08 November 2006
Jacques Lange
Jacques Lange

Few issues in graphic design have caused as much controversy and debate as have industry regulation, title protection and professional certification. The debate becomes more pertinent and emotional as the profession matures and the industry achieves greater recognition and exposure. This article explores opposing opinions about industry control and reviews some examples of regulatory mechanisms adopted by professional design bodies.

Rapid technological development has liberated and democratised graphic design on a global scale. Previously, design practice consisted of a small and highly skilled workforce who combined sophisticated creative and manual skills to produce graphic design products. It was only accessible to those in possession of a creative aptitude, supported by academic training or a laborious industry apprenticeship. Today, do-it-yourself graphics software packages enable millions of individuals with a "sense of creativity" to "practice design" - on varying levels - without much demand for technical training and experience. This has led to general confusion about what may be labelled professional design and who may claim the title, professional designer. Many graphic designers are calling for the implementation of formal title protection measures, such as certification, on the basis of qualification, competence and experience, whilst others believe that anyone has the right to claim the title of designer. In addition, commerce and industry are requesting guidelines that define the level of expertise, which can be expected from design contractors.

National and international graphic design associations, societies and institutes have responded to the expectations of a broad spectrum of key players by introducing a number of strategies. Many countries support the concept of professional sheltering and diverse routes are followed in an attempt to accommodate unique regional circumstances. Regulatory systems have been devised to discriminate between levels of expertise by classifying practitioners according to set criteria. Categories generally include affiliate professionals (fringe practitioners), student and licentiate practitioners (entry level), accredited and/or certified professionals (highest levels). This classification system indicates the standing of the individual in comparison to his/ her peers.

Due to their multi-dimensional and complex natures, regulatory processes and procedures have created a plethora of arguments. In some instances, opposing opinions have transformed design organisations into ideological battlefields with the most controversial issues being rationales, perceived relevance and ways of measuring professional competence.

There appear to be three conflicting schools of thought. Firstly, a group with varying levels of qualification, expertise and experience, who nurtures the idea that all designers are exclusively creative people who sell their "artistic" skills for commercial gain. It supports the maintenance of the status quo and deems all designers as equal amongst a generic definition of visual artists. This group tentatively supports organised industry bodies whose activities rarely go beyond that of informal social clubs.

At the opposite end is a school who believes that graphic design has matured into a complex science, which deserves to be treated and respected as a profession similar to medicine, law, architecture and engineering. Generally, the supporters of this school are formally qualified with broad practical experience. They support professional bodies who provide active membership developmental programmes. They expect these bodies to implement formal regulatory structures, which control membership admission according to explicit competence classifications. Many advocates of this school support the implementation of compulsory "testing," similar to the legal bar exam, which will certify practitioners as professional designers.

The third school of thought also supports the notion of maintaining the status quo and seldom involves itself in any of the above-mentioned groupings or their activities. Comprising individuals with varying levels of training, the group opts to function independently and tolerates all practitioners of design without acknowledging any form of professional discrimination.

The arguments offered against, or in support of regulation by the first two groups encapsulate differing perceptions of the functions of design and designers in both professional and broader cultural contexts.

In this author's view, the pro-regulation school of thought defines professional design as a process that combines three key skills: creative, strategic (research, scientific analysis, behavioural prediction, project management) and technological. It considers graphic design to be a combined economic and cultural (artistic) activity that integrates subjective and objective components and holds designers accountable for achieving specified results which can be predicted before the project/process commences. Advocates support the notion of categorising like-minded members according to their level of skills and experience as defined by an appointed or elected evaluation council/structure whose discretion is acceptable to the broad membership.

Opposers of regulation define graphic design activity as a combination of creative and technological skills that functions mainly as a subjective cultural (artistic) phenomenon where designers cannot be held accountable for the final result of the process. Thus, the end result cannot be predicted or quantified. Categorisation of membership according to any formula that rates skill and experience levels is not viable as any rating system will be unfairly subjective and outrightly discriminatory.

These opposing interpretations are reflected by two extracts from a discussion forum taken from the Communication Arts (1995-1998) web site:
(...) "I recently explained to a sales representative who rose to the position of Marketing Manager why he couldn't neatly arrange his products on a page with a vertical grid in a strictly horizontal manner; he said: "wahoo, this is friggin' rocket science. I had no idea. We could have saved months of planning had we spoken to you sooner." Ignorance is bliss and design is rocket science if you have some clue. It isn't a shot in the dark; well, not for all of us, anyway." S Kirkland.

"Let's be real here, this isn't rocket science. Unlike architecture the lives of people are not at stake. Sure someone's business may depend on what we communicate with our design but they (clients) are ultimately the one's who decide that ... Certification (regulation) may be a good idea for the production aspect of our industry, ie. printing, paper, etc. but there is no way you can certify creativity. Those who believe that are certifiable." B Bothe

A comparison of arguments has led the author to conditionally support the stance of the pro-regulation school of thought. Creativity - the focal argument of the anti-regulation school - is but one of a battery of skills needed to ensure successful design. A solid foundation of design principles, understanding of the communication process, strategic planning, marketing and management principles, interpretation of research and control of the production process, equip designers to make informed decisions. The manner in which these principles and skills are managed and manipulated in unison with high levels of creativity, differentiates the novice practitioner and the professional designer.

The bigger the risk of loss or failure becomes for buyers of design, the more important it becomes for them to know the level of skills, experience and accountability of the design contractor. Not all buyers of design are capable of assessing many of these factors and need access to credible advice. This implies an independant assessment of practitioners' capabilities and the formulation and dissemination of critical information.

The author does not believe that any collective organisation can claim the sole right to own and allocate the generic title of designer. Design organisations should, however, have the opportunity to identify individuals or companies who, in the organisation's opinion, are able to provide services that meet stated criteria. Conditions should be that these organisations publicise their criteria and convincingly substantiate their endorsements. In addition, buyers of design services should have unconditional right to accept or reject any endorsement.

The tradition of forming regulatory structures and organisations is as old as most professions. Historically, craftsmen in creative professions grouped themselves into guilds which set entry criteria and identified competence levels - the lowest being novices and the highest being master craftsmen. With the advent of industrialisation, guilds dealing with designer-craftsmen gradually transformed into what are today referred to as professional design organisations.

Currently in design, no single definitive organisational format is broadly accepted as an international standard. Each country or region defines the structure of its representative organisations according to local needs and circumstances. These formats include societies, institutes, associations and guilds, all implementing a diverse spectrum of regulatory systems. On a global level, collaboration and the interchanging of ideas amongst organisations has led to the establishment of collectives, like the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA). ICOGRADA promotes, clarifies the role and sets guidelines and professional standards for graphic design at a unified international level.

A cursory review of graphic design organisations reveals trends which allows for a categorisation of four basic models.

Model A
Informal bodies with few or no membership access criteria. These groupings arrange ad hoc skills development programmes to further the knowledge of their members without controlling their performance.

Model B
Formal societies and associations with broad membership consisting of diverse levels of competence and limited access criteria. These organisations arrange regular skills development programmes to further the knowledge of their members and execute limited control over performance.

Model C
Formal societies, associations and institutes with exclusive membership granted by means of strict access criteria. These organisations classify their membership according to competence levels identified through various evaluation systems (academic qualification, portfolio assessment, interviews, experience, referrals). Membership categories range from accredited/certified members (highest) to licentiate, affiliate and student members (lowest). They present skills development programmes on a continual basis to further the knowledge of members and execute control over performance, ethics and conduct.

Model D
Formal associations and institutes with exclusive membership granted by means of strict access criteria. Theoretical testing is used to evaluate membership competence levels. They provide compulsory skills development programmes to further the knowledge of members and execute strict control over performance, ethics and conduct. In some cases these organisations are protected by national legislation.

Factors that impact on the model a country's design industry chooses to implement include the degree of maturity of the discipline and its practitioners, national education standards, international economic status, level of population sophistication, the reference framework of different cultures, attitude to change, unique key issues and dominant role players. Many professional bodies from the first world have opted to follow models C and D and implement a battery of tests/formulae to evaluate and rate the competencies of their membership. These models and "testing" formulae are however not always appropriate for implementation in developing countries like South Africa, for instance.

South Africa formalised its profession in 1953 under the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers of South Africa (DSA 1998a), and implemented Model A. Later the organisation developed into the Society of Designers in South Africa and attempted to implement Model C. The country and its designers were, however, not mature enough to sustain the model, largely due to international isolation and the status of the industry. The political changes after 1994 forced designers to re-define their role in comparison to the international community, increased global economic competitiveness and the country's unique position between first and third world systems.

In 1997, a group of formally educated designers felt the need to establish a new professional body and industry management system which they believed would be appropriate to the country s unique circumstances. The new body, Design South Africa (DSA), was formed with a mandate to implement Model C (DSA 1998b). This decision was informed by a study of examples set by successful organisations in other countries with similar conditions.

A number of member countries of ICOGRADA have successfully established frameworks for regulating their design industries based on Models C and D. They provide useful precedents for South Africa to consult.

The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) is an interesting example which has established a comprehensive professional regulatory system for its members.
The reasons for doing so included a necessity to distinguish graphic designers from similar but less qualified occupations such as signwriting and desktop publishing and to raise the appreciation of the professional levels of services from graphic designers to be on par with those of interior and industrial design disciplines. With the accreditation system now in place (by RGD, Ontario), only suitably qualified members of RGD may use the words, Registered Graphic Designer, when describing themselves (Forstell 1997).

The RGD Ontario regulatory system provides buyers of Canadian design with a credible reference system to assess the expertise of design practitioners. Forstell states that formal regulation resulted in
(...) "increased professional standards, an ability for clients to easily find suitably qualified graphic designers when required, establishment of a quality signal for the work of graphic designers and an increased ability for young graphic designers to be prominently established in business in shorter periods of time. The program is seen as a turning point in the change from graphic design being a simple occupation or trade to being a true profession" (Forstell 1997).

The Danish design association, Foreningen Danske Designere (MDD), has achieved remarkable success under Model C. Some years ago, MDD implemented an ongoing and aggressive initiative that promotes the services of professional designers. Today, the majority of design buyers in Denmark insist on dealing exclusively with members of MDD (Lindenskov Berube 1998).

Considering the current status of the South African design industry, the following Australian model seems to offer some viable proposals. In 1996, the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) conducted an extensive graphic design industry study. The research showed that graphic designers viewed four major characteristics as pertinent factors in the success of their businesses: creativity, profitability, stimulating clients and solid relationships. The characteristics that clients valued differed dramatically to those identified by the designers: understanding of the client's needs, attention to detail and strategic vision (Lam-Po-Tang 1996). AGDA found this a valuable exercise and used the results as a guide to transform AGDA and assist its membership to become more relevant to market needs.

According to Andrew Lam-Po-Tang (Communication Arts Community Forum 1995-1998), AGDA developed a unique framework to help it make sense of the, often emotive, issue of distinguishing between "true professional designers" and other design practitioners. In response to the question of certification and accreditation he states that
The justification for certification is ... fairly straightforward: so that buyers of design can be better informed. The difficulties start when you try to pin down exactly what the buyer can be reasonably "better informed" about. Trying to nail a designer's "creativity" to the wall is a major challenge, if not completely futile. However, it should be possible to say to a potential client, that a given designer appears to adhere to a robust code of ethics (no free pitching, etc) and understands what professional practice (eg. managing the design process, production constraints, written contracts, copyright, etc.) are about.

A lot of the detracting arguments ... focus on the "free market" principle, which is laudable. However, when economists refer to the "free market" they mean a well-defined type of market ... one in which comparative information between competitors is readily available. So the point of certification should really be to improve market information, not "protect" designers in the way the old craft guild structures used to by indulging in cartel-like behaviour. I'm all for anyone having a go at selling a design service, but I will always reserve my right to educate a client on how to make a sensible choice (Communication Arts Community Forum 1995-1998).

Similar to the DSA, Australia attempted to merge most of its existing design bodies (graphic, industrial, jewellery, textile, interior and decorators) under a single umbrella body, Australian Design Professionals (ADP)22 (Frostell 1997). In preparing for amalgamation, the ADP drafted interesting procedures and formulae to rate and categorise the members from various bodies with different membership criteria (ADP 1996b). A number of models/matrices were employed to illustrate aspects that define the strategic imperative for a professional association at various levels.

The top right area of the matrix identifies the individuals or companies who demonstrate superior levels of creative quality and professional practice. Candidates who fall into this area would be eligible to apply for full professional accreditation - defining the highest level of professional design practice.

A second matrix proposes a model that defines the relationship amongst different membership categories. As the matrix moves progressively to the right, the level of membership sophistication increases.

A third matrix describes the ADP Steering Committee's proposal for an evaluation system that would effectively rate the appropriate categorisation of applications for members. A point system was developed and four key areas were identified: qualification, experience, professional ethics and creativity. This was however rejected because the evaluation of creativity was deemed to be subjective and discriminatory. An alternate formula was presented that consisted of: qualifications, experience, professional ethics and the standard of portfolio.

These case studies provide valuable information for the development of appropriate structures and regulatory procedures within professional bodies. Their appropriateness to South African conditions are debatable and they need to be closely scrutinised and tested before local implementation. They do, however, provide a starting point for discussion and negotiation.

Clearly, the international trend seems to be the formalising of the design profession with the aim to develop and increase standards of design practice. There is a movement to group design practitioners into defined systems under management bodies that will assess their members' professional capabilities. The challenges that faces professional design bodies (in whatever format) in South Africa include:
- the establishment of a broad constituency;
- the inclusive definition of the local industry's unique place in the global design industry management and economic arenas;
- the establishment of appropriate infrastructure/s, criteria and system/s that are able to serve the totality of local needs;
- finding dependable and appropriate individuals to manage a professional body/ies in the long-term;
- providing added value services to the designers and clients on all levels; and
- remaining proactive without being dominated or controlled by small groups or selective agendas.

- American Institute of Graphic Arts 1998. http://www.aiga.org/gr8/index.cfm.
- Australian Design Professionals Project 1996a. Interim Report 02 - Membership and accreditation.
Australia: ADP. Australian Design Professionals Project 1996b. Interim Report 03 - Current conclusions for testing with members.
- Communication Arts Community Forum. Posting dates: 09/01/1995 to 12/16/1998. http://www.commarts.com/community/com_cf.html.
- Crawford, T 1998. American Institute of Graphic Arts. Professional Practice in Graphic Design. New York: Allworth Press.
Design South Africa 1998a. Application for membership.
- Johannesburg: DSA Secretariat.
Design South Africa 1998b. FRESH - Bulletin of Design South Africa. Number 1.
- Johannesburg: DSA Secretariat.
Design South Africa 1998c. FRESH - Bulletin of Design South Africa. Demystifying ICSID, ICOGRADA & IFI. Number 3. Johannesburg: DSA Secretariat.
- Foreningen Danske Designere 1998. Promotional brochure. Kopenhagen: DD Secretariat.
- Frostell, J 1997. AGDA ISS Fellowship report. 17th ICOGRADA World Congress and General Assembly, Edition 1. www.agda.asn.au/. Victoria: AGDA Foundation.
- ICOGRADA 1998. Profile and policy statement. http://www.gdc.net/*atlantic/society.html.
Canada: GDF Atlantic Secretariat.
- Lam-Po-Tang, A & Australian Graduate School of Management, UNSW 1996. AGSM/AGDA, 1996 Graphic Design Industry Study. Cammeray: AGDA.
- Lindenskov Berube, L 1998. Personal interview. Johannesburg. October.
- Society of Graphic Designers of Canada 1998. Profile and policy statement. http://www.gdc.net/*atlantic/society.html. Canada: GDC Atlantic Secretariat.

*The formation of the Australian Design Professionals (ADP) had not concluded when this article went into print. Three participating organisations rejected the amalgamation procedures and presented new recommendations to the ADP steering committee. (ADP 1996b)

About this article
This article was first published in Image & Text Journal for Design, South Africa.

About Jacques Lange
Jacques Lange qualified with a BA(FA) Information Design degree from University of Pretoria (1988) and is currently enrolled in an MA programme at the same institution. His professional experience includes corporate and editorial design, strategic consulting, human resources communication, education and profession management. He is a partner at Bluprint Design, a corporate design consultancy based in South Africa. He is the President of Design South Africa, a founding member of the academic journal, Image & Text, and a member of the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa.