To CertifyD, or Not to CertifyD? That Is the Question

“Is the title ‘designer’ meaningful or meaningless?” asks Esteban Pérez-Hemminger, an MS in Communication Design candidate at Pratt Institute. In his thesis project, CertifyD, which calls for an open dialogue leading to the professional certification of graphic designers, Pérez-Hemminger suggests that the title “designer” has become almost meaningless. And he wants that to change. His ambitious project includes a manifesto, a brand identity and posters, and a web site, not to mention a well-attended event at Pratt Manhattan Center on November 29, with presentations, a panel discussion, and audience participation.

“The title ‘designer,’ rather than respected and understood, has become devalued and insignificant,” Pérez-Hemminger asserts. ”The tools we use, not our knowledge or expertise, have unfavorably defined our field. Design’s focus on problem-solving and creative thinking has been displaced as a needless expendability by the prevalent notion that anyone can do it.”

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger (left) with panelists at the Pratt Manhattan Center event on the pros and cons of professional certification for graphic designers

A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Pérez-Hemminger heads his own Brooklyn-based freelance design consultancy, Hemi Studio. The 30-year-old calls for a voluntary system of certification on a point system, with levels of membership ranging from Student to Junior, Senior, and Fellow. “I’m proposing a flexible system of requirements built on inclusivity, not exclusion,” he states. “It will be structured to meet the different backgrounds, experiences, and educational formation of designers. The framework will foster professional development, encourage higher education, and reinforce the unity between practitioners while boosting design’s presence within the public and private sectors.” He explained his proposal in detail at the event; here are some of the slides he used to illustrate his points:

Pérez-Hemminger recruited big-name sponsors, including Behance and the New York Type Directors Club, to support the event and to advertise in his 24-page, four-color event program. And he put together a balanced panel of professionals and educators.

The panelists, from left to right: Pérez-Hemminger, Emily Heyward, John Estes, Tom Dolle, Matias Corea, and Albert Ng

I have been following and reporting on the certification debate since 1992, when I was first assigned to write an article on the subject for the AIGA Journal. Several other articles, panel discussions, and impassioned debates followed.  Thus, I wasn’t surprised that the panelists were divided in their support of Pérez-Hemminger’s thesis. On the pro side, John Estes—the director of training and technology services at the recruiting and staffing firm Robert Half International and its Creative Group unit, which fills design positions—told the audience that many employers want to hire people with bona fide credentials. “Some clients insist on certification,” he said. Albert Ng, a professor at York University in Ontario, Canada, is also in favor of certification—not a surprise, given that he successfully led a ten-year campaign for the professional accreditation of designers in Ontario. Ng spoke about the founding of the RGD (Registered Graphic Designers) designation and organization, which he described as “in place for the next generation, so designers will be respected.” The Pratt adjunct professor Tom Dolle suggested that certification could weed out un-professionals who contribute to our world’s visual chaos. “Eighty percent of the world is filled with crap,” he said to laughter and applause.

On the other hand, Matias Corea, the co-founder and chief of design at Behance, asked, “Is design a problem? Has anyone ever been injured by a bad design?” Corea protested that he “didn’t learn anything” in design school and objected to the proposed point system’s educational component. “If it’s voluntary, who cares?” he challenged the panel. “This is one more thing that will keep young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from entering the profession,” added Emily Heyward, a contributor to Fast Company magazine and a partner of Red Antler, a Brooklyn marketing consultancy.

The audience at Pratt Manhattan Center

The conversation got even livelier when it was opened to audience comments and questions. The Pratt professor Alisa Zamir suggested that the time for certification is right, recalling how she and other designers once marched through the streets of London demanding the title “graphic designer” rather than “commercial artist.” I took the mic and described a TV show I’d watched the night before, Restaurant Impossible, in which the owner of a failing restaurant is told by impresario-host Robert Irvine that she needs new menus and signage. All she has to do is upload her logo to FedEx Office, the show’s sponsor. “I can do that!” she exclaims (only moments after being chided by Irvine for not being able to get a decent French fry on the plate.) In the next scene, the FedEx Office truck rolls up and delivers 300 menus and a truckload of large-scale indoor and outdoor signs. There was no suggestion that a designer was involved or even needed.

In 1993, after much study and discussion with colleagues of the subject, I put forth a proposal in the Design Issues column of Communication Arts magazine that a certification program, not dissimilar to Esteban Pérez-Hemminger’s, could elevate our profession. Several other articles, panel discussions, and debates followed. The reaction among the big names in the design community was swift and merciless. The then-current and immediate past presidents of AIGA National and the New York Chapter hated the idea. The death knell for hope of even a feasibility study happened in 1995 at a Washington, D.C.,  joint AIGA/Art Directors Club event. In a packed hotel ballroom, hundreds of people watched as Phil Meggs and I (“pro”) were pitted against Michael Bierut and Joseph Michael Essex (“con”). I came armed with facts and figures and a perhaps too-alarmist message: “Graphic designers must be able to demonstrate that we are not mere layout artists and page decorators! We have to offer more. But in order to do so, many designers will have to learn more. The quality of design education is uneven at best. A professional certification program—setting standards, providing educational materials and seminars and testing—may help fill the gap between what’s taught in schools and what’s needed to be a truly competent professional.”

Michael and Joseph came with big smiles and comforting words: “Here’s one sure way to convince the business community of the value of graphic design: do a really great job for your best client. If all of us did this every day, we’d win the battle the only way it can be won, one job at a time, one client at a time, one day at a time. Certification of our competence will never be enough. Quit longing for respectability and start doing great work.” Needless to say, they won.

Collateral material for CertifyD attendees included a 24-page event program with ads by event sponsors

Well, it’s been 18 years. And the issue is resurfacing. This time, it has a brand identity and collateral material. But now—as Ellen Lupton, the author of  D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, a handbook “for the masses,” has said—“Design is open.”

Design is open, and everyone is free to—with the help of software and online services—make their own greeting cards, business cards, T-shirts, menus, and signs. The question is, If they need something more complex, more sophisticated, more considered, whom will they think of calling? I hope it will be a professional graphic designer, not FedEx Office. My gut tells me that the solution is joining together to market ourselves, to advertise, to make ourselves known. Interior designers take out institutional ads in shelter magazines, advising readers who want a professional job to hire an ASID member designer. We should do the same thing. The most carefully crafted certification program won’t do any good unless clients are informed. And that will cost money. Lots of money. A site called MarketingMix reports that the annual FedEx marketing budget is $28 billion. No wonder the U.S. Postal Service is bankrupt. And no wonder that Robert Irvine didn’t tell the ailing restaurateur, “Call a graphic designer.” The messages that are put out there by our powerful competition—by companies like FedEx Office and by the crowdsourcing sites like that dominate Google searches for designers—have obliterated our voices.

To add insult to injury, graphic design has become the new auto shop. To take just one example: In my local high school system in Westchester County, New York, students who are clearly not AP physics material, who won’t be attending Ivy League colleges—or perhaps any colleges—are sent to “computer graphics,” which has taken the place of the old auto shop for “vocational” students. “Anyone can do it” is the prevailing opinion. And parents are deluded into thinking that a promising career may be ahead for their low-functioning children. Well, FedEx Office does need people to run the machines in their stores. I hope I don’t sound too cynical.

A poster announcing the event, designed by Pérez-Hemminger

Pérez-Hemminger ended the evening by putting his thesis to the test. He took a vote: Professional Certification, Yea or Nay? He reported yesterday that 54 people voted via secret ballot, and the Yeas had it by 200 percent. He also posted a full-length video of the event.

Have things changed, or was it just that the particular audience of Pratt faculty and Pérez-Hemminger’s fellow students feel strongly about pushing this type of initiative forward? To CertifyD, or not to CertifyD? That is a question that only you, a practicing graphic designer, can answer. What do you think?


Related viewing: Louise Sandhaus’s webinar on Design Education Today

42 thoughts on “To CertifyD, or Not to CertifyD? That Is the Question

  1. Lionel Gadoury

    When discussions arise on the subject of professional certification for graphic designers, RGD is often cited as a living case study. Founded in 1996 and recognized by an Act of government, RGD is peer-based, self-sustaining, not-for-profit and led by an elected board of volunteers who see the need and opportunity to act cooperatively for the benefit of the profession.

    Given the ethos of creativity itself, it is not surprising that the topic of certification generates passionate debate. Many successful graphic designers prefer the image of themselves as iconoclasts, rebellious by nature, never to be governed by convention. As a design community, we can appreciate such heroes but this legacy hasn’t been particularly effective at raising broader recognition for the value designers can deliver.

    Simultaneously, design is increasingly referenced in the media as being critical to success in business and society, an innovation engine deserving of peer-based accountability and oversight. This model is aligned with more established professional groups and designations, be they in accounting, finance, health care, engineering, project management or our sister design professions, architecture and interior design. The reality today is that graphic designers are more often lumped together as “creative types” – risky elements requiring a tight leash, whereas accountants and “suits” have fostered business credentials, set standards and established protocols of oversight that garner public trust.

    Other leading design organizations, including AIGA, have acknowledged that RGD’s approach to the certification of graphic designers is the foremost example of a fair and functioning system. Constructive criticism over 17 years has contributed to evolving RGD’s approach, building on the collective input of many of the most respected leaders throughout our industry.

    What is disconcerting are comments about RGD that are misinformed, fearful and spurious – all the more shocking when coming from those who have simply not bothered to ask for the facts.

    Becoming an accredited member is not a cakewalk, nor is RGD a club for egotistical elites. The organization is best defined as a community of over 3,000 practicing professionals and students who have met the respective standards for membership and believe in shaping a positive future. RGD’s approach to certification is an accurate reflection of this diverse and accomplished base.

    Year over year RGD has seen consistent growth. All monies raised are invested directly back into continuous learning programs, advocacy and mentorship that benefit the entire industry. Initiatives include the annual DesignThinkers conference in Toronto, a national survey of creative salaries and billing practices, our new Social Good Design Awards, weekly webinars and much more.

    For more information, please visit, or contact RGD Executive Director Hilary Ashworth, or myself, Lionel Gadoury.

  2. Hilary Ashworth

    One of the goals of RGD’s Examination Board is to ensure RGD’s certification process is a rewarding and enriching experience for professional designers. Our testing process has evolved since its inception and today is more vigorous and relevant than ever before. If the perception exists that anyone can get in, the facts clearly demonstrate otherwise.

    RGD’s certification is a three-step process: Application; Written Test and Portfolio Interview. RGD Applicants begin by submitting applications, including post-secondary transcripts and work experience for verification, along with written rationales for the 6 portfolio pieces they plan to present in their portfolio interview. Our eligibility committee then evaluates whether applicants are eligible to continue through the next two steps in the process. In 2012, 8% of applicants did not meet the standards set for eligibility and were not permitted to proceed to the Written Test or Portfolio Interview stage.

    Successful applicants are then required to pass a written test and ½ hour portfolio interview conducted by a panel of 3 reviewers. In 2012, an additional 9% failed to pass the RGD Exam and meet the standard set for Registered Graphic Designers. Applicants who fail sections of the written test may rewrite as soon as they feel ready. Those who are deemed ineligible or fail the portfolio interview must wait 2 years before they can re-apply and are given extensive, personalized feedback on what areas for improvement they need to improve upon in order to succeed in the future.

    Of the total number of RGD applicants in 2012, 17%, almost 1 in 5, did not qualify for the Registered Graphic Designer designation, R.G.D. This is not something we celebrate, nor do we publicize these statistics, but clearly misinformation is out there and this must be corrected.

    Hilary Ashworth, Executive Director

  3. Esteban Perez-Hemminger

    @MARK SMITH: Thank you for your kind words and support.

    I am sorry to have not been part of this conversation. I apologize if my absence felt uninterested or distant. I honestly gad no idea the comments where so numerous, varied and engaging. I deeply appreciate every single position and opinion regarding professional standards. I have considered many if not most of the comments in this forum during my research and writing process during the past year. I have heard many others mention some of the concerns for and against certification. I can only learn from the input and experience of other designers, educators and business professionals. Although I am now, having finished my graduate studies, starting a new phase of my personal and professional life, I remain sturdy on my position on certification. The way I see it and have tried to present it, not without faults, remains as an unifying system that can strengthen the design practice, the educational system and the impact on our clients and public in a way that encourages collaboration, inclusivity and accountability. All of this in a tangible, enforceable structure, not as an ambiguously open industry with lax and suggested ethical codes and standards for competence and respectful practice.

    Certification will NEVER be about judging creativity, talent, looks, aesthetics or attractive work. Whoever look at is that way cannot grasp the symbolic and powerful potential that standards can provide, not as a final magical solution but as the beginning of a never-ending process to claim and embrace the challenges that we face today and the ones yet to be seen.

    I welcome any feedback or comment via this forum or directly at:


  4. Ellen Shapiro Post author

    I want to respond to the statement, “Perhaps the argument can be made that a BFA or MFA from a design school IS the certification of high quality that can be used as a measuring stick.”

    Who determines whether a school is high quality? I have a friend who, in addition to being a law professor, travels around the country on behalf of the American Bar Association and visits law schools. She spends several days at each institution ascertaining whether its accreditation will be renewed: Is the curriculum complete? Aree the faculty qualified? Are the facilities, such as a law library, in place?

    Does any organization do this for design schools? And, in law, getting a degree from an ABA-accredited school is only a first step. Then there is studying for the bar in your state and passing it. And then there is no guarantee, as we all know, that everyone who is licensed is a good lawyer. But it helps a lot.

    Maybe something like this for design schools and programs could be a good first step.

  5. Joe Schwartz

    Replies by Ellen Shapiro on this page and to me personally are greatly appreciated. I often act the role of lightning rod to spur on conversation and Ellen has engaged me in this role to great success – she is a class act!

    I’m torn by the certification argument – on one hand, the creation of an evaluation similar to an Adobe Certification would help employers weed out the riff-raff. When I was an art director at the NBA I didn’t have a hand in hiring new staff – that was left up to my boss, who had a good eye for hiring people with compatible personalities (with a few exceptions). Had we been able to hire staff with certifications, we could have avoided some missteps. I think that certification process would have left the vetting of quality designers up to the board awarding the certification, and allows prospective employers to have a greater idea of who they are hiring. It wouldn’t disqualify anyone from applying for a position or pursuing freelance work – but it could certainly help.

    Perhaps the argument can be made that a BFA or MFA from a design school IS the certification of high quality that can be used as a measuring stick. While it is true that there are many good designers (and certainly illustrators) who are self-taught and received no formal education, one can say that the achievement of an MFA would be equal to an MBA, an MD, etc. That is, you can be a physician’s assistant and do pretty much the same job as a doctor in a hospital without the MD – but the MD gives you much greater status.

    In addition, since it is unusual for a freelancer to call themselves “John Smith, BFA”, but it is not uncommon for an architect to use THEIR certification or affiliation (John Smith, AIA), the establishment of a “Certified Graphic Designer” moniker (John Smith, CGD) would be a status symbol that could be good for their business.

    It is also possible that the role of certification would appear to be more relevant to designers who don’t have a BFA or MFA – who never went to design school or achieved a degree in another program such as a BS, but who fell into design as a matter of their course through life. After all, I didn’t go to college to be a teacher – I had to go through an “alternate route” program and get approval to keep my teaching job after it was completed.

    It is not unusual for people to pursue a new career that is a tangent of an existing one – but as professionals, we want to make sure that quality people are entering the field and don’t give us a bad reputation. In an era where most laymen think that owning a copy of Photoshop and a membership to “Photoshop Killer Tips” can lead to a new career as a designer or photographer, it is important for those of us who are serious about design to make sure that clients know they are hiring good talent.

    To answer Ellen’s question about the creation of my classes, I was a Senior AD at the NBA for ten years until I left in 2002. Weighing my options but with a wife and young son at home, when I was offered the opportunity to teach high school art by an acquaintance, I decided to try it out. Two years later the traditional graphics teacher retired and I was asked to step into his shoes and revamp the program into one that was digital. I agreed to do so if I could put the focus on teaching graphic design, instead of just how to use Adobe Creative Suite. The administration agreed and with some assistance, I spent the first year of classes “winging it” and developing a base curriculum.

    My research led me to become curious about others who might be teaching design at the K-12 level, so I started to make some contacts, do some writing, give some lectures and attend some conferences. That work led me to achieving my MFA in design this past summer from Marywood University and now, to working on drafts for a book proposal, starting my own non-profit (DESIGN-ED) and the acceptance of an adjunct’s position at Kean University’s Robert Busch School of Design. This is on top of being a full-time husband and father to two boys.

    I try to point out to my students the crap that surrounds us, and how it is our job (as designers or as non-designers) to try and make things better – to improve the visual world around us, the systems that we use, the products that help us get through our day. As a designer coming into my 25th year as a professional, I think I have a good grip of these concepts. I’ve met quite a few people “teaching design” who have no such basis for their knowledge and therefore, give weak or poor explanations. A certification that says that this person has the appropriate experience for the job at hand is not unreasonable, but it should also not be a requirement so much as an option for both sides of the table to consider – the designer and the client.

  6. Mark Smith

    John McDuffie, being a writer and not a designer, I’m very surprised that you use such derogatory language without even reading the proposal:
    Esteban is proposing that the certification board is a non-profit organization and that no fees will be charged to designers applying for certification.

  7. John McDuffie

    Another way to get a dollar out of hard working freelancers. As far as dumb ideas with no merit go, this one is their king. A designers portfolio is the only credential a designer should be judged on- not some committee or membership funded association’s poorly validated word. Have you learned nothing from all the “professional” (i use that word groundlessly) associations out there that, for a fee, will certify you in any field that does not require a license? This is little more than a ploy by a mediocre designer to devalue his competition. And you are all swallowing the bait hook, line and sinker.

    Ideas, if we can call it that, like this idea are redundant and one reason some of the greatest designers will go unnoticed, because they have all the talent necessary, but cannot afford school or “professional fees”. Narrow-minded, ignorance is the best definition for this moronic idea.

    Please Pérez-Hemminger, if you have any other ideas- keep them to yourself.

  8. Bobby Dragulescu

    This seems to only help those designers who are not good enough to compete in the free market on their own. Those that need to be told what to do and how to do it. Those who need their hand held by a system with some sort of inherent insurance policy that they will get paid/recognized in the same manner as all of the better designers regardless of their creativity, regardless of their tenacity, and regardless of their business acumen and regardless of their problem-solving skills.

    Like any industry, there are more predators than there is food. It should be the fast and clever ones that get to it first. Be the lion, or be the vulture, or be the ants. We need all them, don’t we?

  9. Mark Smith

    Esteban, all it takes is a critical mass of designers to make it happen. Unfortunately I don’t have that time right now or I would get involved. And getting consensus from all designers will be like herding cats. Go with your gut – I think you’re right – certification is a good idea. For famous designers that argue against it, well, they can just not sign up.

    The bottom line is, it needs to have education, testing, and experience factors because as someone mentioned, it’ll be rendered meaningless if all it takes is writing a check.

    Good luck! I support your idea 100%.

  10. IS

    Certificate, Associates, BA, BFA, MS, MA, MFA, PhD

    Jr. Designer, Designer, Associate Art Director Art Director, Creative Director, VP-Creative Director, Principal.

    Whether your work is self-directed, academic, or commercial and client based or both there is already a certification/verification system. This proposal is redundant and creating redundancy IS bad design.

    On a personal note, as a Production lackey and Graphic ARTIST (and Assistant Professor of Communication Design) I find this notion breathtakingly elitist and narrow minded. It should be obvious to everyone why this thesis was supported by an MS program and not an MFA program. Design is a rational and research based Art but it is NOT a Science – regardless of how desperately designers want business people to respect them.

  11. Deborah V

    When it comes own to it, the desired result is to get work in the field, to enjoy my work that I give my life hours to and to earn enough for my life wants and needs. All of this happens because someone hires me and decides to pay me. So in the end, its the client who decides whether my work was good enough for them or not. If a so-called designer is really terrible, he/she won’t be getting much work. I have known designers with little to no formal training, and certainly no degree or certification and banking like crazy with their work. I’ve also seen talented, trained designers with degrees and/or certifications so stuffy on their titles that they are high priced with hardly any work, especially in today’s economy. Personally, at 42, I’d rather be living my dream of a steady flow of design work that sustains my lifestyle and feeds my soul with my degree and let those who aren’t interested in my work without me having a certification just keep looking or someone else with the proper title. Life is too short to worry about those things. Can you design? Can you meet the needs and wants of the client? If so, you’re hired!

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  13. Sheila Freeman

    Ellen –
    I believe your statement “Is this an image problem or a real problem, or both?” is both. With being in this field for over 40 years with a degree in Graphic Design, I find that if I’m asked what I do and I mention design, I’m asked fashion? interiors? I’ll say graphics. The comment is always “oh”. Many people feel graphic design is not a profession, but still drawing a picture. Anyone can create a picture on screen, the tools and icons are there and those icons were created my graphic designers. I have wanted this profession to be certified for years so the public understands it is a real, there is an enormous amount of thinking, planning, creating, solving to get that correct answer for the client. Once that answer is determined it will perform for the client well. The answer may be that drawing, but how did it get there and why will it solve the problem for the client and give them the performance they need and want?

  14. Jack Mlynek

    “I just returned from Toronto, where in the course of interviewing for an upcoming profile article in C.A., I met with several designers who are members of the RGD. They told me that in order to support itself via $400 annual individual dues, the RGD has made the test so easy and the standards so low that just about anyone can get in. They feel that the organization is rewarding the lowest common denominator of design and is enabling “desktop publishers” to use the initials RGD after their names. After all that time and effort setting up the process! Scary.”


    This process began about six years ago and has continued since. It is why both Albert Ng and I resigned from the Board as well as from RGD. Unfortunately, money has become RGD’s primary concern. I have not seen any programs from RGD promoting the profession or accredited designers in the public sphere. There is effectively no distinction between RGD and GDC. They are both easy ways to get letters after your name without any responsibilities toward personal/professional growth and development, let alone adherence to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

    An egregious example of GDC’s failure to enforce its own rules regarding spec work was its ultimate cave-in with respect to the Vancouver Olympics Logo contest.

    I have to wonder if graphic design has the leadership necessary to push real enforceable change through the industry, since so many designers do not really understand what accreditation/certification means, while major designers feel they are above the requirements and shouldn’t be required to submit to them, especially the exam.

    What is completely misunderstood is that accreditation/certification does not measure creativity or design acumen; it provides a baseline of competence with respect to education and experience. Furthermore, it provides clients and fellow designers a means to censure designers who are working outside the rules of professional conduct. For, a professional without a code to which they are bound is not a professional at all.

    Jack Mlynek
    Former RGD and past Vice President of RGD

    Read more: Should Graphic Designers Be Certified?
    For great design products, visit our online store:

  15. Al Lemieux

    I think anyone in education can agree that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with not only the technological changes within an industry, but also the industry changes and demands. I think we are seeing yet another huge shift in design, which has forced specialization in both print and web. The demand for content to be created in a flexible format for multiple devices and platforms have divided the print world into ePub and web publishing, and the web platform for responsive design.

    In most cases, educational institutions want to address these changes and there’s a knee jerk reaction in some academic circles that have the desire to manipulate their curriculum to steer towards these innovations, in part to be seen as on the bleeding edge, and in another to become more marketable. The fact of the matter is that within a short period of time, the reality is that the foundational topics such as typography, layout, color, and basic design principles are so much more important to instructors than whatever technological medium is used to achieve a specific piece.

    The notion of a certificate-based movement has some merit towards specialization, however the need for a firm foundation is absolutely important. If we look to what transpired at the Bauhaus and the Swiss graphic design schools, we find that what was covered was the basics. The designers that came out of this movement then took those essentials and utilized them within their careers. A universal thought process was transferred to them, that then enabled them to succeed in their chosen industries.

    I think the idea of a universal foundational approach is being muddied in schools that are struggling to catch up to what’s going on in the industry. If certification becomes a necessity, it should grow out of a firm foundation and not be separate from it. An institution could offer a course in ePub and a prospective student can become proficient in such technologies without all of the foundation behind what goes into a proper electronic publication. Rather, certifications should extend the foundation of any designers current skill set and professional experience.

    It should also be said that on-the-job experience is sometimes the best teacher. When met with a real challenge with direct consequences, a designer who has a strong foundation can excel and broaden their own horizons adapting to the needs at hand. A certificate program can simulate such experiences, but on-the-job experience certainly overshadows anything offered in that environment. Therefore, those who are already working in the field, may not cull any more value out of a certificate experience.

    Specialization can also lead to a narrowing of one’s skills to such a focus as if blinders were placed around their eyes. A designer today needs a large toolset for all of the demands that are placed on us, including graphic design, web design, and platform or device design. The widening of one’s skills to accommodate the different fields of interest can develop a broader perspective in the designer, allowing them to be more flexible, more desirable, and dare I say more hireable.

    I worked at an institution that offered design and web certificates. The curriculum was fast-paced and heavily bent towards the technologies needed to compete in the workplace upon graduation. The portfolios we saw that came out of that program reflected the students proficiencies in those technologies more than their foundational excellence. Students who had previous design experience were able to produce brilliant work. Students with no prior design experience struggled to deliver.

    The industry is always changing, more rapidly it seems now than ever. Students who enter a certificate or graduate program today, will undoubtedly come out of such experience into the workplace that has changed the way things are done since the student started such program. An important achievement for any institutional program therefore, is to offer a broad-based curriculum that teaches designers the essential so that they can adequately solve design problems no matter what technology is in front of them. That way they are more adaptable, flexible, innovative, and more willing to use those skills on upcoming technologies.

  16. Ellen Shapiro Post author

    Joe Schwartz, I applaud what you and your colleagues are doing. And I don’t think we are disagreeing… you are showing how in at least one enlightened secondary school and community, computer graphics is not the new auto shop. I should have begun that sentence with “With some notable exceptions…”

    One thing I hope we all agree upon is that all children and teens should be educated about design, about the power and potential of design to educate, persuade and guide people and help them make informed decisions — and to help solve social and environmental problems.

    I would love to see a dialogue between you and MK Colling, who wrote: “The valued design work is done by engineers and programmers, by chemists, physicists, biologists… Can you figure out a delivery system for a drug? What do you know about product packaging materials vis a vis the chemical composition of the product to be packaged? We have a new technology that will revolutionize an onerous task for humanity – can you figure out what shape its case will be to make it user friendly, green and cost effective, and also the manufacturing process to produce it?”

    In the post, I quoted my 1995 “too alarmist message”: “Graphic designers must be able to demonstrate that we are not mere layout artists and page decorators! We have to offer more. But in order to do so, many designers will have to learn more.” We are not engineers and programmers, chemists, physicists, and biologists. There is a place for beauty, for beautiful posters and packaging and books. There is also a need for innovation, for making an environmental and social impact. From the Target pharmaceutical packaging (designed by an SVA MFA Design student) to signage that helps people navigate airports and hospitals to (we all hope) easy-to-understand and foolproof election ballots, graphic designers are making an impact. What needs to be added to our curricula so we can function and be seen as valued professionals, not as “mere page decorators?”

    Please tell us more about your curriculum. Take us inside your high school and show us what you are doing to educate tomorrow’s young designers.

    And, to comment on David Rice’s question, “Where are the black designers?” Anecdotal evidence points to this: Many design programs cost up to $45,000 a year. I’ve been told that black and Latino parents often insist that that kind of money be spent on “real” professional education for their children, like engineering or law school. In Toronto last week I interviewed a successful design firm owner, originally from El Salvador. He told me that his professional-class mother wouldn’t speak to him for years when he transferred from engineering to graphic design.

    Is this an image problem or a real problem, or both? Let’s keep the dialogue going.

  17. Tom Brudzinski

    We are ALL “designers,” & we are ALL “artists!” The basic question being asked here is what is meaningless. Certifications are ALWAYS about being exclusionary. No one needs this type of “PROTECTION” from the UN-certified. If people need to look for a certification sticker for design, it suggests they are challenged to make their OWN evaluation. This type of certification guarantees NOTHING, as it has no regard for the character of the task at hand,

  18. Pete

    Peter Quinn, you can call it a “stinking badges”, when you loose your job by an incompetent who likes to identify himself/herself as a Graphic Designer, Illustrator, Web Designer, etc.

    Then it would be interesting to hear what you’ve got to say about this matter.

  19. Pete

    I totally agree with creating a type of certification (like most professions have) for our profession, and that for a number of reasons.

    This would be especially helpful in small countries, in which many jobs openings are being lost by people who claim to be Graphic Designers as well as, other related professions’ titles thus, creating unemployment not only for young graduates but also, for experienced designers.

    It’s time to see some change taking place!

  20. Peter Quinn

    So, I would say, please do go ahead and create a certification for design. But be warned that your efforts and cost in doing so, will soon be undone by a new generation of designers that don’t care about your “stinking badges.”

  21. Peter Quinn

    The problem of the designer’s authentication is the beauty of it as well. Much like an art degree, the actual degree for a designer is absolutely meaningless to anyone other than the person wh0 received the degree. It, unfortunately, doesn’t tell any valuable story. And we all know, the value isn’t in the story, it’s how you tell it. So it goes with design. The value in a “designer” isn’t if they know how to do something– The value is in HOW they do it.

  22. Joe Schwartz

    Ellen, I have to disagree and take you to task for your statements that wrap up this article. I am a computer graphics and design teacher at Spotswood High School in New Jersey, as well as being a former Senior Art Director for the NBA and designer for Debbie Millman. I’ve been a graphic designer, illustrator and art director for 24 years, since I graduated from the School of Visual Arts.

    I created the curriculum for my program and have joined with other designers and educators to form a national non-profit called DESIGN-ED that seeks to help educators who teach design and use design as a learning tool. While I can agree that the perception of many administrators and uneducated outsiders is that teaching design at the high school level is akin to “auto shop”, to those in the profession you could not be further from the truth. At a recent symposium I was invited to attend at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, the IDSA supported these efforts – something the AIGA and the GAG has not done. In my paperwork to join the AIGA as a design education member, there was no opportunity to be considered a K-12 educator – I had to “redesign” the application to fit my category – that is how backward the organization is in this regard.

    Others like myself understand the discipline that is involved in teaching design properly and yes, we have students who think that it is easy to do – they quickly find out that it isn’t. Our jobs as design educators are to inform and delight all the students, to make them aware and appreciative of what design and its applications contribute to society, and to show them what is involved in the design process. Out of the 100-odd students I have each day, I have 2-3 who wind up going to design school and in recent years, I have sent some excellent students in that direction. As for the others? Hopefully I have given the profession some better clients – so before you criticize my efforts, a simple “thank you” is in order for building awareness for what good design is and how bad design is so prevalent.

    I earned my MFA in design from Marywood this past year and my thesis work is in K-12 design education. I have had the help and support of the likes of Richard Wilde, Debbie Millman, Steve Heller, Steven Brower, Mirko Ilic, Nathan Shedroff and even Edward Tufte – all of whom have commented to me that this is a necessary piece of the design education pie that is being ignored by the AIGA and shortsighted design groups. A conversation I had with Milton Glaser in the Fall of 2011 yielded that he did not feel that high school students were ready to tackle design problems – but I interviewed Seymour Chwast this summer and he disagreed. His own high school design teacher was the legendary Leon Friend, from whose classroom and 35 year career spawned legions of award and medal winning designers. I’m no Leon Friend – no one ever will be – but we are trying to influence the next generations of designers.

    Things are different these days, yes – and there is a lot of crappy design out there. But design educators like myself and my contemporaries are seeking to build better designers and design consumers. Being told and treated like uncreative “auto shop” teachers is not the assistance that anyone needs, including everyone reading this article. It is not constructive to the conversation and has no place in progressive thinking about the design industry.

    If you want to know what’s REALLY going on with educating tomorrow’s young designers, I welcome your inquiries.

  23. MK Colling

    I’m curious about what difference certification would make for professionals or their clients because the slides don’t show hard technical criteria for measuring professional level of competency. I suggest there isn’t any such thing as certifiable performance in the design field as Mr. Pérez-Hemminger, his design school and the general public, envision it.

    Anybody with a computer and graphics software can produce a credible arrangement of surface elements to prettify and organize information. Whether it’s good or not is a determination that rests with the audience, like fine art. The mystique is gone because the design profession did its job: trained the post-WWII masses in the visual communication techniques to promote consumerism.

    Then the momentum broke. In an optimal system, the elites train their replacements and move over or up to discrete new challenges. They don’t stick around to compete in the trenches with their trainees. But, that’s what Design did, in fact and in the public perception.

    If the question to a design school graduate is, “what can you do that I – or my dim nephew – can’t do?,” and the answer is, “not much,” it begs the value of spending all that money on design school. I think Pérez-Hemminger is on the right track, with a legitimate gripe.

    He sees what the rest of the world sees – a sign is just a sign, a menu is just a menu – they should be clean, but nobody eats them. The important details about a restaurant are in the food, service, price and possibly the chef. etc. Why is Design even thinking about signs and menus and who can make them at this late date?

    Certification isn’t quite the right answer to the problem of irrelevance. I think that’s self-evident, since it’s impossible to come up with distinguishing criteria for measurement except one: did you go to design school?

    Civiliation’s critical design needs today require hard math and science. The valued design work is done by engineers and programmers, by chemists, physicists, biologists, by quants (whose design competence stops at the ends of their noses, to the terror of people everywhere).

    The right answer is a Design profession that can say, “Yes, we can,” to questions like these.

    “Can you figure out a delivery system for a drug? What do you know about product packaging materials vis a vis the chemical composition of the product to be packaged? We have a brand new technology that will revolutionize an onerous task for humanity – can you figure out what shape its case will be to make it user friendly, green and cost effective, and also the manufacturing process to produce it? Can you invent an information delivery system or game for internet, and program it to work on a browser? Can you describe a valid fail-safe for this new technology?”

  24. Ludvik Herrera

    The idea is as good as asking for certification of clents. In the end who hires a designer is a client, and there are plenty out there, that even with certification in place, would rather pay less if it were possible, at the expense of non-certificate individuals.

    It’s absurd.

    Education and knowledge does not always come from a paper, or a certificate. School does not equal education, thus certification does not equal competency, just that somebody filed the proper paper work.

    How many BFA’s are out there that make you wonder how they even received their diplomas.

    It is all in the individuals creativity. Design is an inate skill, is something you can shape or guide, but comes within. You cannot certify that! There are fantastic designers that never received an ducation nor a certificate in the field.

    Just do your best and educate people and clients to what is great design.

  25. Ambrose

    About Rachel’s comment: Isn’t the opposite what has happened in architecture, i.e., that above-par architects have remain uncertified? (e.g., )

    But the certification issue aside, what do you mean by “designer” when you say you want to certify designers? That word is too ambiguous. People who do software and hardware design, electronic engineers and the like talk about design and designers all the time, but the words don’t mean what you think they mean.

  26. Elizabeth

    Certification will only lead to licensing of graphic designers. I’ve seen it happen in other professions.

    First there will be certification. Because a certification won’t do a thing to separate good from bad, then a rival certification will be set up, perhaps from a competing school of thought of design, or rival professional organizations. One group, in an attempt to raise the cache of their certification, will seek the endorsement of the government (which could be state or federal) and lobbies for a government standard. Then that government creates a governing board and a title license, where only those who have passed certain tests may call themselves graphic designers. (To get around the title license the rest will adopt a different professional name such as commercial artist.)

    From there it can go one of two ways. First, when the title license isn’t good enough to differentiate quality, designers will lobby for the title license to become a license to practice, which would restrict graphic designing to those who have met approval by the board, and prosecute those who do the work of designing without a license. From there the license will move to a federal license, because someone will inevitably say that we can’t have fifty standards all over the country. Or, the second direction, is that once a title license is in place is an overburdening of designers with regulations they must meet in their projects and their credentialing (such as continuing education which will cost hundreds of dollars per year per designer). They will be forced into certain methods, and even only representing certain points of view, because they will be constantly threatened with losing the license. (So this also endangers freedom of expression, in addition to putting elitists in charge of your projects.)

    My point is that designers shouldn’t even dip their toes in this ocean. And follow the money: certification is at the expense of the designers for the enrichment of the certifiers and the continuing education providers (i.e., the universities and trade schools who got our money the first time around).

  27. Larry Launstein Jr

    And one more thing – this whole certification thing is what destroys, to me, the ability to break boundaries in other ways. Do you see pop musicians all having to get music degrees or certifications? No. Sure, there are exceptions, like Chicago’s woodwinds player Walt Parazaider, who got his music degree from DePaul and actually had an opportunity to teach music and sit on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Has the Chicago Symphony Orchestra touched lives? You bet. But there is no arguing the impact the legendary rock band Chicago continues to have on the popular music scene. They have been around since 1967, folks, and are still going strong! Their musical boundaries have been limitless – from doing power love ballads to politically charged music to hard rock to just about any other kind of music. These guys have truly covered it all and proved there is nothing you can put in front of them that they can’t handle. Have they had people who have come and gone from the band? Yes. Peter Cetera is a prime example. But he went on to have a fine solo career. Bill Champlin was a street musician who led a group in the 1960s called the Sons of Champlin. He joined Chicago in 1982 and was there through 2009. Former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, a street musician in his youth, now fronts a band called California Transit Authority. To survive in a business where people seemingly come and go all the time speaks volumes. There have been a lot of one-hit wonders over the years, and musicians who have come and gone rather quickly. For these guys to have lasted as long as they have is a reflection of their talent and willingness to continue to press the creative envelope. This is something that should come from within the person and the creative process itself, not from a forced certification program.

  28. Eileen MacAvery Kane

    I researched this topic for my thesis a few years ago and found an almost even split among designer professionals. I can see both sides, although the monetization and fees required that will come with certification bothers me due to the fact that it is voluntary on the part of clients hiring designers. With that in mind, how valuable will it be? You can read more on the topic here:

  29. Larry Launstein Jr

    I really have an issue with this one. People attend art schools or colleges and universities to get this kind of training. I got a BFA in visual communications-graphic design with honors from the University of Michigan-Flint and won a 2008 Student Silver ADDY Award. A degree from UM-Flint counts just the same and is given out by the regents at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Getting the degree is hard enough. That really should be the criteria – not certification. Can the person do the job? That’s what a degree, a track record, and portfolio should be saying, not a certificate. I really resent the idea of having to get a certificate after going through all of this. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to people trying to raise their skill level to meet a changing marketplace or to try to make themselves better. But those things should be the deciding factor, not some arbitrary certification program.

  30. Peter Quinn

    In order to create certification on design, you must first establish the definition of Design. I see design as strategy, thinking, facilitation, and creative form. How do you certify that?

    I’ve seen this certification idea pop up in other forums and I believe it’s a waste of time that’s been put forward by either some bitter traditional designers that see their perceived value shrinking, or an establishment that wants to secure their niche market. It has nothing to do with design, thinking, strategy, or outcome. It has to do with those other things that have nothing to do with creativity.

  31. Ellen Shapiro Post author

    I just returned from Toronto, where in the course of interviewing for an upcoming profile article in C.A., I met with several designers who are members of the RGD. They told me that in order to support itself via $400 annual individual dues, the RGD has made the test so easy and the standards so low that just about anyone can get in. They feel that the organization is rewarding the lowest common denominator of design and is enabling “desktop publishers” to use the initials RGD after their names. After all that time and effort setting up the process! Scary.

  32. Andy Brenits

    Certification for design is NOT about creativity. If you book stinks, than you’re not lilley to get work anyway. This is about business practices, professionalism, and standards. It’s a sign that we, as an industry, believe that what we do is important enough to ensure that our professionals do more than make things look good. It’s something – along with a strong body of work – that will seperate a true professional Designer (yes, big ‘D”), from somone who isn’t.

    Like others I am also passionate about this idea, and wrote my thesis on it 10 years ago. It’s appropriate that Ellen reports on Estaban’s event due to her view and past writng on the topic. I’m glad it’s coming back as a discussion point because InSource is planning to look deeper into this issue, and to make it a reality. It’s time has indeed come, and it’s one more way that we can prove to the business world that there is a differrence between a professional and a non-professional practitioner of desgin, and that we know how design affects the business (tripple) bottom line.

  33. richard

    Rachel: If “people who are sub-par designers letters after their name” then they should NOT have been certified! That is a problem with the process NOT the certification itself.

    I myself am undecided onthis topic. Sometimes I say HELL YEA! LET’S GET RID OF THOSE WHO OWN A COMPUTER AND CALL THEMSELVES DESIGNERS. And then I think design is so big and takes so many different forms that it should be as Lupton says open for everyone. But a level of certification could help identify expertise. Maybe we have things like belts in the martial arts! I would love working with a Black Belt designer!

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  35. Rachel Robinson

    Though I find the conversation interesting, I am 1000% against this idea. If you look into other design fields that have certifications (architecture for example) and see how the certification has helped the profession, I would say it has hurt it. It gives people who are sub-par designers letters after their name, which tells clients that according to the design world they are good at what they do. It is a false representation and pulls down the entire professional field. Let you work speak for itself. If you are talented; you will prosper.