May I See Your Papers?

Every few months, I get an email request from a graphic design student asking me to chime in on the concept of the accreditation of graphic design professionals. It is one of those perennial hot-button topics. Canada, where accreditation is practiced and monitored by The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD), is often cited as a good example of how this can work. Here is their mandate:

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario was created by an Act of the Ontario Legislature to certify graphic designers who have met a rigorous set of standards that includes documented levels of relevant, professional education and experience, as well as demonstrated competence in the areas of business, design principles, research and theory and ethics through successful completion of a written test and portfolio interview.

R.G.D.s are prepared and capable to function as effective ethical, professional, responsible communications design practitioners, managers and/or educators . . .

The R.G.D. and Registered Graphic Designer designations are signals of quality and competence to the profession, the public and the government.

RGD Ontario is the only graphic design association in North America to have this kind of legislation.

So, can this kind of oversight work in the United States? The debate rages and the initials and certificates wait in the wings. My beliefs, subject to change, are fairly simple. Just the other day, one student asked me the following questions. My answers are below:

Do you think the graphic design profession would benefit from a voluntary certification system?
Not at all. Graphic design is in flux. What graphic design is today and tomorrow is not clear. Once, the lingua franca was type. Now graphic design involves motion and time and space. Rather than certification, let’s emphasize more education. Certification is a canard.

Why do you think that graphic design certification does not exist in the United States?

America and American designers are too diverse. We actually allow amateurs to become professionals, and some do pretty darn well. We also allow for a broad range of styles, techniques, and levels of creative achievement. How do you certify that?

If certification was to occur should it be done through an existing body such as the AIGA? Or some other option/quango?
What’s a quango? I am always suspect of self-regulating industry bodies like the Hays Office for films or the Comics Code for comic books. AIGA is a great organization for history, education, business practices, social good, and many other initiatives, but it should not be a regulating body for all graphic designers.

What are your personal opinions on graphic design certification? What do you feel are the pros and cons?
Simple: Don’t need it. Don’t want it. Make the qualifications for design education more stringent. Many people are graduated with degrees they should not have. Start there, and certification will be totally unnecessary, other than a classy punctuation at the end of your name.

[Editor’s Note: Owing to a technical problem, yesterday’s DH was not sent out via email. See “What is a Line, Anyway?” here.]

32 thoughts on “May I See Your Papers?

  1. Ben

    Good conversation for sure. One detail to clarify in your post is that the RGD is a provincial organization that grew out of the national “Society of Graphic Designers of Canada” (GDC), which oversees accreditation in the rest of the country. 

  2. Paris Ashton

    Thank you Mr Heller and Mr McAllister for your perspectives. I grew up in this business and have worked in it for many years. I went to an excellent school of design and have done well in my career. That said, I have always thought that some form of certification or accreditation (what ever you want to call it) other than an BFA or an MFA would serve our industry well. Its not all about proving that you are creative when it comes to your business relationships. Creativity is subjective. It’s about being recognized for your ability to be a professional member of a strategic team. Some people don’t realize that graphic design is more than “making it pretty”. Sure, some people recognize and hire, and pay for talent. But what about the many who really just want you put together their ideas because they don’t know that they can trust you to provide project management, develop concepts and a marketing strategy AND be creative. Standards of excellent in design schools is critical and the only responsible way to bring new people into this profession in these tough economic conditions. Standards in my opinion is a good thing. Its helps to regulate fees (which are all over the place in our industry), justifies training (which we know is needed for a lifetime) and brings credibility through information. There can be levels of certification and it should be relevant to the type of work (as Mark McAllister points out). If there was a certification test, I would take it tomorrow……So what are you young designers waiting for…….I would demand it. Make it happen……it’s about your future. Graphic designers do much more than just design and they should be recognized by the business community (and our own community) for the value we bring to the table. Especially in a global marketplace. 

  3. Jenna

    Yes there should be a credential program. I work for the government and as a designer, I was paid the same/less than administrative staff because a college diploma was not mandatory.
    Even though Federal labor laws cited the graphic designer position as an example of a “professional” class career that ranked in a higher pay category, with better benefits – I was not allowed to “rise” into this class because there were no clear cut requirement for a college degree. I argued this legally too, but was shot down because no graphics organization with clout stood behind any set of rules.
    I am tired of people thinking that any high school kid can launch a Microsoft app and become a graphic designer. This attitude greatly reduces ALL off our earning potential.
    Designers need help in raising the level of consciousness about the amount on-going education and training it takes to maintain a high level of technical skill and creativity. We have to spend our spare time being tech geeks on top of being “artistic.” This is no 9 to 5 job, it involves weekends and nights on our own time, and we should be respected and compensated for it.
    Your book will land you the job, but what you get paid after depends on how much your organization values your skills. If you aren’t working for an ad agency or a sizeable in-house design group – my bet is that senior management has no idea how complicated your job is, and your pay is tied to your perceived value.

  4. Adrian

    Accreditation od the Graphic design profession would benefit not only designers but their clients and consumers of design services as well. Accreditation could provide a system by which minimum levels of education and expertise would be set so those seeking design services would have a guide and a much better sense of the talent required of those truly dedicated to this profession. Years of expensive education and years of long and hard practice of the craft would be potentially recognized through a tier system employed to distinguish those in the trade for many years from those just fresh from the class studio. While a voluntary system is a much more democratic notion, making accreditation mandatory is the only way to make it serious and truly enforceable. All said, I would welcome a system that rewards me for being a conscientious member of my profession and that binds me to others in my chosen field through a core set of applicable competencies. 

  5. jaime

    I disagree with you.
    If many people have degrees they should not have, as you mentioned, that calls for regulation.
    It is a very bad feeling to work with people that don’t have the same education level as some do (sometimes not even an associate degree).
    Graphic design involves other areas like marketing, communications, anthropology and computer science that normally when people don’t have BA they don’t understand.
    Also, it will leverage the market and prices and process will become more standard. Right now, the value of the work is very difficult to agree on. You have people pricing by creative and others by production. 
    In the end, it makes us what you hate: Glorified production artists.

  6. Mindy

    I think that perhaps a certification could be something to prove a client he/she is certified to do professional graphic design work and is truly talented; knows what he/she is doing! You know how clients are… they don’t really know what is a GOOD design compared to a bad design. On the other hand, when going to interviews, all you need to do is show your portfolio. I don’t think certification is needed… maybe just a bonus for proof. I’m surprised Canada requires certification whereas america doesn’t. I’ve never heard this topic bought up in my college until I came across this post!

  7. Rob Christensen

    Back to the middle ages, where in the Guilds the Masters hold the power to decide who may work, and who may not. Quench competition by making them “illegal”. No exam, no education makes you creative in any way and far too many, who actually have an education and do know their craft, are not creative.  I know it is difficult, but your work should show your creativity and your ability to use your craft, not some silly piece of paper, which states, that on a certain day you satisfied the subjective opinion of one our more on a certain project, which only represents a very minor part of the skills you were taught.
    I’ve seen people called professors mistreat the science of their peers just to make a politically motivated proclamation of how “reality” is. Those people are certiefied, checked and controlled and still go against the majority of accepted results of science because they simply do not want to accept those result, as they do not fit into a personal view on how the world works.
    In case of creative work, restrictions can stop any processes, that might have created the best result.  People who coold deliver that result are excluded, ant those who “legally” could make it, are not giving their full efforts, because they already are on the secure shelf and don’t need to worry about being included or excluded.

  8. Steven Heller Post author

    I told you this was a hot button issue. And I’m pleased so many people chose to respond so intelligently.
    Matthew Butterick’s distinction is key to any discussion. Its important not to conflate voluntary with legal choices.
    A legal route boggles the mind. And a voluntary one is too fluid. I suspect, it might be interesting to see what the results of the RGD test would be on all undergrads in American schools. Maybe its worth a try for one or two years. It will certainly have a major impact on design curricula.

  9. Kristen

    The students who graduated designers but are not up to par will not make it in their profession as a talented one will keep their job, enhance their portfolio, and move onto bigger and better things. poor designers may take jobs from the good ones, however, they will soon be sifted out of the system when the end product is sub-standard. i think our field is self-regulated. yes, many people do not know good design from bad, but in the end, it is the results that do the deciding. what we need to regulate is the market. if everyone is asking for fair market prices, it would be easier to sift out the poor designers because the quality would not rise to the standards good designers would set. i’m not sure that makes perfect sense, but i think you can get an idea of what i mean.
    i do, also, agree that tightening up the education process of design would help, but that is a given. in the design field, i feel a degree is useless though, because why should a piece of paper matter when it is all about what you show in your portfolio and what you can actually produce. kudos to those who have amazing talent and did not graduate with a design degree. good designers just have it. the bad ones won’t make it.

  10. David B Berman

    Steven, the most tangible and immediate benefit of accreditation in Ontario was the almost-overnight strengthening and improvement of the design education system in Ontario, as the design educators worked with design professionals to adjust their curricula in order to ensure that they would be teaching what was necessary and relevant to pass the certification examination.
    That examination is as much about ethics and procedures as it is about CMYK and the Bauhaus.
    We can debate the pros and cons of certification, however if your #1 recipe for improving the profession is design education, then I think you should consider that accreditation may be the most effective way of getting that done.
    David Berman, R.G.D., FGDC
    (first elected president of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario)

  11. Stephane

    On one hand I agree with the idea of certification. On a daily basis I receive and see badly design pieces done by “professionals” independent and/or employed in an agency. I would like to see those people “weeded out” to leave room for the really talented people.
    On the other hand how would this certification work out for people who are self taught and naturally talented?

  12. David Ramos

    Certification? I don’t care either way. It’s irrelevant. it conceals more pressing issues, like the gross disconnection between the number of design jobs available and the number of people who would work as designers. (Natalia Ilyin offers figures from the US Dept. of Labor and the Princeton Review: average 3600 openings/year, 25,000 aspiring designers, in the States.)

  13. Mark McAllister

    Anti-accreditation arguments always look at the issue from the wrong perspective. Is accreditation a magical device to identify only the talented designers? No. Plenty of accredited designers are banal hacks. But the thing most people don’t understand is that accreditation isn’t about design at all, it’s about business. Accreditation is about ensuring a standard of professionalism, and clients who see the R.G.D. designation know that they’re dealing with a fellow budiness professional instead of some Photoshop playboy living in his mother’s basement.
    Design is certainly in flux, and the R.G.D. Exam is perfectly set up to deal with this changing landscape. Every applicant must write common sections on foundations, history, business management, and ethics. But from there, designers can choose the set of questions that best reflects their speciality. Like our industry, our Exam is growing and changing with the marketplace. We’re striving to make it continually relevant and suitable for print designers, new media designs, design managers, and educators.
    A client who sees the R.G.D. designation knows that designer has a three or four year education, has worked in the field for three or four years, has passed a written test that tests their ethics and business knowledge, and has had their work reviewed and approved by their peers. That has unbelievable value for the business community. Sadly, designers are naval gazers by nature and tend not to see the forest for the trees.
    “Oh, I know I’m awesome. I don’t need to pass some exam.”
    “But why is that guy accredited? He has nothing but orbits and gradients in his portfolio!”
    Accreditation isn’t about you. It’s not about talent. Accreditation is about your industry and your clients. It’s about bringing together design and business. Of course accreditation is a bad idea when you try to make it fill a role it wasn’t meant to.
    Mark McAllister, R.G.D, B.A. (Hons) President, Sudbury Design Society Advisor, Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario Advisor, Examination Board for Registered Graphic Designers

  14. Joseph Coates


    Is there an example of a profession, similar to design, instituting accreditation where it was later eliminated or has proven to be useless?
    It could be done and it would mean those designers that are accredited could advertise as such. This would be a sort of advantage over those who are not. But non-accredited designers could still practice unimpeded and, I am OK with that. I hire handymen to fix basic plumbing or do it myself all the time. But when I need pipes soldered in my new house, I pay for a plumber to get the job done right.
    The AIGA should not be involved at all. Perhaps a non profit accrediting group similar to existing accrediting or watch dog agencies for other groups or materials.
    Yes, we would have to earn it. Yes, those who studied design and got a degree would have an advantage (just like law students for the bar, etc.). Yes, it would probably have to grandfather in, one time only, anyone who has practiced for more than X number of years. I am OK with that.
    Famous designers would simply never need it. It would be more for the average working designer from small shops to larger groups and, probably most design students fresh out of school would want it.
    I can’t foresee any negative consequences to an accredited designer but there seem to be many advantages to that designer and the profession.


  15. Matthew Butterick

    It’s important to distinguish certification (i.e., an optional credential for those working in the field) from licensing (i.e., a mandatory credential that’s a prerequisite for those who want to work in the field, and enforced by the government).
    The only reason to have licensing is where protection of public health & safety is an issue. That’s true of doctors, lawyers, nurses, et al. It’s not true of graphic designers. Nobody ever died from a Trump Medieval overdose (though I once came close).
    As for certification, I’d take Steve Heller’s point a little farther and say that undergraduate and graduate degrees in graphic design are a form of de facto certification. And that, in turn, is why it’s important to make sure these programs remain rigorous about who gets in and who gets to graduate.
    But given the revenue incentives for schools selling design degrees, that’s always going to be difficult. I graduated from a school whose architecture department was known for having a one-year masters program that was very expensive and not very rigorous. As you might imagine, it was also very popular.

  16. Rob Pratley

    Completely agree: Educational systems don’t support it anymore (speaking as a current UK based student – writing a dissertation on this very topic). Regulating the profession may seem like a sure step in the right direction – see far too much work today that points to the ‘cult of design’ and is appraised from within specifically for that reason. It’s not however possible to regulate specifically on that alone. Education is still seen as a place of learning and whilst i agree that the sure footing of a passion for communication should be necessary for prospective students, the economics of education can’t sustain that rigorous and application procedure. Besides, i have seen people within my course go from very visual orientated people, to having a rough set of principles that they now bring into their work; contributing to the field in critical discourse and through considered work. I have to disagree with Doug Coates’ idea of creating a benchmark within design. Surely appropriate design already has its own benchmark in just that; it’s appropriateness. No sole “Accredited” graphic designer can provide a perfect, watertight solution for every job, sometimes another, accredited or not, may offer up a more suitable solution that meets the needs of the problem a little bit better. the very nature of benchmarking is very restrictive and dogmatic. Both Wim Crouwel and Jan Van Toorn would surely be worth a professional accolade, yet in the 60’s/70’s it’s no secret that their practices differed completely. Benchmarking both essentially destroys the very purpose of the benchmarking to begin with.
    Yes anyone with adobe can essentially ‘design’, but surely talent is a much better gauge for professionalism?

  17. Terry Biddle

    I agree with Nick Ladas. As a working designer, I hear exactly where you’re coming from.
    How many people do we know who are doctor, nurse, lawyer, or teacher “hobbyists”? I don’t know any. But I’ve met a whole lot of people who LOVE design, or say they DABBLE in it because they own Photoshop.
    Too few people see the value in design these days. One of the first departments to get cut in house during these tough financial times. The field needs a form of legitimacy. We are “experts” in our field, and the proper credentials might help bring that idea home.
    Everyone’s an art director, but I sure don’t see many people advising their doctors where to make incisions.

  18. Stefanie

    I actually agree with Brandi & Nick’s statements. Yes, design schools need to shape up and think twice before handing out degrees. But it would also be fantastic to be taken more seriously as a professional, especially when dealing with clients. Some of you say that client education would fix everything. That’s great, but how do we do that? They don’t seem to be listening. A certification in existence might help them realize exactly why our services are valuable and necessary.

  19. Johnny D

    What’s the point in a certification when you can just show your portfolio. A picture tells a thousand words right? I’m all for education and certification where it is warranted, but it’s easier to verify a person’s ability or talent from the work they produce. As well as the fact further certification undermines the educational acheivements already obtained. If there were such an accreditation it might steer people away from education entirely and just go for the accreditation which probably isn’t a good thing.

  20. Doug Coates

    As graphic designers do we need certification? No. Should we have it? yes. 
    A large number of professions have a form of certification; nurses, teachers, doctors, architects, etc. Does certification ensure that we only have “good” nurses, “good” teachers, and so on? No, but it does provide a benchmark. A standard that with proper education and skill sets allows those qualified to say that “hey, I’m a professional”. 
    Art is a term anyone can grab onto and use. Graphic design should not be.

  21. Mateus Barreto

    Very well said, Mr. Heller. This debate has been all the rage for years here in Brazil, where professional associations have tried to pass certification laws. Every time this has come up, I have found that the pro-certification arguments ends up being to enforce an elitist form of market control. Most design schools have not been able to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the profession, thus every day more and more competent professsionals are coming from self-taught backgrounds. Preventing these guys from entering the market would stagnate a lot of latent potential. Better education is necessary for both designers and clients (not only for clients, as some designers so arrogantly state), but passing market-controlling laws would only be harmful to the whole ecossystem.

  22. George Walters

    I am happy to be working in an unregulated business. I am not threatened by unqualified, uneducated people calling themselves “designers,” or foreigners working for lower rates. Many clients will pay for garbage, but so what? There are plenty of clients who recognize the value of excellent design and will pay for it. I don’t need a bureaucratic stamp of approval or government support for my profession. Every young designer should have the opportunity to build a career on his or her terms with room for innovation that no central authority can keep up with.
    Better ways to address problems in our field:
    1) I would like to see design schools teach more about business. 2) The AIGA could accredit design schools as a way of elevating quality. 3) Each of us has an obligation to educate our clients. 4) Behave professionally to be treated as a professional.

  23. Bonnie J. Ramon

    I agree in part with Steve about certification would not necessarily “qualify” a good designer because as we ALL know in this business, there are more bad designers than ones with truetalent and taste. Everything is relative in our society. What one person may see as good designsomeone else will see as trash; some of it because of personal taste. Sometimes you can educate your client to the best of your ability and they still won’t agree with your sensibilityor knowledge. The client is the one paying for something they want, which may have nothingto do with good design. This is where the amateur person with little to no talent or skill comesin and convinces the world that any idiot with Adobe CS and a computer can be a talented designer.
    We all should strive to educate the public (especially companies) about what good designtruly is and to work with, not against a designer. Certificates here in the US will never validateanyone in the art field. Anyone with talent can call themselves an artist, but not everyone whoknows a little medicine or law can call themselves a lawyer or a doctor because those professionsdon’t change drastically as in the art field.

  24. Diana Morrow

    I agree that certification is tricky, and that monitoring the quality of design education programs is a better place to focus. To that I would add that continuing education for working graphic designers should be better supported by employers, and better subsidized by government and design organizations for the self-employed. Precisely because the graphic design field is continually changing, and doing so at a rapid pace, many designers will continue to have a difficult time paying for software and the classes, books, etc. to learn how to use it.

  25. Brandi

    I believe there would be a benefit to have a certain type of “certification” for designers. Though I DO agree with Heller’s comments in general, the certification would not serve to confirm the designer’s ability to his/herself or the pedagogy of design (Hellers comments all center around pedagogy and the ideals of design, not the harsh realities of getting paid for your work), but rather the business community (clients!). As someone whose freelance work has been “stolen” as such and certainly disrespected by some business professionals, a certification might make it easier for designers to be seen as a professionals in the eyes of other business people (of course we designers see ourselves as professionals, but so many business people do not see “art” or “design” as a profession, like it or not designers). No one questions whether or not he has to pay his CPA, architect or doctor. So why do people question whether or not they really have to pay their designer? Because creativity’s lines are blurred (the exact reasob we love it), so people think they might be able to be blurry on the payment lines too. Contracts are necessary to keep clients paying, but certification would certainly reinforce the profession as just that—a profession.

  26. Marilyn

    I agree with the “Don’t need it. Don’t want it”. Artists are artists because they have TALENT. Whether that is a basic amazing design/color sense, an instinctive affinity for any medium they touch, or for instantly absorbing and utilizing every new techy tool available to our community…it still requires talent. I do not believe ability can be determined and certified by a group from any self-appointed, socially elite or academic tier of society. It goes without saying that any artist should continue to grow and learn, taking full advantage of all the amazing tools available to us. I have worked with many “artists” over the years who have degrees and society memberships, but the truth is…without talent, it is all worthless.

  27. Steve Tyrrell

    Agree, Steve. Education is key in developing marketable skillsets and standards, but the results of the completed work are the bottom line. We all know some incredible designers who are self taught.
    Client education is also a huge factor. I see substandard work all the time that clients have paid for, thinking the design was good, when in fact, it was terrible. We are also seeing great designers from other countries (i.e. Latin America, South America for instance) who charge a fraction of our rates because their standard of living is much lower.  Having requirements for accreditation is not realistic in a global marketplace where clients can easily go abroad. 

  28. Nick Ladas

    Now today I must disagree with your editorial. As a 28 year Graphic Design professional, its time we think about regulating our profession. These days every Tom, Dick and Harry is a graphic designer. Give them Adobe, and they are hanging out their shingle. You are saying – so what, some are good at it and most are not and the law of supply and demand will work itself out. The problem arises that many in our society don’t know good design from bad, so many self professed designers take business from the real ones.
    You are absolutely right about tightening up the education process. This country is graduating too many designers (and lawyers). But, the over abundance of designers lowers the value that society places on theirs services.
    I’d like to agree with your position on this, but afraid I can’t after working every day in the profession for so many years. Bravo to our brothers to the north!
    Nick Ladas