But I Digress

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.”

It is a rule of life that one thing leads to another and always has.

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 living?

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 identity.

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.

About the Author:

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.