Goodbye to the Art Ball

April 22, 2010

Tags: design thinking

Since the inception of design, the myth of the black-clad, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overworked designer has been the Romantic ideal. Where I went to school, these slumped, hung-over, chain-smoking designers perched on studio stools all over the design building. We called them Art Balls. Gender didn't factor in. Sometimes a studio looked like it had been taken over by these black blobs with four metal legs.

Designers-- graphic, game, motion, apparel, architectural, or interior-- have amazingly sensitive antennae that pick up the smallest social indications about what they should act like, what they should emulate and how they want to be perceived. In response, they become semiotic semaphores, signaling their hipster-ness, their nonconformism, their sensitivity or, alternatively, their conservative modernism, their neo-modernism or their eclecticism through their clothing and their actions.

Is it a left-over pose from the myth of the Romantic Hero-- the wild-eyed painter swashing away at his "Liberty Leading the People?" Is it a feint at the garb of shamanism? At dividing oneself from the "average" person in order to retain mystic connection to powers greater than Self? Is it a hangover from the avant-garde of 100 years ago, a monk-like resistance to the luxury and lures of the comfortable bourgeoisie? Or is it the stance of the basement guitar hero who knows, deep inside, that no girls will ever scream for him?

Embracing and living the Art Ball life of chain-smoking, energy-drinks and alcohol may be a pleasant way to form an identity at 19, but if you're living that way at thirty you're going to have all the mental freshness of a Goodwill sofa. By 40 you'll be enjoying a Thorazine highball daily between managing hacking cough-spasms and auto-dialing your ex, begging for permission to see the kids. Rock stars don't need to come up with new ideas all the time. Like restaurant chefs, they perfect perhaps 40 standard recipes and spend their lives repeating them to different audiences. Not so the designer. Every pancake is a new pancake; every song a new song, sung once.

So here's an idea. Design could start to value the idea of the happy, balanced designer. I know. It sounds so wrong. The entire structure of design is against happiness and balance in its practitioners. What would we talk about if we didn't talk about how tired we were, how overworked, how busy, how stressed? Imagine knowing a designer that wasn't hurting himself in some way. Such a designer would turn the whole mythology of design on its head. Which needs to happen. Because, let's face it, if a designer does not understand what it takes to sustain Self and spirit, do you really want his taking on designing sustainable things? For sustainable things, at this point, are really the only interesting design things.

And so I press you to take heed of the Committee for Happy American Designers at They've had enough of the old Art Ball paradigm. They're swimming upstream, relearning how to eat, sleep, design, play and connect with other people--not just machines----all in the same 24-hour period. Shocking, I know. Radical. And it's an uphill fight, what with most of the art directors in the world having been schooled in the old "hurt yourself" mythology. It could be crushed or it could be the beginning of something better than what we've got now. Sustainable design must start with teaching designers to sustain their own lives, their heart. I'm with them: It's time we say goodbye to the Art Ball.


  1. April 22, 2010 3:36 PM EDT
    Might be an increase in credibility with clients, too. Happier and better business, too! A virtuous cycle if there ever was one.
    - Pam Heath
  2. April 23, 2010 12:02 PM EDT
    I hope I still get to wear black.
    I wonder what other professions have these hero myths (besides professional sports, which are some of the hero's thousand faces that Joseph Campbell never imagined). What, for example, is the cable guy whom all other cable guys aspire to be?
    - Jared Pechacek
  3. April 26, 2010 6:40 AM EDT
    Goodbye and good riddance! The best designers have a mature head on their shoulders. To survive you need to pace yourself. As a designer approaching 40 my perspective (backwards and forwards) is better than ever and I refuse to be a slave to the some misguided idea of what a 'successful' designer is.
    - Matthew Black
  4. April 26, 2010 5:34 PM EDT
    I am behind this one hundred percent.
    I'm sick of hung over, caffeinated designers in the morning, they just become a big ball of nerves. Just wake up and breathe for 10 minutes everyday. Make your personal sustainable goal not about using more tap water or walking more, try making it more about being mindful in your daily routine, everything else will make sense.
    - chris
  5. April 26, 2010 7:21 PM EDT
    I often get frustrated by the assumption that if you aren't working 16 hours a day, you aren't "passionate about design". I think it's time to start encouraging students to define their own practice instead of walking the same well worn paths.
    - Anonymous
  6. April 27, 2010 5:17 PM EDT
    I'm over it when it comes to the design stereotype. It's been done, practiced and is a short lived bore. I had an epiphany a bit ago that one must create boundaries for themselves in every aspect of their life. A passion for design isn't about how many hours of sleep you sacrificed, honestly nobody cares and the only person you are hurting is unfortunately yourself. The answer really is about being honest with the self and this comes down to simplifying the life with what you can handle with time management and finding other interests. Practicing these concepts will not only make you create more efficiently but you will also be more well-rounded, which is the recipe for interesting design. I know that I've already started to rebrand myself, I can't wait until other designers choose to do the same.
    - Ashley Hjalseth
  7. April 28, 2010 1:33 AM EDT
    I think everyone needs a goddamn tropical vacation...

    and coconut body lotion and board shorts.

    - Kieran
  8. May 1, 2010 5:56 AM EDT
    Am I the only one who hasn't seen much of this? I've taught at universities for the most part but even when I taught at art schools, the students didn't seem to try to live up to the stereotypes, for the most part. The working graphic designers I know run the proverbial gamut, too.
    - Gunnar Swanson
  9. May 12, 2010 12:49 AM EDT
    Gunnar, you are far too balanced to ever have fallen for this stuff the way I and so many others have. No, wait. Weren't you wearing all-black and just putting out a cigarette the last time I saw you?
    - Natalia
  10. May 26, 2010 1:02 PM EDT
    This is the most radical idea I've ever heard, to which I can only say...rat own!
    - pete

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