Designers: Time for Change. In this Communication Arts column Clement Mok laments the state of the design profession and proposing bold new steps for it in order to regain its rightful place in business.
Although design is one of the most profoundly powerful disciplines in our modern information culture, its identity as a profession is in a state of incoherent disarray verging on crisis. The economic slowdown and tenuous world situation provide us an opportunity to come together as designers to articulate and organize our professional culture, to enhance our recognition and prestige within the context of an increasingly design-reliant information economy and to wield our influence in ways that will benefit humanity and the planet. …
Every juncture of information creation, storage, retrieval, distribution and use entails design. If we think about this, it is clear that there should be no profession in higher demand than that of the designer: the potential applications of design skills, and the need for those skills to distinguish and empower any given information commodity, are overwhelming.
Nevertheless, and even improbably, designers are currently a divided, fractious lot, whose professional esteem is considerably lower than it should be. Unlike other skilled professionals, designers are viewed as outsiders of uncertain prestige, and are frequently excluded from participation in business enterprises except in a narrowly circumscribed, post-hoc context. A consideration of principles would suggest that a skilled designer should be present throughout a development project, to facilitate cohesion and effectiveness of planning and execution. Instead, designers are often summoned to perform only limited, specific tasks after managerial and fiscal specialists have already made crucial decisions—often inefficiently with little or no depth to their understanding of the dynamics of information and its consequences. These problems all point to the need for us to define, and to design, what is meant by design.
Reading this I was reminded of a fascinating sociology course I once took about complex organizations. One of the topics was isomorphism, a peculiar force that – in a variety of ways – ultimately makes most organizations very much alike. And it all hinges on legitimacy. This, essentially, is what Mok argues that design has too little of – and he is right. However, the problem is much more difficult to solve than how he is suggesting. Accountants are a powerful group because they must all comply to fairly universal standards; lawyers are all governed by the same laws; even programmers must follow the same rigid protocols. Designers have considerably fewer restraints and are in fact often sought out for their abilities to shun similarities. Clients hire designers for their originality, not for their conformity. Great, except that it removes the desire for standards, it reduces barriers to entry that turn away the hacks and it discourages movement in groups that can command power at the bargaining table. The onus is on the individual designers and design firms.