The charm of dictionaries lies in all the things they tell you that
you were not looking for in the first place. For those of us with a
propensity toward digression and procrastination, it is a valuable
source of support. Here’s how it goes. I open the dictionary to see how
to spell aardvark, and while on that page I notice aba.
That’s a word I could have spelled if I had any reason to, but I had
never encountered it before. An aba, I learn, is a sleeveless outer
garment woven from camel or goat hair. Now that I’m on a roll, why not
investigate abomasum, which happens to be the fourth chamber in the ruminant stomach.
It is a rule of life that one thing leads to another and always has.
The internet, however, has vastly increased both the speed and the
complexity of the process. Idle drifting from curiosity to curiosity has
transmogrified into a manic pursuit of random information. While
looking into the ownership of intellectual property and the branding
thereof, I come across the U.S. Military Academy’s demand that “West
Point Graduates Against the War” stop using that name. The Academy
claims it owns “West Point.” TM Maybe it does. But the offending
organization’s position is based on the Academy’s own stipulation that a
cadet will not lie. Since, in their view, the war in Iraq originated in
lies and is sustained daily by fresh ones, they believe it violates the
professional military officer’s code of conduct.
Intellectual property has by now been driven out of my mind (no
Herculean task), and replaced by the ramifications of a professional
code, whether for cadets or designers. Once at the forefront of design
colloquy, the subject has receded over the years, but designers are not
yet secure enough for it to have entirely disappeared. That’s not
necessarily bad, considering that professional security, expressed as
smugness, has given doctors and lawyers a bad name.
A few clicks later, the pursuit of professional has brought up professional-amateur, in the form of a Helsinki panel discussion on “The impact of the Pro-Am revolution on the design industry.”
The pro-am idea is developed in a book called The Pro-Am Revolution: How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society,
by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller. The book is about people who
“take amateur pursuits to professional standards,” and the Helsinki
panel was convened to explore the following proposition: “Passionate
amateurs are reshaping the field of design and innovation. Music,
technology, movies, websites, and also fashion are increasingly produced
by an emerging class of so-called 'professional amateurs.' Will the
pro-am revolution disrupt the design industry? What should professional
designers do in the future?”
What indeed? It’s the same old question, framed anew by concern for
the “design industry.” Is there one? Design is variously called an
industry, a business, a profession. Can it be all three?
A business? Certainly there are business aspects to anything that is
bought and sold, as design services are. And designers routinely argue
that their work enhances the success of corporations and their products.
Colloquially, business and profession are sometimes used
interchangeably, for both can answer the question: What do you do for a
The professional considerations, however, are teased out by the
follow-up questions. How do you approach what you do? What are its
ethical demands? And, above all, why do you do it? The requirements for a
profession appear to be training and the skill that follows it, plus a
code (like the one allegedly instilled at West Point) that practitioners
profess to believe and follow. The classic professions once were law,
medicine and the clergy, each with its own code. The physician’s code
was embodied in the Oath of Hippocrates, the lawyer’s in fidelity to law
in the service of a blind justice. The clergy were professionals by
default, their code not formulated by a society of their peers, but
delivered from On High.
A plainer view of the matter is expressed in the concept of “a real pro,” embodied in The Professional,
a superb novel by the boxing writer W.C. Heinz. Real pros are
journeymen who can be relied on to do what you have a right to expect,
because they wouldn’t respect themselves if they didn’t. It is what we
want a contractor to be. Floyd Patterson, who died last month, was such a
pro. One of the most admirable and least charismatic of world
heavyweight boxing champions, Patterson was not driven by hostility or a
craving for glamour. He was a journeyman boxer who performed as
expected, with the proviso (dramatized by Sonny Liston’s knocking him
out in the first round twice in a row) that the unexpected must be
expected in any competitive sport.
Like other terms in this ironic age, professional can
express not just admiration but disparagement. “The oldest profession”
has never been used to register approbation or esteem. “Professional
virgin,” like “professional victim,” reflects our disapproval of anyone
who conflates a single element of character or circumstance into an
A defense attorney I know in Los Angeles told me about a client of
hers who kept getting caught in the act of burglary. “Sometimes,” he
told her, “I think I should get into another profession.” She thought it
was funny, but he was using the term in a fairly conventional way. In
both The Godfather and The Sopranos, people about to
be murdered are reminded that it’s nothing personal, “just business.”
The journeyman professional distinguishes between self and job and
doesn’t confuse the two.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
In 2015, AIGA Arizona issued a call for the year's best work. Read our interview with the agency leader whose submission garnered 1st Place, and find out which submissions took the other nine spots.
Despite the connectedness of the current business world, aspiring design professionals face new challenges in the age-old problem of getting noticed, especially by the elite practitioners. George Nelson’s wit and insights helped me understand design as both a serious profession and a creative adventure. Here are a few of his choice observations and some thoughts on the special relationship we know as mentoring.
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