From David Barringer’s “Myths of the Self-Taught Designer” in his book of essays and more, _There’s Nothing Funny about Design _(and available online in parts  1, 2 and 3).

Designed as a dialogue, this piece is, as Barringer says, “a hybrid mess of a literary shenanigan, inspired by the dialogues of the philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784). If you think I took the conversation too far, see Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist (1782).”

Jumping in…

Ego: So, to sum up, anyone with the intent to design can claim to be a graphic designer in our messy age of design pluralism. You don’t need the degree, the tools, the status, the employer, or even a client. You certainly don’t need to be good or even competent. You just need the intent. So what is at stake, and for whom, in defining the identity of the designer? Credentials are one way to define identity, and credentials matter to some. They signify to potential employers; signify less to potential clients; and always make our mothers proud. But what is at stake for the individual designer? I think that’s where we need to go next.

Devil: I agree. Design pluralism recognizes the diversity of individuals working in some measure in a field we’ve agreed to call graphic design, itself a broad category, its membrane permeable enough to absorb the practitioners of the year’s latest digital arts. Together, this pluralism and the attendant technological advances that impact the practice of graphic design disturb the discipline and unsettle the individual. In a steady profession and stable economy—

Ego: Both concepts being theoretical— 

Devil: Many are content to let their jobs define them. Who am I? I am my job. But graphic design is not a steady profession, and the economy is not stable. Uncertainty is the order of the day. Undeterred, people may cling to a mere skill set as an indicator of who they are, defining themselves in ever more narrow and conditional terms. In a moral panic, a designer might crave the next seminar in web design as if it were a personality upgrade, the next slogan from the best-selling business pundit as if it were a reprieve from a death sentence. Why? Because today’s skill set is tomorrow’s software template. And today’s job is tomorrow’s downsized nod to the stockholders. 

Ego: So this is why self-definition is so urgent and infuriating. The economic is personal. Who you are today may not even be who you are tomorrow. 

Devil: I’m an expert in Pagemaker. I mean, Quark. Oops, InDesign. Flash. No, wait, I’m a problem-solver! A branding consultant! A, a. . . . 

Ego: In this environment, you are not saved by what you know. 

Devil: What you know is only what you knew. And that’s why it feels, to me, like there is no such thing as art or design, jobs or retirement. There is only the work that you do and the you who is doing it. What is at stake in all this is the individual designer’s self-definition. 

Ego: And let me guess. What we are dismantling here is the overarching myth of the self-taught, which is that the label of being self-taught no longer functions as a meaningful symbol of the designer’s identity, whether as a romantic symbol or a derogatory one. Regarding yourself as self-taught, as a self-motivated learner, as you said before, is more and more coming to be an essential component of that self-definition, no matter what kind of graphic designer you are. 

Devil: Did I say that?

The section of the book that includes this is entitled “Design is a hug at a distance”.