This article has personal importance; throughout numerous articles, there has been some confusion surrounding the term ‘designer’ and whether I fit into this bracket.
It seems essential to consider what is meant by a ‘professional’ designer. Simply by the name, it would entail an individual being paid for their time (time spent performing design). But is that the only difference between an amateur designer and a professional one? Designers validate themselves through a multitude of mediums, primarily in the form of how designers value themselves and the value their work has on the world around them. This ‘value’ can take many forms; commonly, it is intrinsic and can be seen in the value they put into their work.
Alternatively, validation can present itself as extrinsic value or ‘awards’. I would strongly suggest that awards and extrinsic value are of little inherent benefit to the designer. When it comes to validation, awards are, unfortunately, ‘praised’ (ironically) but realistically, they are on the lower side of importance for verification.
What is the value of a design reward? Of course, this is dependent on the importance and accreditation of the organisation bestowing the award as well as the mindset of the individual receiving it. But why? By receiving a design reward, is a designer meant to feel better than another? There are two common side-effects to winning such awards in design. The predominant effect is as stated above. The feeling that by ‘beating’ another designer, they are somehow better (slippery slope). The second is the development of design heroism, and there is a chance that an attribute can be assimilated from recognition. One consists of a designer thinking they are a ‘hero’ that will ‘solve’ the world’s problems. Design herosim is an ugly side of design but is being amplified by some organisations in the form of awards.
There is a discussion centred around accreditation being a source of value and, by extension, professionalism. Does being accredited by an organisation such as the CSD or ico-D turn someone into a professional? Technically, I am an accredited designer via the iED (The Institution of Engineering Designers). Does this make me a professional? Will being accreditated as a professional aim me in doing anything? Or, equally, is there anything an unaccredited designer can’t do?
Professional — relating to work that needs special training or education
Does that, therefore, definitively state that I am a professional designer? I have been educated within a specialist design field, and I’m practising design in a greater capacity than pleasure. However, it’s not a job.
I would like to believe the main reason monetary value has such power in the professional conversation is due to sport. At the beginning of professional sport, there was a move away from all sport being performed by amateurs. They were wealthy, and they had free time to play sport rather than work. To be a ‘professional’ one was paid for playing and was dependent on those earnings. But does one have to have financial dependence on design to be called a designer? There must be many people in the design world who couldn’t care less about the money they make while performing design, yet they are designers.
Unfortunately, awards are at the centre of this discourse. Whether it is validation or accountability, there are arguments on both sides about whether design awards are beneficial to designers. Frequently, these perspectives are subjective and dependent on the level, experience and outlook of the designer.
To make a fair discussion, we will first explore the ‘positive’ side of design awards or at least the positives they state. A’ Design awards state that they wish to “highlight good design quality and helps you to position and market your product better. A’ Design Award provides public relations services to augment your publicity, advertisement and reach.” They are therefore suggesting that by registering your work with them and ‘winning’ their award, your work will be viewed by more people. I suppose that’s one way to get your name out there, but critically, how important is the name of the designer compared to the impact of the product? Furthermore, A’ Design Awards then continue to state that you will be more respected by your peers along with potential employers/ clients. They also suggest a design award from them “gives you the possibility to describe yourself as ‘Award Winning’” (yay?).
Lisa Smith, head of design at Wolff Olins, proposed an alternative perspective. “As I matured, I realised I didn’t need approval from the industry. I focus on the people who’ll be impacted by my work; that’s what gets me out of bed.” It feels silly to have any other perspective towards design, but there must be a happy medium. A place where focusing on users and the impact of the outcome is not only recognised but commended. Why can’t respectful design be rewarded in the same way? I am aware numerous awards do precisely this, but why is it not a standard? Why is it more acceptable to reward trendy designs than thoughtful ones that appropriately understand their impact?
Design thinking has been used within businesses for some time now. Still, seemingly it isn’t an attribute specific to designers as Berkum suggests that design and design thinking has become more of a verb than anything else.
“The term design thinking has risen in popularity as a label for the set of steps that describes how good designers work. The challenge is that learning a set of steps is easily confused by the uninitiated as being the hard part. We could invent the term surgeon thinking and offer a set of steps that brain surgeons follow, but, unlike with design thinking, few would believe that knowing the steps alone gives you the abilities of a surgeon. We should not make the same mistake about design.”
This, therefore, opens the discussion of the values designers offer to their employers. Mike Monteiro supports this by stating, “When you are hired to design something, you are hired for your expertise. Your job is not just to produce that work but to evaluate the impact of that work. Your job is to relay the impact of that work to your client or employer. And should that impact be negative, it is your job to relay that to your client along with a way, if possible, to eliminate the negative impact of the work”.
"Understanding design thinking isn’t the same as being good at design doing, but it can help people on their way.” — Scott Berkum
Would you call yourself a designer? Why?
When exploring what it means to be a designer, it’s essential to acknowledge Points of Success. While ‘working’ or performing as a designer, there are several points that an individual may use to measure their success. As stated, money is one, but more specifically, it can be title related or dependent on seniority. Crucially, as touched upon above, there are two types of success points. The first being extrinsic. Does the outcome you’re produced give value to the target user? If not, why? Was the outcome not designed correctly? Did it respect the user? Alternatively, the second type is intrinsic, has the work produced brought you pride? Joy? If so, this is a clear indicator that you are producing design work that you give value and it inturn gives you value (validation). It gives weight to the kind of designer you are. If the projects you undertake or complete do not express intrinsic value, then there are some important questions you need to be asking yourself (dark reality).
Vitally, ‘value’ is ambiguous and subjective; it can be different for everyone. Are you performing to the level you believe designers to perform at? These are dilemmas that have plagued me for a while now.
While exploring this issue, I reached out to Stella Guan, the author of ‘The uncomfortable truth I often couldn’t tell junior designers’ and asked if she has any input into the inherent challenge of proclaiming oneself a designer when design is so hard to define? The first response stated [Design] “is broad but easy to define. It is moving an existing condition to a preferred one” (referencing Milton Glaser). To bring the discussion back to value and awards, she stated that “awards and jobs don’t mean anything if you are not able to solve problems and have satisfied clients” which solidified my belief in intrinsic value over extrinsic. However, this statement is also riddled with issues. Firstly, she expresses the importance of ‘solving problems’; producing the best possible outcome is essential, but the language she uses negatively affects the connection between designers and problem solvers.
Additionally, she states that it is important to satisfy the client, which isn’t an issue in itself, but why is there no mention of the user? Does this, therefore, mean she is suggesting the client is more important than the user? I don’t believe her statement means this, but it does read that way.
Designing is a Mindset
Crucially, she advised that my issue with being a designer is not dependent on what a designer technically does but rather my mindset towards myself as a designer. She suggested, “if you don’t believe you have the ability to design, it is hard to convince other people you do”. She expanded this point by stating that it is likely I have been suffering from imposter syndrome (IS). Commonly, IS refers to individuals suffering from issues of self-doubt and “an inability to realistically assess your competence and skills”, starting to sound familiar? As stated by the American Psychological Association, “many graduate students question whether they are prepared to do the work they do”. I can whole-heartedly relate, but as suggested, it is a state of mind.
“The world is for you to claim — be bold and claim to be a designer even if you don’t feel like you deserve it yet.” — Stella Guan
“As you branch out further, you’ll find your niche and be able to pass down your wisdom to a new generation of designers.” — Nicole Krosnowski
Therefore, several approaches can be recommended moving forward. The first being a realistic recognition of skills. These do not have to be software or hardware related. They can simply be an acknowledgement that you have a particular set of skills. Additionally, these skills can help your potential employer.
Moving forward, it is beneficial to promote falsifiability: actively seeking to be proven wrong. It is thought that individuals outside of the immediate situation can point out what we are missing. While our assumptions are the known unknowns, there are always unknown unknowns that we aren’t aware of but could be a considerable risk for the quality and impact of our work.
Design is Ever-changing
Secondly, it doesn’t matter what designer means, as stated previously. Design is multi-faceted and ever-changing. This is evident in many fields of design, but specifically, product design. The field has “completely changed over the past five or ten years. Product design has moved from building physical products to designing mental stimulus, subsuming adjacent disciplines like experience design, information architecture, interaction, user interface, and user experience.” It would be naïve to assume that product design and design, in general, would not change further in the coming years.
Thirdly, designers need to be critical. If done correctly, this helps designers gain identity and agency in their work and the positive critique of others. As stated by Patrick Cox there are right and wrong ways to critique the work of others. Here are ten suggestions:
- It’s Not About You
- Maintain Respect and Honesty
- Avoid Meaningless Words and Phrases
- Comparisons Should be Used Sparingly
- Be Specific
- Remember those Design Principles
- Understand the Design Approach and Context
- Ask Why
- Offer Suggestions
- Consider the Goals and Audience of the Design
These elements can have a beneficial impact on both the work of collegues but also our own work. Arguably, the most essential suggestion on the list is number 8. Ask why, frequently. That is one of the many skills we as designers possess, we question everything. Some people don’t like this trait but its crucial to ensure beneficial outcomes.
Throughout the writing of this article, there have been several answers alongside additional questions. The major development is confidence. Calling yourself a designer can be affected by many factors, but critically it doesn’t matter what these are as long as you believe you are.
Being a designer is a mindset; it is a state of mind that allows you to progress in a preferred direction and become an agent of change.