Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's not Graphic Design. It's Commercial Art.

It's time to stop saying graphic designer, unless you mean it. If you are training to become or educated to be an Art Director, (see below) say that. Besides, these days "everyone thinks they are a graphic designer."

Everyone else who gets money for their art is a commercial artist. Commercial art is how you make a living. Your mother understands commercial art. The Occupational Outlook Handbook, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has it pretty right.
Artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay, and computers. Artists’ works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

Artists generally fall into one of four categories.

Art directors formulate design concepts and presentation approaches for visual communications.

Craft artists create or reproduce handmade objects for sale or exhibition.

Fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators, create original artwork, using a variety of media and techniques.

Multi-media artists and animators create special effects, animation, or other visual images on film, on video, or with computers or other electronic media. (Designers, including graphic designers, are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)

You can check out the what else the BLS has to say about Artists here.

The related occupations:
Other workers who apply artistic skills include architects, except landscape and naval; archivists, curators, and museum technicians; commercial and industrial designers; fashion designers; floral designers; graphic designers; interior designers; jewelers and precious stone and metal workers; landscape architects; photographers; and woodworkers. Some workers who use computers extensively, including computer software engineers and desktop publishers, may require art skills.
I would include one more: The Bullshit Artist. More commonly known as the Sales Person. The BLS calls it Sales Engineer.

It's funny. Design schools used to be Art schools. Then they became all focused on "professional preparation" and forgot that they were Art schools. Maybe because Art was a hard sell to parents. Or that no self-respecting admin wants to say their outfit teaches commercial art. Or in the rush to teach "computer skills" they forgot the point.

More recently the buzz is Liberal Arts. "We've got to teach the students theory." Meanwhile there are very few in the liberal arts faculties who understand what theory is anyway. And "talk and chalk" teaching is pretty broken. And the reality is that the most efficient way to get learning to happen is 1. doing 2. thinking about what and why you're doing it. 3.Do it some more. Sounds like making art to me.

But whatever the reason, Art schools stopped using the right word to describe what they do.

It's ironic that the successful professionals are Artists. And every kid who wants to get in the field wants to become a great Artist. And the most sustainable path going forward is to be a self - employable Artist.

Some schools have figured it out. Sooner or later all the schools will figure it out. Or they won't be able to charge $30,000 a year to learn to be a graphic designer, much less a commercial Artist.

Is it this?


Or is it this?


The correct answer is yes.

11 comments:

  1. Coming from you that means something.

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  2. For an interesting take on the value of arts education, see John Maeda, the new president of RISD and his blog

    -MJ

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  3. This is not a new idea.

    Back about 40 years ago, "commercial artist" was the term used to describe someone who worked as a paste-up artist, illustrator, or art director in an ad agency or did that work in a corporate "art department."

    Noel Ward

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  4. When the future is very unclear, I always think the best approach is to go back to basics...and clear out alot of the bs that is no longer applicable.

    It's rule 2: keep the bullshit to a minimum.

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  5. Noel -
    Here's how I think it works.

    The activity of commercial artist/graphic designer has changed in the last forty years. Mostly becoming much more specialized as the barrier to entry for each sub activity became higher and higher.

    But, no the barrier to entry is so low that almost anyone can create a page or a website or use photoshop or ...

    Meanwhile, professionals are invested with keeping "Graphic Designer".

    Can you image a commercial artist as being cool? or going to fancy conventions as a commercial artist? Or, back in the good old days (circa 1999) getting $100,000 for a website? or a video? Or being a Professor of Commercial Art? Or the Adobe Network of Commercial Artists?

    Not a surprise that the word is around even after it has stopped usefully describing anything in the real world.

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  6. Really? I agree “graphic designer” doesn’t describe reality anymore, but is “Commercial artist” the best term? I have a couple of qualms with your proposal:

    1) Aren’t you replacing the ambiguity of “graphic designer” with the even MORE ambiguous term “artist?” When you introduce this term, one is forced to have to define what we mean by “artist,” and most likely, have to define “art.” “Art” is far from an agreed concept, so you’re not helping the conversation with this term.

    2) It’s ironic that you choose to define the value of ‘graphic designers” with its relationship to “Art”, since the dilemmas of “graphic design” exist in “Art”— both are traditionally defined by its medium. This is what gave these terms meaning at one time. Graphic design was linked with offset printing and Art was defined as oil painting, marble sculpture, poetry, etc. Not only was there a concrete link to medium, there was a clear ideology and social norms in both graphic design and art. Modernism for Graphic Design, Classicism for Art. Once again, something obliterated for several decades, if not more.

    With that said, I do agree that “graphic design” is a useless term now, mainly because the activities that were once defined using the term “graphic design” is at the same time being pulled “left” and “right”; between “craft” and “communication.” There are those that create caches of value in a specific craft that was once in the sphere of graphic design (type design/ illustration/ photography/etc.), and at the same time, the strategies and tactics of communication, mixed with a growing demand for measurable profit, are being pushed to specific professionals (brand managers, public relations, etc.). Now people do exist between the two extreme ends on this schema, but naturally they feel stressed by a real loss of their power and value over time. Most of the responses to this stress are less then productive and enter the realm of bullshit, but the fact this stress and anxiety exists is quite real.

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  7. Thomas,

    Here's the thing. We could get into a philosophical discussion about what is an Artist, but I didn't make this up. I'm just going with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since we are talking about professional practice and education.

    We can argue about what an artist is, but here's what an artist does:

    Artists create art (stuff) to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay, and computers. Artists’ works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

    Sound about right?

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  8. Dr droock,

    And the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a source of authority on this manner?

    If anything their attempt at definition smacks of ambiguity. Its definition is a pluralistic one, and you can see the fault of this method of definition by asking "what is NOT art?" Ultimately the BLS' definition will be forced to rely on an activity as related to "Art" because simply people call it "art."

    This may be fine for the BLS' needs, but for this conversation I have to say we need more.

    "Here's the thing. We could get into a philosophical discussion about what is an Artist, but I didn't make this up."

    Doesn't the fact we would have to "get into a philosophical discussion" prove my criticism of using the term "artist"?

    "We can argue about what an artist is, but here's what an artist does:..."

    And what was Conceptual Art? Where a man get shot in the arm and the art is not in the documentation of that event, but in the event itself. The entire point of that movement was to declare art was not medium dependent, but linked to mere activity.

    You have to admit it Doc, the term "Art" is loaded and requires a lot of energy/ time to make into a useful term. Which seems counter to your "Easy Peasy" mantra I know from you ;-)

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  9. We may just have to agree to disagree. But notice that I took away the word, art and replaced it with stuff. Conceptual artists can be said to have made stuff.

    In any case, I'm sticking with the BLS. Since they have to keep track of jobs. And we're talking about jobs, it's a good enough source for these purposes.

    Other issues might be worth talking about, but not in this context, for me.

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  10. Thomas,
    I'm not happy with agree to disagree, just yet.

    Suppose we can agree that everyone can be an artist in the sense that everyone can create stuff that communicates ......

    But not everyone can produce art that others value. Or good art. Or professional art or ...

    So a commercial artist produces work that receive compensation in the communication industries.

    Do you buy it?

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