Friday, February 22, 2013


“What do you do?”

“I’m a Graphic Designer.

For years, this was my response. I had been developing my own definition of graphic designer ever since I came across the term in a high school careers workbook. It wasn’t the same as artist, and it had a $25,000 salary attached to it. It was not simply about self-expression, but about communicating information, and it dealt with people called clients. In college my definition expanded exponentially to encompass every new artistic discipline I could get my hands on. Photography, illustration, typography, art history - all servants to design, all simple tools to realize my larger vision. Massimo Vignelli’s spoons told me that design could be anything and everything (or was it that everything could be designed?). So imagine my surprise, after a semester long project designing a style guide, when my most cherished professor asks me if I wouldn’t be better off in fine arts? Pick a company, design a logo, select typefaces, pick colors, etc. and define how all these variables will be applied to insure a consistent identity across a multitude of applications (referred to as branding nowadays). Anti-authoritarian rule breaker that I was, I didn’t pick a company - I picked Greenpeace. Visiting the Greenpeace Action office in New York, I could see the singularity of the Greenpeace identity, but I could also see power in the diversity of ways that the group represented itself. So I set out to create a modular, customizable, identity system - rather than restrict their identity to a single symbol. This didn’t go over too well at my critique, but more importantly, my selection of a social awareness organization seemed to call into question the very nature of graphic design itself. Many of my peers were enormously critical of my choice, believing that expression had no place within graphic design. That my chosen client clearly had a great deal to express apparently had no bearing on this. One of the first promotional pieces I designed for Forth Position was a mock style guide, subverting and redefining the objectives of the format.

Hitting the streets of New York after graduation, I charmed my way into meeting after meeting with the designers who had inspired me in college. When I had the opportunity to talk face to face with these talented men and women, I became increasingly aware of the gap between the vanguard design work I was familiar with and the day to day grind demanded by the industry. This didn’t come as a total surprise, but I had imagined that there were certain designers (certain studios) that had been able to free themselves from this duality, to somehow integrate their design production and do only good work. Along the way I had the distinct pleasure of working ever so briefly with the brilliant Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett at Bureau, and of being offered a job at M&Co (which sadly dissolved due to lack of funds). Many of my top choices were struggling through the economic recession, so I felt quite lucky when Emily Oberman, then at M&Co, referred me to her close friend Bonnie Siegler, then Art Director at VH1 On-Air Graphics. Over the next four and a half years I gained first hand experience working with all the newly emerging tools of non-linear production and motion graphics, none of which were available while I was in college. My severance bought my first Mac (clone) and my apartment was transformed into a motion graphics studio quite literally overnight. Cable network identity and movie channel promotion was certainly not part of my original design brief for Forth Position, but the work was preferable to pimping for Nike and Coca-Cola. Having written a paper in college critical of the consolidation of media, I had no illusions that in the end I was ultimately working for the same interests. I was able to command a higher day rate freelancing motion graphics, and could therefore afford to work less often. This allowed me to devote more time to political organizing, and come 2000, I went all in.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a Peacemaker.

A stolen election, another Bush’s recession, and the war on terror - the next several years were a blur of political organizing for me. Protesting* to stop one war, protesting to prevent another, protesting the dictator himself. Hitting the streets again, this time for Peace & Justice, I was overwhelmed by the palpable feeling of freedom that came from standing in solidarity with millions around the globe. Marching with 300,000 in New York City was like being part of a river - it wasn’t about resistance, or conflict, it was about the inevitability of our momentum. The numbers were amazing, but did placing such emphasis on turnout diminish the power, the significance of other smaller rallies and marches? Why did it seem that the only way to be heard was to get thousands of people to show up? Did more people make the message more diverse, or just louder? Where did this emphasis on turnout come from? The media was insistent on the event having a singular message, a sound bite answer to the question of “what are they protesting?” There was no allowance made for multiple perspectives on the same issue, or for interrelated issues. The whole thing struck me as some kind of absurd competition orchestrated by the media and the interests they represent. The success or failure of the protest was to be measured in seconds of airtime, number of columns, size of the photograph… Time and time again we found ourselves in competition with the conveniently leaked government news event of the day. But the competition didn’t stop there. Awareness organizations, each with their own particular issue, were made to compete with each other to get their messages heard, to raise funds, even to find staff and volunteers to do the day to day work and necessary outreach. The status quo excels at provoking the conflict, escalating the argument, making the situation seem desperate - they don’t have to work so hard silencing us when they can get us shouting over the top of one another to be heard.


If I wasn’t on the street leading a chant, wrangling banners, organizing buses, getting signatures, I was likely in a meeting discussing how to go about it. Paying work was harder to come by, with the occasional larger job affording me the resources to pursue my own independent projects. Notobush was one such project, and while it was a success, it was not a money maker. I still hadn’t found a way to make prioritizing awareness, over profit, pay the bills. For the first time in my career I felt that I had a project that should be in the design annuals that had been such an inspiration to me as a young designer. So I entered the project into the AIGA 365 competition. Taking a line from the Forth Position Design Style Manual, and in the spirit of protest/demonstration that the work had derived from, I entered the entire project under the category “signage.”

The outcome of the 2004 (s)election had many within the movement switching back to strategies of damage control. Having to argue with the tax man over notobush related fees wasn’t punishment from on high, but it sure felt like it. Most of my paying work now no longer came from the networks themselves, many relying heavily on in-house designers or contracting out to a few larger studios.  Subcontracting through another studio meant less control over the specific jobs I worked on, and refusing a job due to ethical concerns wasn’t the best way to insure your spot on the short list for the next job. After the 2008 crash, many of the folks who had been keeping me busy were out pounding the pavement themselves. In the absence of any work to speak of, a producer friend of mine and I joked about pooling our resources and starting a lemonade stand. Television and the internet now offered a virtually limitless number of “channels,” an exponential expansion in real estate to split their resources among. The rise of reality TV ushered in a significantly lower threshold (and significantly lower budgets) for quality design. Marketing shows based on other successful shows had clients looking for “design” based on prior successful designs. While there were still plenty of designers doing beautiful work, I was seeing a glut of what I began to refer to as template design: 3d typography exploding from the center of the screen - light effects and lens flares at no extra cost! As I wrote in an earlier post, it can be challenging and frightening facing the prospect that the work you have spent most of your life doing may simply no longer be necessary, but these moments also bring the opportunity to reassess what it is that you truly want to do. In my early years as a designer, I thought of the concepts of design and innovation as inseparable. Within this new market driven repetitive design model, innovation was more often an unacceptable risk. I would go as far as to say that the model was actually pitting recognition of design that was tried and true directly against appreciation for anything new. Central here is the idea that the consumer (and the client) is more likely to buy that which they already recognize, so we should give them what they “want.” Of course in an industry where the very basis of desire is fabricated, who is to say what people really want?

So if I get paid to make shit smell great, to repackage the same old thing in the pre-approved newest freshest way - what am I? Am I really still a designer at all? Perhaps I was mistaken and this is what graphic design was always about? I purchased the domain with the intention to explore this a bit. My original thought was to send out t-shirts emblazoned with an Industry Whore “logo” to everyone I know in the design industry, and perhaps a few others others I haven’t had the opportunity to meet personally. I started thinking about the responses I might get from my peers. Would they feel insulted by this? Would they feel liberated by someone finally stating the obvious? Would they struggle with whether or not to wear such a shirt? Would they wear it proudly, having accepted the role and the monetary reward that goes with it? Would my critique open up space for us to have a dialogue about such things or would it only provoke conflict? I’m still on the fence about all of this. When my two closest design comrades and I were in school we pledged to “burn the design world to the ground,” but I have no desire to hurt others who are doing their best to survive within a system they feel powerless to change. I must ask though - what if all of us, with our tremendous collective creativity, skill, and experience in communications, were to redirect our energies toward the change we wish to see? If this sounds too ambitious, maybe we have different ideas about the change we wish to see or have trouble imagining how we can make this change while still making a living, perhaps we could start smaller?

When I was starting out I wrote to a potential client deconstructing the pro bono process, pointing out that the firm designing their environmental campaign free of charge would likely turn around and use the work to promote themselves, ironically to score future work from the oil industry. I was attempting to position myself as an ally and a valuable resource, one that was not working simultaneously for and against the interests of my social awareness clients. Was this worth something to my clients? My friend Noah Scalin, founder of Another Limited Rebellion, writes:

It's extremely frustrating that many non-profits expect that design work should be done for free. They pay for rent, electricity, photocopies, etc. but when it comes to branding/marketing they assign no budget, and by extension no value, to it. Obviously the primary goal of an organization should be providing their products/services, whatever they may be, but if they are to have any impact at all they need to let people know that those products/services are available! It doesn't matter how great an organization they are, if no one hears about them or what they're up to, then no one will benefit from the work they're doing. And design is the primary tool by which an audience is reached with an organization's message.
When non-profits expect work done for free they're also expecting that the designers they are hiring should make a living doing something else. And there's the rub, since many times they end up working with larger ad agencies who make their profits from the very roots of the problems they're trying to resolve. And the agency's goals are generally to make award winning pieces that elevate their own status, rather than actually focusing on the success of the non-profit. If an organization truly wants to make the world a better place, they need to also consider all of the vendors that they choose to work with as well. By supporting designers that are also working for positive social change they are going to make a bigger aggregate difference.

As in my earlier example concerning turnout at a protest, I find myself asking where the emphasis on work for hire comes from? Perhaps it is intrinsic to graphic design? After all we are providing a service. But I think it is more than just this. Corporate design, advertising, design that makes money has long been prioritized within the field, even to the extent of dismissing other less profitable forms of design. Is work I am financially compensated for in competition with work I do for free? Is it possible to shift the imposed hierarchy beyond compensation, so that the values we embed in our work comprise the value of our work? What does this graphic design look like? How will it, and the designers who create it, be supported?

Lately I am finding it more challenging to answer the “what do you do?” question. I’m still in love with design, but the grand ideas and the precious details that once made it so alluring to me are easy to miss in our current culture of information overload. The systematic elimination of this preciousness by powerful interests seeking to own and propagate their singular (saleable) visions is disturbing to say the least, but my feelings are more complicated when it comes to the loss of preciousness as it relates to the rise of democracy. Throughout my organizing I have seen how important it is to allow space for dialogue, to make room for all voices to be heard. This process often requires letting go of the specific way I think something should be done, allowing the process to move forward to reveal unknown outcomes rather than predicting and controlling the result. I have spent much of my career looking for the next big idea, the quintessential project that will bring fame, fortune, and notoriety. And similarly questioning - which grand idea, which specific catalyst, will make all the difference and shift the paradigm in an instant? It occurred to me recently that this thought pattern is perhaps a product of connecting my artistry to my livelihood early on, and that giving it so much head space was blocking me from seeing other possibilities for myself. What would I do if money were no object? What would I do if the struggle was over? Can we set aside the superlatives and honor the intrinsic value of all living beings for just being alive? When I was little, people would ask “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Teachers would encourage me to “be somebody.” Of course, I already was somebody. And so are you.

Submit a post to continue the dialogue on the Industry Whore forum!

*I prefer the term demonstrating, but am using protesting for the sake of clarity: demonstrating an alternative path rather than simply protesting against injustice.

March 22, 2003 World Says No to War banner photo by Diane Greene Lent