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  • Myths of the Self-Taught Designer: The Second Conversation between Ego and the Devil

    At the end of their first conversation, on break in the hallway, Ego and the Devil argue over operative definitions. Does a paycheck make a professional of an amateur? Does a seminar make the self-taught taught? For every duo of opposing definitions (self-taught versus educated; amateur versus professional; self-employed versus employed), the two find exceptions that break the rule. They become mired in concocting definitions based on the reality of what is a pluralistic discipline. Graphic designers range from the teenager with a birthday computer to the retired legend with an eponymous academic endowment. Trying to engage this reality, definitions bow and break under endlessly branching conditions or float weightless as inflated generalities. Ego and the Devil decide to return to their seats onstage and try again.

    Ego: The empirical questions drive me crazy.

    Devil: The biographical details of any given designer can be deployed to destroy any definition. If I claim to be an amateur, you disagree because I get paid. If I claim you’re not self-taught, you respond that you have to teach yourself every day or else you’d go out of business.

    Ego: The empirical variety of graphic designers is why we’re coming up with new takes on old categories in the first place. But it’s precisely this empirical messiness that can be made to subvert the attempt.

    Devil: There are over 200,000 practicing graphic designers, a whopping third of whom are self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They work in print, television, film, digital media, the web. They work for everyone from advertisers to their Uncle Charley’s car wash. I want to talk personality, but we end up talking pie charts.

    Ego: Or self-promotion. The more we defend our own views, the more we appear to be merely preaching what we practice. I claim that designers possess quality X only because I possess quality X. This is a brand of solipsism. The world is the self.

    Devil: The vocational technician, the entry-level grad, the art-school transfer, the pro-turned-academic, the pragmatic opportunist, the accidental designer: they all justify the terms of their existence by citing the facts of their autobiographies.

    Ego: And so all definitions be damned.

    Devil: Good word choice.

    Ego: So what’s at stake?

    Devil: That’s the question exactly. What is at stake, and for whom?

    Ego: Design schools have their existence at stake. Education is the province of educators. Degrees matter greatly to those who grant degrees. Credentials matter most to those who credential. We may impart a cynical motive to these institutions, but we must also grant them their transformative role in society. Their institutionalized belief in the improvable individual moves mountains as it moves minds.

    Devil: Admitted. I may be self-taught, which requires that I talk to myself in the corner of an empty classroom, but I’m not crazy enough to deny the value of the theory of education. Onward.

    Ego: Graphic designers are not regulated by the government. We don’t need licenses. The only laws governing our actions are laws that would govern any employee, freelancer, citizen, etc. We’ve already discussed the economic incentives for credentialing.

    Devil: Credentials serve a need for all sorts of workers, as proxy symbols of economic worth.

    Ego: So what is at stake for the employer is the means to distinguish among candidates. These means may consist of a given candidate’s education, experience, a skill set, a portfolio.

    Devil: A perspective not to be sneezed at. The employer’s, that is.

    Ego: Not least because the employer might also be a graphic designer who, after years of study and hard work, moved up the ladder or started the studio that bears his or her initials.

    Devil: And those candidates lacking credentials suffer a handicap in the eyes of the potential employer. The self-taught, for example, might, in self-defense, cite the example of a famous designer who happened to be self-taught. But the fact that some famous designer is self-taught doesn’t make your claim to it any more impressive to the employer frowning at your resume.

    Ego: Militias are self-taught. So are squeegee guys and my nephew. Big deal.

    Devil: Exactly. Okay, so credentials, for better or worse, function for employers as economic symbols. They also function as symbols of social status.

    Ego: Social status derives from economic status. Economic signifiers, like education, experience and employment, become social signifiers.

    Devil: Like at a party when someone asks, “So, what’s your economic signifier,” you can say, “I’m a graphic designer, which, if I’m lucky, signifies about 50 K a year. Who the hell are you?”

    Ego: Not a sound networking strategy, I’m afraid. For a designer, parties are not parties. They’re work. What is at stake for potential clients, including those you insult at parties, is similar to what is at stake for potential employers, except that employers need only see potential in a portfolio whereas clients want to see fully realized work for past clients. Credentials, like awards, might reassure clients, but the work itself trumps the symbols.

    Devil: I’d say a threshold degree of competence in the work is all that’s required before what really matters kicks into play: networking, relationships, cronyism, nepotism, and not just between the designer and client but among designers within the same firm. You have to be capable, but like my boss says, the wise old bastard beats the dumb young genius every time. Or something like that.

    Ego: So, to sum up, anyone with the intent to design can claim to be a graphic designer in our messy age of design pluralism. You don’t need the degree, the tools, the status, the employer, or even a client. You certainly don’t need to be good or even competent. You just need the intent. So what is at stake, and for whom, in defining the identity of the designer? Credentials are one way to define identity, and credentials matter to some. They signify to potential employers; signify less to potential clients; and always make our mothers proud. But what is at stake for the individual designer? I think that’s where we need to go next.

    Devil: I agree. Design pluralism recognizes the diversity of individuals working in some measure in a field we’ve agreed to call graphic design, itself a broad category, its membrane permeable enough to absorb the practitioners of the year’s latest digital arts. Together, this pluralism and the attendant technological advances that impact the practice of graphic design disturb the discipline and unsettle the individual. In a steady profession and stable economy—

    Ego: Both concepts being theoretical—

    Devil: Many are content to let their jobs define them. Who am I? I am my job. But graphic design is not a steady profession, and the economy is not stable. Uncertainty is the order of the day. Undeterred, people may cling to a mere skill set as an indicator of who they are, defining themselves in ever more narrow and conditional terms. In a moral panic, a designer might crave the next seminar in web design as if it were a personality upgrade, the next slogan from the best-selling business pundit as if it were a reprieve from a death sentence. Why? Because today’s skill set is tomorrow’s software template. And today’s job is tomorrow’s downsized nod to the stockholders.

    Ego: So this is why self-definition is so urgent and infuriating. The economic is personal. Who you are today may not even be who you are tomorrow.

    Devil: I’m an expert in Pagemaker. I mean, Quark. Oops, InDesign. Flash. No, wait, I’m a problem-solver! A branding consultant! A, a. . . .

    Ego: In this environment, you are not saved by what you know.

    Devil: What you know is only what you knew. And that’s why it feels, to me, like there is no such thing as art or design, jobs or retirement. There is only the work that you do and the you who is doing it. What is at stake in all this is the individual designer’s self-definition.

    Ego: And let me guess. What we are dismantling here is the overarching myth of the self-taught, which is that the label of being self-taught no longer functions as a meaningful symbol of the designer’s identity, whether as a romantic symbol or a derogatory one. Regarding yourself as self-taught, as a self-motivated learner, as you said before, is more and more coming to be an essential component of that self-definition, no matter what kind of graphic designer you are.

    Devil: Did I say that?

    [To be continued. . . .]

    Source for statistics: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition, Designers.

    About the Author: David Barringer is the author of There’s Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), as well as American Home Life and American Mutt Barks in the Yard. The recipient of the 2008 Winterhouse Writing Award for Design Writing & Criticism, Barringer is currently a visiting faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and teaches design at Winthrop University.
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