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Another Attempt at Design Certification

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Conversations of official design certification have come and gone over the last few decades, with little traction. There’s another attempt to organize designers - in this case, graphic designers, who seem to focus exclusively on logos and static websites – and the attempt seems exclusively focused on the fly-by-night $200 website shops that deliver precisely on their promise: pay $200, and get a website that’s worth approximately the same.

I’ve always had an immediate and negative reaction to the idea of some official certification board – similar to the process of AIA certification that an architect must achieve – but I’ve never really tried to analyze why. I think I’m at a point where I can formulate several reasons why it’s a non-starter.

  1. The conversation almost implicitly reduces design to aesthetics, which is increasingly the least relevant and appropriate use of design talent. The “bad design examples” provided on the site are gratuitous looking, and that’s where the conversation starts and ends. There’s no mechanism to judge the interaction design, the functionality, the cultural need, the benefits to users, the value provided to the company, or any of the other facets of a design problem. And while design aesthetics aren’t entirely subjective, the resonance of visual design is obviously in the eye of the beholder: Not ironically, I found the design certification site itself to be poorly thought out, with an ugly information hierarchy, a sophomoric use of type, and silly clip-art icons added without clear rationalization.
  2. The idea of certification is presented as a method of protecting those who purchase professional design skills. I’m not aware of any data – qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise – that indicates these people need protecting. It’s far-fetched to assume that one who purchases a $99 logo has a deep and passionate need for a strong, well thought out mark and identity package. When you buy a car for $400, you don’t expect it to last very long or be very effective. This idea of “protecting the purchaser” seems like a ruse to protect the fragile aesthetic sensibilities of designers who just don’t like ugly design work.
  3. The one reason that might be appropriately provided FOR certification is almost never considered: that design has a cultural resonance of equal or greater weight than law or policy, as design decisions are reproduced in mass and permeate the visual and semantic landscape of our world. And even this is mitigated at both a federal and a local level, through the use of bans on billboards and requirements about misleading advertising.

It feels like those clamoring for a professional body of certification are trying to protect a profit margin on a skill that may have already been commoditized. The rallying cry to “empower business” isn’t necessary: designers are empowering business through intellectual, strategic and appropriate design work.

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