The Clear Gray Line

Courtesy of Moatu Little.

Courtesy of Moatu Little.

The Amateur Versus the Professional… Ding, Ding…

Despite one’s trade, the fear of knowing that anyone (the amateur) can now compete in your field, doesn’t necessarily equate with your field becoming a dying occupation. Nor does it mean that your job will become completely obsolete (although, I’ve seen it happen to others).

The D.I.Y. culture is not a new phenomenon, yet it now has equal opportunity with accessing the same technology as professionals. There is definite truth with “keeping up with the times,” unless, of course, you’re retired and living in a cabin in the middle of Northern Idaho (which is gorgeous, by the way). Emotionally, the D.I.Y. stigma forces us to evaluate what our next step should be. So, how can you differentiate yourself from the so-called amateur that refers to themselves as a “designer?”

In graphic design, our next step is almost always with keeping up with technology, outside of pursuing an advanced degree. However, I’m so accustomed to this trend, that I feel that I’ve become a victim of it. Since I was ten, I started to create digital art. As a kid, I didn’t realize the advantage over my traditional tools: colored pencil, pen and pencil. However, I did realize the appeal of creating something that could be physically unaffected and retrieved years later. My first lust started with attempting to replicate a 1987 Mark McGwire baseball card as a digital equivalent. When I was 17-18, I started dabbling with Photoshop effects, long before CS1 was introduced. Fast forward to 2012 and in my opinion, CS6 is a feeble upgrade. I am biased, because I teach it, yet the most significant implementations such as the 3D and animation tool or video enhancements should have been introduced in CS4 (around the time that Google solely owned SketchUp and YouTube was a household name). My point is that we all need to keep pace with software if we expect to survive in the field. However, it’s not life or death if an amateur happens to know more about an upgrade, yet has little to no experience with how to implement it, within a given context.

We all need our bathroom toilet fixed at the time that it clogs. Despite our D.I.Y. ambition, we often don’t have time to fix it ourselves or have already exhausted every trick in the “online book.” We merely end up exacerbating the problem. A plumber with experience (ten, twenty or thirty years) can determine the problem in a few minutes, fix it in less than an hour and never have to return to fix the same problem again. Another example: amateur photographers are a dime a dozen, yet professional photographers are very much alive in today’s world. Would the amateur apply and execute similar reasoning skills or see the same patterns, based upon problem-solving techniques and collaborative experience?

Joe Duffy, AIGA medalist, argues “the broader the participation in design, the more enthusiasm and demand for great design.” Dmitri Seigel defines prosumerism as being “template-minded,” where the individual has disregard for the craft of design and writing (Seigel). Instead, the masses search for customization, number of hits or comments and detailed data entry options. The “template-minded” mentality is changing the way we share information as well as what our definition of a product or service is. The shift as a design expert, as Helen Armstrong indicates, “is to consciously position themselves within the prosumer culture or run the risk of being creatively sidelined by it” (Armstrong).

I relate prosumerism to the fast food industry: we’re willing to sacrifice quality for speedy service and convenience. As a result of fast food popularity, we’ve seen many industrialized, wealthy nations experience increased health issues (obesity, hypertension and diabetes). I would correlate the health analogy to other professions as well. If you sacrifice quality for speedy service and convenience, you always get what you pay for: fast crap. Meanwhile, the collective whole follows the pace of technology and our lifestyle continues to shift. Today’s society is pulled in a thousand directions, based upon a thousand options from a hundred different topics and interests. In between, there is a subculture that realizes what good design is; yet they don’t call themselves designers. We’re more aware of what we want and don’t want, while the options rotate or become greater.

What happens when the trend of the subculture is now the standard? Our culture knows how to distinguish good design from bad design (a.k.a.: “design stance”) and our society is now more aware of it for themselves. We might be able to design our own shoes online, sew our own clothes, make our own websites, produce our own movies and cook over 100 recipes and yet, each of these individual industries and its specialists still exist. Besides, who in the hell has time to do everything for themselves? At the same rate, the amateur designer will continue to churn out quick piles of design crap while justifying themselves as “a designer.” How much does aesthetic integrity matter in design if everyone has a design stance?

Tim Brown explains design thinking as a critical element that differentiates professional from amateur. “Today, rather than enlist designers to make an already developed idea more attractive, the most progressive companies are challenging them to create ideas at the outset of the development process. The former role is tactical; it builds on what exists and usually moves it one step further. The latter is strategic; it pulls “design” out of the studio and unleashes its disruptive, game-changing potential. It’s no accident that designers can now be found in the boardrooms of some of the world’s most progressive companies. As a thought process, design has begun to move upstream” (Brown).

Brown also explores the meaning of innovation, stating it as “nothing less than a survival strategy.” Brown explains that the way in which the outsider sees a designer is in fact, completely the opposite of how the designer views himself or herself. “It is, moreover, no longer limited to the introduction of new physical products but includes new sorts of processes, services, interactions, entertainment forms and ways of communicating and collaborating. These are exactly the kinds of human-powered tasks that designers work on every day. The natural evolution from design doing and design thinking reflects the growing recognition on the part of today’s business leaders that design has become too important to be left to designers” (Brown).

As we continue to see an abundance of mediocrity from self-proclaimed designers, our role as design experts will also shift. Design doers are very much still relevant to the world of graphic design and perhaps more and more doers exist today, both professional and amateur. The way in which designers collaborate to solve design challenges will further serve to the success of design thinking and what separates it from the status quo. Change isn’t a stranger to the design field, especially with how designers perform old tasks using new technology. I think that the “template-minded” mentality has been a thorn in the design industry, but like technology itself, it was an inevitable change that we (the graphic designer) need to embrace. Hell, look at my blog design.

Works Cited:

Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory, Readings From the Field. Princeton Architectural Press. 2009. Pages 9-15.

Brown, Tim. Change By Design. HarperCollins Publishers. 2009. Page 7-22.

Seigel, Dmitri. Designing Our Own Graves. Design Observer. 27 June 2006. Web.