Should AIGA Certify Designers?

Ed. note: This opinion piece was originally published on AIGA Central Pennsylvania’s site. The perspective expressed is solely that of the author. AIGA encourages commentary, discussion and debate among members—share your thoughts in the comments.

This summer, I received my Certified Associate of Project Management (CAPM) from the Project Management Institute (PMI). It’s an important credential in the field and is notorious for being tough to pass (don’t even try if you’re not at all familiar with PMI). I was incredibly proud of the achievement, and it got me thinking about the hot issue of certification in design. 

We’ve all heard the joke about a client saying that their nephew could just make them a logo—but we’re also wary of the idea of certifying designers. I’ll agree that a certification isn’t inherently valuable—you need to have the work to back it up. I believe AIGA, the oldest and largest organization for the profession, is best positioned to certify designers. But what would that look like?

Membership versus certification

First off, AIGA membership should not be dependent upon certification—we seek to include rather than exclude, but we also want to strengthen our members’ skills. Membership, therefore, should be a pathway to certification because it should both build members’ skill-sets through programming and showcase the value of professionalism. 

Like membership, credentials show others (colleagues, managers, potential employers and clients) that we are serious about the work we do. Design is a job and promoting that mindset leads to better relationships and work for all of us.

Promoting best practices

One of the primary roles of a leading professional group ought to be setting and promoting industry best practices. If we want to be taken seriously as the leader of design standards, we must publicly hold ourselves to those high standards. These standards should not only include skills like typography and page layout, but also business practices and project management basics.

It is our responsibility to ensure that design programs are appropriately preparing students for the real world (we’ve seen too often that they’re not) and encourage professionals to keep sharpening their skills as the industry changes.

Don’t limit standards to testing

While a knowledge-based test is relevant for ensuring an understanding of core principles, this alone shouldn’t be the stick with which we measure candidates. As an organization with industry leaders at the national level of governance, we’re more than capable of determining what should be tested and what should be measured.

Offer appropriate levels

I received my CAPM because PMP certification requires more than three years of experience (the CAPM has less strict experience requirements, including counting educational hours instead of just professional projects). Likewise, design certification ought to be leveled based on years of experience and perhaps even more specific types of design (e.g., product versus interaction design). Starting with a Certified Associate of Design and Certified Design Professional would be a solid starting point for AIGA.

Let’s set the bar higher 

I’ve heard designers try to explain why clients should trust them in terms of the trust that’s inherent in many other professions, like doctors or architects. And I don’t disagree with the analogy. But if we want that kind of trust, we have to earn it—both from our clients, by proving our value in the work we do, and from our peers. And honestly, if a profession like hairstyling requires licensing, why shouldn’t we embrace setting industry standards for a craft we believe can change the world?

My project management certification gives me a greater sense of pride in what I do. Studying for the test inspired me in the discipline I practice, and gave me fresh perspectives for my real, everyday work. I’m happy to be a member of PMI, but I’m more invested in AIGA and I want to see us do the next big thing in our space. Seeing my colleagues recognized for the very real skills that separate them from mere hobbyists would be deeply satisfying.

This post was submitted by an individual AIGA member and may have been published without review. It does not necessarily reflect the views of AIGA as an organization. Please notify an editor if you notice information that is incorrect or in violation of any copyright or trademark. AIGA members may submit posts here.

About the Author:

I currently work as an help content strategist atEventbrite, a SaaS start-up run by smart people who believe amazing things happen when people come together for live experiences.

As a founding member of the customer experience operations team, I’m on a mission to create a kick-ass self-service experience for our customers. We believe self-help shouldn’t suck—long “FAQ” lists of not-my-question or overwhelming, irrelevant forum discussions are so 1995.

Starting my career as a journalist in Texas, I moved across the country to Pennsylvania to get my start in content strategy with digital creative agencies working with clients ranging from San Francisco tech startups to health care and education leaders.

Now I share my San Francisco home—complete with a library that includes a personal copy of the OED—with my rescue mutt, Paparazzi (and a couple awesome roommates because, hey, it’s SF). Outside of work, I spend timedefending the validity of the Oxford commareading everything I can and rogue editing for the hell of it.