist, applied art, and industrial artist.

The allegiance to industry and commerce was key to the establishment of design as a profession. This dates back to the introduction of the first government design schools during the 1820s, when art schools were encouraged to develop courses aimed at exploiting art for the benefit of the UK economy, turning out students who could apply their art and creativ­ity to industrial products and give UK manu­facturing a competitive edge over the mass- produced cheap goods emanating from France and Prussia at the time.

Designers being called upon to assist in boosting the UK economy is not an uncommon occurrence, as in the 1820s to compete against foreign imports, the Great Exhibition of 1851 to promote the British Empire, the manufact-uring boost of the period after the First World War, assisting during the Second World War and the rebuilding in the aftermath with Britain Can Make It and the Festival of Britain, the designer boom during the Thatcher years and, lately, with New Labour embracing Cool or Creative Britain and their investment in the Creative Industries.

Throughout, design has played its role in a commercial environment and has moved from a base in Arts and Craft in the early 19th century, to its current position as an independ-ently defined profession. Not least in part to the role played by its professional body whose history of members reads like a who’s who of design in the UK during the 20th century.

Business must understand design
This is the foundation of the request that the profession is now finally given the credibility of defining a chartered status for its practitioners. Whilst design still suffers from the tradition of the art school culture and many design departments still exist within the arts faculty, it is now time for design to finally shed those artistic shackles and move into the world it aspired to in the 1820s, a world that is ready, willing and waiting for it to arrive.
In order to do so design must embrace and adopt the culture of its new environment and cast off notions of artistic grandeur. It must embrace collaboration, new models of working, new business models and working practices and the currency of IP. Above all it must begin to speak the language of those it will need to work with and ultimately those who will pay for its expertise.

Design can no longer afford to be abused by government and the markets whenever they need a quick economic fix, only to be then cast off without sustainable reward. In the 1980s design played a lead role in the new deregularised, prosperous, big bang, service sector economic growth. Designers revelled in debuts on the unlisted securities and stock market only to be shunned when the good times ended, whilst those having used their services went on to harvest the wealth in the financial and services sector.
And again recently the much-hyped creative industries benefiting from government investment in initiative after initiative are now seeing funding cuts, leaving many of those projects from Sector Skills Councils to UK Export assistance being cut.

Design and designers now need to establish their credentials so that they may demonstrate their worth alongside those profes­sions that have been able to support those belonging to them and promote their value in a global market. To do so design needs to speak the language of credibility – it needs to speak accreditation and benchmarking – it needs to be understood by business, markets and other professions.

This requires more than a reliance on a portfolio of examples of work – as valid as this may be in assisting the final decision process. What is needed is a mark of competence that provides confidence, confidence in the indi­vidual who is practicing and not the set of outcomes in the portfolio.

Consider it from the clients’ point of view. A portfolio will only contain the work that the designer wishes to include; it could belong to a company, or it could belong in part to someone else! And if it is a company’s portfolio, what happens when the designer leaves that employ and moves on? What a designer does is far more than what is shown, it is about the way the work was done, what inspired it, why it wasn’t another solution. Would a designer be happy to hand over a portfolio without wanting to explain or talk it through? Would a client just accept a portfolio on that basis and employ the designer without question?

No, the portfolio is part of the process and to suggest that is all there is to design is missing the whole point and importance of process – which determines a profession and which is what is being demonstrated in a chartered status.

The Society has developed a set of competences known as the ‘CSD Genetic Matrix’ which sets out clearly four key competences: Creativity, Professionalism, Skills and Knowledge. Demonstrating varying degrees of competence in these identifies not only a designer at a particular stage in their career, but also, given that each of the comp-etences identifies a contextual element, it also determines in which particular discipline a designer practices. This set of metrics harmonises with all of the other professions whilst complimenting the practice of design.

Creative validation

It is interesting that the most vociferous object­ions to Chartered Designer have emanated from the graphic design sector, arguing that you cannot measure creativity, an argument that might well resonate with fine artists. Yet the majority of those designers, and indeed many fine artists, will have qualified from a design course and have been subject to some form of creative validation.

But the Society is not seeking to measure creativity in order to accredit Chartered Designers, or for that matter its current membership. More importantly for the design process is the measurement of those activities that inhibit creativity, and this is a funda­mental part of the assessment process used by the Society for awarding membership and will be essential to awarding chartered status.

Clearly there will be those in design who would not wish to be labelled as anything other than creative. However, there are also those who do need to work with equal credibility as those with whom they need to collaborate (scientists, ergonomists, geneticists, and so on) and, for them, chartered status is of paramount importance.

The Society is a charity and has a duty to the community at large and to the profession it has fought hard to establish. As part of that duty it is determined to give designers a choice to be regarded equally alongside other professionals and for the market to make equal comparisons.

Frank Peters FCSD MIoD is chief executive of the Chartered Society of Designers & The Design Association. To find out more about the CSD and
its membership categories, visit csd.org.uk. Follow the debate on this issue at the CR Blog. You can also make your views known about the CDes proposal to the Privy Council by writing to Chris Berry, Case Officer, Privy Council, 2 Carlton Gardens, London SW1Y 5AA

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