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< Should Designers
be licensed? >

By Daniel Will-Harris

>>>I’m interested in your opinion...do you think graphic designers (as well as desktop publishers) who produce web pages, corporate identities, packaging, etc. should be licensed in the same fashion as architects in order to maintain a visual standard for clients paying for design services? Dave Dute <ddute@commarts-boulder.com>

Lately there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not designers should be licensed. A lot of people think it’s a good idea. I think it’s a very bad idea--here’s why:

While architecture is supposed to be “artistic,” architectural licenses aren’t based on artistic talent, just technical expertise. An architect’s work involves life-and-death decisions. If they design something poorly and it falls down, it could kill someone.

If a designer designs something poorly, it’s probably not going to kill anyone. (OK, so maybe it’s a warning sign that’s badly done, but frankly, I’ve yet to see a warning sign so bad I couldn’t read it, and since few are done by designers, what does this tell you?)

>Licenses don’t guarantee quality

Next--licensing does not guarantee any level of quality whatsoever. If that were true, there would be fewer dreadful architects. Architects still routinely design buildings that are ugly, impractical--and even unsafe. If licensing hasn’t worked in architecture where you have very specific standards for construction, building requirements for local areas, etc., then why would it work in a field with so few real rules? It doesn’t work in other professions, either, such as real estate, or construction. A license is only a guarantee that someone passed a test, not that someone is competent or will do a good job.

There are entire industries that exist merely so people can pass licensing tests. Supposedly, these places actually teach people what they need to know, but actually, they just teach them how to pass the test.

>Artistic License is arbitrary

I believe that there are practical rules about typography which people should try to adhere to--but those rules are routinely broken these days by people who claim they’re being original, or doing better than the rules at communicating to their groups. Sometimes they’re right. Often they’re not.

But who’s to decide if they can practice or not, based on an opinion of their work? What is a “visual standard” anyway? It depends on who you talk to, and designers tend to disagree about what’s good and what’s bad. Who decides? Hopefully someone who agrees with you.

Design is a highly subjective pursuit. It’s not only possible but likely that when you design something, one person will love it, while another hates it. How do you judge someone’s work and decide if they can or can’t get a license? If you do this, you could end up with a “licensed style” that people learn in school because they know if they can design something in this style they can pass. That’s a waste of time, and an impingement on creativity.

Furthermore--I know professional designers who are total hacks. It’s their living, they have an impressive and expensive design education, yet their work is always the same--they don’t design for a specific job, they take their personal style and do every job in that style--and I don’t believe that any one style can fit all jobs adequately. But would these people get licenses? Probably, because they have a specific education (plus they dress really cool and take clients out to really expensive lunches :)

>Licensing can stifle creativity and originality

Trying to license designers based on their creativity can only lead to the 19th century model of Academies or Schools where a clique of artists would decide which artist’s work was displayed in their influential shows. This system worked so well that many great impressionist masters were rejected, while most of the “acceptable” painters are now long forgotten.

If you are so insecure that you need that kind of affiliation, then enter an Art Director’s club contest. You tend to see the same names, over and over, and the same styles over and over. Yes, they’re pretty, but these awards are just a sign of aesthetic approval from like minds. If that’s important to you, then enter a lot of contests and tout your awards.

I don’t put much stock in artistic awards, because I don’t believe you can really “judge” art. Few of these awards are really based on whether or not the designs were successful for the clients--just that they were visually interesting. If, like me, you believe that graphic design is an applied art that has to work for the client rather than the designer, then, like me, you know that beauty is only skin deep, and while attractive, there are deeper and more important aspects to design.

So, if you can’t really license artistry, then you’re only licensing the technical aspects. If you do that, then you defeat your own purpose. Anyone proficient in PhotoShop, Illustrator, Xara, PageMaker, Quark can get licensed--so your as much as saying that no artistic skill is required and you’re demeaning the profession.

>The proof is in the work

Finally--design is an area where it’s fairly easy to tell if someone is professional or not. Just look at their work. Talk to their clients. Decide for yourself. Some people love design that I think is hideous--that’s fine, if it appeals to them and appeals to their customer, then it’s good design for them.

The web has made it easier than ever to show your portfolio--people can see what kind of work you do. You don’t have to drag a portfolio across town anymore--it’s right at someone’s desk. They can see the names of your clients, ask for their e-mail addresses and ask them if you worked within the budget, met deadlines, and produced items that worked for them. If people can’t tell from this--licensing wouldn’t tell them anything more.

I’ve yet to hear anyone explain to my why licensing would really be beneficial. To me, arguments always come across sounding like, “Well, I’m a professional and I don’t want a 13-year-old using ‘El Cheapo Publisher’ software to put up a sign and take work away from me.”

I don’t believe that happens. If someone doesn’t value design, then they’ll go for the cheapest possible design (which they’ll probably do themselves). If someone does value design, then they’ll look at the work of many designers and find the one who’s work appeals to them. They’ll choose and pay for a professional, hopefully one who can show they can create design that works. Design that may be beautiful, yes, but more than that, it’s practical and it does its job, rather than merely try to win awards from other designers.

The bottom line is really about self-confidence. If you’re confident in your skills, portfolio, and most of all, in the word-of-mouth of your clients, then you don’t have to seek licensing “protection.”

That’s my view--and I respect the right of everyone to have and express their own opinion. My opinion doesn’t make someone else’s wrong--just as someone else’s opinions aren’t automatically right :)



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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