My involvement with graphic design goes back to the 1970s, which gives me some perspective on what’s changed over time. When I started out, there were significant entry barriers that no longer exist.
Back then, people involved in the printing industry learned their trades on the job — they possessed technical skills and had access to the right equipment, but they were skilled tradesmen, not designers.
Graphic designers were relatively scarce compared to today. Succeeding as a graphic designer required both talent and training in design — either through formal education or working alongside designers who could teach them. It also required learning enough about the arcane technical side of preparing artwork for printing that an average person couldn’t do it.
There was just no way, for example, that an untrained person knew how to spec and order type from a type house, paste it up into mechanicals with cut overlays for stripping in color-separated photos and manually specified screentints. Average people had neither the know-how nor the access to the tools to do it — stat cameras, technical pens, drafting tables, waxers, rubylith, airbrushes, etc.
Today, it’s entirely different. Those technical barriers have been removed and replaced with relatively cheap and easy-to-learn software that runs on any computer. Anyone with an interest can learn the tools of the trade by watching YouTube and a little practice.
What hasn’t changed is the talent, design education and experience needed to use those tools to produce competent work.
Some people with talent can emerge from all this through self-education or working with other professionals. Most of the amateurs, however, stay amateurs with underdeveloped design abilities. They sign up on the crowdsourcing contest sites competing for pocket change from naive customers who don’t know enough to tell the difference. They congregate in Facebook groups, on Instagram and on Dribbble, where they post erratic work and give each other questionable advice.
Like I mentioned, there used to be nearly insurmountable practical entry barriers, but that’s changed. In most professions with low entry barriers, but requiring high skill levels (like today’s competent graphic design), licensing requirements and professional accreditation serve as the entry barriers to ensure that only the competent can practice.
For example, a psychologist talks to people for an hour, which most people can do. Watching YouTube videos can teach most anyone how to do a little electrical wiring. Some practice with a comb and a pair of scissors on a few willing victims can give someone enough confidence to cut people’s hair. Helping people through difficult situations seems easy enough, which is what social workers do.
Like graphic design, doing any of these things competently requires a huge amount of education, aptitude and experience. Unlike graphic design, though, licensing requirements exist to prevent the incompetent from taking on work and claiming to be professionals. Minimum standards must be met. Accreditation from professional organizations is also typically needed to be successful.
In graphic design, none of these safeguards exist. Most anyone who’s learned some Photoshop basics can bill themselves as a professional graphic designer — incompetence isn’t an insurmountable barrier. There are no licensing or accreditation requirements. Badly run for-profit trade schools have taken advantage of this by cranking out poorly prepared graduates who often aren’t that much more competent than the self-trained amateurs.
It’s a bad situation that doesn’t give me much hope for the long-term health of our profession. There will always be great clients and great designers at the upper end of the spectrum, but for everyone working two or three notches below that level, wages have plummeted, professionalism has decreased and naive clients are treating designers like the poorly paid hobbyists that many of them are.