Design Professionalism


As a Computer Scientist, of course my first decade of work experience was largely as a professional designer. Yes, after writing a disassembler and a compiler; studying logic and minoring in Math; and learning Scheme and Java, the natural course for me was to make advertisements, websites and app user interfaces.

From Developer to Designer

I began learning to program way back in middle school in the early 90s. I started with Basic, Visual Basic and later C. I was just the right age to grow up with video games from the NES days and software from Windows 3.1. But more importantly, I was there to participate in the transition from Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) to mainstream Internet usage.

My programming interests quickly shifted to learn how to make HTML pages and ridiculously complex Javascript animated menus. Remember when this stuff was called DHTML? Along the way I had to learn HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Illustrator and layout tools like InDesign. I made dozens of sites in highschool, including commercial websites I was paid to create. My senior year of high school I worked with the largest local university to help create a website with hundreds of pages, a rarity in 1998.

When I moved onto college I kept programming but became involved with creating and selling (CGI/Perl) apps. My friend Bob and I were a couple of college Freshman selling hundreds of dollars a week worth of message boards and things that later became known as blogs. We were both computer science majors but I knew the design tools, so I began to focus more and more on that. Flash was all the rage and I learned how to build some fancy UIs with that. I was learning by building apps and smaller websites for departments, dorms and clubs.

Struggling with Professionalism

One day I graduated and headed out to Silicon Valley, where my friend and business partner, Bob, was from. I jumped headfirst into print design, UI design, and eventually product design. I’d never had any formal training so I read a lot of books, spent a lot of time learning from some wonderful pros, and doing a hell of a lot of work. It’s been pretty rare that I’ve worked less than 60 hours per week.

I started to notice something about the Design field. It had lot less formal rules of conduct and process than what I was used to in Computer Science. The more I looked to respected leaders and organizations in the field, the more vague and shifting I felt like the standards were. Simple questions like how to make a profit or how to structure a contract seemed to be anathema to the design field at the time. What was a struggling freelancer/contractor/wannabe-business-owner to do? Unfortunately the answer was to fail frequently and learn from my mistakes. I struck out hard a couple of times. I tried seeking help from AIGA but their books seemed woefully behind the curve on technical and pricing issues, and didn’t seem to address any professional parameters.

Understanding Professionalism

It wasn’t until much later, after I’d learned a lot of things the hard way, that I ran across Andy Rutledge. Mr. Rutledge was doing weekly podcasts at the time about the state of the Design profession. He was taking head on issues which usually had painful outcomes and, for designers, more painful solutions. Mr. Rutledge boldly stated that if you want to prevent problems X, Y and Z from happening with your clients, that you need to talk about them early with clients, specify them in a contract, and stick to your guns. Obviously he had a lot more to say than this about how to do this in a professional and charming way but this seemed to be the crux of the message. To put it simply: you are the professional so it’s your job to act professionally.

These concepts seem straightforward and would go without saying for accountants or lawyers; however, this type of professionalism isn’t ubiquitous in the Design world. Designers’ forums are filled with complaints about problems that are easily fixed if acting professionally:

What do I when a client disappears?

What do I do when a client doesn’t pay upon receiving deliverables?

What do I do when a client involves another designer mid-project?

Should I take payment before beginning a project?

Also there’s the burden of what your responsibilities are as a designer:

If my client wants to use Comic Sans should I let them?

The CEO really wants purple buttons, should I do it?

Should I work pro bono in hopes of future work?

I’m as guilty as anyone about not knowing the answers to these early in my career. These are the types of issues that every fresh designer will face. In a field in which so many people start freelancing early, not having answers for these basic issues can be disastrous for clients, designers and the entire Design profession. Even designers that stick with agencies may not work in an environment that is conducive to learning how to become a professional that can manage expectations, clients, and eventually a studio.

Design Professionalism

Enter Andy Rutledge’s Design Professionalism and the Code of Professional Conduct. This code lays out the moral, ethical and practical underpinnings of being a Design Professional. It is supplemented by a series of videos and a book to show the practical applications and solutions to common issues that come from acting professionally.

If you are a young designer or thinking of starting your own endeavor I would highly recommend you spend some time with the videos at Design Pro Show and think through the Code of Professional Conduct. Understanding some of these issues can save a lot of time, grief, energy and money.

My Pledge

I have pledged to uphold this code and I hope that you will be so bold as to let me know if or when I violate any of these rules. While no set of rules can perfectly outline how a professional should conduct themselves this is the clearest code I have found.