Inhouse Incites: Certification Explanation

At the most recent InHOWse Managers Conference the attendees were asked during the panel discussion session whether they supported creating a certification program for in-house designers. A few in the audience half-heartedly raised their hands, most couldn’t be bothered. Personally, I was disappointed and frustrated with the response and I attribute the lack of enthusiasm to a lack of understanding of the benefits a credible certification program would bring to our profession.

First, I want to clarify that this would not be a program that would assess an individual’s design skills. Portfolios, resumes, education and work experience should be able to adequately showcase a designer’s design skills. What the certification program would provide is an assessment of a designer’s less visible business, strategic and collaborative skill sets – qualities not easy to discern on paper or even in interviews.

An in-house skills “seal of approval” would greatly benefit companies looking to hire talent who not only can create great creative but who can integrate and operate within a sometimes rigid and demanding corporate environment. I’ve personally witnessed some of my own hires who were top-notch creative, crash and burn when having to work in a larger organization whose core business was not creative services.

Designers would also benefit on two counts. First, by participating in the certification process, they would receive much-needed business training that is usually not offered in traditional design schools that would support their success in a corporate setting. Second, certification would enable them to differentiate themselves from their uncertified peers increasing their chances of landing a job with an in-house team.

Finally, certification which exists for most other professions, would enhance the perception and credibility of  designers, enabling them to gain that coveted “seat at the table” and the respect they need to have a greater say in any deliberations about the deliverables they present to clients and other key stakeholders.

Other countries, such as Canada, have successfully built and supported a certification program for the design profession. There is no reason why we can’t and shouldn’t do that here in the US. The benefits far outweigh any potential disadvantages of implementing an in-house design certificate process. It will take an industry organization much time money and focus to pull this off in a credible and sustainable way, but the long-term ROI to the in-house community would be well worth the effort.

23 thoughts on “Inhouse Incites: Certification Explanation

  1. Robin Johnston

    I second a certification program. Over the years I have worked with some great designers, but when it came to business organizational or planning skills, there were definite challenges. It would also assist designers with making it to the next level of creative director, marketing director, etc., in a world where degrees and certifications make sense to the non-creatives;)

  2. Marc Bellefleur

    Totally agree with this program, not only for designers but for anyone involved in an In-house situation. I’ve personally run into designers, production managers and project managers who can be extremely disorganized.

    Personally, I was not hired to baby sit or hand hold.

    1. Jami Cumberland

      Great perspective! I didn’t even think of it that way. We currently do this and its a struggle communicating certain things with freelancers that have heavy agency experience.

  3. Christy Jacobs

    I’m just so thrilled that “In-house” designers and departments have really been given the unique recognition they deserve the past couple years. It’s truly a different world from agency design. After surviving 15 years as an in-house designer for an international service organization I’d be happy to be recognized with a certification!

  4. Barb Walls

    I whole heartedly support certification of the design profession. There are too many people who sell themselves as designers with zero experience, education or natural talent. It fundamentally damages the design profession when we trained designers are compared with non trained designers. I would love to never have to explain again, that Yes, I did go to a 4-year college for my degree, and Yes, design is strategy and not making something pretty.
    Other professions offer certification to thier benefit, I would think our profession would benefit as well. I have read arguements for both sides of this but ultimately feel that there would be more benefit than not by establishing certification.

  5. Bri Malaspino

    Hi Andy,
    I agree, the biggest barrier to support is understanding.
    Initially I think it sounds like a great idea. Then I think on it more and it sounds less enthralling. As you describe it in more detail, I think it sounds much more appealing—and useful.

    Many of us have a degree in Design or worked through an apprenticeship, and feel like that should show that we have met the certification standards. However, corporate managers, with business degrees, don’t really know what goes on in a design degree program (not that all programs even go through the same process). Right now, I am going through a business management degree program for that very reason. HR needs to know that I have all the management/business strategy our other managers have.

    Since I came up through the ranks, all of these classes are tedious restatement of skills/concepts I learned years ago. Perhaps this In-Houser certification could alleviate the need for things like this.

  6. Laura

    I wasn’t at the conference and this is my first hearing about this idea. What are the counter-arguments? Are people afraid of branding themselves as in-house designers, fearing it will limit their future career goals? I’m not being facetious, I’m truly curious about this topic.

  7. Angela Houtz

    I whole heartedly agree. I’ve worked on both sides of the fence with over ten years managing an in house design team in the consumer goods industry. Being closer to the overall product development process builds a valuable understanding of the larger company picture, especially if the company is smaller. Skills that go beyond design, such as communication, scheduling, and meeting the demands of a production schedule are definitely honed with an in house team and deserve the professional recognition. A certification program would do this well.

  8. Pete

    Unfortunately, this is a reality and not only for in-house designers but also, for designers in general.

    For example, one negative effect of this lack of a certificate (as it is in other professions such as, doctors, lawyers, and etc) – a type of certificate – is the fact that we have almost a 13% (if not higher) lost of jobs by people who like to call themselves “designers” just because they have a version of Adobe Creative Suite in their computers.

    On the other hand, there is a significant lack of administrative, organizational, and communication skills in most levels of professionalism (junior designer, designer, senior designer, art director, etc).

    Perhaps, there should be classes – modules in design schools that would teach this certain context of skills.

  9. Cedric Cheng

    I’m open to it as well. Especially with a growing number of clients and workplaces requesting education credentials and certification in certain abilities and skills (like organizational and the intangibles….not just design skills.)

  10. selma manizade

    I have thought for a long time that our profession does us a disservice by not having certification. I see many other professions where hiring and salary is validated by certification. Since we do work for all kinds of businesses and people who are not knowledgeable about design it again is a seal of competence that is required by doctors, builders, plumbers and electricians etc. Would you go to a doctor or have your house built by non-certified people? Why do think electricians and all of the above are paid so well? Designers needs this infrastructure too.

  11. Wendy Brenden

    In addition to design, I have also have a marketing degree. Those degrees should be more than enough to certify that I am able to work as in-house creative. I’ve been in-house creative/marketing for almost 11 years and have always presented myself as someone who has something to share at table. I only hire designers that have solid marketing background (whether coming out of an agency, self-taught or degree) and it turns out they are great designers and can sit with me at the management table. However, I think those considering in-house design need to prepare themselves for being part of a corporate team. Maybe that is some type of “certification” program or the individual taking classes to make them more marketable in the corporate world. This is not a job to enter into blindly. Preparation is the key to a successful in-house experience.

  12. Courtney

    My initial gut reaction to this is, after having spent my own hard earned money and time on a four year degree, you’d want me to also get a certification? The benefits you’re listing, such as certifying that you can work in a corporate setting, etc. are skills you either gain, don’t have, or don’t care to have. I could be wrong, but this blog post doesn’t really give me a reason to want certification.

  13. Linda

    I agree that business training is needed, but why should that responsibility fall solely on an in-house design team? I think design schools should figure out a way to include it in their curriculum, because a lot of the skills you need to succeed in an in-house environment can be used elsewhere.

    1. Terry Kelley

      Thank you, Linda! Design schools need to teach ALL design students business skills. A solid foundation in conceptual design, focused on listening to the client’s needs, understanding their business goals, and learning how to connect that to delivering a solid design that will help reach the client’s goals is imperative if aspiring designers want to be successful. In-house agency or not, no one can call him- or herself a good designer if they aren’t taking these things into account.

  14. Terry Kelley

    I’m not against certifications of any sort, but what I do take issue with is the distinction of in-house design groups needing certification. If you want to make the case for design certifications, make it for ALL designers, regardless of where they practice their work. I am fortunate enough to manage a fantastic, award-winning in-house design team in a global organization. What makes us good at our craft is that we do what any good designer should do: approach each project with integrity; know your client (or get to know them if they’re new to you); ask meaningful questions and listen to the response; and coach your client (internal or external) on how the implementation of the design will further their goals. Good organization and project management/planning skills should be mandatory for ANY designer, regardless of where they practice. Whether you’re working as part of an in-house team, or an ad agency, design firm, etc., a seal of approval won’t mean anything to your current or future clients. What sells them – and keeps them working with you – is the value you add to their projects, the demonstrated skill you apply, and the successful final deliverables. Developing the relationship and trust is better than any seal or certification.

    1. Julie

      You hit the nail on the head. A designer is a designer, no matter where they do it. This whole certification issue raises it’s head every decade or so, yet never comes to pass.

    2. Andy Epstein Post author

      All good points, Terry, but based on my personal experience and the experiences of other in-house team managers I’ve spoken with over the years (all obviously anecdotal), I do believe that the skill sets needed to really succeed as a designer working in an organization for which design is not its primary purpose are different enough from those needed by freelance, design firm or ad agency designers to warrant special training and certification.

      Most in-house teams have a flatter structure where designers are tasked with responsibilities that, in larger design firms and agencies, are divvied up among a team of specialists. Some of these roles include – account management/client contact, project management, vendor management, strategic planning, marketing, trafficking etc. The skills required to succeed in these roles include excellent written, verbal and presentation abilities, negotiating skills, the ability to work with budgets, strategic business planning skills, excellent organizational and project management skills etc.

      Most designers have received little to no education or training in these areas when they join and in-house team. A certification program with an accompanying professional development curriculum would encourage and support designers in bridging these gaps and assist companies and in-house design team managers in hiring talent who are prepared to work and succeed in a corporate environment.

      1. Terry Kelley

        I agree that the skills you mention are critical to success in an in-house team, Andy, but I don’t think a certification is the answer. Organizations that offer training – great. Schools that offer this training as part of their design curriculum – even better. Every designer would benefit from business perspective, and, quite honestly from stronger production and typography basics, too.

        I also believe that those in the position of hiring for in-house teams definitely have their work cut out for them to get all these skills, but, as with any specialized area of design, the right people are out there.

  15. Esteban Pérez

    Great article and right on time. I am a graduate communications design student in NYC. For the past 2 years, I have been researching, talking to people and writing my paper on the topic of design certification. I have come across a plethora of opinions, positions and also misconceptions. This debate has been ongoing for more than 50 years, while as you mention, certification has been in place in countries such as: Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Australia and the UK among other similar systems.

    All of the posts in here present to many valid positions and many reasons why certification, not related to aesthetics or style, can provide many benefits to transform our discipline into a real valid profession; not a craft or a technical skill.

    As a culmination of my thesis, I am producing “certifyD” an open dialogue symposium to discuss the same issue you are describing. The event will bring designers, professor, students and professionals together to share their perspectives and the possibility of establishing certification in the USA.

    I invite you to visit the site, as the official info and panelists will be released later today. I would love to engage in a deeper conversation with all of you. Keep this dialogue going!

  16. Jami Cumberland

    Absolutely a fantastic idea. As an in-house designer that holds the responsibility of “wearing multiple hats”, its hard to drive home my specific talents and passions. Not only do I design, but I direct and produce photography, act as a “liaison” between departments for internal needs such as HR and Benefits materials, attend press approvals and am involved in heavy vendor relations and communication, etc. I think this would provide an excellent addition to a resume and portfolio and hope this evolves into something. Anyone can get a degree as long as they apply themselves. But having the ability to thrive in a corporate setting as an artist, speaks high volumes for larger corporations. Sign me up tomorrow.