Professional body for web designers

Mark Boulton has written a thoughtful post on the pros and cons of having a professional body for web design. I commented in detail there, but I wanted to expand my thoughts on the subject.

Perhaps the question to ask is: What can a professional body do for me as a web designer? Professional organisations provide four functions:

  1. Promotion and advancement of best practice
  2. Certification and accreditation of members
  3. Increased public recognition & understanding of the industry, and encouragement of new talent
  4. Continued professional development of members

Of those four functions, the only one happening to any significant degree is the first. Best practices and novel techniques are being published in blogs, discussed on mailing lists and spoken about in conferences all the time. By its very nature, however, this is a disparate grassroots effort, and it could reasonably be argued that knowledge of best practice does not reach as many people in the industry as it should.

Certification and accreditation is not happening at all at the moment. As a web designer, one can become a member of organisations such as the Chartered Society of Designers, but there is nothing specific to web design.

Public understanding and encouragement of new talent happens very little from within the industry. We are forever complaining about ‘stupid’ clients and my experience of recruiting fresh graduates shows a disconnect between the expectations of employers and new entrants into the field. It is recognised that we are struggling to attract enough women into the industry – but who do we turn to in order redress that balance? At the moment it is down to women’s groups and conscientious individuals.

Continued professional development is practically non-existant. What is the career path of a web designer? The options for web designers advancing their careers are becoming more evident, but there is little information available to anyone entering the field.

So it’s clear that there is a need for professional bodies for web designers, or at the very least a series of large gaps that need filling. And I say ‘bodies’ plural for a reason. Professional bodies tend to be national in scope, in order that they can focus on specific needs of their members. Despite the Web being an international medium, with collaboration rife between nationalities, the national model would still be more effective in achieving the stated goals.

Certification and Accreditation

The notion of being a certified web designer causes consternation among many, but such practice is common in other industries and serves a high purpose. Quoting from the Charted Society of Designers:

Membership of CSD is proof that a designer operates to the highest possible professional standards having satisfied the Society of their qualification and ability to practice. The affix MCSD and FCSD is therefore highly valued amongst designers and relied upon by members of the business community and public to identify those who practice professionally and operate to a strict Code of Conduct.

Similarly from the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE):

Chartered Chemical Engineer status and Corporate membership of IChemE is a gold standard demonstrating professional competence and commitment within chemical engineering. As a Chartered engineer, you gain the designation CEng MIChemE – an internationally recognised qualification.

This is exactly what proponents of an accreditation scheme desire. A certified web designer would have to demonstrate his or her professional competence and commitment as a web designer.

But what is a web designer? I consider myself a web designer, yet I do very little actual visual or graphic design. My job entails information architecture and client-side code (HTML and CSS). It’s widely acknowledged that the modern web designer is often a jack-of-all-trades, whose job could span many disciplines: from programming through client-side markup, to usability expertise and graphic design. Yet some people in the industry, proudly describing themselves as web designers, specialise in just one of those roles. So how can certification cater for this wide range of people?

The answer lies elsewhere in an industry that has already been through this process. As someone old enough to have graduated when Netscape 1 was still in beta, I have a degree in Chemical Engineering. Before discovering my true calling, I went on to become a Chartered Chemical Engineer, and with that a Member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, meaning I could have CEng MIChemE after my name – as many engineers do on their business cards. On the subject of becoming chartered, the IChemE says this:

Becoming a Chartered Chemical Engineer is about having a good academic education coupled with initial professional experience at the right level of responsibility.

Therefore to become a chartered engineer, one must have the training and – most importantly – the experience. This is something clients of engineering firms recognise, appreciate, and expect of a professional engineer. Hence becoming chartered is an important step in the career of an engineer and it was certainly a proud moment for me.

Chemical engineering has a far greater breadth of disciplines that does web design. Chemical engineers work in oil refineries, on tankers, in chocolate factories and breweries, in pharmaceutical labs, in universities and in offices. Specialities vary from operating huge distillation columns to analysing safety procedures, from design piping networks to developing vaccine production, from improving toothpaste production to quantified risk assessments of oil rigs, and academic research into catalytic converters. The scope is huge, and yet all of these people can become Members of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

How? It boils down to education and experience. For engineers, education is easy to measure – a qualified degree is sufficient. Experience is also easy to quantify – the applicant must have a given number of years. Experience must also be relevant, and in the case of the IChemE, varied. Of the five years’ experience required, at least 6 months must be spent in each of safety, design and operations. An applicant’s experience is assessed by peer review, an process similar to a job interview.

I believe an accreditation system can be created for web designers which is meaningful and helpful to employers, clients and designers alike. I also believe that experience is the key to assessing certification. A minimum period of experience should be required – perhaps 4 years or 3 years plus a relevant degree – and that experience should be spread across more than one discipline, for example visual design, software development, client-side code, information architecture, copywriting, usability, accessibility, or SEO. As with the IChemE, competency and relevancy of the experience should be determined in an interview with an already qualified member. Certification requirements should be demanding but flexible.

Institute of Web Designers

Certification or no certification, something like this is needed. If we are to come out of the bedroom and into the boardroom, we need an organisation to promote the industry; to help advance best practice; and to ensure continued professional development of its members. To take off it would require backing (not necessarily financial) from both grassroots and from companies big and small. I’m not sure how we could get the ball rolling, but I’d love to hear your ideas, not just about certification but all the other aspects of belonging to a professional body of web designers.