Sasha’s Soapbox: Not Everyone With PhotoShop is a Designer

I’m trying to be more positive these days. But let’s be realistic, I wouldn’t have to try so hard if there weren’t so many things that rub me completely the wrong way. Clearly that can only mean one thing: I must tell you about these things, for only by sharing them will I ever be rid of them. So it is with encouragement akin to: “I’m surprised it took you this long” from those who know me best that I embark on this journey to illuminate the deepest grumbles of my professional life. Please allow me to serenade you from my soapbox…

It seems like these days everyone’s a designer or DJ. No, seriously: “Hi, what do you do for a living?” “I’m a graphic designer/web designer/DJ.” I’m not going to tackle the DJ part of that; not my place, but I can certainly deal with the designer bit. The TLDR version is:

Not Everyone With PhotoShop is a Designer


Yup, your basement dwelling cousin/ brother/ neighbor/ roommate might have PhotoShop but that does not make him/her a designer. At best, assuming technical skills are at hand, this makes someone a capable PhotoShop technician, but not a designer. While every good designer is also a good technician the opposite is not necessarily true.

A good designer isn’t even just a talented designer, a good designer also has knowledge, experience, and intelligence. Being a designer isn’t just moving pixels around, there is logic behind what we do. It is the job of graphic designers to be problem solvers for their clients. That’s what clients pay us for, applying our experience, knowledge, and creativity to solve problems for them.

To quote one of my favorite graphic design authors, Adrian Shaughnessy: “A graduate fresh from design school takes between six and eighteen months to become an effective and contributing member of a studio – and that is with careful shepherding and plenty of attention.”  (How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul)

This statement speaks volumes for the difference between an apt technician and an effective graphic designer. Even professional training is trumped by real-world experience, because graphic designers are problem solvers. We fix our clients’ brand visibility problems, we fix website accessibility problems. The reason why anyone hires a designer is because there’s a design problem to be fixed. When we’re working with a client we expect to be used not only for our technical skills but also for our problem solving skills, our knowledge of design (theoretically and practically speaking).

Sure, there are less pragmatic designers out there, those who do more art-driven work. These designers tend to do more illustration type work rather than client work, and what we’re talking about here is client work. I believe that is it best to shoot for a middle ground between the two extremes.  That is to create work that both serves a purpose, solves a problem in a logical way, and work which is also driven by artistic intuition. Keep the two sides balanced and out of conflict with each other and you’ve got yourself a good design.

PhotoShop is just one tool in a designer’s toolbox (and sometimes soapbox). You wouldn’t call just anyone with a scalpel a surgeon, let’s not call everyone with PhotoShop a designer.

Of course that’s an exaggeration. Even I’m not self-involved enough to think that what I do can be compared to saving someone’s life by, say, removing a tumor. The argument stands – tools don’t make the professional. In an age when it is much easier to obtain the tools and learn the technical skills required in being a graphic or web designer it is also much more important to use clear, concise, transparent terminology when it comes to describing what you do. If you want to be a designer, awesome, our community is generally extremely supportive and ready to help. If you’re not there yet, or you simply just like to use PhotoShop and have no interest in anything more than that, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “I’m a PhotoShop expert” or “I’m a graphics technician” as opposed to “I’m a graphic designer” or “I’m a web designer”. It’s just not fair to keep telling your clients that what they’re getting out of working with a technician is the same thing they would get out of working with a designer.

What do you think?

Is this by far the soapboxiest of all my soapboxes? Do you see the distinction between a technician and a designer as unnecessary and maybe confusing? Or would the distinction make it easier for you to hire the right person for a given task?