An impossible conversation

Otl Aicher and Mike Monteiro talk about the design profession


The rain just stopped pouring, and I am sitting outdoors at the corner café, sipping my espresso while I wait for Otl Aicher and Mike Monteiro.

I have convened this impossible meet-up to shed some light on the design licensing debate. They both have strong points of view on how designers are trained and what the role of official certificates and associations should be, so I thought it would be nice to confront their ideas.

Seeing them walking down the street together comforts me, they seem to be in a very good mood. Mike is bringing some pasteis the nata, and Otl offers me a cigar “for later”. I take one of each.

With his German accent, Aicher asks me if I will be trranscrribing the chat, and makes sure I use lower-case to represent his voice. I agree, of course, and fire off the Voice Memos app:

—Thank you both for coming. It’s such an honor to have this conversation with two designers I admire. Actually, I quoted Otl on that art versus design piece I wrote the other day.

—Mike Monteiro: Art has as much in common with design as a potato has with a Honda Civic. So why are we still cramming design departments into art schools? Not to disparage art schools — they’re a wonderful place to get an art education. I’m also not disparaging existing design programs here as much as I’m trying to get you more room! Design is too important and too big a field now to be given a wing in someone else’s school. It’s time to create our own.

—otl aicher: design is one of the last free professions that is not forced into the corset of a career structure and thus inhibited by standards and guidelines. there is no career structure upon which the state could accompany designers with examinations and checks, and of course also with certificates and prizes, with awards and titles.

When these folks speak there is not much one can add, so I just nod and absorb the exchange of ideas like eyes follow the ball on a tennis match.

—MM: My dentist is licensed. My doctor is licensed. My lawyer is licensed. My accountant is licensed. Almost every professional I interact with is licensed. There are really good reasons for that. Not only does this let me know they’ve passed some sort of test, some sort of proficiency, but it also gives me a way to measure a standard of expectation for their level of service, and a way to address any grievance with a lack of it.

—oa: my doctor, to whom i have been loyal for many years, recently made a bitter complaint about the undermining of his profession. he is a respected man in a hospital. formerly, he said, he had been able to devote himself entirely to his patients. he was able to see illness as a problem for people, of individual fates. today half of his professional life is taken up with proving that he is measuring up to standards and guidelines, he is a slave to a constant flow of new directives and has perpetually to be reading his way into the language of new forms.

Imagine the power of a professional organization having our back. We’ve never had that.

—MM: Imagine the power of a professional organization having our back. We’ve never had that. Possibly the AIGA came closest, but closest isn’t even the right word because it contains the word close. They look at UX designers the same way Donald Trump looks at a vegetable. I do believe they had an opportunity to become the organization we needed, had they wanted to be it, and had they taken the time between poster contests to do some actual work.

—oa: designers are not still hemmed in by forms, books of standards, job descriptions and the appropriate regulatory personnel. at the moment they do not have to belong to a professional organization, not yet.

our profession is open to anyone. this is almost an uplifting feeling. where can you still find that?

we know that our freedom is in jeopardy. and so it is also recomended that no-one joins any of the professional associations, who in their way want to present proof of their right to exist. normally one pays contributions for secretaries and a board. the money is usually not sufficient for more than self-representation of these organs, perhaps just for the free participation of these organs in congresses at which the other members have to pay for the pleasure of seeing someone again out of their own pockets.

our profession is open to anyone. this is almost an uplifting feeling. where can you still find that?

—MM: We need to be held accountable for our actions. We’ve been moving fast. We’ve been breaking things. Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes out of ignorance. The effects are the same. The things we’re building are bigger than they used to be, and have more reach. The moment to slow down is here. Because what we’re breaking is too important and too precious. Much of it is irreplaceable.

And while I’ll be the first to agree that licensing doesn’t solve all of the problems (…), I do believe that it’s the first step in addressing those problems. It gives us a chance.

—oa: designers think differently from administrators. the administrator speaks for a truth, for an authority, priests for the church, professors for the state university. designers know nothing. all they have to make an approach to something is tools. that makes them suspicious.

Savoring the last bite of my pastel, I turn off the recorder. We may not have reached an agreement, but I feel enriched by the conversation that still goes on in the background while I focus on my cigar.

This fictional conversation is a collage of excerpts from Otl Aicher’s “The world as design” (first published in 1991, translation by Michael Robinson for Enrst & Sohn), and Mike Monteiro’s article Design’s Lost Generation (February 2018).