Conscious Creativity: How to shape the future of our industry

Across a series of opinion pieces this week we’ll be exploring how a more conscious approach to creativity is needed now more than ever.


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In 2014 the artist Katie Paterson began planting the Future Library, a forest in Norway to supply the paper for an anthology of books which neither you nor I, nor anyone we currently know, will ever read. Each year between now and 2114 a writer will contribute an original text to be hidden away, “unread and unpublished”, until 100 years after Katie first planted the seed of the idea.

By all accounts the Future Library is a selfless and thought-provoking concept, one which treasures the power in creativity. It also works perfectly with literature as an art form. But it led us to wonder what a similar concept would produce if applied to the wider creative industry. If faced with a time capsule holding the current output of design, photography, advertising and tech in 100 years, would we be proud or ashamed of our approach? What would we even collectively deem worthy of putting inside?

As a platform that writes about creativity every day, it’s pretty obvious that we are firm believers that the industry holds power. There is a need for what we do – interpreting thoughts, feelings and facts and turning them into tangible visual creations that speak to everyone. It is necessary and genuinely useful work. It also looks nice. But over the decades pockets of our industry have continuously turned a blind eye to where the briefs, clients and resources are coming from, and what negative impacts we could be contributing to on a larger scale. This year has seen much of this behaviour – some by us, the generations before us and the wider economic system we operate within – begin to crumble in on itself. When it comes to discussing ethics we have a tendency to push the problem onto someone else, someone “worse”, but it inevitably finds its way back to us, both in the scale of environmental damage we cause and the way our work can impact individuals and communities.

It goes without saying that ethics in creativity has long impassioned (and exercised) generations of designers. The notable, much-discussed example is Ken Garland’s First Things Manifesto which, both in 1964 and 2000, saw a group of designers put forward a promise to use their creativity meaningfully. It’s a powerful piece of design history and because of that has been picked apart for both what it says and how a number (not all) of its contributors couldn’t keep their ethical promises.

For Lucienne Roberts, a signee in 2000 who has continuously questioned our industry in her studio, publishing house, and her book Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, people’s reaction to the manifesto is a clear reflection of the ethical complexities of being a creative. “For example, I love corporate identity manuals from the 60s and 70s as much as anyone else. I love them as objects, the way they demonstrate how graphic design is far-reaching, powerful and important,” she says. “But at the same time, I find them horribly top-down and I am really uncomfortable with the corporate world that they represent.” It is, however, as Lucienne suggests, possible to hold these ideas in one’s head at the same time. “I wonder if the problem with First Things First is that people assume it presents decision-making as black and white, whereas ethical dilemmas are often full of greys.”

There are several shades of these greys Lucienne refers to, calling for us to educate ourselves on the political and economic discourse within which creativity operates, to question the value of what we do and how to make it better for everyone, as well as hold on to the hopeful reasons many of us entered this industry in the first place.

Thinking about her first steps into the industry, the designer recalls a feeling of obviousness that “graphic design is the form of visual arts that everyone sees and uses,” she says. “It’s all about disseminating messages, it’s there to incite change. That might be buying something, reading something, or turning left instead of right, but in all design there is intent and in the case of graphic design the intention is to change behaviour. With that comes responsibility. Even from being much younger I thought it wrong to be passive about this,” the designer continues. “The idea that you take a brief and do as you’re told never sat comfortably with me at all. In fact, this idea was what I thought gave graphics its potency and value, that it can make a difference. It’s also the thing that makes decision making difficult.”

Within this decision making there is always context and, as commentators poking in, it is not our place to assume we ever fully understand. The ups and downs of this year have of course shaken our industry, and now more than ever we must think kindly of the financial and social reasons an individual may accept a job or carry out a piece of work, before judging them on what we perceive. At the same time, accountability of how that work is then handled also matters more than ever, and it is necessary that creatives, producers, writers and management approach their work consciously.

In a year that has also thrown up much uncertainty, it is also easy to become disheartened. We understand and relate to a feeling of “what difference does it really make” if larger companies, or the heads at the top, do not take the same steps as others in the chain of creative production. Yet, “we have to believe that we have some agency, otherwise it’s just such a depressing concept,” Lucienne says. “I want to be true to yourself. I’ve got to know that when the time comes I can go to my grave thinking I’ve done the right thing by my standards – you know, a feeling of peace that I tried.” The designer also offers a perfect example while referencing the Suffragettes: “There weren’t many of them actually, but they achieved what they set out to do.”

Over the course of this week we’ll be publishing a series of pieces discussing and pushing for a more conscious approach to creativity. Mostly written from the perspective of individuals and their own lived experiences, these articles touch on advertising and fashion, the actual emotions of working in Silicon Valley and the responsibility to create representative work no matter the form it takes.

We also take a look at structural difficulties surrounding the creative industry. We’ll see writer Dave O’Brien advocate for a complete rethink towards creative labour in order to tackle low or no-pay jobs. The need for a collective shift is presented by Deepa Keshvala – laying bare how “The system doesn’t function without cooperation together for everyone” – through to a wider look at the judgement we pass on one another with artist Yumna Al-Arashi outlining her belief that “I cannot and should not blame the individual for an institutional problem.” These are not snap judgements or accusatory pieces, but opinions formed over years of witnessing prevailing behaviours in an industry, offering the possibility for change.

As a team we have been overwhelmed by the honesty and bravery of our contributors. And while we do not assume that publishing these pieces will offer all the answers, it is our responsibility as a commentator on this industry to open up the conversation critically on the environment in which the work we cover is made. If lucky enough to be unearthed in 100 years by those we pass the baton to, we hope they see we were willing to ask these questions and give them a forum.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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