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Creative Essay Series | Humanist Design
“Art, in 21st-century America, is in a state of crisis. Budgets have been slashed, classes cut, and a stigma attached to the very practice of making art: it is not useful, and by not being useful, it is not necessary. Drones are useful. Oil is useful. Math and science are, occasionally, useful. But art? Art is frivolous. Even when aesthetically satisfying — which, to be honest, it is not always — art still has no real “productive” component. At least not the kind that can be justified on a budget spreadsheet
-Stefan Sagmeister
There are a lot of challenges facing the creative industry. The best minds in design have called for social responsibility and the empowerment of creatives as authors. With advances in crowd sourced-funding, these once hypothetical self-authored creative positions are becoming a fiscal reality. Can one call a socially funded future of art and design just a silly dream? A future of autonomy from the corporate creative assembly line? A future where educational institutions don’t measure their student’s success by industrial job placement? It is possible to envision a future where the classes aren’t structured around a particular job, but a multidisciplinary creative education to encourage creative entrepreneurship.
If this hypothetical career needs a name, I will propose a suggestion: “Humanist Design,” socially responsible design, autonomously created for the people and funded and supported by the people. This isn’t anarchy, but a new push for independence, self reliance, and autonomy as an alternative creative career path
Even the title of graphic designer is grounded in the expectation of a service-based industry. A client has a creative problem and the designer responds by providing the service and solving the problem. Why can’t other service-based creatives break from their titles and create work in a non-commercial vacuum?
The title comes with other restrictions. Graphic designers aren’t expected to build skills in mediums outside of print design, logo creation, photo editing, typography, web, and UI & UX design. Can I still call myself a graphic designer if I want to evolve my career out of a service based creative process? Can I call myself a graphic designer if I want to explore mediums outside of my major/career? If titles restrict you, I encourage you to reject them.
With the rejection of the title, and a pursuit of a career off the traditional path; comes chaos and uncertainty, insecurity and risk.
Design Anarchy is madness. Choose it only if you’re certain the other options will corrode your soul and give you a bleeding ulcer, only if you know you are among the chosen few designers who hold Prometheus’s holy fire in your hands. You’ll suffer for years and live like a stray dog, but you’ll have the joy of breaking all the rules, of freely mixing art and politics, of pouring your beliefs and convictions into your work. Eventually, if you’re really as brilliant as you think, you’ll have a crack at pushing the boundaries of global culture with bold new forms and fresh ways of being.
After three grueling and creatively unsatisfying years in advertising, I became obsessed with the idea of creating work without a client, a patron, or a goal that satisfies a specific commercial application. The experience drove me to desperation and a search for a career where I could use my skillset, without the commercial consequences. The only moments I felt creatively satisfied were the brief moments of working at home on personal projects, creative writing, original illustrations, and self-authored experiences.
An increasingly capitalistic world will continue to butt up against the art world, in an attempt to assign or commodify the value of art. Autonomy and a do-it-yourself attitude might not be sufficient to support an independent career. According to the Marxist methodology, shifts in the way art and design are perceived economically will have to change before we can adopt the ideals of the leaders of the creative industries. As Dmitri Siegel states:
They rightly make the connection between the do-it-yourself ethos and the staggering increases in wealth that have occurred around the world in the last century. They describe a future where people use their extraordinary accumulated wealth to achieve greater and greater autonomy from industrial and corporate production… spends a great deal of time celebrating the increased freedom and autonomy that social production provides.
Studies have shown that creative’s “golden years” are from ages 20-45, so why wait until after your golden years to consider the implications and satisfactions of your career? Designers who remove themselves from the traditional commission structure will find challenges and uncertainty, but they will also establish creative methods for autonomous design. There is not one prescribed path, but a myriad of opportunities and one only has to look at examples in art history. In his description of how the role of design has changed, Daniel van der Velden states:
Today, an ‘important graphic design’ is one generated by the designer himself, a commentary in the margins of visual culture. Sometimes the design represents a generous client. More often, it is a completely isolated, individual act, for which the designer mobilized the facilities at his disposal... The designer does not solve the other person’s problems, but becomes his own author. As a parallel to this, innovating designers pull away from the world of companies and corporations, logos and house styles. Their place is taken over by communications managers, marketing experts and, for some ten years now, design managers, engaged on behalf of the client to direct the design process... In contrast to the ‘total design’ of the past is now the dispirited mandate of the ‘look and feel’ – a term that catches designers in the web of endless manipulating of the dimensions of form, colour and feeling.
If the current trends of growth in communication and design management fields continue, designers “willing to work” will move further and further away from the concept of ‘total design’. They will eventually be downgraded to the role of “decorator” only making creative decisions regarding “look and feel,” Van der Velden continues: It is not so strange that a branch of graphic design has evolved that no longer hangs around waiting for an assignment, but instead takes action on its own accord. It has polarized into the ‘willing to work’, who often have little or no control over their own positions, and the ‘out of work’, who, with little economic support work on innovation for the sake of innovation. To be an effective “Humanist Designer,” one has to forge a career between the polarizing spectrum of being “willing to work” and being “out of work”.
Introduced in 1964, First Things First is a growing and evolving manifesto that recognizes the power that visual communicators hold. The manifesto empowers creatives to make critical decisions about their career path, and how to strive towards progressive social responsibility. It states: There are pursuits more worthy of our dedication. Our abilities can benefit areas such as education, medicine, privacy and digital security, public awareness and social campaigns, journalism, information design, and humanitarian aid. They can transform our current systems of finance and commerce, and reinforce human rights and civil liberties. It is also our responsibility as members of our industry to create positive changes within it. We must work to improve our stances on diversity, inclusion, working conditions, and employees’ mental health. Ultimately, regardless of its area of focus or scale, our work and our mindset must take on a more ethical, critical ethos.
I’ve personally signed this manifesto, yet I recognize that the pledge is not entirely realistic. If, for example; there is a Junior Designer working at an advertising agency, he or she might not have the power, financial stability, or confidence to say no to working on a project that has negative social implications. There must be shifts in the way we perceive creative careers in order to achieve the ideals that the First Things First sets forth.
Perhaps by labeling traditional commision structured designers as “Service Designers” and the more autonomous and non-commercial designer as “Humanist Designers,” we can start using labels to speak of the idea in less abstract terms as “designer as author.” If these labels manage to permeate into how our education and majors are structured, creative autonomy might have a fighting chance. Discussing the potential behind this label, Ellen Lupton states; The slogan ‘designer as author’ has enlivened debates about the future of graphic design since the early 1990s. Behind this phrase is the will to help designers to initiate content, to work in an entrepreneurial way rather than simply reacting to problems and tasks placed before them by clients...Authorship is a provocative model for rethinking the role of the graphic designer at the start of the millennium; it hinges, however, on a nostalgic ideal of the writer or artist as a singular point of origin.

A lot of theories and debates surrounding designers as authors and producers still need to hinge upon the very simple need to put food on the table. It’s unrealistic to assume that creatives can make a liveable wage without a bit of creative entrepreneurship. However, since the rise of crowd-sourced funding services like Kickstarter, creatives are able to get upfront funding to buy supplies and support their project based on a strong concept or pitch. Creative Entrepreneurs will have to be confident at pitching and generating interest using networking, concept art, and creative entertainment. Which empowers creatives in a way that they can create a project that otherwise would have been rejected by a traditionalist commercial structure.
Many creative students and young professionals in the fields of graphic design, illustration, fashion design, film and television etc. haven’t questioned career opportunities outside a commercial career that satisfies the needs of a client or agency. Is it possible for a young upstart creative to have a career outside the traditional client-commission structure, or is this a privileged position reserved for life-long established creatives and designers?
One could argue that SCAD defines the success of their student body by job or internship placement in a commercial setting. SCAD regularly cites “job placement” as a metric for the success of students and their perspective departments. SCAD’s motto is “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” or Art is long, Life is short. Considering that life is short, young creatives shouldn’t wait until a mid-life crisis to re-assess their career and creative ambitions.
There will always be a need for advertising and corporate creatives and those who can find a fulfilling life-long career working in service-based fields. There has been a push towards a revolution, and small steps have been made in creative autonomy. In the 60’s, for example Christo & Jean Claude used crowd-sourced sales from gallery shows to independently publish and manufacture their public art. Stefan Sagmeister curates and designs his roaming gallery experience, The Happy Show without corporate partners, using a space generally reserved for a creative in a fine art discipline.
This indirect and self-initiated system of creation, research and discovery has it’s roots in ancient greece. As Welby Ings states:
Heuristics as a system of inquiry Heuristics comes from the Greek word heuriskein meaning ‘to discover’ or ‘find’. It is a qualitative method of solving a problem for which no formula exists. Heuristics relates to the ability to find knowledge, patterns or a desired result by intelligent, informal questioning and guesswork rather than by applying pre-established formulae. As a form of inquiry it utilises sophisticated levels of informed subjectivity and tacit knowledge to solve complex creative problems.
Welby Ings proposed that designers must consider themselves authors, not facilitators. This shift in perspective she believes implies responsibility and voice. These result in a more personal connection with design and the ability to extend professionally limited paradigms. Her beliefs have been developed by a number of theorists concerned with ideas of origination and agency in graphic design argues that ‘the amplification of the personal voice legitimises design as equal to more traditional privileged forms of authorship’. The Heuristic process is one example of alternatives to the traditional client-commision structure.
Humanist design is a proposed movement for those who feel strangled by a commercial position. It is For someone who values autonomy and independence over security and comfort, for someone who understands the power of their voice, and who knows how to use it for the betterment of their supporting public. For someone who does not pursue a narrow specialized education, but someone who believes that building skills in one discipline can make him or her better in the other, and for someone who does not allow labels and titles to limit their ambitions. A humanist designer is someone who understands the importance of creative entrepreneurship to put food on the table without compromising their values and voice.

Barnbrook, Jonathon, et al. “First Things First Manifesto 2014.”
Christo, The Gates (Project for Central Park, New York City), 38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm, pencil, charcoal, pastel, crayon, fabric sample, aerial photograph (Whitney Museum of American Art) 2003
Jennifer Visocky O'Grady & Ken O'Grady.,"Chapter 4" A Designer's Research Manual. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2009. 112-end.
Lasn, Kalle. “Design Anarchy.” Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Arch, 2009. 107.
Lupton, Ellen. “Designer as Producer.” Typotheque, 2004
Rock, Michael. “The Designer as Author.” Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Arch, 2009. 108-114.
Sagmeister, Stefan, Claudia,  The happy film. Philadelphia, Pa: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2012.
Sagmeister, Stefan. "Sagmeister & Walsh." Sagmeister & Walsh Co. April 17, 2014, Accessed August 20, 2015.
Siegel, Dmitri. “Designing Our Own Graves.” Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Arch, 2009. 115-118.
Smith, Joan K. "Giant Monkeys In Sagmeister's Soul." Eye (0960779X) 21.83 (2012): 95-97.
van der Velden, Daniel. “Research & Destroy: A Plea for Design as Research.”
Ings, Welby. "Managing Heuristics As A Method Of Inquiry In Autobiographical Graphic Design Theses." International Journal Of Art & Design Education 30.2 (2011): 226-241. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Creative Essay Series | Humanist Design

Creative Essay Series | Humanist Design

It is possible to envision a future where the classes aren’t structured around a particular job? But instead a multidisciplinary creative educati Read More