This post was written for a college assignment. Students were to write a personal essay on any subject they chose. A 750 word limit was enforced. This is something of a companion to my first development blog.
Displayed on my computer screen was a single design on virtual canvas, just waiting to be finished and printed on exactly one hundred and fifty business cards. All that remained was the four words under my name that were supposed to concisely describe all that I offered; a simple and short label that was to perfectly summarize the entire four years of professional knowledge I had accrued. The headline of “Web Designer & Tech Tutor” was the label I was content with before, but that had been in place since I made the first iteration of my cards when I was 17. Now that I am 20, I know the differences between a developer’s job and a designer’s job, and I know I am much more of a developer than a designer. Unlike changing a website, changing business cards is costly, and good branding dictates that essential pieces of your message are consistent across all platforms. I could not afford to be fickle, but nor could I afford to let down clients with design skills I thought that they might perceive as subpar. My 20th birthday rebranding, the rebranding that was to look like it was done by another industry professional, was halted by a professional identity crisis.
Labels are tricky things. Short summaries of who you are, what you do, your background, and occasionally what you look like. Whether the labels are accurate or false is in some respects irrelevant. Controlling what labels the general populace imposes on you can be fruitless. It’s because of this lack of control that my professional identity crisis occurred; it all boiled down to a conflict between the general populace and the way I think of myself.
Perhaps one of the more difficult things about protesting against being called a Designer is what people who view your work will notice. Good development work is supposed to go unnoticed, whereas good design is supposed to stand out. To use an analogy, think of a car. A car with great lines, fully washed and touched up looks great (good design) but cars with boxy and grungy exteriors are ignored, and sometimes vandalized (bad design). Think now about what’s under the hood. A car with good safety and mechanical features (good development) may not be flashy, but reliable. A car full of safety problems will get attention for all the wrong reasons (bad development). Finally, in both cases, people are more prepared to critique the visual appeal of something compared to the inner workings, as deeper knowledge of the subject is required to form thoughts deeper than simple complaints or praise.
I was never trained as a Designer, and never even took too much personal interest in even vaguely artistic pursuits until later years of high school. Not only that, but I know actual designers personally, and realize what nuances and traits are needed to do their jobs well. Even if someone else sees my work and praises my design skills for it, it’s rare for any of those people to have real skill working with designers. The label’s connotations were also much to live up to, since design is considered an artistic skill that you need creative ideas for. Contrary to what I assume most people look for when hiring a designer, any design I did and still do tend to skew towards utilitarian. I felt like giving myself the professional label of Designer was dirty, like having someone who makes websites without any code call themselves the label of Developer. Conveniently, I accidentally dug deeper into some casual design research and found a sub-typing of design that more closely matched my tendencies and style: User Experience Design.
Despite wishfully thinking that people will go without labels in the future, I realize this is near impossible. Can you picture a resume with a job title of 20 words meant to break free from labels and attempt to capture every nuance of a person’s work? I’d rather not, and neither did my business card. Eventually, I settled on “Full Service Web Development” as the headline, a label I found that was able to describe my range abilities well enough to entice someone to check my portfolio.