Design and the State

A law in Romania requiring designers to be registered could push its best practitioners underground.

And you call yourself a designer? A law likely to come before the Romanian parliament in the next year would restrict use of the term—be it graphic, interactive, or product—to members of the country’s official design association, the Society of Professional Designers in Romania (SDPR). “Unfortunately the term design is used by anyone and anyhow just because it sounds exotic and it is the ‘in’ trend,” complains Alexandru Ghildus, a founder of the SDPR and professor of art and design at the National Art University, in Bucharest. To be eligible for “designer” status, one would need a degree from a recognized institution and to have completed a one- to two-year internship under the guidance of an SDPR member. Ghildus hopes that the law will prevent “counterfeit” design, which he says is flooding the Romanian market.

The proposed law has set off a furious debate within the Romanian design community and beyond. Almost a thousand people have signed an online petition opposing its passage, among them famous outsiders such as Stefan Sagmeister and James Victore. Local designers including Cristian “Kit” Paul and Ovidiu Hrin, who do not have diplomas but nevertheless have managed to build successful practices since the collapse of the Ceausescu dictatorship, in 1989, are leading the opposition. For them the law is disturbingly reminiscent of Romania’s Communist past, when regulation often served as a thin disguise for corruption. “These guys are not altruistically concerned about the well-being of the design industry,” Paul says. “They’re relentlessly pursuing their own self-serving agenda.”

The crux of the issue is whether or not a design degree is a good measure of skill. Marius Ursache graduated from medical school before cofounding the firm Grapefruit, whose clients include Hewlett-Packard, Pfizer, and the British Council. “Romanian design schools are inefficient, outdated, and impractical,” he says. “They teach a defunct form of art—not design as a problem-solving discipline.” Hrin, who studied design for five years and architecture for three before dropping out to pursue his own practice, notes that the faculty at Romania’s universities tends to be insulated from rapid changes in the profession, particularly digital design.

Despite the opposition, the law seems likely to pass, especially since the parliament established similar regulations for architects in 2001. “The people behind the legislation are very well connected politically,” Hrin says. “And the politicians themselves have no idea what design is. They’ll probably say, ‘Oh, another law for guys like architects.’” In an attempt to quell the rebellion, the law may be amended so that the SDPR could offer membership to self-taught designers it regards as having proved themselves professionally. Hrin, Paul, and Ursache all say they would decline the invitation. “If the client likes your work and you can make a living through design, then you’re a designer,” Hrin says. “What you need for design work is passion, not an official stamp of approval.”

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