You became a graphic designer because you believed you were special. Somewhere along the line you believed that not only did you have a better visual sensibility than the majority of the public, you believed that you actually deserved to be paid for it.
Graphic design is a career in which work and identity cross over more than most. Personal beliefs inform who you choose to work with, what your work looks like, what your work means and what it makes people think, feel and do. To do this job it is not so much self-belief that is important, it is believing that what you do is important. The strive to externalise our thoughts and express ourselves through labour is a very natural thing.
As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Modern work is alienating, the way to challenge this is to reclaim autonomy in what you create.’ Marx believed that work can be one of life’s greatest joys. But in order to be fulfilled at work, the workers need to see themselves in the objects they have created.
Graphic design challenges alienation through both the communicative nature of the work and the ideals of the modes of working. The creator is part of the thing they create, and through this, they derive a sense of contribution to the wants and/or needs of humanity. The things we make become part of our identity because we put part of ourselves into it, but because of this they also forge part of our ego. This is where things get weird.
Graphic designers are a strange breed that thrive in fame purgatory. The designer’s efforts vicariously live on through posters, books, websites and others. We get fulfilment from seeing someone else’s name in lights knowing that we made it shine the brightest—this all sounds very wholesome—but it is often not enough.
Today for a project to feel truly established it needs to be featured in seven magazines, win ten awards and have a street named after it. We are told this is normal and this is what it takes to be relevant in the increasingly ambiguous thing that we call ‘design culture’.
The problem with design culture is that it is starting to feel like a culture that has been designed to help people capitalise on the designers themselves. It is a term that every studio seems to embrace but not many can tell you what it is. Graphic design: the lifestyle. Graphic design: the bookshop. The dress sense. The movie. The award ceremony that costs £9,000 to enter. Graphic design’s fragile ego has started to eat itself and we are feeding it. Maybe we are special, maybe we are all unique snowflakes, but right now it feels like we are merging into an avalanche of homogenised identity.
So, do we really need another article written by a graphic designer for graphic designers questioning what graphic design is and why it needs to change? Probably not but I’ve started now.
At this point, it is important to note that I truly believe that graphic design is a good game and graphic designers are (moslty) good people. I have worked in the industry for over nine years now, and have met some of the most thought provoking, eye blisteringly talented, ridiculous people I will ever meet. My problem is with the exploitation of our culture and how this has tarnished the perception of our craft and the people we care so much about.
Google’s autocomplete has its own opinions on us;
Graphic designers are pretentious
Graphic designers are not artists
Why are graphic designers important?
How many graphic designers are there in the world?
Graphic designers are arrogant
Are graphic designers exempt?
Are graphic designers rich?
This cuts deep. Most of the designers I know are humble, sensitive people who work inhumanely long hours on their projects, whilst barely earning enough money to live comfortably in the city. Somewhere along the line, we are doing ourselves an injustice. At what point has our wholehearted care been misread as arrogance or self-entitlement? Are we really just tragically misunderstood artists? Unlikely.
As designers we are emotionally invested in the objects we create. Through our labour we become a part of our work, and in turn, our work becomes a part of us, part of our identity and part of our ego. So naturally we seek positive affirmation in what we do.
The energy that makes designers perpetually seek validation is the same energy that makes us good at what we do—it is nervous energy. It is telling ourselves we are not good enough, which makes us work harder, which makes us dig deeper, which makes our work better, which makes us seek validation as an incentive to do it all again. Are we actually just constantly trying to prove ourselves wrong? Is this just our inner toddler wanting our picture to go on the fridge? The energy of the designer needs to be handled properly in order to actually translate into creativity. The good stuff.
Graphic design is for the people. It is inclusive, collaborative and forward thinking. To be a good designer you also need to be inclusive, collaborative and forward thinking. How can you possibly do this when adopting an ‘it’s a design thing’ attitude?
Nobody has made a genuine contribution to the needs of humanity by instagramming how annoyed they are at Linda from HR’s font choice. Nobody pushed visual communication forward by sniggering at a clients requests to make a design pop, pang or kaboom for the 48,257,359th time; the eternal inside joke in which we are no longer sure who we are laughing at.
Our identity as a designer should be crafted from the work we choose to make and the impact we have on the world, not the persona we create around ourselves to seem unique. If you get too caught up in the inward facing side of design culture, the mind starts to create formulas of what successful design should look like and how successful designers should think and behave. This stifles the independent thought and the organic development that makes your work original and what makes your work, yours.
Our identity outside of the design world is the most important thing we can bring into the design world. Our personality, experiences, opinions and values are the path to crafting our own voices within the industry. Maybe if we focus more on extending our personality into graphic design and less on making graphic design an extension of our personality, we might finally get the recognition that we all deserve.