Part 1: Can I Be An Artist Here?
I’m an artist working as a graphic designer. There’s a blurry boundary separating these two disciplines, yet at the same time, they are elaborately intertwined. I use many of the same tools and skills for both. Still, I often keep these two selves separate to maintain the appearances of professionalism as a graphic designer and of authenticity as an artist.
Compartmentalizing two personas is like playing a game of chess as both players. I have to pretend not to know what my other next move is; I have to ignore that knowledge for a moment. This method is how I taught myself to play chess as a child. I don’t think I would have remembered the rules or learned the impacts of decisions if I didn’t pretend to be two people playing a single game of chess.
In my “real life,” my artist persona comes first because I have absolute freedom to invest my emotions and personality into the work. In my “work-life,” my graphic designer persona comes first because I usually have to divest in the work personally and emotionally. This change is not always obvious, even to myself. Graphic designers might perceive and accept me as only an artist, and artists might perceive and accept me as only a graphic designer.
The confusion between my two identities seems to lie in an imagined boundary. Following Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto theories, after I raise my awareness of a set of differences, I am better set up to make a new category that includes all of them. Then the differences will no longer make a difference. My new category can consist of everything I need and choose.
First, I must identify the differences (for me):
The Artist represents and embodies views and philosophies to and for their self—and the public if they choose.
The Graphic Designer makes things that translate a client’s or employer’s views and opinions for the public.
The Artist needs time and space to process their experiences.
The Graphic Designer has limited time to generate a commodified experience.
The Artist examines their emotions and internalizes their experiences.
The Graphic Designer appraises the value of appearances and façades.
The Artist explores new possibilities of interpreting unconventional meanings.
The Graphic Designer knows it will probably land better if they stick to conventional meanings.
The Artist is in charge of the rules they can make and break.
The Graphic Designer follows the rules depending on the employer.
The Artist creates to declare that they exist.
The Graphic Designer creates so that they can afford to exist.
The Artist needs to justify the role of art and its value.
The Graphic Designer knows that graphic design gets labeled as a highly valued and readily justifiable non-art.
Keeping these differences separate spreads my knowledge thin and uses up a lot of my creative energy. The consequence is that my artist self gets held back from critiquing at the greater depths my professional worker self struggles to access. If I stopped resisting the merging of my worker self and my artist self, I might be able to enjoy my whole self all the time.
“If I stopped resisting the merging of my worker self and my artist self, I might be able to enjoy my whole self all the time.”
The artist-as-self and designer-as-worker both form how I experience the world, and this identity is with me no matter where I go: the park, the grocery store, home, work.
Combining it all into one practice means I can create a better experience as a graphic designer because I know what it is like to process experience as an artist. And I can create better art because of my experience as a graphic designer translating ideas into formats that can be commonly understood.
A holistic practice that includes my complete experience means that I can be free from the limited definitions of separate disciplines that were predetermined long before I had a chance to determine them for myself. If I can redefine my discipline as an artist working as a graphic designer, I can redefine where I can be an artist working as a graphic designer.
Part 2: Can I Be Ethical Here?
I am an artist working as a graphic designer at a big company. My title as a graphic designer changes depending on where I work. Right now, my title is visual designer, but I know that what I can do is not limited to the visual or the graphic.
There is little space in a designer’s discipline to account for the inevitable social and cultural impacts. There is a lot about the graphic design profession that goes ethically unchecked. On its own, it’s neither good nor bad, but it’s also not neutral. It all depends on how a designer makes decisions, the intended experience, and who they make it for.
“On its own, [design is] neither good nor bad, but it’s also not neutral.”
It wasn’t until I dedicated time to independently gain a deeper understanding of design ethics that I could recognize and respond to the social responsibility of design. I slowed down to learn who I was, what I could and should be doing, and why I’m doing the things I do. I began to see my contributions not as a set of tasks and deadlines, but as an extension of my larger social role. The more I learned, the more humility I felt.
To contribute well as a designer, I need to consider the impact of my contributions and find ways to apply my values to my contributions. What I choose to do is a declaration of my ethics.
⁕ I can choose to actively understand problems within the broader context of a continually evolving society.
⁕ I can choose not to assume I will always solve a problem for others on their behalf.
⁕ I can choose to ask why something is the way it is.
⁕ I can choose to understand the original context of a “best practice” and recognize it may not apply in a new context.
⁕ I can choose to consider any person or place that a project can affect as a stakeholder.
⁕ I can choose not to label any diverse human or environmental need as an edge case.
⁕ I can choose to avoid reinforcing norms established through dominant culture narratives.
I can choose to consider a lot more than I have so far, and if I can decide to do all of these things, then perhaps I can make a promise to do them.
There is no one way of applying ethics to a design practice. Ethics are grounded in moral behaviors and decisions that are informed by the past. The behaviors and decisions then inform futures. Perhaps the only rule then is to look to the future as much as the past.
Part 3: Can I Be An Ethical Artist Here?
As an artist working as a graphic designer at a big company, I often find myself reacting to a compulsion to create and stay busy during out-of-office hours. The hard truth about being an artist within an economic system that favors private property, a price system, and competitive markets is that the artist often needs full-time paid work to exist. That job takes valuable time and creativity away from the artist, which means this system defines who gets to be an artist and when.
Practicing art only on my days off significantly limits the progress of my creative growth. My development is much slower than a fully-funded career artist, and my practice endures more as a hobby than an identity. I find myself post-rationalizing my work when I don’t have time to incorporate my values meaningfully. While there are benefits to unplanned creative output, I find figuring out what I want to say and how to say it to be more useful in the long-term.
The power structures I work within at a big company—a well-established masculine monoculture of stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—usually get to define what values are valuable. There is typically little extra room for individuals to reflect on their principles while fulfilling their professional worker duties. Despite that, being open and honest about my values helps me find my voice in this environment, which is more than what I sound like and what I say. It is also my personality and principles, and as Rebecca Solnit describes it in the context of writing, voice is also made from “why you write, who and what you write about, and who you write for.”
As Rebecca Solnit describes it in the context of writing, voice is also made from “why you write, who and what you write about, and who you write for.”
Because the time to reflect on my values is rare, I wrote a list of what is important to me to keep me better prepared. When I need a quick guide to apply my values to my work, the list acts as a soft manifesto. The list exists as a set of questions that I literally have to answer to.
- Can I afford to break down any barriers between my work and the audience?
- What can I gain, that is not money, from the work?
- Who, that is not me, can gain from the work?
- Can I remove myself from the center of the work?
- Does the work consider its impact on our planet?
- Does the work consider my politics?
- Does the work reflect my understanding of the responsibility of being human?
- Have I learned all I can from the work before presenting it as finished?
- How have I grown or changed from older work, and am I proud of these changes?
- Can I afford to rest?
Without considering my values, I can not incorporate what is important to me in a meaningful way, and instead, I am letting my paid work define my practice. Knowing what values are valuable to me on my terms gives me a voice because I understand why I create art, who and what I create art about, and who I create for. My voice is a tool to free me from predetermined definitions and values. With a stronger voice, I can practice for ethical reasons at thoughtful paces in supportive spaces.