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2013 May 15

Apparently I wrote this post back in January, saved it as a draft, and for one or another reason never returned to post it.* Since the issue of graphic design profession “barriers to entry” came up again, a couple of days ago, this seems like as fair an occasion as any to dust this off and publish it.

I’ve been thinking about credentials, lately, and following on a couple of recent posts this is probably as good a time as any to note down my thoughts about the issue.

I don’t have a lot of formal credentials, in an academic or professional sense, at any rate.** The covers I design are often written or edited by people in medicine, dentistry or veterinary science, and some of them will have three or more abbreviations after their name. (A recent job includes DVM, MS, DACVS, and DACVIM, although none of the three editors has all four of these.)

I have… a bachelor’s degree. From a state university. One might count that I graduated, in some sense, cum laude, if one feels like it. Otherwise that’s about it; at one point several years ago I qualified as some sort of mailpiece design specialist after taking a little course on the subject, but I think that has probably expired. I have never pursued or felt particularly motivated to pursue advanced degrees, and have no professional credentials to flash.

Mostly, this is a result of the field I chose. As noted the other day, I have never had any sense that graduate studies in graphic design had any value outside of preparation for teaching (and, perhaps, postponing entry into the working world). Meanwhile, graphic design as a profession has never really organized itself to issue credentials, nor has government ever demonstrated much interest in regulating our profession. This lack of credentialing may in some part be attributed to the fact that graphic design as a specialist profession is rather new—in my study of detectives I found that it took several decades for the profession and society at large to get any kind of firm licensing in place—but probably more than anything is a result of our seeming essentially harmless. I like to think that there is in some sense objectively good graphic design and bad graphic design, but I’m aware that this isn’t brain surgery. In spite of the occasional clusterf**k in something like interface design, which graphic designers tend to latch onto as evidence of our relevance even though interface design is arguably a related specialty and certainly not a regular activity for most graphic designers, malpractice in graphic design usually just doesn’t come with any acute negative consequences.

And I’m fine with that, in most ways. I didn’t really set out to choose a “low risk” profession, and might have been happier in something more critical, but I don’t feel especially bothered that lives aren’t on the line with my work. As for credentials as a professional barrier to entry, well, I won’t deny that at times I think some means of restricting the flood of new entrants into graphic design would be beneficial, both for the field and for myself… I’m aware that this is a two-edged sword. As Matthew Yglesias has argued repeatedly, society as a whole is effectively poorer due to licensing requirements that serve little purpose other than to protect incumbents in a profession. Meanwhile, I could potentially benefit as an incumbent, but I have a difficult time justifying that kind of “pulling the ladder up after me” measure. Particularly when, again, there’s no other convincing argument for it; yes, I think people should hire me or at least some experienced designer with a reputable degree (or equivalent on-the-job training) rather than someone with 12 credit hours from a diploma mill and a pirated copy of Creative Suite… but I can’t really justify heavy-handed regulation to prevent them from doing the latter if that’s their preference.

So, minimal credentials, and minimal need for them. Personally, at least. I think it’s easy for me to be largely indifferent to credentials in the activities I’ve made a specialty because most other people are, as well. I don’t think an advanced degree would have opened many doors for me as a graphic design job-seeker, and I really don’t believe freelance clients give a damn whether their designer has a Master’s or a PhD. As an aside, I do kind of feel lately like my experience researching, writing, and performing/coordinating all of the various tasks involved in publishing a professional-standard book really has to be equivalent of at least a Master’s level course of study. And I am proud of that; it does make me feel just a little bit more validated in comparison with the many peers who hold advanced degrees. Despite the fact that I have no external credential to show for it; that might be nice, but I have the work itself, and these days that seems like it’s probably at least as valuable as a framed certificate, probably moreso (and at considerably less cost).

At least, in a creative endeavor like writing a book—writing, art, design, etc., have all become increasingly democratized, in the internet age, and what traditional credentials applied to them (master’s in graphic design, PhD in English, etc.) are probably correspondingly very, very optional. This is not, that said, the case in all fields. I think there are more than a few professions that still place heavy emphasis on a traditional credential; learning the trade may have become about as democratized as art and writing, but other professions don’t offer the same scope for simply circumventing any and all credential-demanding gatekeepers that exist. For people in these fields, I’m not sure what the answer is, other than “get the credential” when possible. Opening up the qualification process, e.g. allowing self-instruction or work experience to substitute for formal coursework, seems like it would be desirable. But, of course, people and institutions rarely give up power voluntarily, and in those fields where it carries real weight, credentialing is power.

On balance, I think I’m okay with the fact that I’ve followed my muse to a bit more of a reputational Wild West. I think I’m good. If I want to prove it, though… I prove it.

* Am I the only one who does this?

** I did at one time qualify for at least three of the six Hallowed Ranks of Marveldom.

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