Some designers see design as rock and roll—youthful angst, shock value, and breaking things. Some of this is purely for fun. However, when it crosses a line, designers can be overly self-serving—to their own detriment. Energy and passion for the work are important, but great design serves the interest of the user and society as well as the designer.
Others see the objective of design as artistic achievement. Trying to describe the differences between art and design can be a perilous path. To reduce the anxiety around this issue, celebrated designer Milton Glaser proposes in his wonderful book, Art is Work, that we simply replace the term art with work. He goes on to describe great work as going "beyond its functional intention," moving us "in deep and mysterious ways." Good work, according to Glaser, is "conceived and executed with elegance and rigor," as contrasted with plain work, which "meets its intended need honestly and without pretense." Glaser offered another term for everything else: bad work.
I remember the first time I heard Glaser speak. As a young rock-and-roll-designer-wanna-be, I was taken aback by a few things. First, he gave the most intelligent, thought-provoking, —and in some ways—radical talk at the event. Second, he was clearly engaged and stimulated by the non-design community as much as the design community. Third, he seemed like the most genuine and nicest person you'd ever care to meet. I'm not sure what I expected going into that talk, but I guess that wasn't it.
While it's true that design can be about surprise and breaking a few rules, so can basketball or politics. We know that design can also helps people and society. If design surprises, it should be in the spirit of civility and enlightenment, not ego. Our design heros broke from convention, but mostly by creating something new that was worth remembering.
Designers are often introverts, and I'm a card-carrying member of both groups. However, a few years ago, a little switch went off in my brain telling me to stop looking solely inwardly and to begin reaching out. Breaking things is fun (as our two-year-old often demonstrates), but so is building something. She likes doing that, too.
Our design firm is in a perpetual state of building. Lately we've reached further out. In 2008, we helped start an AIGA chapter in our home town because there wasn't one. Currently, Kevin serves as president of APDF, a national organization focused on making better design firms. We serve on several boards as a way to learn and expand our views on design and life.
Most designers see design as a calling as well as career. I know we do. We also hope that as young designers chart their own paths, they might consider that while design is unique, it also lives alongside other professions. Standardization and accreditation are neither beneath nor inappropriate for designers. In fact, they may help us establish our professionalism and communicate our value just as they do for doctors or barbers. There's something to be said for joining. Woody Allen put it this way: 80 percent of success is just showing up.
Both Woody and Milton can teach us a few survival skills. If you want to sit with the grown-ups, you have to show up, be polite, and contribute something useful.