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Because I Have To: Designers Doing It for the Sake of Art

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In grad school, we would often get asked why we made art, and indirectly, what possibly made us choose this (usually low income, frustrating) career path. There were varied replies—some would talk about fame, some would talk about starting vital conversations, and some would simply say ‘because I have to.’

The latter reason always resonated with me the most. Probably the least glamorous and least noble, but all pretense dropped, it is the most consistent reason to explain why creating has remained a compulsion for me and other artists, something that with or without explanation must continue for my emotional livelihood.

I was reminded of this on my first trip to Vegas in October 2016 for the 2016 AIGA Design Conference, a three-day experience that left me speechless for pretty much all three days. Like the city that hosted it, the conference was a cacophony of fab design, insights, innovation, and *still squealing over this* uber design stars including the high empress of my life, Paula Scher. Amidst the creative glitz, I waded through each general session, fair, roundtable, and symposium, not quite absorbing everything in my overloaded state, but taking notes so I could figure it out later.

Art world vs. design world

After some recovery (and sleep) back in DC following the conference, I started to think hard on the ‘because I have to’ mindset. As an artist-turned-designer, I’ve had the semi-unique experience of fluidly shifting back and forth between ‘art world’ and ‘design world,’ two places I love that are crowded with creatives and creation, but for disparate means.

To me, ‘art world’ is an industry centered on the creator, crafting an identity patrons can support that adds to the hefty dialogue already in place within the art community and history of art. ‘Design world,’ on the other hand, is largely more centered on the patron or client, where the designer crafts a solution to a problem through the compelling organization of information. Both worlds require creation and dialogue, but had always felt entirely separate from one another. The idea of creation for the sake of creation, or the ‘because I have to’ mentality, has been a part of ‘art world’ for me because it’s an individual interest, a need for the creator to satisfy. As a designer, one heavily focuses on the problem, the solution, or the client; ‘because I have to’ doesn’t necessarily make the cut in that bandwidth.

Matt George

How surprised was I, then, that the need to create for creation’s sake was at large among speakers at the conference. At a comprehensive symposium on craft, I heard Matt George, founder of Texas-based agency Tractorbeam, describe how his agency slowly became soulless and problematic due to his cadre of high-profile, low-joy clients. True to his roots, he called it ‘all hat, no cattle,’ and quickly shifted his agency’s scope to people ‘not who you heard of, …[but] who you believe in,’ rejecting ventures from Fortune 100 companies for friends’ bars, local companies, and passion projects.

His advice to the audience was to expose yourself to new ideas, try analog, drop out of the ‘beauty contest’ of design success, and strive for ‘different’ over ‘better.’ He concluded,

‘It’s how much of yourself you can put into your craft and make it meaningful.’

He changed the course of his career for the sake of his work, choosing passion over cold, high profile design.

Jessica Hische

At this same symposium, letterform legend Jessica Hische, the youthful perfectionist of the lettering industry stepped on stage to share her perspective. Jessica’s original interests were in constructing beautiful works of type, but found herself quickly established in a situation that did not value those skillsets. She posed a question to the audience: where does craft go when craft is not appreciated? Her answer: reject the typical career ladder of design fame and maintain her studio at its size. She said confidently:

“Choosing to stay small is a feature, not a bug. Choosing to stay small is a decision to keep your hands dirty.”

She feared she was doing work because people expected her to do it, and used her success as a pivot point to shift her interests back to what she loved. Currently, she is designing a children’s book in honor of her daughter as a passion project—it allowed her to hand letter once more and step back into the artistic spaces she originally desired to inhabit.

Kelli Anderson

Quite possibly my favorite contemporary designer at the conference (and in life), Kelli Anderson is self-described as a designer and a tinkerer. Having built a name for herself not just in contemporary branding (Momofuko, Russ and Daughters, etc.) but also in cut and hand-crafted paper collateral (pop-up books, record player invitations, stop motion videos for They Might Be Giants, the amazing list goes on), Anderson has had a unique career producing projects that border closer to art than design because they are fashioned from her own interests.

At a roundtable, she talked about her ingenious process, saying that she keeps a sketchbook of ideas that interest her and waits to pitch these personal projects to clients who are willing to hold on for the artistic ride. She is currently working on an art exhibition of her work, even further bridging the divide between art and design worlds. Her pieces tell a story much closer to art than design—they are thoughtful and part of her personal explorations and curiosities.

She spoke on craft as a ‘thinking we do with our hands, …and a way of imbuing something with value and human care.’

‘Because I have to

These design superstars, paragons of the industry in success, style, and forward-thinking mindsets, all require something more than problem solving in their careers. They require passion, they require hands-on crafting, and they require a voice in their work that transcends just a solution or an interface. It had hardly occurred to me that contemporary art and design could combine seamlessly from two worlds into a larger universe, much further than the tiny worlds I previously gave myself as a maker. The respect within the current design industry for art and craft, for creation and personal expression, was more uplifting for me than any TED talk or Pinterest Inspo Board.

The ‘because I have to’ compulsion that drives artists, that drives me to a great extent, is one largely ignored in success strategies and tales from the design agency greats. Seeing it come out full-force in Vegas at the AIGA Conference left me feeling fascinated and hopeful, and what’s more, not alone.