Sunday, September 21, 2014

DESIGN EXPERT STATUS ~ Who Really Qualifies?



Over the past couple of years as we have worked hard to redefine the design industry and carve out new niches and business models  an alarming trend has emerged.  Individuals of questionable levels of design education, experience, training, and practice are claiming EXPERT status in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the pack.

Claims are wide ranging and are worded to place the person behind them at the very top of an ever growing pile of competitors. 








The problem with these claims the use of one little world – THE .   These individuals are not just claiming that they are experts in a segment of design or design in general, they are claiming that they are THE TOP EXPERT, THE KING OF THE MOUNTAIN, THE BE ALL AND END ALL OF KNOWLEDGDE AND EXPERTISE.



The definition of EXPERT is:  A person who has special skill or advanced knowledge in some particular field.

The definition of THE TOP EXPERT is:  A single person who has more special skills and advanced knowledge than anyone else in a particular field.

While there are many levels of expertise in any given subject there can only be one top spot.  The problem that I have with using this verbiage to describe your individual skill level is that there is no way for anyone to vet your skill level and it is easy for anyone to make a similar claim.

In his book The Outliers, Malcom Gladwell illustrates that exceedingly successful people who become top leaders in their fields have spent on average, approximately 10,000 hours of totally immersive study and practice, over at least 10 years honing their skills and perfecting their craft.

At the very least I think we can all agree that it takes many years of  education, study and practice to become proficient enough at anything to become and expert at it. Attending one lecture or online course, or reading a pamphlet on a subject is simply not enough to certify a person with expert status. 

Today it is very easy for anyone to find information on any subject online and reword it as their own hard earned knowledge and many people seem to be taking this shortcut to set themselves up as the go to source for a particular niche.  The problem with this scenario is that without doing the hard work themselves they are merely putting out borrowed information that they don’t truly understand and calling it expert advice at the same time. 

I have seen some really unbelievable example's of this online lately from misleading blog posts to  lectures full of inaccurate information at trade shows and industry events, to “advice from the EXPERTS columns” in leading shelter magazines that are giving out incorrect information. 

As an industry of professionals it is vital that we have industry standards and best practices that have a basis founded in legitimate expertise and experience so that the quality of service, workmanship and product has a level of excellence and  consistency that the buying public can rely upon. 


In addition to this self appointed, top of the pile “EXPERT STATUS” some individuals are also handing out their own private brand of NICHE CERTIFICATION  to other designers who frequent their websites or blogs, attend classes given by them or buy self published booklets they have produced.  This is unaccredited certification for sale to anyone and it is a potentially dangerous trend that will undermine legitimate accreditation and weaken our industry.

Certification is defined by Wikipedia as:   The confirmation of certain characteristics of a person. This confirmation is often, but not always, provided by some form of external review, education, assessment, or audit. Accreditation is a specific organization's process of certification.

There are very few professions in which members can appoint themselves as certifying bodies and hand out official certifications to their peers.  A lawyer cannot grant another person a certification stating that he is an expert in law.  That person must go to law school, pass his Bar exam and become legally licensed in order to call himself a lawyer.  In the area of design we have many legitimate organizations that provide the education and guidance necessary for an individual to garner certification on a variety of niche topics.




Certification usually consists of the following component's:

  1. Intensive, scaled, and targeted education provided by instructors sanctioned by the certifying body.
  2. A standardized test of your skill level administered by the certifying body.
  3. Continuing education to keep your skills fresh and current as a condition of continued certification.

My advise is to leave certification to the legitimate licensing bodies.  Don’t fall for false and empty certification scams.



Certification vs A Certificate of Attendance, Participation, or Achievement.

An alternative to an official certification that can be a benefit to the individual designer is a Certificate of Attendance, Participation, or Achievement.  This type of document certifies that a person has participated in or attended an educational event.  This is a legitimate document that anyone providing educational content or events can award to their attendees without crossing the blurred lines of official certification. 

Any designer can proudly display such a certificate without any doubt to its validity.


I would advise anyone that if they are seeking out advanced or continuing education in design that they do some homework and at least Google the individual or group offering that education to see if they are truly legitimate.  Here are a few guidelines to follow:

  1. How long have they been practicing in their particular area of expertise?   Is this a new niche for them?  Do they have a history of providing education in this niche or are they just now jumping on the bandwagon?
  2. What type of formal education do they have in this niche?
  3. What type of certification do they have in their particular field? 
  4. Are they affiliated with professional organizations or associations in their field?
  5. Are they recognized by their peers as an industry expert or are they just tacking expert onto their name?
  6. Have they published books or professional articles on their subject of expertise? If they are advertising themselves as authors do they have a legitimate publisher or are they selling self published material.  The term author is historically reserved for professionally published writers and as the author of 4 books for the trade it is a distinction that is very hard to earn and one that I cherish as such.  That being said, self published material can be very well put together and full of real expert education and information – just be wary of the “fluff”  that some people are generating right now.
  7. Have any of your peers taken any of their classes or purchased educational products from them?  What was their opinion of the material?

Experience vs Education

Education and Certification do not always trump life experience. There are many individuals who have honed their skills over years of practice and have become true experts in their fields and excellent teachers in their own right.  Most of the time they will have well documented proof of expertise on their websites and a long history of practicing their craft that you can easily track. 


The educational landscape in Design is getting more crowded everyday and there is an increase in competition for every dollar being spent and every open slot at educational events. Unfortunately there is no easy way for you to know who is legit and who is faking it. So it is up to you to do the research and make the judgment call on whether or not the person in question has some real substance and good information.  If you do take some time to vet the people who are offering you their services you should have no trouble finding great educational opportunities. 


Jackie Von Tobel is an award winning interior designer who attended the Interior Design Institute of San Diego. She ran her own successful interior design firm, Plush Home in Las Vegas for 20 years before writing her ground breaking series of books The Design Directory of Window Treatments, The Design Directory of Bedding, The Power of Marketing, and Slipcovers ( Gibbs Smith publisher) She is an award winning product designer in the categories of Drapery Hardware, Home Décor Fabric, Quilt Fabric, Gift, Garden, Home Dec Accessories, Tabletop,  and much more.  Jackie has been teaching  her fellow designers subjects relating to design on an advanced level at the leading design trade shows and furnishing markets in the US and abroad for over 10 years. She is a founding partner of Soft Design Lab an online think tank and center fr education on soft furnishings.

1 comment:

Rebecca Grace said...

Interesting post. On the one hand, it's so frustrating that even celebrity designer Kelly Wearstler was barred from practicing interior design in Florida because she "was not certified" (according to Joni's 2008 post here: I don't care what the State of Florida says -- if Kelly Wearstler calls herself an expert on building an interior design brand and offers a class in my area, I'm taking it! Yet on the other hand, I agree with you that there are more and more seminars and certification programs springing up all over the place that are of dubious quality. Many of these self-dubbed "experts" do seem to be brand new business ventures for designers who have not been successful in their own design businesses, or entrepreneurs with little or no experience in the industry who are looking to cash in and exploit the many practicing designers who lack the gold standard of ASID credentials, and/or those who are on an independent study track to change careers or to increase their professional knowledge, and are not in a position to go back to school to get them.