The First Things First Manifesto 2000 is a very interesting read. In my opinion, it’s a bit romantic and unrealistic for this industry, and I respectfully must disagree with its basis. The writers assert that in doing commercial work like “dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles” that we are “manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.” and that Designers that devote their efforts primarily to advertising are “To some extent … helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.” They indicate that there are “more worthy” pursuits: “Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programmes, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.”
To me, that is offensive. It reminds me of the elitist attitude that I have experienced from many “fine artists” in my career. Many artists (and even some teachers) I have known have acted as if doing graphic design or advertising (a commercial pursuit) is somehow of lower value than doing fine art. When I was about to graduate from Art School, I created a senior show that focused on three ad campaigns and supporting photography. Several of the comments I received from my colleagues in the art program indicated that I was a “sell out” and even “prostituting my talents for business!” What they didn’t understand was that I have wanted to be in advertising from the time I was a little kid watching the ads on tv in between cartoons, thinking to myself how they could’ve done this or that differently. We live in a commercial consumer driven society… and that’s not a bad thing. I love being a small part of crafting brands and images that contribute and even promote that.
In the Manifesto we have other designers drawing up example lists of what is more and less worthy for us to work on. Now, I can certainly recognize that as we wield the mighty sword of design and advertising that we should feel a sense to use that power responsibly. And I agree that we should all strive for excellence in our work. However, who is to say the more ‘worthy’ client or product that we should devote our attention to? Why is a cultural intervention or social marketing campaign more worthy than a dog biscuit brand? Neither is more worthy! I feel that the designer needs to draw lines wherever they feel comfortable. Personally, I would not design for cigarettes or strip clubs because I disagree with them on a moral level.
There will always be ‘soul-sucking’ aspects of the industry and aspects that are truly inspirational as well. I believe that it is MY responsibility to pursue what matters to me. When I got tired of doing buffet and slot promos for casinos, I left to work for an agency with only corporate style clients (banks, law firms, commercial real estate, etc.) and I loved it! I also love when I have the opportunity to work on non-profits, churches and cause marketing campaigns. However, no matter the client or content of the design work, It’s still “prostituting my talents” for the sake of promoting businesses and organizations in our consumer culture… but I don’t say that as if it is a bad thing. I am an advertising designer, not a fine artist. I also do fine art on the side, but my career is in supporting, promoting and furthering business goals in a visual and creative way. That’s what I do and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
There are certainly clients/firms/projects out there that can possibly be less creatively fulfilling and potentially even test our morals… but I feel that the individual designer needs to decide those issues for themselves. Having an industry discourse about responsibility to devote our attention to worthy pursuits is elitist and divisive, and I would never get behind something like that. Personally, if I were offered a project to design for a national dog biscuit campaign I would think that is pretty awesome, and I wouldn’t value that client or that project any less than when I design for my church or some other ‘good cause’.
Perhaps for the designers that want to shift their focus away from the consumer driven activities (designing for brands and products), they should create a new industry all together… a path that is something closer to art or social services or something. I know an advertising art director who did just that. He had a very successful career as a creative director, then got fed up with the ad industry and now he operates his own art gallery and just does some freelance on the side. This industry is not for everyone! But as the article points out, the commercial work we do pays the bills. I’m not sure how much money there is in a non-commercial path for a designer. And the bottom line is because the people who hire us, the CLIENTS, are the ones paying those bills. And they (rightfully so) are paying for results for their businesses and organizations, not to make our creative spirits feel satisfied or supported. It is OUR responsibility to find activities and projects to fulfill that desire inside ourselves. Perhaps we can find that in a client that ‘matters’ here and there… I find it when my church hires me to design projects for them, or when I got to do the branding for an anti-sex trafficking organization that helps kids escape sex slavery in the US. But, as I have said, they are no more ‘worthy’ of my attention than other clients, and I wouldn’t leave the business world to just become a cause marketing designer… For me, it’s the mix of clients that I find that keeps me engaged.
I hope that every designer out there finds projects and clients that keep them feeling creatively satisfied. And when the soul-sucking of a client or a firm becomes too much, I hope that you will leave them and find greener pastures. :0) But do keep it all in perspective and don’t look for happiness or fulfillment in the wrong places. Work endeavors can give us a certain amount of pleasure and fulfillment in life, but if we make it our ‘everything’ then it will let us down in the end, no matter how much success we achieve.