This month’s debate: lawyers are, and so are doctors. So should designers be licensed to practice before they can put pen to paper, or cursor to screen? Two leading advocates of both sides of the argument debate the pros and cons of seeing designers licensed to thrill.

Frank Peters, Chief executive
Chartered Society of Designers and The Design Association Ltd

The notion or belief that you can substitute ‘designers’ for ‘creative’ has been one of the main contributory factors in limiting the acceptance of designers as professionals. The commercial environment has readily recognized and accepted others as professional who practice in newer areas, such as marketing and PR. Being creative is not the sole prerogative of the designer. It is merely one of the many attributes that allows the designer to practice in a field requiring alternative thinking processes to those of other professionals.

It may well be argued that it is a skill, and as such, will no doubt be the subject of debate as to whether that skill is born of nature or nurture. Clearly, it is an attribute that can be developed and enhanced experientially.

Whatever the debate as to how creativity occurs, it’s important that it is managed if it’s to be applied and exploited by the designer to professional ends. It’s this management of the creative process which requires inclusion in a raft of processes to be identified by any design accreditation programme.

No doubt the cry will go up, ‘what about artistic freedom’? Well, what about it? Designers are not artists – if they were, they should be seeking patronage and not clients, and as such would have no need of a profession.

Design is a process of communication, normally addressing a lack of, or reviewing an existing set of communication requirements. It is essentially of a visual nature. The notion that ‘creativity’ in itself provides a solution, and therefore defines the designer, is to imply there to be no need to address a problem in any measurable way, thus rendering the criteria for judging acceptance as totally subjective. This notion provides no means of valuing the process and hence attracts no value to the creativity, it merely exists in a virtual world of subjective solutions.

Many designers will want to see themselves as set apart from the real world, by the very nature of their creative abilities, and present barriers to any form of measurement of their ‘design’ capabilities.

But design exists in a commercial world. It needs to encompass the innovation process if it is to compete against others that can produce exactly the same goods and services, with little difference due to available universal technology. The design process needs to attract a value and as such requires a ‘currency’.

Without this currency it’s inconceivable as to how design can truly integrate into the commercial world and corporate processes. Increasingly, innovation and development will have to comply with standards that are set in terms of measurables such as environmental considerations, health and safety legislation, disability discrimination, economic models and just-in-time and to-market schedules.

None of these considerations will have the flexibility to allow for the subjective vagaries of those who seek awards from their peers over and above providing their client with a professional process that manages creativity.

The awards and rewards will come to those in the profession who objectively manage subjectivity and are identified and recognized by accreditation of their design process.
This accreditation will allow a potential user to identify a designer or consultancy that can prove it is capable of answering a client’s needs, and deliver creativity in a manner in which it can be measured, valued, and appreciated.

It’s arguable that designers may have already missed the boat in terms of achieving a professional status, by concentrating on the importance of creativity over process. Accreditation of design will provide an important foundation upon which to review that status, and a mechanism for the acceptance of creativity as part of the process leading to its furtherance, rather than seeing design decline into artistic endeavour.

The Chartered Society of Designers is currently active in setting up an accreditation process for designers and design practices, which will provide them and the design user with a set of outcomes that can be measured, valued, and developed.

Jon Bains, Chairman, Lateral

I believe that 99.9 per cent of all design is crap, from the lowliest flyers to the most imposing billboards, from typed zines to over-produced coffee table books, from train tickets to wedding invitations, but that’s just my opinion and that’s the point – design is subjective.

The word ‘sale’ should never be repeated in the same sentence. The colour green is vastly overused and should be marginalized – if not banned entirely. In fact, why bother with colour at all – everything looks way better in black-&-white anyway. Each day the aesthetic world is polluted by an ever increasing miasma of dodgy communication and dodgy design.

But what would licensing achieve? First off, Dr Shipman was a fully licensed GP, and we all know what he got up to...

We also all know that visual design is mostly subjective. The ability to judge whether a piece of communication works or not is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. Does it speak to you? Do you understand the message? If it does then you could argue that it is ‘good’ design. What works for an 80-year-old in Glasgow may not get the same reaction from a 13-year-old in London.

A road sign doesn’t need to look like a menu for a Chinese restaurant. Duh!

Would it provide boundaries? The client usually has enough boundaries, they call them briefs! Luckily, good design can transcend apparent limitations – like lack of budget, corporate colours, and dodgy logos.

Do we want a world where only certain fonts are used, only certain types of images – for example, no nudity or certain perfumery ads?

Design and communication are inextricably linked – limit one, you limit the other. It’s censorship in its purest form. Do we really want a design police state?

Would people be allowed to design flyers in the privacy of their own home, but only be arrested if they showed them to someone on the street? Weddings would be stopped because the type looks dreadful on the order of service.

Companies would be shut down because their logos don’t use officially sanctioned colours, or because they can’t afford the luxury of a licensed designer.

It might not be so bad – the design black market might be a fun place to be. After all, drug dealers seem to do OK. There’d be hoards of young kids hanging around on corners – “I’ll do you a flyer mate, top-quality fonts from Thailand, only 20 quid, cheap at half the price, etc.”

Imagine design was as dangerous as using firearms. Licensing would have to be based
on damage limitation to the public, which would require a sliding scale of licences based on both media format and the number of eyeballs likely to be assaulted:

Grade 1: school magazine, or catapult.
Grade 2: homemade flyers, or bow-&-arrow.
Grade 3: company brochure, or BB gun.
Grade 4: posters (you just never know who’s going to see them – very dangerous), or .22 target rifle.
Grade 5: magazines, or shotgun.
Grade 6: print advertising, or army rifle.
Grade 7: billboards, or assault rifles
Grade 8: TV, or weapons of mass destruction (on the understanding that no ad should ever be deployed if it takes more than 45 seconds).

Anyway, licensing is impractical, and unenforceable – just who is so knowledgeable in the design field that they could be set up as Taste-Tsar? Someone appointed by the government?

Is it about risk assessment for companies? Well, some clients are very happy to pay for discovery and exploratory work – with some stunning results.

They are careful who they work with and take time to find the right designers, but it costs in money, time and effort. If the client doesn’t want to take that risk – then simply work with a ‘large’, ‘established’, ‘credible’ firm and take what you’re given.

And that’s the punch line. If clients want a credible, ‘good’ design partner who is capable of producing the kind of work they want, they must be prepared to put in the groundwork. Look around, meet a few designers, and then make the decision.

The onus is on the client to make the right choice and to ensure that the design is correct for their needs. If you want to license anyone, perhaps the place to start would
be with those who commission and approve the design, not those to who practice it.