13 November 2006
Peter Giffen
Peter Giffen

Part two of two: The Solution

Drive to Accreditation

To help gain the design profession more respect, and to prevent members from engaging in practices like spec work, the GDC, RGD and la Societe des designers graphiques du Quebec (SDGQ) are leading the drive to make design an accredited profession. The GDC offers designations like MGDC, a professional title earned after a portfolio review, and the RGD has led the way, since 1996, in setting standards for the right to add the "R.G.D." designation to a designer's name. To do this requires graduating from a three- or four-year graphic design program, three years of work as a designer and passing a portfolio review and written examination.

For Jean-Pierre LaCroix the drive to accreditation is critical. "In our profession the No. 1 issue is credibility. You have people working out of their basements on Macs, calling themselves designers." He points out that accreditation differentiates real designers from computer jockeys.

And the self-esteem that comes from being considered a professional is an important part of accreditation. "We are seeing both government and private-sector RFPs specifying that professional accreditation would be an asset," says RGD's von Richtoven. "But for most designers the designation has more a psychological benefit than a direct impact on their bottom lines."

Still, designers are divided on the efficacy of adding a string of letters after their names. "I signed on to the RGD when I came back from England in 1996," recalls Scott Christie, "because I thought it would be great to put on all our proposals: 'Recognized by the RGD. Call this number if you have a problem.' But no one has ever called the number and I don't see the profession being recognized any further by business than when I joined. I don't think people are paying much attention to the designation."

Regardless of how they feel, most designers do see a value in accreditation when it is taken as part of the design organizations' overall efforts to promote and support the profession. With zeal and some notable successes, the GDC, RGD and SDGQ have fought the good fight to establish rules of conduct, educate designers and clients about business practices and ethics and lobby the government on the industry's behalf.

As an example of their good works, the RGD is currently reprinting its sold-out book, The Business of Design, which aims to inform designers and clients about the value of design, and is used as a text in some design schools. "The point is, good design can give business a competitive edge," says von Richthofen. "It's a strategic business tool to be used for bottom-line success. It's not just pretty pictures."

Adapt or Die
But designers cannot be content to just let their organizations educate clients on their behalf. Smart designers are finding ways - whether they are seminars, one-one-sessions, newsletters or online information - to inform clients about what is involved in the design process and the value it can add to their businesses.

"When we first meet clients, we bring in work samples and go through the whole design process," says Michael Wou. "Their jaws drop when they see how much time is involved and how many hands their job will pass through. At the end of one of these sessions, they'll say, 'We understand now. We'll allocate more time to the process.' If not, they'll know that extra charges for rush jobs and endless rounds of changes will kick in."

Education also sometimes works for the clients who expect Wou to provide all the services of a prepress house, including scans and generating press-ready proofs. "We try to show them it would be better to spend the money to get prepress professionals to do it," he explains. "We could get set up in house to do it here, but I would rather somebody who's had a decade of experience look after it. If I produce a proof or scan, I can't guarantee it."

One of the biggest battles professional designers have is to establish themselves as strategic and conceptual thinkers who should be involved in a project from its earliest planning stages, and not beauticians who are brought in at the end. "It's really important for us to communicate the value and benefits of what we do," says Catharine Bradbury of Bradbury Design in Regina, Sask. "Graphic designers have always been problem solvers. As the needs of our clients have increased, so did the skills we needed to provide. For example, we need to let clients know that they have to clarify who they are and what their key messages are. That information once may have been all in our heads as part of the process, but now it really has to come out, so we can engage our clients in the process."

When presented with a client who doesn't get it, designers must learn to stand firm and united. "On the West Coast, it's a closely enough knit community that if we get a call for spec work, we can phone up the principals of the other design firms and ask if they got this call too," says Matt Warburton. "We'll agree together about how we'll respond. We'll present a united front and not participate."

To emphasize their importance as strategic thinkers, some designers are even moving away from the term "graphic design," and using labels like "Strategic Communications," "Communications Design" and "Brand Design." In some cases, the terms are just cashing in on a trend, but in others they seem to mark a real shift in the paradigm of what a designer is. "For many of us, the profession has evolved," claims Hrynkow. "We've had to learn things like brand definition, and to define who our clients are and why people should care about them. Design by definition is a problem-solving process. We need to establish the fact that we're not decorators or desktop publishers."

Some design firms have reexamined their structures and taken a page from ad agencies, who have strategy people and account supervisors. "It's worked this way in advertising for a long time - to have a liaison between the client and the creative," explains Mark Gascoigne, director of strategic and client services at Page & Wood in Halifax, N.S. "The middle person is not just an expensive layer; he can help the client navigate through their needs. They might say to you, 'I want a brochure.' We'll sit down with them and realize that they don't need a brochure; they need a direct mail and e-mail campaign. We're actually helping them to figure out their marketing needs, rather than just their design needs."

This process of evolution can be taken to the point that a design firm is no longer a design firm. In 2000, major Toronto design firm Tudhope Associates joined international branding giant Interbrand, and design became just another tool in the arsenal. "In our view of brands, creative is just one component of the brand and design is just one component of the creative," says Christopher Campbell, CD at the Interbrand Canadian office. "You can't compare us to a traditional design firm. We take a larger view that encompasses behaviors and motivations and we make sure that brand strategy is aligned with business strategy. Brand is a tool to create value for our clients."

But some graphic designers are not willing to give up the label. "I believe strongly in keeping the term 'graphic designer,'" says Scott Christie. "There is an advertising axiom: When you're beginning to get bored with what you've done, you're probably just beginning to get noticed by your audience. Well Diggins coined the term 'graphic design' in the 1920s and, in my experience, it wasn't until the Web hit the scene in 1994 that everyone and their mother began to really understand a little of what it means. So why would we change it now?"

New Opportunities
While the design profession is faced with many challenges today, those challenges also contain hidden opportunities. Catharine Bradbury points out that corporate downsizing may have hurt designers, but it also gives them a chance to fill a void. Increasingly companies have to look to the outside for branding, market development and strategic services that once may have been handled in-house. Enter the wily designer.

Technology may have added new responsibilities to designers' work description, but it also allows them to do their jobs faster and better than in the dinosaur age of repro and X-Acto knives. If designers can work with their clients to establish reasonable timelines and fee structures for changes and rush jobs, deadline pressures can be lessened and work above and beyond the call of duty can receive just compensation.

The global economy that may lay waste to some local business also lets designers look beyond their borders for business. "It truly has become a global market," says Jean-Pierre LaCroix. "Distance is no longer a factor and the world has become our playground. In our case, 80 percent of our revenue comes from outside Canada."

To take advantage of these opportunities, designers have to learn to shift their mindset. "My observation about designers is that we hate change," says LaCroix. "We're happy to help clients change but we don't like it ourselves. You have to adapt or die."

And Lacroix insists that, despite the challenges, the best is yet to come for the profession of graphic design. "The importance of design is growing," he says. "You've got [author and management guru] Tom Peters talking about design and making it an important part of his platform. The number of professions that are adopting the 'designer' tag prove that design is hot. For me, the opportunities outweigh the negatives. It is still a great profession."

About this article
This article was originally published in Applied Arts Vol 19, No 5 (October 2004).

About Peter Giffen
Peter Giffen is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

About Applied Arts Magazine
Applied Arts Magazine is Canada's leading graphic arts publication, showcasing the best work from graphic designers, art directors, creative directors, copywriters, photographers, illustrators, multimedia designers and Web designers in Canada and beyond. With an average readership of sixty thousand, Applied Arts Magazine publishes six issues a year, including the Photography & Illustration Annual published in July, and the Design & Advertising Annual published in January.