Professionalism Is Not Enough

The following post was originally featured in InsideGensler, September 2013.

Milton Glaser is among the most celebrated graphic designers in the United States and is perhaps best known for creating the iconic I Love New York campaign.  He opened Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and continues to produce an astounding amount of work in many fields of design to this day.  His humorous (and serious) musing on the double-edged sword called ‘professionalism’ is excerpted here from an AIGA talk he delivered to an audience in London:

“Early in my career I wanted to be a professional; that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything - not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past. Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.”      

Glaser presents a true conundrum.  If we are professional, we are ineligible to experiment while on the clock.  After all, how could we possibly take a risk on someone else’s dime? 

This is a dicey question if there ever was one.  Innovation requires risk taking because taking risks is a form of learning – and yet “learning on the job” is only slightly less problematic than “risk taking”.  We need look no further than the legal and management consulting professions which, in recent years, have been vilified in the press for pursuing business practices that routinely rely on leveraging junior staff to deliver their services.

But learning on the job comes with the territory in the service business. By definition we engage our customers or clients in creating the very experience they are paying for, so we must involve them in a deliberate, not haphazard, way.  This level of engagement creates a unique opportunity for mutual learning, and mutual risk-taking.

Many innovation consultancies, for example, routinely bring the client along for the ride at the very beginning of the design process. As a result the client is present when user research reveals a big insight, or when a simple experiential prototype they helped build yields an ‘aha’ moment. Each engagement is an opportunity for us professionals to discover something new about our clients, and for our clients to join us in discovering innovative solutions that will address their own needs. 

So how can we take a risk on someone else’s dime? Get them in on the action. Have them help co-create the future with us. Client engagement is one area where “continuous transgression”, to use Milton Glaser’s term, can paradoxically deliver great value.

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