To be certified, or not to be certified. That is the question.

The myths, legends and misconceptions that come with certification are as vast as the occupation is varied. However, some countries have rules and regulations in place for a specific process and guidance. While the U.S. isn’t there yet, it’s a good idea to know what you are getting into, whether it’s hiring a graphic designer or studying to become one, before you take the plunge.

There are five core design disciplines:
  • Industrial design
  • Interior design
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Graphic design
Four of these offer professional validation of proficiency through national accreditations. Graphic design is the only one that does not. So what does certification mean for the profession? Let's take a look.

I’ve got a degree in graphic design. Doesn’t that mean I’m certified?

Many schools boast graphic design certifications as part of their curriculum, but in the end, they actually offer a degree in the field. According to the model set forth by other countries that have already adopted graphic design certification, a two or four-year degree is just the start of the process.

In Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Australia, designers must attend and graduate from design school and then practice in their field for three to seven years before they can apply for certified status. The application process includes a council review, where designers are subjected to an interview, testing, validation, verification and a portfolio review before certification can be granted.

Why do some graphic designers want to be certified?

Designers that advocate for certification in the U.S. believe the practice creates a professional standard and validates the expert level of cumulative knowledge. Thanks to increased access to design software, uneducated individuals frequently pop up as self-labeled graphic designers. These self-proclaimed artists undercut the prices of more polished professionals, diluting the talent pool and raising questions about the qualifications of all designers. A certified designer, like an electrician, can offer accreditation as confirmation of his experience level and justify the value of his services. (In IT, certifications count, but it's still possible to thrive without them. Learn more in How I Got An IT Job Without a Tech Background.)

Why are other graphic designers against certifications in the U.S.?

In this particular profession, there are many reasons why people disagree with the practice of certification. Graphic design is an artistic process, and some feel that talent should be considered over testing. Certifications could be seen as a way to try to measure creativity or talent.
Plus, certification critics argue that it is difficult to gauge merit consistently without interjecting personal opinion over objectivity. Because of this, designers against the idea are concerned that certification would lead to elitist cliques and unions. Others simply feel it is a waste of time and money.

Do I have to be certified to work as a graphic designer?

In the U.S., proposed certification programs signal that they plan to follow the international standard of allowing artists to acquire certifications on a voluntary basis. This type of documentation would simply confirm to clients that the work of accredited designers is guaranteed to meet a particular professional standard in both artistic integrity and business practice.

However, there will always be clients that hire the cheapest over the best, as well as truly talented artists who work to help small businesses at lower prices. Designers with a strong portfolio and references will still be able to work, even without having to pass a test to verify their abilities.

What about software certifications?

Until a decision on graphic design certification in the U.S. is formalized, many designers wanting to boost their reputations and add accreditation to their resumes are opting for software certifications. Adobe offers a top certification program that offers opportunities to become an Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) or Adobe Certified Instructor (ACI).

To certify or not to certify?

Of the five core design principles, graphic design is the only one that does not offer some form of professional certification. For some graphic designers, a move toward certification could provide a way to validate their skills and gain an edge over their less-educated peers. For others, certification may not make a difference. After all, what matters most to those hiring graphic designers is work quality. Certification is a way for designers to prove their high level of skill, but that doesn't mean that uncertified designers are any less capable.