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

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“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

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.

Pérez-Hemminger, Emily Heyward, John Estes, Tom Dolle, Matias Corea, and Albert Ng

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 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 CertifyD event

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