Why the Chartered Society of Designers does not get design

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

I’ve been busy researching the relationship between the graphic design industry and academia recently for a paper I’ll be giving in London on Jan 5th. This has invovled analysing the role of ‘Creative and Cultural Skills’, an organisation that claims to represent employers and makes several broad claims, which basically boil down to the ‘fact’ that university courses in design are no good and that industry knows better. (It’s a little more complicated than that and I’ll post more about it after the conference).

One of CCSKill’s partners in their campaing is the UK Chartered Society of Designers, an organisation that has been around for quite some time but until recently has not had much of a profile in the design industry. This is changing, largely because of the CCSkills campaign to replace academic skills in the industry with ‘practical’ skills.

One policy of CSkills and the CSD is to create a licensing scheme for practising designers. I have a real problem with that: licensing practitioners is protectionism (funny how when other people do that we cry foul, but see no problem in doing it ourselves).

The aim of CSD is to remove unlicensed designers from the market because a) they are taking business from ‘professionals’ and b) they produce bad design that serves clients poorly.
These are strange assumptions that are not borne out by reality – a simple check would be to see if CSD members only ever produce ‘good’ design and never have disgruntled clients. I imagine ‘no’ would be the answer to both those points.

But why would anyone want to be a member of the chartered society of designers? And why would anyone use such a person?
One of the arguments commonly heard in favour iof licensing designers is that similar schemes have worked in other areas, with architecture and gas fitting being commonly cited. Membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is seen as a badge of quality, and it is difficult to practice as an archtitect in Britain without membership.
Membership of Corgi is a legal requirement for anyone fitting gas appliances such as boilers and fires. Rather than it being a badge of quality, it is a badge of competence – to gain membership you have to pass an exam and demonstrate that you understand basic concepts and theories regarding, among other things, carbon monoxide poisoning. It is illegal to fit a gas appliance without Corgi registration, but such registration does not mean that a member will not make a mistake, or do a bad job in future.

Now it makes sense for someone who is having a wall knocked through to check the qualifications of the person doing the job – after all, a bad job could be fatal. Similarly, it makes sense to check that someone fitting a new boiler knows what they are doing for the same reasons – a bad job could kill someone.
You would have to have a massively enlarged sense of the importance of graphic design if you believed you had to use a member of the CSD to have your new restaurant menus produced, or your new business card and letterhead. Or your small ad for the local paper.
No one, as far as I know, ever died because a menu was badly designed. There is no comparison between graphic design on the one hand and archtecture and gas fitting on the other.

There is no doubt that some clients would seek out a CSD member to do their design for them, but for every one who does I imagine there would be another ten who either wouldn’t care (or even know) about CSD membership, and several more who would actively reject the notion of employing such a person because they would assume they were too expensive.
CSD membership has many benefits but the most important one is a sense of belonging – because membership is based on peer approval it must feel good to get in, and the prestige or social capital it brings is what you exchange the membership fee for. What it is not is a guarantee of future income, nor is it a guarantee to the client of a good job and good design.
You have to invest a lot of time and effort in gaining CSD membership and maintaining it – this is time and effort (and therefore money) that a lot of designers cannot afford and that a lot of designers simply do not need to expend, because they are managing quite well without being a member.

It all comes back to the idea that the CSD is essentially a club for graphic designers, nothing more. As such I have no problem with it. I have occasionally pondered joining but I’m not sure what I would gain from it, or even that I would be accepted (are my clients prestigious enough?).
But the notion that the CSD wants to grow into a licensing body so that the message going out in future is that only members should be approached for design work in future is a dangerous development. It is, to repeat what I said earlier, protectionism – an attempt to counter competition from a perceived threat of amateur and untrained designers and to improve the quality of design, as determined by the design elite.

The licensing will extend to education too, with the CSD having a role in approving courses in the same way that RIBA does and, by implication, closing down those that do not adhere to its policies and curriculum, or worse limiting the number of courses on a supply and demand basis – if the CSD doesn’t need any more members then presumably they will not license more than a handful of design courses. This is wrong and worrying on so many levels.

My prediction is that colleges and universities will split – some will seek out membership as a marker of prestige but then be shocked when the local FE college also gains membership (as it will, largely because FE colleges are traditionally more willing to change curricula to suit local employers’ needs). This will then result in universities deliberatly not seeking membership and moving to distance themselves from the CSD, perhaps even forming their own organisation in direct competition.
When I suggested this, one senior member of the CSD said this was fine ‘it’s a free market’. Which sort of begs the question, why seek to ensure that the market to buy and practice design is anything but free?

(Incidentally, it’s worth noting that there are major ructions going on between some architecture courses and RIBA over their approach, and similar things are happening in the world of psychology where courses are rebelling against the British Pyschology Society).

Let’s go back to that assumption that untrained designers are bad designers and need to be stopped. It is more a case that the design industry simply does not get design – people go to ‘amateur’ designers because they want a cheap, quick job without any pretentions or angst over typeface choices. They also go to such designers because they are happy with what they get. Are we seriously saying that a local cafe needs to go to a design studio licensed by CSD to get its Christmas menu designed? Is the local hardware store owner really going to be forced to go to a CSD-licensed agency to get its three-page web site done?

Design is subject to the free market in so many ways, and any attempt to restrict the market, to protect ‘good’ designers from amateurs through a licensing scheme somewhat misses the point. Before it can hope to license designers and courses, those in charge of the Chartered Society of Designers need to do a little re-education of their own and try to get a better understanding of how design is really produced and consumed.

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