How to Not Fix What Isn’t Broken


One of my friends linked to a an interesting presentation/symposium built around a graduate thesis of Esteban Perez-Hemminger entitled certifyD: the certification dialogue. 

While I an not disposed to view certification as a solution to any perceived problem in the graphic design industry (in the United States, at least), I felt it was worth the effort to develop a thorough critique of the proposal to indicate the specific flaws that comprise efforts such as these.



The underlying problem in the world of graphic design, as understood by the thesis’ writer, is as follows:

Today, the term “graphic designer,” rather than understood and respected, has become devalued and insignificant. The tools we use, not the knowledge or expertise we possess, have unfavorably defined our profession. Design’s focus on problem-solving, creative-thinking and its obligation to society has been displaced as a needless expendability by commercialism and the prevalent notion that “anyone can do it.”

Certification, as understood by the author, is the solution advanced to address the stated problem. The nature of this certification is seen in the following purpose statement:

As a profession, graphic design needs to establish achievable standards that objectively measure educational experience, business competency and ethics within all practicing members. These parameters would provide a platform for redefining our profession’s purpose, delineating the basic qualifications necessary for professional practice, and reinforcing our relationship with society. Such principles would become a guideline for young designers, a measure of excellence among practitioners and a facilitating tool for clients to identify designers of parallel vision, beliefs and thorough expertise. Communications Design not as computer dexterity or a tool for propaganda, but as a validated responsible profession, would then become a viable instrument for solving the communication, social and environmental problems we face today.

Given the wide-ranging skills, competencies and clientele within the field of ‘communications design,’ one might initially wonder how one could objectively measure educational experience or business competency. Mere attendance at an accredited institution gives little indication of a degree holder’s actual educational experience. Business models vary according to the size of one’s business, the type of clientele, etc., making the measure of business competency an ever moving goalpost, especially in field as varied as graphic design. And unless the specific ethical criteria are enumerated, it is difficult to know if this pertains merely to laws regarding copyright/intellectual property, contractual agreements, etc., or is meant to extend beyond that.



The underlying problem which certification seeks to address also seems overstated. True, many place little value on graphic designers and have the notion that ‘anyone can do it.’ However, as should be evident by the sheer amount of money expended on marketing (which inevitably includes graphic design), it is equally certain that organizations and individuals which value graphic design do so in a big way.

That the tools employed have a tendency to define the profession (whether unfavorably or not is an open question) is not something exclusive to graphic design but is true of any field in which its largest growth in recent years has been the result of greater access to computers and the demand for digital content. Music, photography, web design, graphic design, video production, publishing and a host of other fields have had much of their former expertise democratized in the sense of having lower barriers to entry and utilization.


For an aspiring musician wanting to break into the music industry a couple decades ago, there were limited options. Nearly the only way to get a good recording was to book a studio, and the pricing was often so prohibitively expensive that only the independently wealthy or those with label contracts could do so. One of the few ways to achieve wide-ranging distribution of your music was to sign with a label and go through all the hassles and pitfalls involved with that.

But two simultaneous things (among others) occurred which transformed the music industry.

First, recording equipment became less and less expensive. It still was not cheap, but an individual or band could purchase their own equipment and, with enough knowledge and experience, self-produce music that had a level of quality which could rival music professionally produced a decade earlier. The lower cost of equipment also allowed smaller studios to operate by lowering the cost of recording sessions, thus having more clients and allowing more musicians to record their music.

Secondly, the mainstreaming of the internet and the advent of the .mp3 as a deliverable format allowed for an unprecedented level of digital distribution. Notwithstanding the Napster controversies, many artists were suddenly in the position of being able to distribute their music outside of any attachment to a label. Granted, there were downsides since they lost out on publicity and such that might (emphasis on might) have been provided, but they gained in the retention of copyrights and being free to do what they wanted with their music.

Naturally, many people began to perceive music as something they could just take as they wanted, and the file-sharing wars were the inevitable result. However, this affected all artists, perhaps even more so the ones attached to a label who were more well known. Paradoxically, many unaffiliated artists discovered that they could make greater in-roads to their audiences by taking advantage of  actively sharing their music; now there are entire platforms (Noisetrade, for example) predicated on artists giving away their music and forming connections with their listeners in that way. The model actually serves to cement the respect for the artists and in many cases has proven to be more successful than older models. At the very least there are now more talented musicians than ever who have the ability to share their talents with the world and connect with persons they would have never been able to, all because the tools and technology that once were difficult to possess are now more accessible than ever. While success in the music field will probably never reach the relative levels achieved by only a handful of artists in the glory days of the CD and the big labels, more and more artists now have the ability to achieve levels of success on their own and in which their creativity is the only limit to what they can produce.


Photography has undergone a similar transformation. Not long ago it was still the standard to have a studio to practice one’s profession. Although the wider public had access to cameras, very few of them had the quality necessary to substitute for a studio photograph. (The irony now is that it is the look attained by these cameras which many modern photographers try to mimic in post-production!)

Two similar movements occurred in photography. First, many businesses essentially assembly-lined the studio process. They recognized that many people were not looking for artistry (and probably would not recognize it) but rather just wanted a good family portrait. Providing generic templates and photo sizes allowed for lower prices by attaining higher volume. Taking one’s family to Sears was an annual tradition for many families, since Sears could take the picture, let you choose the print sizes and deliver quickly; not only that, but the prices were often significantly more affordable than going down to the local photographer’s studio. This naturally had the result of either forcing private studio prices down or compelling them to focus on specific niches (e.g., weddings, seniors, etc.).

Secondly, the wide-scale production and advancement of digital cameras propelled photography to the masses. Technological improvements in auto-focus and in the camera’s ability to automatically parse proper exposure allowed non-professionals to take photos that, while perhaps not compositionally inspiring, nevertheless did not suffer as consistently from poor exposure and focus as the previous generation of film-based cameras. Being able to take as many pictures as a memory card could hold without having to purchase additional film also allowed more experimentation and trial-and-error. Thus, you no longer had to make every shot count, but could simply take hundreds of photos with the reasonable expectation of getting a few good ones.

At the same time, the cost of high-quality, professional grade DSLRs allowed more and more photographers who had been financially shut-out from pursuing photography as a profession to ply their trade. While the mass commercialization of photography in retail outlets resulted in rather generic products, it also allowed photographers to distinguish themselves not only by their expertise but primarily by their artistry. Concomitant with this, the sheer ubiquity of digital technology in cameras had led many non-photographers to understand that while anyone can take a picture at any time with a smartphone, this sort of photography is not the sort you want for your wedding. In other words, in the present day you do not choose a wedding photographer primarily because of his or her technical expertise- that is assumed. Rather, the field is now structured in such a way that photographers can (and to some extent must) distinguish themselves by their artistry, the look they achieve, the feeling they evoke, etc. The connected and globalized nature of the modern world allows this sort of niche- which a few decades ago could not have existed- to not only exist but thrive. In many ways it has actually raised the appreciation for good photographers, for although people are content with the vacation photos taken with an iPhone, the proliferation of ‘good-enough’ photography raises ‘excellent photography’ into stark relief, and arguably it is the case that today more people appreciate the artistry of truly talented photographers because of the very commercialization of photography.

Graphic Design

A similar movement could be detected in other fields, but graphic design is primary focus of the author’s proposal. I would argue that the same movements seen in music and photography have occurred (and are occurring) in graphic design.

Before graphic design came into the digital domain, graphic design itself was often tied directly into the final output. Much like photographers used to not only take the photo but also develop it and deliver to the client, so designers were often attached to the production equipment (e.g., presses) that generated the final product. It would be hard to generalize on this point, but the non-digital nature of the work to be produced at least necessitated a more involved relationship of the designer to the output.

However, as graphic design moved into the digital field, suddenly the output could be defined either by the tangible production or the digital file itself, since it contained the necessary information to produce the former. In some cases the final product was entirely digital in nature. The digital nature of the content also allowed clients a greater selection in printers, for example. Whereas one was formerly limited to local vendors, in the present day one can potentially have the final product printed elsewhere and shipped for less than a local printer might charge. The standardization of industry practices (in some respects force-fit on the industry because of the dominant software packages) and the emergence of digital printing entailed that one could reasonably expect a certain file to print in a certain way no matter where it was printed. Many online companies positioned themselves directly into this market, promising high-quality production for lower prices, making up the difference in volume. This has had the effect of forcing local companies to either stay competitive with their pricing or distinguish themselves in other ways.

Before computers became as affordable as they are today, layout software was often directly tied to and designed for the production equipment it drove. Operating both the software and production equipment required a level of expertise that simply was not available on a wider level, both because of the specificity of the production itself and the prohibitive cost of the equipment involved. However, the standardization of both the production equipment and the software driving it naturally lowered costs in both respects. As the software came to exist independently, the concomitant affordability (and power) of personal computers allowed a wider segment of the population access to  it. While it still had a fairly steep learning curve and required sufficient proficiency, greater access allowed more and more people to gain this expertise and, in an important step, voluntarily create knowledge-bases concerning the use of the software itself.

As more and more people got involved with graphic design- from the professional to the secretary fiddling with Publisher- the desire for graphic design in more and more everyday items grew exponentially. Programs like PrintMaster pioneered amateur design by providing templates, layouts, artwork and such that allowed someone with no design experience to create personalized greeting cards, invitations and a host of other items. While it is easy to balk at these sorts of efforts, it was these sorts of products that fomented the desire in the greater populace to have graphic design as a more regular part of their day-to-day experience. Holiday photo cards such as one might get at Wal-Mart have not always existed, and while most people will not pay more for such a thing than they do, it is unlikely that they ever would have since it simply did not exist on such a large scale previously.

However, much like the ubiquity of photography has distinguished talented photographers from mass photography because of their artistry rather than their expertise, so has the ubiquity of graphic design allowed truly talented graphic designers to emerge and distinguish themselves. The technological advancements which allow for the automation of tasks that previously required extensive human expertise has, so to speak, let the genie out of the bottle. But in the same way that no one (or very few) thinks an iPhone is good enough for their wedding pictures, so graphic design is perceived for its value not in its general sense, but rather in its specific sense.



It is here that I find the deepest flaw in the author’s underling thesis. In a general sense it may be true that there is a lack of respect for the expertise involved in graphic design. However, this flows not from the lack of familiarity with good design but rather because generic graphic design is so commonplace. My disagreement is in whether or not this commonplace nature is necessarily a problem, and one that needs to be solved.

The reality is that the sorts of design relegated to automation, print on demand and the like are not the sorts of things to place a premium on. Nearly any market has its high quality items distinguished as such, its moderately priced, moderate quality items and its mass produced, generic/low quality items. Every subset in that market focuses on a different aspect- the high end recognizes that some are willing to pay a premium for specific services and thus caters its offerings in that direction; the low end recognizes that even more are willing to have a lower quality product that, while not comparable to the high end, nevertheless has much of the same value for less cost to the consumer. For most consumers the cost to quality differential is not great enough within the high end item to choose it over the low end item, since they perceive diminishing returns for the increase in price.

As such, the term ‘graphic designer’ is only devalued and under appreciated by the segment of the market that would not pay the premium for their services anyway. One could hypothesize about what might have happened apart from the digital revolution, but such scenarios are only wishful thinking. There is no indication that certification would necessarily bring about a transformation in opinion, since those inclined to pay a premium for a graphic designer’s services already recognize the value and are willing to pay it. Given the ubiquity of the tools involved, it is an expectation that the graphic designer has knowledge and expertise in them; the distinguishing component is in many cases actually far more wrapped up in the artistry, creativity and effectiveness in communication of the designer. The niche they can occupy because of their specific talents (rather than some nonsensical, overarching conception of what a graphic designer is) enables pathways to success and further connection with clients. It is often in the personal relationship developed with clients because of a common vision, style, direction, idea, purpose, etc., that associations are formed with other clients. Word of mouth and a good experience goes much further and carries more weight.

The preceding I would consider my overarching critique of certification. On the face of it, certification as a proposal is not that objectionable; in many fields it can actually be valuable. Clearly I do not think it would be so for graphic design. In actuality, I would probably characterize any attempts at it as misguided. However, it is not until one digs further into the proposal here that the sheer absurdity of such an approach is found.


Why Certification?

In the ‘why certification/” section of the website, one finds this statement:

Within the 5 mayor [sic] design fields (industrial, engineering, architecture, graphic, interior), graphic design remains as the only field in the USA with no system of requirements, standards or benchmarks to follow. Many countries have already adopted strict certification systems for their respective design populations, combining requirements that ensure professional excellence and accountability within all practitioners.

There are two highly problematic fallacies employed here.

First, while graphic design may broadly fall into the design field, graphic design is focused primarily on the visual aspect of design. It may be incorporated into the other fields, but in and of itself generally involves nothing beyond the visual component. The other four major fields go beyond the visual and deal with spaces and designs that have physical considerations beyond their visual property. To design architecture, for example, is not only about aesthetics but also about structural integrity; one’s design has to be able to be built and remain standing. The various regulations attached to erecting any structure create the requirements and standards, since a structurally unsound building might not just be ugly but can also seriously injure others. Even interior design has this facet to its field of work. While visual/graphic design can definitely be done poorly and have negative consequences, the consequences are distinct. Thus, the equivocation attempted here is predicated on a categorical error.

Secondly, simply because other countries have adopted a certification system does not mean that such a system is either valuable or necessary; in fact, it could be not only unnecessary but have debilitating consequences for the designers under its purview. It also grossly simplifies the vast cultural, economic, political and societal differences which might allow a system to work in one country while making it less feasible in another.

The website goes on to state:

I am proposing a flexible system of requirements built on inclusivity, not exclusion.

While this might be a nice-sounding assertion, it is actually blathering nonsense as it is a contradiction in terms. A requirement by definition is exclusive, as it delineates what meets a requirement and what does not. If a requirement is built on inclusivity, it is destined to be a meaningless requirement, or, paradoxically, even more exclusive in scope, as may actually be (and I would argue is) the case.

This is more easily seen in the five main requirements for the certified designer:

1. Educated

Not every well know [sic] designer has a formal education. Nonetheless, education is at the core of tackling the problems and challenges of our ever-changing world. A formal design education combines theory, history and design engaged with sociology, anthropology and the environment. Design should not be driven by aesthetics, but by a deep understanding of design principles, its history and the evolving practices and methodologies of our field.

I would be the first to agree that aesthetics should not drive design, but our agreement ends quite abruptly. Given the author’s opening admission that formal education does not a designer make, one is hard pressed to discern why the first requirement is then, in fact, a formal education. It should be noticed that the ‘building on inclusivity’ immediately creates a vicious exclusivity since now there are very strict (and thus exclusive) parameters for what a formal education must entail to meet the requirement for certification.

Additionally, while all the subjects listed are valuable, they are hardly exhaustive of the vast experience found in other fields that can (and should!) be brought to bear upon design. The formal education requirement thus actually creates a limiting and necessarily insular definition of ‘communication designer,’ hardly the inclusivity promised.

2. Experienced

Practical experience marks the real learning experience in the life of the designer. The demands of the industry, the economy, politics and clients are just some of the considerations that affect Design as a whole. The combination of a [sic] education and a thorough working experience transforms the technically-savvy graphic designer into a responsible, well-rounded and critical-thinking creature: the Communications Designer.

Experience is obviously important, and I doubt any one would honestly disagree with that. However, if practical experience is the marker of real learning experience, then already one has posited a disjunction between the formal education (is this now ‘not real?’) and the real life experience. One could argue that a truly ‘thorough working experience’ could provide the designer with the same necessary skill set and knowledge base as a formal education, an admission already made by the author. However, one might question whether a formal education and experience does indeed transform one into a ‘critical thinking creature;’ if this thesis is any indication of that postulate, one would necessarily find it unsubstantiated.

3. Ethical

Designers need to embrace ethical practices and transparency in every facet of our work; from establishing and [sic] open dialogue with the client to fighting against harmful practices like spec-work and unscrupulous crowd-sourcing contests. Our work must be committed to engaging a problem and providing an appropriate solution for the client and society as a whole.

I would certainly affirm the need for ethics in the design field, but this thesis expands them unnecessarily. An ‘open dialogue’ with the client is a nice-sounding gesture, but the concrete application of this is ambiguous at best. What does this open dialogue entail? Part of any healthy client-provider relationship is a certain amount of relational distance, which enables negotiation and facilitates trust. Complete transparency can actually be harmful in that it allows one party the opportunity to exploit an advantage not possessed by the other.

While I do not participate in spec-work or crowd-sourced contests, I would be hard pressed to label them unethical. They may be harmful to the extent that they take work away from designers, but the nature of the globalized and connected world is that clients inclined to pursue such means are going to do so; the refusal of certified designers to participate in them would not significantly impact their utilization since the designers inclined to not participate in them already do not. The only means by which such practices could be curtailed is for regulation on an international level, an even more odious option. Simply because a market force has the tendency to harm the prospects of some within that same field by taking business away from them does not necessarily make it unethical, and it is unreasonable to assign ethical language to a reality of a market situation.

Ethical language should be reserved for situations that merit it, rather than to rhetorically buttress one’s position in a market.

4. Committed

A designer should be committed to his or her work, industry and the profession as a whole. Our individual actions and working relationships should all be guided by honesty, ethics and respect. Active participation within established organizations is vital for developing strong links between designers across the nation.

Again, another lovely-sounding proposal, but buried within is an insidious requirement: the “active participation within established organizations.” Any good designer is already committed to his work, industry and profession. The difficulty, as the author sees it, is that this commitment needs to be organized within an overarching framework.

This is trying to create a solution for a problem that does not exist. There are already organizations that exist in which designers participate. Sometimes it is a small group of friends sharing ideas, critique and other commonalities, while in other cases it is larger in scope and linked to certain practices, fields, etc. All of these have the nature of being at-will, in that a designer can choose to participate or not, and do so at whatever level of participation they want. The point, however, is that there is no necessity to participate at all. To be sure, it may limit connections, but then again it may not. But if these connections and links can already be made and are in fact made on a voluntary basis, what possible reason is there to make a requirement out of it? The only benefit from such an arrangement would seem to accrue to the organization establishing the requirements, rather than the designers whom it is presumed to help.

I realize that the certification proposed is meant to be voluntary as well, but if this is truly the case it raises the question as to why it needs to exist at all if designers inclined to do so already group themselves accordingly and, to some extent, have their own codes of conduct, participation and the like.

5. Long-term

Design is a never-ending journey. We must meet the changing technological and social demands by a participating in ongoing education courses, lectures, conferences and activities that provide strength, unity and continuity to our profession. Designing is a marathon not a sprint.

Once again, a solution for a problem that does not exist. Any designer who makes a living in that field recognizes the need to constantly learn and improve. Entire platforms exist to provide on-going training, education and the like for designers who are inclined to use them. Some of these are provided for a fee, others are provided free of charge. Conferences, workshops, and online instruction litter the field of graphic design, so that often the difficulty is in choosing which ones to attend or utilize!

In fact, one could argue that the strength and unity of the profession is solidified by this exchange of ideas, techniques, skills, etc. These sorts of things already exist and are- like the organizations and groups that already exist- something the designer utilizes on an at-will basis. The pressures of a constantly-changing field are enough in and of themselves to compel one to constantly seek to refine one’s skill-sets; such a requirement to participate in certain courses, lectures and such for a specific certification only adds to the already insular effect of the proposed model and seems to add very little value.



The certifyD website also has a manifesto which relates a list of points involved in the certification. A close examination of them only strengthens the concerns listed above.

(Each point begins with: “As a unified association, CRED certification will:”)

1. build on the history of design and foment experimentation, development and innovation from education to the highest level of professional practice.

While I do not subscribe to the maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, neither do I think that the ‘history of design’ is an unambiguous term. Given that the association proposed is- by its nature -deciding on what the history of design it wants to build upon is, there is an already exclusive flavor to the project, since any definition will exclude possible candidates as a foundation for what graphics design should be in the future.

On the other hand, such an association is just as likely to prevent experimentation, since the experimentation will inevitably build upon what is certified, either educationally or in practice. The end result is that such an association is doomed to be superseded rather quickly and fall into irrelevance, as non-certified educational and practical opportunities will not be bound by its strictures and thus be enabled to think in terms outside of the certification box.

2. establish standards of excellence and commonly shared expectations for all practitioners to follow, creating a benchmark that reinforces, unites and ensures the ongoing evolution of the design profession.

Of course, the hinge-point of this whole discussion is exactly what those standards, expectations and benchmarks would be. Given the (presently) open and wide-ranging field of design, any standard developed would more than likely be highly artificial and generally impractical, most likely irrelevant by the time of its implementation.

One might also notice that standards of a sort already exist, tied into the software, hardware, filetypes, printing standards, etc. While I do not like Adobe’s stranglehold on the design field, for example, it is a reality that has to be accepted and abided, especially when clients have particular needs. Video has its own sets of standards which are ever-evolving and increasingly in complexity. The standards already in place are difficult enough to keep up with now; adding additional requirements does nothing to benefit designers as a whole.

Of course, if the standards idealized are more maleable, one might question the usefulness of such standards in the first place.

3. be assembled on a flexible platform that recognizes the changing dynamics of our industry, capable of adjusting and expanding to future developments.

This ‘flexibility’ essentially assures that any benchmarks created will be irrelevant by the time they are implemented.

4. replace the limiting term “graphic designer” with the more encompassing, appropriate and strategy-centered term “Communications Designer.”

There is nothing to stop designers from applying that terminology to themselves now, especially for designers who work primarily in their own capacity. In fact, designers already tend to self-define themselves since there are so many aspects to design. For example, web design, graphic design, print design and motion design are just a few terms that place one within a certain field. Given the globalized nature of our world and the need to stand out in a particular field or be identified by one’s strengths, to self-identify in this way actually allows the designer to place there skills in a particular niche and engage with clients who have a particular need.

The term ‘Communications Designer’ is ambiguous and would probably be harmful for most designers, since it would genericize every field of design and make it harder for designers with particular strengths to stand-out in those fields. More and more clients have specific needs that require specific skill-sets. Self-identifying as a web designer, for example, gives greater exposure to clients looking for a web designer. Self-identifying as a Communciations Designer gives no information about one’s skill set and thus minimizes one’s exposure.

5. define the professional Communications Designer as a knowledgeable, experienced and ethical individual,capable of providing visual solutions that add value and go beyond superficial trends, looks or ephemeral styles.

This proposal completely misses the reason why designers self-identify as a certain type of designer, for the reasons listed above. The professionalism of a designer is determined by the work they do and the way in which they handle it, semantics be damned. In fact, it is a rather offensive notion to presume that all designers are so in need of validation that they need an association to provide a definition of what they do.

6. embrace the inherent responsibility and power of Design in the 21st century, integrating accountability into the fabric of our discipline.

In every group of designers I have participated in, this accountability is already in place. The author seems oblivious to the fact that the fabric of our discipline is not found in a certification association but in the real-life bonds formed within the profession by the professionals engaged in it. Professionals who desire this accountability and camaraderie already seek it out and find it, and in these voluntary associations the responsibility is strengthened and appreciated.

7. advance the fundamental notion that Design plays a vital role in the preservation of our quality of life, the use of natural resources, our human interactions and the enrichment of our local and global society, introducing People, Planet, Profit as the foundation of our field.

Yet again the author erects an artificial definition of the foundation of our field, intrinsically (and predictably) engaging in the exclusivity the proposal ostensibly rejects. The author imagines that the three delineated considerations are the foundation of the field of graphic design, an obvious logical fallacy.

8. identify that a formal design education, combined with a commitment to long-term development, are the core for growing our profession.

Of course, the ‘formal design education’ as the core of the profession automatically creates a barrier for those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not pursue the required formal education. There seems to be little benefit to designers as a whole in this requirement, for those inclined to pursue education will, while those who do not wish to can still (as admitted earlier) be successful in their field. The only benefit would seem to accrue to the recognized sources of education, creating an incentive for the expansion of educational opportunities rather than design opportunities.

9. institute a platform of inclusion within the association,allowing designers from different levels of education, experience and backgrounds to achieve their personal and professional goals.

While this system is interesting, it would inevitably create a perverse incentive for those who control the criteria for certification to expand their influence and dictate unnecessary requirements that do not benefit designers (or only a small, select group of them.) It is axiomatic that bureaucracies exist only for their own expansion, and there is no reason to suspect this would behave any differently. It also raises the question as to why certification would enable this any more effectively than what currently is possible.

10. confront the fact that our industry enables individuals to practice via self-training, without any form of established accountability, ethical guidelines or theoretical knowledge, underscoring the value design education has on the development of the industry.

The need to ‘confront’ this reality underscores the absurdity of the entire proposal. Yes, it is certainly true that one can be a graphic designer (ahem, communications designer) without formal training, established accountability ethical guidelines or theoretical knowledge. However, it is not true that this is necessarily an unwelcome thing.

The lack of formal education can be, in some respects, actually a good thing, since it allows persons who might otherwise be unable to receive formal education (but are nonetheless talented) to pursue their goals. Given the nature of the current industry, graphic design  actually has one of the lowest startup-cost for a business, since in many respects a computer, an internet connection and lots of talent are all that is necessary. Very few other fields have such a low threshold to entry (cost) yet a high barrier to success (talent).

Theoretical knowledge is important, but also easy to come by in our globally connected world. One does not need to pursue formal education to either receive it or benefit from it, especially since many of the principles in design can be intuited. As stated above, there are already means by which persons so inclined can gain theoretical knowledge; it hardly follows that requiring it will compel those not inclined to pursue it to do so since there are already more powerful incentives in place as it is, as mentioned earlier. Such requirement could actually bring about diminishing returns for the association since those with the practical experience of being a successful designer sans formal education would have no incentive to devote the resources and time necessary to attain a degree to formal education simply to obtain a certification that they experientially know to be meaningless.

Additionally, simply because someone does not have established accountability (i.e., within the certification association) or specified ethical guidelines (conveniently also from the certification association) does not therefore mean that that person will engage in unethical behavior or without accountability. Both come in many forms and within many possible structures and, broadly speaking, are already covered within a particular locality’s existing laws. It is thus a complete non sequitur to argue from the lack of an over-arching industry guideline to the failure of people to practice their profession ethically. Actually, it is somewhat offensive for the author to imply that, unless this association exists, ethical problems will necessarily exist or be perceived of the graphic design industry as a whole. it is within the client-designer relationship that ethical committments are brought to bear, and designers have an incentive to behave ethically already since future work is dependent on the ethical way in which they presently conduct business.

It also remains to be substantiated that the existence of the proposals’ guidelines would have any meaningful effect on the problem it is meant to correct.

11. recognize that honesty and transparency are essential elements to forge long-lasting relationships with clients, peers, business and society.

Any graphic designer engaged with clients on a regular basis already recognizes and practices this. CRED certification is thus a meaningless addition to what is already the case, and presents an additional (and superfluous) requirement onto designers who already are honest and transparent with their clients.

12. require its members to follow strict codes of Ethics & Rules of Professional Conduct, holding them accountable for complying with such standards.

The treatment given earlier to this topic applies equally here, but it is worth pointing out again that what might be deemed ‘ethical’ by CRED may not necessitate that its converse is necessarily ‘unethical.’ Again, while certain practices are, well, just stupid, it is useless to apply ethical terminology to them when it does not necessarily apply.

13. defend the value of designers inside industry, government, business and science, promoting the benefit that a multi-disciplinary exchange of knowledge has on innovation, problem-solving and the betterment of the global community.

Again, while this language is nice in tone, it hardly provides a justification for many of the other problematic principles involved in certification. It is also worth pointing out that these sorts of exchanges and the recognition of value already occurs because of the voluntary participation of designers in those processes.

14. denounce a designer’s participation in deceitful, fraudulent and exploitative practices such as spec-work, crowd-sourcing and other activities, without adequate remuneration following local and federal copyright laws.

While I think that spec-work is a waste of time on the part of  designers who participate in it, I also have no right to denounce them for it as they voluntarily participate in it. Laws being violated is one thing, but the voluntary engagement in contests, crowd-sourcing and the like which abide by established laws, while regrettable, do not constitute the grounds for denouncement, much less the justification for an association establishing certification.

In my experience it is the voluntary participation in groups of other designers which mitigates the effect of these types of practices. The social pressure exerted is generally sufficient to make a designer think twice about participating in such a practice.

Additionally, the types of companies and clients who use crowd-sourcing, etc., are generally not inclined to contract with a designer, which is why they use these methods. Clients who truly understand the value of good design pursue other options. As stated above, it hardly follows that denouncing these practices would curtail their existence; nothing short of extensive governmental intervention could do so, which is an option that would have more disastrous consequences for designers.

15. understand that certification is not a superficial, prestigious title, but a symbol representing an individual’s level of business expertise, ethical standards and professional commitment to the practice, our industry and the general public.

The difficulty with this is that a designer’s reputation, work and experience already provide this, and their clients can easily recognize that such is the case. It is hard to see how an artificially crafted organization could improve upon what organically flows out of the real-life experience of designer in his practice. The onerous implication is that unless one has such a certification, then the reputation, experience, etc., of a designer are meaningless, which is nothing but presumptuous arrogance.

16. acknowledge that portfolios serve to showcase design applications, practical experience, procedures and skills, but should never be the sole and primary element for assessing the competence, capability and commitment of a designer.

There is some truth to this, but, like many of the other points, this already happens now apart from certification. True, a portfolio is often the first foot in the door, but it is the ongoing relationship that good designers build with their clients which forms their competence, capability, etc. Word of mouth from one client to another becomes a powerful connection builder, growing naturally out of the experience of the client with the designer, rather than artificially posited by letters after a name. After all, although all doctors have to get certain certifications (and even licenses), often one chooses one over another for a very specific reason, often unrelated to exact qualifications specified by the certification or license.

17. foster activities that facilitate exchange and unify all fields of design, nurturing respect and collaboration.

This is yet another example of this association assuming for itself activities that already exist and are successful, in part no doubt because of their diversity.

18. protect the interests of the profession and its practitioners, continuing to fight for greater recognition, respect, inclusion, validation and participation of Design in the daily activities of our political, economic and social structures.

Given that the author believes the certification requirements lead to critical thinking skills, it is almost breathtaking how little critical thinking was employed to develop this point. The structures of daily activities cannot have design force-fitted upon them, and any attempt to do- especially within the political sphere- would only lead to greater strictures on the field itself, creating another perverse incentive for those who have the opportunity or ability to determine criteria for certification to craft those criteria towards their ends and benefits. While there may be some unfortunate aspects to the field as it is today, it is hardly obvious that coerced participation (which is what it comes down to) on either end benefits designers as a whole.

19. engage with academic institutions to ensure that design education provides the highest quality environment, teaching and skills, all grounded on ethics and social responsibility.

Of course, the question becomes which academic institutions and what requirements they must meet to be accredited. Like with any accreditation program, the ultimate beneficiary is the educational facility rather than the ones being educated. It is unfortunate that so cynical an approach is necessary, but the current state of higher education (in the United States at least) leaves little room for optimism.

20. nurture the building of relationships between designers and nonprofit organizations, offering Design as an integral communication asset at the service of socially-driven enterprises.

Socially driven enterprises already employ design as much as for-profit organizations, and many designers specifically cater their services to this field. In fact, many of these types of organizations have already-strong relationships with designers across all its specializations, rendering the need for a certification association non-existent.



The next section details the structure of membership.

The CRED Point System (CPS) guarantees a culture of inclusion and opportunity amid the varied design community. There are five categories of membership, each one based on specific requirements. The CPS structure is accessible to designers from different backgrounds, education and experience levels; [sic] in order to encourage learning, professional development and continuous involvement.

A point system already raises some flags, since the ostensible inclusivity is intrinsically negated, in effect if not in principle. The biggest difficulty with the specific categories in not necessarily the categories themselves, but rather that the field of graphic design is so wide and varied as to make the categories inherently meaningless. Also problematic is that this system is borrowed heavily from the Swiss system without considering (or at least detailing) the various conditions that exist in Switzerland which may not applicable or transferable to the United States.

That there are only 400 certified designers in the Swiss system also raises the question as to how valuable the certifcation is perceived in countries in which it exists.

Fellow : A designer with 10+ years of working experience, an exceptional portfolio and who has made a substantial contribution to the betterment of the profession and the wellbeing of society.
Senior : A practicing designer meeting the established minimum requirements at the Senior level.
Junior : A practicing designer meeting the established minimum requirements at the Junior level.
Graduate : A recent graduate meeting the specified minimum requirements.
Student : An individual enrolled in an accredited design degree program.

There are various critiques that could be raised for each of these points, but the overall effect is to reduce a designer’s experience, education, work and social participation to a system of points. It essentially takes intangible qualities and arbitrarily assigns a tangible value to them, which is not only a categorical error but utterly simplistic in its reduction of the many complex facets of life, work and all that is wrapped up in the distinct and diverse ways that designers ply their craft in the marketplace. This is seen in how the points system is cashed out:

A member must provide proof of and fulfill all CRED Point System (CPS) requirements based on the desired membership level. The value of non-design related education is also recognized and built into the system. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in loss of certification. The CPS flexibility cultivates a bond between practitioners, and positions Communications Design as an indispensable activity at the service of industry, government, society and planet.

01 : EDUCATION : Underscoring the importance of a formal post-secondary degree, educational programs carry different value points based on the following scale. Only degrees from accredited institutions will be accepted.

Associate degree = 6pts
Bachelor’s degree = 6pts
Master’s degree = 8pts
Bachelor’s degree = 6pts
Master’s degree = 4pts

The admission that only degrees from accredited institutions will be accepted rigs the game from the beginning, crafting perverse incentives for the providers of the degrees and (even more so for) the people adjudicating the accreditation requirements. The author’s insular reasoning is no more evident than in the assignment of 4 points for a Master’s degree in something other than design, whereas a non-design Bachelor’s degree receives 6. The author apparently is incapable of imagining that further specialization in one field might actually enable greater proficiency in design, or that persons are capable of educating themselves to a high level in graphic design simultaneously. Of course, the insistence that only degrees from accredited institutions be accepted belies the presuppositions of the author and ultimately betrays his utterly fallacious reasoning.

02 : EXPERIENCE : CRED retains the right to contact employers and clients to guarantee the veracity of claimed experience level. Years of experience carry value points based on the following scale.

Work : 1 year = 2pts

Following the scale, the system provides for:


3 = 6pts (minimum)

4 = 8pts

5 = 10pts

6 = 12pts

7 = 14pts (maximum)

One particular difficulty is that the notion that one year = 2 points is overly simplistic. Some years are extremely busy with clients and projects while others are not. Sometimes things happen in life that require one to focus more on other things; health problems, family changes, etc., all contribute to the uncertainty and ever-changing nature of life. However, even if one did not have any specific clients for a year does not mean one completely stopped designing; it could be a year of personal development, projects, etc. There are an endless number of reasons why one year might be different from another. Reducing experience to this sort of criterion is patently absurd.

Another blunder is that the necessary correlation of the designer to an employer/client viz-a-viz experience in actuality buttresses the commercialization of the industry previously denounced. We are thus left with a wholly inconsistent and self-defeating system that intrinsically perpetuates the problems it seeks to solve, a not altogether unpredictable result.

03 : ETHICS + PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT CODE (EPC) : EPC points are provided in two tiers to reflect the level of ethical behavior expected of each membership category. The code enforces ethical guidelines as related to business practices, legal practices, contracts, marketing, human resources, client relationships, environmental resources and social responsibility among others.

Fellow & Senior : 6pts

Graduate & Junior : 3pts

Why the ethics expected of different tiers is distinguished is intriguing, although not specified. Is it ok for Graduates to abide by contracts differently than Fellows? Can Juniors get say with more legally than fellows, or visa-versa? What sort of demarcation is intended?

03 [sic] : 2-DAY CONFERENCE : The CRED conference is a bridge between school and the professional world, providing the vital knowledge and up-to-date information needed for a long-lasting and successful design practice. Conferences occur twice a year in different parts of the country. Unlike a written test, subject matter can be frequently revised and updated to reflect the latest innovations, technological developments as well as economic and social concerns. This 2-day forum – required for all senior and fellow members – includes courses, lectures and workshops addressing topics such as:

: legislation and contracts
: rights-management and copyright law

: project presentation skills
: accessibility regulation

: the end-user as ultimate client

: design research, education and theory

: management, workflow and customer relationships

: responding to and challenging the brief
: communications design for non-profits

: working pro-bono
: sustainable practices and renewable energy sources

: ethical guidelines and codes of professional conduct

: responsive web and interactive design

: production & manufacturing innovations
: design for public spaces

I have nothing against 2-day conferences, but such a requirement seems a needless waste of time and resources, given that the very nature of the field it is meant to stimulate tends to push the subject matter included into more accessible formats. While two days is not a long time, traveling is not an inexpensive proposition, since not only must traveling expenses, lodging and the like be included, but the lost days for work must be added in as well. Many designers already have a hard enough time making ends meet; requiring a needless forum that could be easily accomplished online hardly benefits designers as a whole.

05 : PORTFOLIO : The portfolio is integrated as additional proof of a designer’s skills and visual capabilities. However, it must remain centered in communications, strategy and responsible practice. Applicants must submit 6 case-study work samples, with visual references, accompanied by a written rationale. A maximum of 2 case studies can come from student work. An applicant must then elaborate and defend their work in front of a jury. Portfolios will be judged and graded based on the following criteria:

: application of the client’s brief

: concept, strategy and implementation

: production, delivery and effectiveness
Portfolio & written rationales : 1–3pts

This requirement falls into many of the same critiques offered earlier. The delineation of what constitutes accepted work (communication, strategy and responsible practice) is an extremely exclusive requirement that potentially cuts off many designers whose work does not necessarily involve those specified qualities. Additionally, the submission and defense of case studies before a jury presumes a standardized means of design work which often simply does not apply. Client briefs are often nonexistent, depending on the type of work. Production and delivery are meaningless for a large swath of digital-only content since the tools and delivery vehicles are standardized in the software and codecs (for example) in which they are created and delivered, respectively. Often the effectiveness of a work cannot be easily determined or determined at all, except perhaps by the client’s happiness with the created piece. (Quite often that happiness and the actual communicatory effectiveness are not identical!)

06 : PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT CREDITS (PDC) : PDC emphasizes the importance of a designer’s personal and long-term commitment to education, development and growth. All fellow, senior and junior certified members are responsible for completing the corresponding number of annual credits indicated for their membership level. Failure to comply can result in the cancellation of membership. pdc works in the following way:

1 hour (regular activity) = 1 credit
1 hour (cred-sponsored activity) = 2 credits
Fellow & Senior : 30 credits per year
Junior : 20 credits per year

Credit approved activities include but are not limited to:
: formal academic study
: research project
: teaching or mentoring
: participating in seminar, workshop or conference
: publishing an article, essay, book or other
: engaging in pro-bono work
: lecturing
: curating an exhibition

Yet again the author rigs the game from the beginning by assigning twice as much credit to CRED-sponsored activities as to other activities. While understandable, the inevitable result is a (perhaps unintentional) bias towards those individuals who have greater access or ability to participate in CRED-sponsored activities. Depending on where one lives, CRED-sponsored activities may simply not be a viable option.



While the author’s book goes into more detail, the essential thrust of the thesis is contained on the website, and thus I will limit my already too-lengthy critique to that. While the idea behind a certification association to benefit graphic designers is perhaps laudable, the author’s proposal does not sufficiently substantiate a number of points:

1. That the suggested problem is as debilitating for the field of graphic design as indicated in the opening

2. That the proposed solution in certification would have any efficacy towards mitigating the supposed problem

My critique further raises a number of questions that are pertinent to the entire discussion:

1. Given the already voluntary implementation (to varying degrees) of many (if not all) of the proposal’s propositions, what compelling reason is there to pursue certification as porposed as a response to the supposed problem, when the graphic design community already organically responds to the perceived problems in various ways?

2. What reason is there to assume that the proposal of certification would actually be beneficial to the professional graphic design community and not merely create an artificial and necessarily insular association?

3. What is the rationale for the tacit assumption that the market is not able to value design apart from the proposed value of certification, especially in light of the market’s current value of graphic design in certain segments?

I will conclude with one interesting quote from the book which summarizes the essence of my critique:

Janicke Kernland, a Swiss designer living in the USA, adds: “the Swiss system is very strict in controlling the amount of people coming out into the profession…The benefit of certification [hypothetically in the USA] is that it is voluntary! You do it…of your own free will. If you don’t need it, you don’t have to do it.”

If one doesn’t need it, then what benefit is there to it? The answer- as I have developed in this critique- is hopefully obvious: none.


  • I appreciate the time you put into this thorough critique of my certification thesis. I have to say that your responses have vilified and over simplified every single statement and aspect of my proposal. Althout I value every position, as this was the main objective of certifyD the symposium, I must respond so some of your comments. I hope to respond to all your comments in due time. Here are just a few that stood out:

    I must disagree when you say that all of the requirements and parameters I have presented already exist. Although many of the things I have talked about are out there and open for designers who wish to pursue them, our field (because I still believe we are not a profession) is widely dispersed and divided. We have designers who care, behave ethically, participate in design discussions, do great work, get paid accordingly and we have people who do none of those, participate in spec-work (which in no way can be defended or applauded) and degrade the value of design. Is this ideal? Not by any means. Should people be prohibited from design? Not at all. So, as you ask, what is the value of certification?

    I must first respond to the way you have presented my hypothetic association CRED as a bureaucratic self-serving monster, when in fact is was thought out to be transparent, non fee-based and formed by members of existing design association boards (which you state already provide everything we need) as well as representatives from the educational and public sector. You continue to present CRED as an autocratic entity looking for profit. What certification can provide is a structure that merges all the presented requirements, objectives and manifesto points into a system that can help our industry evolve. Is it a quick fix? No. Will it take time to reach its full potential? Probably decades. Is it meaningless? I do not think so, although you clearly disagree.

    If you already have your design discussions with your peers, have unspoken codes of ethics and believe that formal education is not important, then congratulations. You have taken some accountability into your hands. But, even if all of this is true, you are the minority. The differentiation I am pursuing, not a division, is between responsible designers and unscrupulous naiveté’s, not between you and me.

    Of course I believe that only degrees from accredited institutions should be part of any certification process. As you mention, the state of US education is clearly in deep trouble, and you wish for non-accredited institutions to be equally valuable as the ones who have met some strict criteria of personel, facilities, testing and professionalism? Accreditation of institutions has served many purposes and safeguarded many students from places that only work for profit and not for the educational enrichment of the student body.

    I have intended certification to be flexible for people with AND without a formal design education. The statement you quoted did not clearly state that point, as i do on other parts of the proposal, so I thank you for pointing it out. Design education in today’s world has been achieved through many avenues, formal and not. Although I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the value of a formal education, I do not wish to exclude self-taught individuals who are and can be as committed and responsible than any other designer.

    In general, I took your review with the same harshness and offensiveness that you clearly intended when writing it. However, I have been discussing this for over 2 years and the main goal is to get discussions and point of views like your into it. If I only wanted opinions that mimicked mine, I would not have brought this to light in websites, blogs and online forums, let alone on a symposium in NYC. I will take some time to respond to many of your other comments later on. I appreciate your honesty and passion.

    2 more comments,

    • My proposal is NOT based on the Swiss system at all. If you download and read the complete book you will notice it immediately.

    • The way you presented a quote by Janicke Kernland is misguided. She was actually advocating FOR certification. She was responding to a previous comment regarding the fear that certification would be mandatory or imposed.

    • Esteban-

      Thank you for your comments. Even though we certainly disagree to a significant extent on this subject, I appreciate your comments. A few responses:

      You mentioned that I have vilified and over-simplified every single statement and aspect of your proposal. As far as the vilification: while I am not inclined to mince words, I am hard-pressed to see how my comments could be considered vilifying. If there are specific aspects of the proposal you feel I misrepresented, I am open to correction. That being said, I do not shy away from robust critique.

      As far as over-simplification is concerned: my critique was based upon (and quoted from) the information in your website presentation. If you feel your presentation does not capture the essence of your certification proposal, then I apologize for assuming it was an adequate summation. If there are specific over-simplifications I have engaged in regarding the online presentation, I’d be open to correction.

      Certainly we have an impasse in the way we perceive the field of design. The problem in the diversity of the field (‘widely dispersed and divided,’ as you state it) is more debilitating in your view than in mine. Every field has its spectrum of participants; even those with certification. It is not evident to me that certification is a solution to this perceived problem.

      I would have to quibble with this statement:

      “you have presented my hypothetic association CRED as a bureaucratic self-serving monster when in fact is was thought out to be transparent, non fee-based and formed by members of existing design association boards (which you state already provide everything we need) as well as representatives from the educational and public sector. ”

      I fail to see how my critique crafts such a presentation. I disagree with your proposal, but I did not make characterizations of a ‘bureaucratic, self-serving monster.’ As I mentioned in my critique, I take it as axiomatic that “bureaucracies exist only for their own expansion.” This does not necessarily make them ‘monstrous;’ rather, it is an observation about the nature of bureaucracies. Openness and transparency are fine goals and intentions, but the substance of my critique is not to criticize intentions but rather to take stock of potential outcomes. There is a distinct difference between the two, and my critique is structured around the latter.

      The non-fee-based status is quite irrelevant to my critique, and I did not present my critique along those lines. That members of current organizations were involved in crafting this proposal is likewise irrelevant, as my critique was not aimed at the origins of the proposal.

      In another place you stated: “You continue to present CRED as an autocratic entity looking for profit.”

      I was unable to recall (or find) any place where I described or presented CRED as an entity looking for profit. To notice that certain requirements create ‘perverse incentives’ is hardly to present CRED as an autocratic entity. Rather, it is to merely take a realistic view of bureaucracies and the educational system as it currently exists. To be sure, I also stated in a few places that the membership requirements ‘rig the game from the beginning,’ but it is important to understand that such statements occur within the context of my over-arching critique, especially regarding the formal education requirement. Your clarification regarding the flexibility of this requirement could certainly mitigate the force of this particular point of my critique.

      In another place you state: “If you already have your design discussions with your peers, have unspoken codes of ethics and believe that formal education is not important, then congratulations. You have taken some accountability into your hands. But, even if all of this is true, you are the minority. ”

      Firstly, I never stated that formal education is not important. While I do not think it is necessary, it certainly does not follow that it is therefore unimportant. Secondly, to be accountable, have ethics, create connections, etc., is the manner in which successful, ethical persons in any field conduct their business. I see it not as worthy of congratulation but rather the baseline expectation. I have no illusions in this regard, and certainly there are lots of unscrupulous people who have no ethics, etc. My point, however, was that this ‘problem’ (which is inherent to any area of human existence) is not necessarily solvable by certification.

      “As you mention, the state of US education is clearly in deep trouble, and you wish for non-accredited institutions to be equally valuable as the ones who have met some strict criteria of personel, facilities, testing and professionalism?”

      My point was that accreditation is a double-edged sword; while it can (hypothetically) create standards, criteria, etc., it can also create structures that force specific paths which may or may not be of primary benefit to designers. To be an accredited institution has no necessary bearing on the quality of the education provided or received, but rather speaks to compliance with enumerated requirements which may or may not be reflective of valuable educational outcomes. Hence, if an institution wishes to be accredited, its priority is on meeting the obligatory criteria to receive accreditation. Thus, the focus has a tendency to become predominantly institutionally based (that is, on inputs) rather than on outcomes. This goes beyond the scope of my critique, but I am generally skeptical of approaches within the US educational system that are more heavily weighted toward the administration end of the spectrum.

      “Accreditation of institutions has served many purposes and safeguarded many students from places that only work for profit and not for the educational enrichment of the student body.”

      I do not think there is a necessary disjunction between for-profit educational institutions and quality outcomes any more than I think there is a necessary link between not-for-profit educational institutions and educational enrichment. Accreditation may have served certain purposes in some fields, but that does not entail that it is necessarily a useful tool in this field. As I mentioned earlier, accreditation has the tendency to be more focused on the institution rather than those being educated at the institution. I regret having to take such a cynical point of view, but the current nature of the educational system leaves me little alternative.

      “Design education in today’s world has been achieved through many avenues, formal and not. Although I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the value of a formal education, I do not wish to exclude self-taught individuals who are and can be as committed and responsible than any other designer.”

      I appreciate the clarification you provided here.

      “In general, I took your review with the same harshness and offensiveness that you clearly intended when writing it.”

      I intended neither to be harsh nor to offend. My style of critique is to engage an argument and point out where I think it goes wrong. When it does so, I see no reason to not express why. The language I use (such as ‘absurd’) is meant in regards to the logic presented and the flaws I perceive, rather than intended personally. If you perceived them in that manner, then I apologize.

      “My proposal is NOT based on the Swiss system at all. If you download and read the complete book you will notice it immediately.”

      Actually, I did not say it was based on it but rather that it borrowed heavily from it. As I was reading through the treatment of the Swiss system in your book I perceived similarities to the CRED system proposed; however, if the similarities are only apparent then I will concede that particular point.

      “The way you presented a quote by Janicke Kernland is misguided. She was actually advocating FOR certification. She was responding to a previous comment regarding the fear that certification would be mandatory or imposed.”

      I am aware she was advocating for certification, and hence my attempted ironic use of the quote.

      Thanks again for the comments and the link. I appreciate your responses.

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