Can I Just Be Called a "Designer," Please?

Sarah Calandro

Off the top of my head, I can think of multiple design skill sets that Carnegie Mellon Design graduates tap into: graphic, information, communication, web, interaction, industrial, and user-interface design, along with creative nonfiction writing, photography, animation, and the list goes on. Every time I come home to Baton Rouge, I find myself in many casual conversations where people ask what Communication Planning and Information Design is and what I’ll “be” when I’m finished. Although our name calls out communication and information design, it’s really limiting to say that those two design professions define the scope of my learning and the title I will hold for the future.

The problem I find—especially when I’m down south—is the general population knows very little about design and automatically thinks of it with respect to the “things” that are made based on what type of designer one claims to be. If I’m a graphic designer, I make logos. If I’m an industrial designer, I make products. If I’m a UX designer, I make interfaces. What I really like about CMU is that we learn that design is not about making certain things; rather, it’s about being empathetic to the people we are designing for so that we can innovate and make things they really need. And though we do usually end up making a designed thing—whether it be a logo, a website, a book, or a 3-dimensional tool—its form, ideally, is never prescriptive.

Maybe it sounds like a case of my ego getting in the way, but I want the people I know to understand—to really understand—what I’m learning. I want them to know that when I’m done with school, my ideal situation is to work in an atmosphere where clients don’t come asking for a website—or logo, or iPhone app, or deck of learning cards—rather, they’ll come not quite knowing what they need. It will be my job to discover what “thing” they need and then be responsible for bringing the form of that “thing” to fruition.

With that said, when asked what I’m learning and what I’ll “be,” how do I respond? Do I try to explain human-centered design, the fuzzy front end, and how multi-faceted design is? Or, do I take the easy way out and choose one of the labels that best represents my design mood of the day? It’s just a casual conversation, but could it be the opportunity to inform people that design is not just an umbrella term for a set of pigeon-holed professions; rather, it’s a way of thinking and acting on the problems of the world?

2 thoughts on “Can I Just Be Called a "Designer," Please?

  1. Ellen Shapiro

    Re “Designer.” Don’t you hate it that WordPress only has inch and foot signs and no “curly quotes”?
    ”You can use shift-option-bracket and option-bracket,” but it’s a pain in the next when posting.
    And I agree: in my school, UCLA, we were taught to emulate the Eames model and be cross-disciplinary designers who work in a range of media. However, many clients are looking for specialists, not only skill-wise but related to their industry. “Do you do web sites for banks?”

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