The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Professional body for the web design industry?

– September 25th, 2006 –

I was listening to the @media ‘Hot Topics’ podcast the other day, which unfortunately I had to miss. The section of it which I found really interesting was the discussion on a professional body (which is about two thirds of the way through). Although the panel agreed that a professional body for our industry is overall a bad idea, I actually think they were talking about several different things.

Accreditation and Certification

If you listen to the podcast there are some points in there about Accreditation and Certification for web design. The general consensus from the panelists was it is a bad idea for several reasons.

Outdated teaching and therefore outdated qualifications

Eric Meyer pointed out that web design courses are teaching applications and methodologies that are simply out of date. If that’s the case, which I’m sure it is, then the graduates are going into industry with the wrong tools. So, why is this happening? This brings me onto the next point the panel raised:

Industry moving too fast

It’s all going to fast for education or accreditation to keep up. Agreed. I know quite a few people who work in the education sector and the hoops they would have to go through to just teach this stuff is mind-blowing. Generally It’s not the lecturers fault here, let me make that absolutely clear. It’s the system. If a teacher wants to teach web standards, they have to do it within an agreed framework. This framework has to be agreed and signed off by their superiors and if it requires new software, this also has to be agreed, sign-off, bought, installed etc. That can all take a year of more. Seriously. By the time it’s all been considered, because of the speed of our industry, the focus might be on something else right? It’s an unworkable situation.

Technical certification

This works where the certification is for proprietary software. Take Microsoft for example. They do a bunch of certification programmes which are incredibly valuable for employers and employees alike. This kind of certification falls to pieces when you start applying it to something conceptual or open source. It just doesn’t work. Molly mentioned a WaSP seal of approval had been discussed and rejected several times. I can see why. Like the education example, I think it’s an unworkable idea to give accreditation.

However, taking the example of the iSTD, and other similar organisations, I think membership or awards to some kind of professional body (by way of peer review) could work.

We are talking about modern web design here in it’s broadest sense though. Some of that is difficult to give accreditation to, such as the development aspect of web design, web standards etc. etc. It does all beg the question; what’s the point of professional bodies anyway? Who benefits?

Best design practice

Jon pointed out within the discussion that I am a member of the iSTD and as such (in the context of the discussion), it sets me, and members of similar organisations, apart from the ‘Front Page designers’. True. But, sets me apart to whom? My peers or my clients? But before I go on about that, I’m just going to give a bit of background about the iSTD, how I joined and why I did.

The International Society of Typographic Designers

The International Society of Typographic Designers, or iSTD, is a professional body run by and for graphic designers, typographers and educators. Part of it’s mission statement is to:


… maintain typographic standards within the professional design and education communities through the forum of debate and design practice.


Sounds great doesn’t it? There’s a key word in there as well; within. Although the iSTD does reach out to clients, it does it by mainting standards of it’s existing, and new, members.

This is also a society about the craft. The practice of typographic design. The iSTD was formed in 1928 as the British Typographers Guild and has had many notable members. It’s current board members include David Jury and Erik Spiekermann.

Like many forms of design (web design included), there are shades of grey as to what is deemed ‘good design’. The polar opposites of this spectrum are what defines the entry requirements into a society like the iSTD. The Society is open to all practicing designers in the fields of graphic design, typography and visual communication design who show evidence of their competence and active involvement.

So how did I get involved? Well, the iSTD have run, for many years now, a student membership scheme with many universities and design colleges throughout the world. Once a year, the society issues a brief and if you pass the requirements, you are awarded membership. What do you get for your membership? Well, in addition to the opportunity to part of a historic Society with some incredible members, you get a great magazine every quarter and you get to put MISTD after your name. ‘Where do I sign?’

The brief was to design sample spreads and cover for an Encyclopedia of Molecular Biology. It was tough. It took nearly three months to complete and taught me a great deal about grid system design, typographic design and access structure which I still use today. So, I passed and was accepted.

Setting you apart from the rest

I don’t think it does. Well, not for your clients anyway. For your peers, it may appear that I’m a member of a club or something. Somewhere where I occasionally go to talk about type and listen to people talk about type and then I go back to the real world. I’m sensitive to the fact that being part of the iSTD, because you have to be accepted, can appear to be elitist to the rest of the design industry. However, the simple fact is, without a peer review to see if your work is of an acceptable quality, the whole model falls apart. If there is to be a body of professional web designers, it has to work on this model, no question.

Best business practice

Another area, and perhaps the most useful, where professional bodies can help is in the business and practice of design.

The Chartered Society of Designers, of which I’m not a member, focuses on this find of help and support for the design community in the UK. It also has a remit similar to that of the iSTD, but there seems to be less of a focus on craft. The Society seems to have a much wider remit and by all accounts serves the UK design industry very well. I’ve heard great things about the help it offers on Copyright and IP for example.

The web design industry is crying out for something like this. Sure, grass-roots works to a certain extent, but when you’re talking about IP and copyright, I will pay for the correct information. I’m not sure I trust free content where things like that are concerned.

So, what’s the answer?

I think this industry needs a professional body who has a narrow remit. I don’t think certification, especially web standards, is workable. I’d like to see best design, development and business practice addressed. Although maybe all three of those would be too much to bite off. I’d like to see it as membership by peer review and I wouldn’t mind paying for it annually.

What do you think? Should there be a web design professional body? What should that body do? Is something like the iSTD model workable for web design?

Filed in: design.

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