Blank organisation chart

Neil Ayres asked for my thoughts on D&AD — the London-based organisation at which he works. Before I replied I got sidetracked by Ireland’s Design Week. The event website needed updating, so I sent a quick email to remind the organisers that the “get involved” page was months out-of-date.

Barry Sheehan, the Week’s chairperson and director at Sheehan Architects, replied to say they’re volunteers, and despite best intentions the website hadn’t received its intended overhaul. On a tangent, Barry’s email signature linked to his 2009 dissertation, titled What is the Optimal Structure for Organisations Representing Design and Designers on the Island of Ireland? It was written for his Masters in Professional Design Practice at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Short story shorter, I read the report and thought it might help answer Neil.

Here’s a dissertation excerpt I found particularly relevant. It’s from page 49 where Barry questionned a number people who held senior positions within design associations.

4.2.15 Question 15
With the exception of architecture, in your opinion, why do so few designers join professional design organisations?

Purpose of question 15:
It was established in the literature review that the percentage of graduate architects joining design organisations is high. By way of comparison, the number of other designers joining design organisations is low. Why is this?

Key points in the answers to question 15:
Dawson Stelfox and Elaine Butler are in agreement, saying respectively. ‘They don’t have to.’ and ‘Because the market doesn’t demand it of them.’

Rather than point to the self interest of designers, Damian Cranney and John O’Connor also look to the offerings of the organisations. Cranney states, ‘It’s not seen as a necessary mark for professional standards. … There are few design organisations that have anything tangible, or a kind of perceived, genuinely meaningful value, to offer designers.’ This is echoed by O’Connor, ‘There are no immediate benefits. … The industry or designers themselves don’t actually genuinely see a benefit. … The industry doesn’t support the organisation. In other words, if you are looking for work, you are never asked, “Are you a member?”’

Garrett Stokes is more direct. ‘They don’t believe in them, and they are right.’

Nick Cloake and Toby Scott discuss the issue of design not being considered as a profession, something that was highlighted in the literature review. Cloake states, ‘Two reasons. One is apathy. … The other is that I think designers have yet to realise they are a profession. … Designers, I think, are also naturally single people. They operate on a kind of a solo basis and they aren’t great team players. They are not joiners.’ Toby Scott agrees, ‘There is no need. … There is no professional accreditation or sense of continuing professional development.’ He also states that ‘the economics are poor’.

This point is echoed by Michael Thomson, indicating the tricky times of recession, when members state, ‘Why do I pay €400 to my organisation? What value am I getting?’ This is of course the case, but we have established that some organisations have little revenue. Without significantly increased revenue, how can they increase their offering?

Seán O’Laoire also highlights the issue of financial interest when speaking of why architects join organisations. Irrespective of the quality of offerings of the RIAI and RSUA, significant numbers of architects join. ‘Being a member is fairly fundamentally linked to you and your capacity to be employed.’

Conclusions drawn from the answers to question 15:
There are many reasons why designers do not join design organisations. They are clearly outlined by the interviewees. There is a financial imperative for architects to join. The opposite may be the case with designers. They do not join because they do not have to.

The offerings may be inadequate, leading to low membership numbers. Low membership numbers directly imposes financial constraints, resulting in limited offerings. A way out of this downward spiral is for organisations to pool resources, financially and administratively, to boost the offering, changing the direction of the spiral.

Dawson Stelfox, President, Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA)
Damian Cranney, President, Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI)
Garrett Stokes, Past President, Institute of Creative Advertising and Design (ICAD)
John O’Connor, Board Member, Design Ireland
Elaine Butler, Past President, Interiors Association (IA)
Seán O’Laoire, President, The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI)
Toby Scott, Former Director, Design Council, London
Nicholas (Nick) Cloake, President, Graphic Design Business Association (GDBA)
Michael Thompson, Former President, Bureau of European Design Associations (BEDA)

Back to D&AD and Neil’s question. It’s £100 to join the organisation. These are the member benefits. I’d consider joining if I lived in London. But living in Northern Ireland?

A quote from Cat in a previous post, affiliation in the design profession, comes to mind:

“You get out of it what you put in, so if you don’t go to meetings, or become involved with other members, paying the fee is pretty much useless.”

I’d go with that. If I was paying an annual fee I’d want to get involved, attend events, meet other designers. Overall, the dissertation left me with a pretty negative account of Irish design organisations, summed-up in an Enterprise Ireland report from 1999:

“The Design consultancy sector in Ireland is fragmented and diverse, comprising many small design consultancy practices, operating within different design arenas. While there are a number of different industry associations i.e. the Institute of Designers in Ireland, Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI), the Graphic Design Business Association, Institute of Creative Advertising and Design, etc, no one organisation represents the interests of all designers. As a consequence design is not represented at an industry level; there is no cohesion, poor networking, both within design areas and across design disciplines and little cross-fertilisation of ideas.”

Design Ireland grew as a result of the report, but with lack of funding it became a completely voluntary organisation until in 2009 it could no longer survive and ceased trading.

Norway is frequently mentioned in Barry Sheehan’s report as an example of a similar-sized nation doing things better, and I recently heard good things about folk in the Norwegian Design Council.

Are you a member of any design organisations? I’m interested to know why or why not, particularly if you’re based in Northern Ireland.


“The Chartered Society of Designers has received Royal permission to grant the designation of Chartered Designer, thus allowing it to go ahead with its controversial plans for professional certification in design.”

Quoted from Creative Review: CDes gets go-ahead.


November 2, 2011


Great post DA.

We can’t think of a reason to join these organisitions. It’s not about discounts off of magazines. Another way to look at the question though is why do so few design organisations fail to convince us to join them?

Good question. Discounts are nice, but it kind of defeats the purpose when you’re paying for them. There’s a 5-10% discount on Apple products. But any designer can get this without D&AD membership. And concerning magazine discounts, you still need to buy the things. Don’t know about you, but it’s rare that I buy a printed magazine.

Many self-employed designers in the U.S., myself included, associate such organizations with pretentious, hard-headed design firms who would rather run us off the road than give us any sort of assistance. There are countless stories of young freelancers and small studio designers reaching out to larger, more experienced studios for a bit of direction only to have our hands slapped away.

I prefer a more grassroots approach in working with other designers. I prefer blogs and online communities. I prefer smaller gatherings over coffee. I prefer local chamber events. I prefer to interact with professionals who genuinely want to invest in the “design industry” and discuss best business practices rather than sit around brandishing our most recent awards.

It’s all too corporate for me.

I am a member of my professional design body because I’m a professional designer. The dosh required is minimal, the “benefits” are doubtful, but it’s fag waving value is significant.

I think we’ve a bit of unique situation here in Ontario, Canada where our provincial design association is also the gatekeeper of a provincially legislated title. Designers who have completed the required schooling, experience, ethics exam and portfolio evaluation are granted the Registered Graphic Designer (RGD) designation

While the designation does benefit me, it’s been the deciding factor in winning a project or two each year, I’m uncertain that those jobs justify the expense of maintaining membership. Sure, there’s a list of other benefits to membership, but despite being a provincial body you really need to live in Toronto to take advantage of them – the organization does little for those outside the city.

I keep my membership for the designation, but I question it each year. Before turning to graphic design though I was in school for engineering, where membership is mandatory to practice in the field. I often wonder if that’s the route we should be taking: to be a ‘graphic designer’ you must meet these requirements and those that don’t can not use the title – perhaps they are ‘desktop publishers’ or whatever. But something to truly differentiate those who take their career and their clients seriously from those who just fell into the business

Really good post David. Like many people have said, there are tons of reasons why many designers don’t join these organizations.

I know people in the film industry that joined organizations and it’s a hard process to get in but once your in you get job leads quite regularly and major benefits. I don’t see the same with design ones. If anyone can get in, whats the benefit or what makes it so special?

I’ve looked into joining these organisations before as I think it would be nice to be able to show a quality marque on literature. However, the membership fees, for me personally, are a little too much for me to afford at the moment.

In other words, I don’t think I would get enough in return for me to reduce the amount of food I put on my table for it.

Steve’s said part of the same thing I was thinking. Who has money sitting around to spend on a bunch of organizations that you probably don’t have time to be properly involved with? If design organizations were better known among clients, if clients were looking for a sort of certification, then there would be incentive to spend the money. I’m a member of NAPP because of the great seminars and teaching materials, so it’s worth the money to me. But if you were a client, would it tell you anything about my ability to do my job? No, all it says is that I have spare cash to throw at memberships. Literally anyone can take out a membership, so it’s meaningless as a measure of ability or professionalism.

There’s also not much marketing to designers, at least not that’s reached me, compared to other types of organization. I’ve been a designer, professionally, since 1999 and before that as a student. I’m not exactly a hermit. And yet I could maybe name three or four design associations, max. Are there more of them out there? How would a young designer even know those associations exist? What do they do for you, other than give you some organization names to put on your resume? But most importantly, why would I go looking for them? Unless an association can answer those questions and put the answers in front of designers repetitiously, they shouldn’t expect designers to sign up in droves. They need to create a need in the designers and offer them the solution in the form of the association.

Thirdly, there are a lot more free design communities to join, compared to communities in other professions (like architecture). Many of us have trouble finding those communities (witness the near yearly round of articles bemoaning the lack/decline of design community) or finding time to be involved with them, but they’re free so we’re more likely to put our time into those when we have it than we are into searching for people asking for our money but offering the same thing as the free communities.

A fourth thing occurred to me thanks to a reply on the article previous to this one. Many of us have to put in ten, twelve, sixteen hour days at the office, everyday, and then have to work on our own projects (either personal or freelance) outside of those hours, just to make ends meet and just to keep our jobs. First in, last out, at the office, right, just to keep from getting replaced by someone willing to work at half your price for even more hours? Wasn’t that basically the gist of the article just previous to this one? And then we all have lives too that we have to fit in around that. I imagine that if you took a poll of designers, most of them are getting under five hours of sleep a night most nights trying to deal with work and their own projects alone. When does the average designer have time to participate in an association?

In the UK there are so many organisations to choose from – it is hard to know which one/ones will add benefit (either to self or clients).

The main issue is time, the more time that is spent doing organisational stuff – the less time there is to work and earn.

Good post David – looks like you certainly did get a bit sidetracked from your initial query :)

Eric, no doubting the value of design blogs. Many are duds, but many have taught me a lot, through the posts and the comment interaction.

Brandon, that seems to be a recurring issue — organisations being too region- or even city-specific.

Adam, I think entry requirements would help, but it’d need to be for an organisation that’s recognised in some respect by potential clients, and with more and more of us doing business with people overseas, that’s no mean feat.

Perhaps the most important factor in determining organisational strength is membership numbers. What if an organisation was to grant free membership (or a nominal fee like £1 to help vet applicants) pending certain entry requirements (education, time in the profession, etc.)? Could they forget primarily about subscription fees and focus on the size of the membership base in order to gain recognition? The more designers within one main body, the more benefit can be derived from whatever collaboration then occurs. Maybe the free membership could be split into member categories depending on entry criteria, so the more experience you have, for instance, the more of a say you’re granted on what actually happens for the benefit of the profession. I think there’d be ways to raise funds once a substantial group has been formed, rather than taking money directly from members.

Just a thought.

And thanks for yours.

I am truly disappointed in the organizations here in the USA!

I too, have found that designer websites have huge value to me. There are so many high quality websites that I use as a resource almost on a daily basis, and while I do pay to subscribe (maybe the same cost overall as joining an organization) but the benefits are so clear to me!!!!! From vector tutorials, to inspirational sources, to great blogs such as your own David, there is so much relevant information on the web. I just can’t bring myself to join an organization filled with pompous art critics ( I would love to put the name of an organization here..but I thought better of it) But if an organization could be a central source for the web that would sell me!

I find it so funny that organizations, for an industry that is so fundamentally based on marketing, can’t seem to figure out how to market to their own industry!!!!!! Don’t you think that is more than a little ironic? Well, so to be more helpful than critical here are some things I would look for in a design organization…

1.A permanent gallery that displays members work. A team in the organization that invites marketing leaders in all industries to come take a look at what local designers and artists are doing and maybe get some artists local contracts. (These displays should be changed up frequently).

2. My schedule is insane! I need flexibility in meetings etc.

3. LOTS of freebies. Typefaces etc…these are available all over the internet! If an organization has a huge resource of free vector tutorials, typefaces, brushes, symbols, and swatches for CS5, I would go there on a daily basis. (email notifications of newly added material would be great.) Premium stuff that is not free is good too!

4. I expect my designer organization to be able to help me get work. I’d like to see a job board updated weekly, with a full range of jobs from little “quicky” stuff to 10 page illustrated magazine spreads. Both local and even international stuff would be great.

5. A News page. Real news and information that is critical to designers. From reviews of new products… to a page that lists new business start ups (all industries) in my area (so I can offer my services to the new owners)….to a who’s who page and what trends are in the pipeline so I can adjust my work as needed….to a stats page listing how much companies are investing in design work etc…..and of course an events page, a list of local galleries and museums that focus on graphic design or illustration

6. A frequently updated web resources page.

7. A nicely designed (maybe several themes to accommodate different tastes and styles) and easy to use homepage that I can download and use as my personal homepage so I can access all these resources from the organization at one glance when I sit down to work in the morning.

Yeah I don’t want much…lol lol lol lol but these kinds of resources would make me a lifetime member.

6. A section devoted to students lists of internships, local jobs being offered to students, specially priced resources.

7. A “Craig’s list” classified section where we can barter, trade, give away or sell used equipment and tools. (I just bought a BEAUTIFUL, amazing, high quality electric drafting table for $100.00 at a local thrift store. If it had been offered on an organizations website I could have saved myself a LOT of gas and time! The savings on that piece of equipment alone would have been worth the membership fee!!!!!!)

I know that many of these ARE offered by organizations but the are either very limited in scope or poorly maintained. These services would be expensive to maintain for the organization but in today’s world a well run organization can quickly become a global one via the internet. And if the price of membership matches resources then you have a winning combination.

I remember… just a couple of years ago the Sketchbook project was just a little local idea but in just 3 years it has become a major exciting global event! It catered to the two driving forces in designers..1. Individuality and self expression 2. the desire for recognition and love of sharing their work 3. the desire to make something lasting (being in the permanent library collection)

The key to their success was marketing in the right places.

@meredith – your list is precisely what I would need to see before I would even consider joining an organization. I would include a few other things, like a calendar that has not just the organization’s events but allows other groups to post their open events to it as well. And I have trouble finding time off to go to seminars and networking events, but having streaming online events (or at least videos of the speakers from events) and online community spaces would be great because I can open those in their own browser window to the side and watch/listen while I’m working on something else.

Maybe the lesson here is that we should just start our own organization. :D

@crys…When should we have our first meeting??…lol

On the serious side that is something I missed and is a definite selling point..see #2. I am with you on the streaming meetings and seminars!!!!! ( As well as the open events calendar!)

Meredith, my email is I’ve got a bunch of ideas floating around about this now. anyone interested in helping put something like this together or in joining an organization like it, feel free to drop me an email. Be glad to keep folks who are interested updated.

Also, David, your site scales nicely onto my phone. Looks good. :)

Meredith, my email is I’ve got a bunch of ideas floating around about this now. anyone interested in helping put something like this together or in joining an organization like it, feel free to drop me an email. Be glad to keep folks who are interested updated.

Also, David, your site scales nicely onto my phone. Looks good. :). Seems to have some trouble with posting comments though. gave me a duplicate comments error first time I tried to submit this.

Hm, guess it still posted the one that errored out. Sorry for the duplicate post. Gave me an error and my comment wasn’t showing up or I wouldn’t have reposted.

Great comment, Meredith. Let me know when you and Crys get the ball rolling. ;)

Crys, thanks a lot for the mobile feedback. Especially as I rarely view my site anywhere other than on a monitor. Not sure what happened with the duplicate comment. Hopefully a one-off.

Meredith hit the nail on the head and not just for design organizations. I turn down organizations all the time for lack of these benefits/features.

One business development organization recently sent me a PDF of next week’s events when I turned down their invite to join by explaining to them that they never updated their events section of their website. Instead of creating the PDF, they should have just updated the online events and sent me the link. How clueless.

I agree that theres no major benefits but i also think another major problem is that professional Design is too far spread.

One organisation can’t cope with the variety of industry design:
– Illustration
– Digital Illustration
– 3D Illustration
– Corporate Branding
– Web design
– Animation
– Signage
– The list goes on and on.

Trying to cater for one of these sectors makes it niche but small and insignificant as an org. Catering for all just confuses the org and no one actually bothers to join.

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