Monday, May 19, 2008

Graphic Healing

I am amazed, every day that I teach, by the sheer variety of talents my students possess. A large number of them are budding (or even working) graphic designers, and most of them are thoughtful people with ambitions that range from the practical to the lofty, and have discussed with me what they perceive as a sort of "moral danger" attached to what they do, a concern a thoughtful person might have about any field in which technology and money are involved.

What are designers to do, after lumbering themselves with a five-figure debt that will, with interest, most likely run into six figures before it's finally paid off (depending on how they've financed their education)? The easy answer is to sell out to the highest bidder, ask no questions, and do what they're told for the next few years. After that, who knows?

But some of these people are already asking tough questions. How can I do what I love without adding to the myriad problems now facing this fragile planet? Graphic design as a profession is, after all, replete with potential problems. Printing can still involve the use of toxic chemicals, not all of which are disposed of properly (although alternatives are now available). Computers themselves are hardly "green" by nature--and even the most environmentally friendly of them may outsource jobs, impact wildlife habitat, and contain chemicals and materials that will eventually find their way into the waste stream. Not only that, but advertising in particular is a field that all too frequently preys upon human insecurities by manufacturing desire. Human beings like stuff, and most of the businesses that hire designers are involved in making stuff that advertisers are hired to help them sell: whether or not it's necessary, truly useful, or environmentally benign. In the worst cases, advertisers and designers are involved in promoting causes with which the individuals involved may disagree on moral, political, or religious grounds.

It's truly difficult to make choices with the potential for world-healing in an economy that seems to be bleeding away chances for decision-making. While the supermarket shelves may be stocked with seemingly limitless choices among breakfast cereals, there's no telling how long many jobs in the companies that sell these products will be available. Not that selling sugary, chemical-laden breakfast cereal is an ideal job--but it's the kind of job agencies produce.

If you're willing to take a little longer to retire the debt, several options present themselves. Working for non-profit institutions, especially those engaged in bettering the lives of others, may not pay as well as working for Big Advertising, but it generally does pay a salary. You get to meet like-minded people, and work for change at the same time you get to use your skills and talents. But if you do have to settle for a job with The Man, you can still help by doing pro bono work for something you care about. If you freelance, you can build a clientèle of nonprofit groups by charging on a sliding scale, offering your services at lower rates for groups doing work you believe in. You can also focus a portion of your portfolio on "good works" that show off your skills and your commitment at the same time. This runs the risk of alienating folks who don't agree with your causes, but you probably wouldn't want to work for those people, anyway--right? Your portfolio should not just show off your skills; it should provide potential employers with an idea of who you are, and what motivates you.

Asking the right questions can also help make decisions about jobs. During interviews, designers can certainly ask about a company's mission, about the diversity of its workforce, about its clients. Many companies are developing "greener" policies and jumping on the environmental bandwagon as a way of promoting themselves; discussing these issues can help you determine whether their interest is superficial (purely for promotional purposes), or whether they're truly committed to lessening the company's impact on the planet.

In other words, as corporations become more and more concerned about their public images, it may be easier and easier to find jobs that don't compromise designers' priciples. When you have choices, and the best among you will always have choices (well, unless the economy completely tanks, and then we're all in trouble), opt for the job that not only matches your skillset, but is also compatible with your philosophical understanding of the world--even if it doesn't pay as much as a company that doesn't fit as well.

Employment in the field of graphic design is not, by any means, restricted to advertising. Web design, illustration, technical drawing and design, communications media, and education are all fields graphic designers enter, and some offer fewer moral challenges than others. Even if your life's ambition is to design skateboards or teeshirts, you can find yourself in a position to choose materials, and these choices can be made in terms of environmental and/or social impact. Small efforts can often produce significant results.

Think of the promotional possibilities: Joe's Earth-friendly Skateboards, sustainably built, using 85% recycled materials, or Emily's Earth-Shirts: 100% Organic Cotton and Natural Dyes. Donate part of your profits to the World Wildlife Fund or Heifer International, and you'll double your impact! Hell, I'll even buy one (tee-shirt, that is . . . don't think I'll ever get on a skateboard again).

Better yet, think even more deeply about what you're doing, and choose a path that leaves the world less full of stuff. We probably don't need more tee shirts and skateboards, after all, or at least not all that many of them. But surely we can find ways of using design talents to foster sustainable living, by reducing waste and increasing the longevity of what we manufacture. In order to find ways of living that minimize our impact on the planet, and jobs that don't add to the problems that already exist, the first step involves thinking carefully about what we want, what we need, and how we can achieve an appropriate balance between the two.

This is what education is about, and why my students have to take general education courses that introduce them to philosophical concepts related to their fields. In view of this mission, as a general studies instructor I'm assigning the following to get my graphic design and web folk headed down the right path:

In addition to my blog, please see this one: Slow Making, which considers craft as lifework, not just as employment. You might also read "Fear of Not Having Had" in the most recent issue of Orion magazine, which explores the culture of accumulation to which we belong, and raises questions that should be part of your career decision-process.

More discussion to follow. See you in class.

Photo credit: First Aid in 1920 and 1929, from the Meyers Blitz Lexikon, via Wikimedia Commons.

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