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

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.
: 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—
: Please. You lack seriousness.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: Then where did these self-taught amateurs come from? How do they survive?
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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!
: 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 ...]

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.