Editor's Note: Starting with this
issue, designer and author (design authorpeneur) David Barringer begins a
multi-part series about the fallacies and truths of design practice in
the 21st century. Read on and join the dialogue.
The self-taught are a varied bunch of ragtag amateurs, fakers,
enthusiasts, wackos, quacks, thieves, simpletons, liars, rubes,
chuckleheads, delusionaries, hobbyists, and geniuses. Beware. The
self-taught arrive on a wave of American optimism that has a wee bit of
historical undercurrent. Americans like to believe themselves to be
quintessentially self-taught, self-made, self-liberated, self-reliant.
We like to believe there is no such thing as social class in America. We
like to believe anyone can be anything. We need only opportunity and
will power. America provides the opportunity. The individual provides
the will power. And bang! We are who we work hard to become.
The myth of the self-taught artisan comprises a subset of the legend of
the self-made American. Rules and regulations, certificates and degrees:
these replace royalty, title, class distinction. Free us from the
arbitrary privileges of birth and aristocracy, and liberate us into the
great open skies of meritocracy and democracy, capitalism and the
competitive marketplace. Smash beyond the limitations erected by fearful
and capricious authorities. Believe in yourself, work hard, and achieve
your dreams. Invent a technological wonder. Create a miracle of
efficiency. Discover not a new land but a new market. Behold! We are
self-made! Only in America!
Bad-mouth the self-taught, the amateurs, the mavericks, the
entrepreneurs of this great land of ours, and you’re criticizing the
promise of America. What are you, unpatriotic? A traitor? You might as
well burn the flag.
This is the myth, mind you. This is the opening chapter to the CEO’s
ghostwritten autobiography. In reality, we live with restrictions,
demand them, argue over whose responsibilities should expand, whose
powers should constrict. Individuals have birth certificates,
social-security numbers, high-school diplomas, driver’s licenses,
passports, voter’s registration cards, college degrees, Ph.D.s, J.D.s,
M.D.s, professional licenses, operating licenses, board certifications.
We have laws, regulations, rules, codes, covenants, zones, and permits.
Oh, boy, we got it all, from cradle to grave, from head to toe, from
bedroom to board room. Let’s not belabor the point. Let’s only
acknowledge the complex reality. America has learned the hard way what
dangers await us at the mercy of the self-regulated: slavery, monopoly,
corruption, the crash of the stock market and the loss of faith in
commerce. Freedom, even market freedom, depends upon the enforcement of
rules, or else we are not all of us free.
Has the American All-Star Marching Band of Grandly Sweeping Rhetoric
left the building? Yes? Good. Let’s narrow the spotlight, dismantle the
podium, and quiet the crowd. Let’s see who sits at the table. Ah, yes.
It’s Ego and the Devil.
Ego: Hi. I’m a professional designer. I have a degree and several years experience in the field as well as in academia.
Devil: I’m the Devil. Ego: The Devil? Sure. You mean you’re a self-taught
designer with no degree and no teaching experience. You have a slipshod
portfolio and a part-time job. To compensate for a lack of expertise,
you have, Rand help us, enthusiasm. You are an amateur. You do not have
the soul of a designer. Devil: Well, actually, I have a couple—
Ego: Please. You lack seriousness.
Devil: I possess the artistic impulse, which depends, first, on
a capacity to destroy and, second, on a desire to create. To create is
to exercise power over oneself and over one’s environment. I wish to
leave evidence that I existed, that I affected the world in some way.
Even a doodle says, “I was,” and, “I made this.” You can choose to be a
doctor, but you can’t choose to want to be a doctor. I could be a doctor
and help people, but I would be miserable. I want to make things. I
want the power to destroy and to create. I’m the Devil.
Ego: I had to go through design school to get my degree. You’re
trying to strike a pose without doing the work. You’re a fake. You
don’t have the chops. You’re an imposter. You haven’t earned the name.
Devil: Many design students skate by, too, without doing much
work. That’s true of any student. Grades are the answer to this, but
once you have a degree, you’ve got a degree. Success then depends on
luck, networking, will power, and skill. Amateurs may indeed have the
chops. What, after all, is the difference between independent work in a
school setting and independent work in a home studio? You may be
motivated by mentors (professors or online pundits), but in the end we
all have to motivate ourselves.
Ego: Maybe there should be a different name, then. You can’t be
a real designer unless you have a design degree. Maybe those with
degrees should make degrees more significant.
Devil: You already do this to an extent by employment
requirements. Academic posts require a degree. Larger firms require
degrees, experience, a certain skill set for a certain job.
EGO: Then where did these self-taught amateurs come from? How do they survive?
DEVIL: Blame the desktop computer for enabling the amateur
designer. Blame the small business for relying on the amateur designer.
Blame the market, basically, for creating the technology and the
incentives that give rise to the amateur designer.
Ego: Exactly. Amateur designers take work that professionals should be doing, and we’d be doing it better. Devil: Amateur designers often do work that
professional designers don’t want to do because the work pays peanuts.
And, let me tell you, one thing amateur designers struggle to do at this
level is to educate these smaller clients about what design is and why
they need it. This is thankless and unrewarding work. Hours, days, weeks
later, the amateur designer may be left without even a measly business
card to design. Quite frankly, you don’t want this heartache. A more
interesting question is how many degreed designers you need at a
particular design firm. Can you get away with hiring non-degreed
designers for certain kinds of work? Web designers must perennially
update their skills by attending the latest software seminars. It’s
possible firms don’t need that many degreed designers.
Ego: I shouldn’t have to compete against those who don’t have to pay off student loans. Devil: Parents can subsidize design students as easily
as design amateurs. Design students who graduate debt-free are as
entitled to their degrees as anyone else.
Ego: But amateurs haven’t committed to the craft like we have.
They’re just dipping their toes. They’re not serious. They can walk away
at any time. They haven’t suffered!
Devil: You can walk away, too. Times are tough. Everyone’s
fighting for jobs, especially in the world of graphic design, in which
expensive print and collateral projects are first on the block for
cost-cutting. A personal note: I went to law school, and I’m still
paying off the loans. I have a degree and a state-bar membership,
neither of which I use, which is like buying a very expensive holster
for a gun you never intend to acquire, let alone fire. No one
sympathizes with the devil. I understand that. Still, my desire does not
depend on a degree. I wanted to learn design, and I have begun the long
process of self-education (or maybe I should call it “self-motivated
education”) and will continue to learn what I can. My legal education,
on the other hand, stopped after I passed the bar exam. The degree is a
proxy indicator of commitment, but not the thing itself. Desire,
devotion, performance, production: look to the worker and to the work,
not to the credentials on the door, for evidence of seriousness.
[To be continued ...]
Alexander Isley is recognized with the AIGA Medal for decades of design that engages the imagination through wit, surprise, intelligence and delight, no matter how complex the story. Learn more about his work.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
Design Assign is a collaborative partnership that gives back to the greater Des Moines area community through design. Alongside AIGA Iowa, area creatives will use their talents to provide local non-profit organizations with communications products that
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