Andy Rutledge’s “The Opposite of Professional”

Photo by Cora

Photo by Cora

A friend of mine passed me Andy Rutledge’s “The Opposite of Professional,” a diatribe that argues, among other things, that design professionalism cannot be instilled through higher education. After reading it a few times, a couple lingering questions remain:

  • What IS design professionalism (according to Mr. Rutledge, at least)? He never really defines it; he only sketches the roughest of outlines by describing what it is not. At some points, it sounds like Rutledge’s professionalism is what I might simply call “customer service.”
  • Is there really a debate about this issue? I personally have never heard anyone argue that higher education can teach professionalism. But maybe that’s because I went to a school without a superiority complex (the Savannah College of Art and Design). All the educators I’ve talked to agree that there’s no substitute for good ol’ fashioned experience.

Those issues aside, Mr. Rutledge makes a pretty strong claim about freelancing right out of school:

As a general rule, I believe no designer should begin his or her career as a freelancer. My experience and observation shows that doing so amounts to a very unprofessional beginning and greatly limits one’s potential for growth as a professional.

The sort of requisite experience spoken about earlier is not found within a freelance practice. In a solo practice, one is largely beholden only to one’s own (often shallow, naïve, ignorance-based, and misguided) standards. The solo freelancer is denied the right sort of formative environment and pressures necessary early on for positive growth as a designer. I suggest that aside from being a very unprofessional entrance into the profession, starting as a freelancer does great harm to both the individual and his or her clients. This sort of mistake lays a poor foundation for what must follow in professional growth.

It is therefore best that beginning designers limit the harm they may do to themselves and their clients while maximizing exposure to the wide spectrum of designer/client dealings and details of business operation—inside of an agency with professional peers. Starting in an agency allows for a very important step in any trade or craft career: apprenticeship (or what passes for it in the design profession). Apprenticeship is a fixture in trades and crafts because it is proven to work, being a vital component to progress and, especially, integrity. Of course, in most agencies apprenticeship amounts mostly to mentorship, but the principle still applies.

At this point, it’s very important to note that Mr. Rutledge is making some sweeping generalizations that may not apply to motion designers. In major markets like New York and LA, many freelancers physically work in the offices of the studios and agencies that hire them, thereby exposing themselves to a “wide spectrum of designer/client dealings and details of business operation.”

In fact, one of the best reasons I’ve heard for freelancing right out of school is because it exposes you to different clients, different work-flows, different management styles and different responses to pressure. Freelancing in this way can be thought of an as extension of formal education—a residency program of sorts—that helps you figure out what you, as a design professional, value and want to pursue further.

Mr. Rutledge has opened up a couple interesting cans of worms here. Since there’s apparently no way to comment directly on Mr. Rutledge’s site, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about this stuff here.

Thanks to Umy for the link!


About the author

Justin Cone

Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer, F5 and The Motion Awards. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.



While I respect Andy Rutledge’s intelligence and talent, I often find that his articles are founded on many broad generalizations. Many of which I agree with. This one, however, I do not.

I don’t believe professionalism can be taught, but the framework for it can be instilled. By shaping the social environment in critiques, the students’ interpersonal interactions, and the students’ perception of design the students can get a sense of the behavior and culture that is acceptable in the design workplace. How is this possible? From observing the instructor.

I would argue that most, if not all, of many students’ perceptions of the design workplace comes from their instructors. An inspiring instructor will make most students strive to be like that person. Their professionalism will rub off, if not in theory then at least in attitude (the shallow, naïve, ignorance-based, and misguided attitude he callously doles out).

As to early freelance vs. agency debate, I think it’s largely subjective. Here’s where Andy takes a leap off the deep end based on his personal opinions. Which is fine. It’s his blog. So here’s mine: I personally think the early mistakes that everyone makes, wether freelancing or at an agency, helps to form the designer as much as their successes. The only tangible difference is that mistakes made freelancing may take food off of their tables.

The other sweeping generalization that I take issue is the degree to which schools create technicians versus professionals. I agree that not schools are created alike, but many schools invite working professionals to teach, lecture and otherwise guide the students. Many also have programs setup where the students engage with a real client. Granted, the school acts as a safety net, but so does an agency.

Lastly, since this is a forum of opinion, I find most of Andy’s writing to be informative and provocative, but incredibly pessimistic and dour. This article in particular lacks the meat and potatoes of most of his writing. If he had backed up with clearer definitions of his vocabulary (what is professionalism?) and examples to back up his judgement (schools turning out technicians), I would have found it more intriguing. Instead of gestalt and food for thought, I came away with a slightly bitter taste from Andy’s perceptions and presentation.


Interesting, and I like your comments on the article. The problem is that nobody has experience/professionalism right out of school, so of course you’re going to make mistakes! That doesn’t mean that the only solution is to join a big agency with established practices… it’s ONE solution, but also one that molds you into a certain type of designer. Isn’t there something to be said for developing your own path?

It’s funny, I was just having this conversation with a friend (SCAD faculty, actually) – about whether schools ought to emphasize artistic or technical skills. A lot of universities want to focus on the theoretical side of things, which is fine, but doesn’t really help you get a job… but of course the other side of the coin is being “just” a technician with no design chops to back it up. You have to have both, really, whether you get it from school or from work experience.


it seems to me that the root of his article is not about professionalism but more about “unprofessionals” taking away jobs from established professionals… which I completely disagree with…

There is always people out there willing to do jobs for less money and with less skill which ultimately reflects in the work… I’m a huge believer in capitalism… so this sort of thing I feel ultimately helps the profession advance… If some “unprofessional” can output the same material a professional can then its time for the professional to find something new… Competition in turn produces innovation… Professionals should always strive for the newest and best things in their work, things that they create and thus are known for…

Motion graphics is art, and is creative but it is still is a business and it is restricted by the rules of economics and business just like everything else… What I would say to the “unprofessionals” is “bring it on… I have what it takes to remain at the top!”


“The only thing that matters is how well you do your work.”
Ayn Rand

For any artist out there interested in the ideas of “professionalism”, advancing our industry of design and art, and the ideals of advancing ones self (natural artistic abilities) then they ought to take a serious look into reading “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. It completely changed my perspective on my art and myself after reading it. While its a really long book, I found it to be a quick read. Its loosely based off Frank Lloyd Wright and his battle against the national desire for classical/gothic architecture in US as a result of the World’s Fair in Chicago. The World’s Fair opened people’s eyes to the beauty of architecture but proved to be detrimental in the progress of architecture in the US for decades as a result since people demanded nothing but ornate classical and gothic architecture for years afterwards. While the book deals with architecture I think there are a lot of parallels that we as artist can take away from including the importance of keeping ones artistic vision and not caving in completely to the demands of the masses.

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