Power to the people

It doesn’t matter that the industry bodies are out of touch, says Tim Rich, the new breed of design entrepreneurs are perfectly capable of looking after themselves

Why on earth does anyone care about the Chartered Society of Designers? A recent correspondent to Design Week offered this view: “I have always believed that designers are (or should be) professionals, should act in a manner becoming that status and should be represented by a professional body.”

But why should a designer want to be thought of as “a professional”? Why this continuing desire to be legitimised and approved of? This hankering for lawyer-like respectability has no resonance for the majority of designers today. The new generation has seen and felt the power of what they do and are out there doing it rather than campaigning for some abstract, cringing notion of design-as-a-valuable-profession.

To urge the design community towards “professionalism” is to miss the fact that the best designers have moved ahead of the game and are now helping to guide their clients into new territories and thinking. The term “professional” smacks of an old-school approach – reactive, servile, structured and forever frustrated by fee levels. In contrast, the new designer anticipates, challenges, revels in change and is fascinated by the opportunities for royalties and performance payment.

The new designer is less “professional”, more entrepreneurial. But this idea of the new designer is not defined by age, just attitude. There are designers in their 70s who are much more in tune with contemporary issues and business culture than many in their 20s. Shame that the septuagenarian CSD has lost such vitality.

Why has an organisation like the CSD been left behind? Because it is built on an outdated model of design as a modest service offering. Life, and in particular business, is transforming itself at a dizzying rate. Technological, cultural and social changes have moved faster than many businesses’ ability to think, reorganise and restructure. Put another way, many companies which thought they understood their customers have just realised that their customers have changed and they haven’t. A significant number of these businesses have recognised that designers are often more intuitively connected with their customers than they are. Power has shifted.

Why should empowered designers promote “design” to the world at large, when they are already busy transforming that world through design? They have other urgent tasks to address, too, like how they are going to find excellent young creative thinkers to keep their studios alive, inspired and in touch. As for these elusive young thinkers, most probably think CSD is something you get from a dodgy burger. And why should they know any better?

I’m not saying that associations and organisations have no value. British Design & Art Direction, for one, has done an enormous amount to circulate positive energy throughout the industry. It is an intelligent and fresh-thinking organisation with charismatic, canny leadership. When design changes it changes with it, or in some cases – like the introduction of the Writing for Design category in the D&AD awards – it steps ahead and promotes change. It is not without faults (it is only just understanding that many people don’t feel that becoming a member of D&AD is an inherently positive act), but it is alive to possibility. It’s more about exploring the unchartered than making people adhere to a charter.

Why then, in this age of fast-moving change and exploration, do so many designers get upset about free pitching? I reckon if someone organised a rally against free pitching, Trafalgar Square would be packed with angry people in combat trousers holding up neatly drawn placards. Why care? Surely free pitching is a money-saving device for the informed designer. After all, if a client is so dumb that it believes good designers should do a creative pitch for free, then it’s not going to be a great client to work for, is it? See it as an early warning sign that the project is not worth the ink in your Magic Marker.

What about design consultancies which need the client? They should spend less time moaning and more time working out why they haven’t got the confidence and cashflow required to turn free pitches down. As for the fear that free pitching will infect design like a cancer – why should it? So many companies recognise design can play an invaluable role in building competitiveness, so why would they damage their ability to attract and appoint excellent designers?

This is why it will soon be CSD RIP; there is no need for a professional organisation to drive demand for (and improve standards in) design – innovative designers are out there making that happen already.

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