The value of graphic design

Matt McGillvray
10 min readApr 20, 2020

I’ve written before about how the importance of graphic design—and commercial art as a whole—requires a renewed set of ethical standards for the industry but I want to write now about the importance of the value of graphic design, or to be more exact, how important it is that graphic design creates value.

The alchemy of value creation

I want to talk about value. There is a lot of talk about value right now in this time of coronavirus: the value of first responders, the value of those workers in essential industries, and also, we talk about “value creators” like CEOs and the like. It’s an important time right now. A lot of us are home, many are unemployed (like myself right now), and surely most of us are beginning to think about what the world—or what value—might look like when all of this is over. We probably have some time as an industry to look at what we want to look like as well.

I’m sure you’ve seen that many of our biggest industries are asking for and getting bailouts right now, supposedly because to let them fail would be catastrophic. “Too big to fail” all over again. But it’s these same entities that in times of plenty are celebrated as wellsprings of value. Now, they “need” our help to just merely exist. It’s absolute garbage, of course: they have plenty—they just want more so they don’t have to risk. And that is why I want to talk about value. Too often as a culture, we view value the same way we view smoke: “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” becomes “where there’s money, there’s value.” That is to say, value in that sense has a half-life like uranium-238.

This is not an essay about the pros and cons of capitalism, or speculation, or risk-taking versus investment. This is an essay about redefining value and our relationship to value as graphic designers and commercial artists.

Let’s start with the typical genesis of value though, shall we? Where does it come from and who should get the credit? To answer that, take a look at the world’s current richest human, Jeff Bezos. His story is the stuff of textbook, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps gumption and determination: starting his empire from his garage, working by himself, and probably sleeping at his desk all for good measure.

What exactly, did Bezos create though? Start by eliminating what he had going for him before he ever opened the garage door: what he had was established infrastructures—the internet, professional shipping companies, and postal workers—he had a $250,000 investment from his parents, he had an expensive education and he had a roof over his head. Not everyone with an idea starts off with that much going for them. Now, what was all Bezos?: The idea of selling books that others created via the internet. That’s not nothing; it’s a novel idea that used the internet for something it wasn’t really used much for before then—commerce. These distinctions are important. Look at this quote from Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s American Amnesia¹ on Apple’s development of the iPhone. Notice any similarities?

“Look inside that iPhone, and you’ll find that nearly all its major components (GPS, lithium-ion batteries, cellular technology, touch-screen and LCD displays, internet connectivity) rest on research that was publicly funded—and in some cases, carried out directly by government agencies. Jobs and his creative team transformed all this into something unique, and uniquely valuable.”

Do you see it? The creation process doesn’t involve making something from nothing—that is truly rare—the creation process often is the reorganization of existing ideas and objects; value can be found in that rearranging.

So, I’ve been thinking about a re-definition of graphic design that isn’t dependent on things like big-brand redesigns and trendy -isms because those are fleeting. What is graphic design really in it’s most fundamental sense? Here’s my proposed definition: graphic design is the practice of reorganizing content in such a way as to create value. Bezos and Jobs didn’t use some magic spell to create value out of nothing—only the Fed can do that—they saw a potential that was unseen, or underutilized, in existing objects and exploited it to their (and, arguably, our) benefit. I want to argue that we as designers do the same thing every day. Our process is theirs on a smaller, more democratized scale, only, we’re expected to do it every day for much less money and praise. Graphic design in that proposed sense is a form of alchemy, transforming leaden content into gold through skill in the use of typography, photography, color, composition, and creativity.

There is one thing though: those traditional value creators/titans of industry usually need someone to package up their novel ideas nicely. Bezos didn’t come up with the smirk/arrow in Amazon’s logo, a designer did. I’ve written before that we have a power inherent in our positions as commercial artists, and that has become clearer to me as I’ve thought more about the responsibilities we have as makers; that is where I stumbled upon the realization that we are quite literally, value creators. Not all value is a net positive for everyone though and that should not be ignored. Quite the opposite: We have to be aware of what affects our work has on people’s lives because some of our creations have the potential to unleash some pretty dark forces.

Not all value is positive

Remember Michael Dukakis? He ran for president in 1988 against George H. W. Bush. Bush’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, had an idea to sink Dukakis’s presidential bid; you see, during Dukakis’s first term as governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill that would have ended the practice of allowing weekend passes to prisoners convicted of first-degree murder. Subsequently, one inmate, Willie Horton, raped a woman and stabbed her partner while on furlough during Dukakis’s second term. Atwater’s plan was, essentially, to make Horton’s name synonymous with Dukakis’s by associating him with Horton’s crime (a tragedy to be sure, but a statistically rare one). I will not link to the ad as it has been seen enough, but you can Google it if you are really curious. The important part, for the purposes of this essay, is that the ad worked as intended.

The ad that was produced effectively ended Dukakis’s bid for president by playing on racist fears and on manipulating emotions. The truth was that Horton was an incredibly rare and violent outlier in the program he was a part of. The furlough program had a 99% success rate², but it’s successes in reducing recidivism rates we’re ignored for a sensationalist attack meant to stoke fear and hatred. Dukakis became associated with being soft-on-crime, instead of, for instance, being progressive on the issue of an inmate’s reintroduction to society. Perception matters. I’ve written before that “what we don’t create can be as beneficial as what we do create,” but in this case, not creating the ad, not creating the negative value of dividing people, would have been better. If the Bush campaign had wanted to win, they certainly could have tried to do it on actual policy positions without manipulation. Atwater later in life apologized for the “naked cruelty” of the ad.

I don’t know who physically edited the ad; who did the sound balancing and selection of the footage, who did the script. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that creatives acted on an idea that led to an increase in fear. What matters is that this one ad has led to decades of politicians being petrified to be labeled “soft-on-crime.” Politicians and would-be politicians have been tough (or not) on crime before that ad, but now they have to contend with the fear of having a similar ad made about them if they run the “risk” of being too soft. The Horton ad was a dark mark on Bush’s campaign and a low point in modern politics (and campaign artmaking) as a whole. Atwater’s idea should have been rejected outright by everyone in the campaign and every creative involved should have refused to be a part of on principle. That is our responsibility as the alchemists that transform ideas into objects.

Creating to defend and uplift

On the positive side of things, consider the CultureStrike Coalition National Campaign. Organized by Bay Area activist Favianna Rodriguez and writer Jeff Chang, among others, they formed in 2011 to protest Arizona’s SB 1070 bill that would have enacted brutal measures to curb immigration. The idea behind the campaign was that meaningful changes in our attitudes about social or political issues could be produced by artists and creatives because artists are the ones that have the power to disseminate information in compelling ways. They recognized that the simple alchemy-like power of reorganization and innovation are the hallmarks of value creators.

CultureStrike expanded from Arizona to take on many other topics like equal rights, politics, the power of Wall Street and more. They’ve fought to increase the pay for Walmart employees and their “Ecological Justice project cultivates a network of diverse artists to tell new stories about who is affected by climate change and how ecological devastation affects migrant communities and communities of color.”³

On that same spectrum of positive value creation are the type designing duo of Mark Jamra and Neil Patel of JamraPatel, out of Portland, Maine. (Mark, who also is a professor at the Maine College of Art, taught me when I was a student there.) In 2014 they began work on an ambitious project to create a typeface, called Kigelia, that could “help promote literacy and commerce in Africa.⁴” In Africa, many languages are spoken by the many different people groups across the continent. However, many of the fonts that service those languages were of poor quality and availability. Literacy in Africa was poor because the language that was spoken by many was not what was available to be read—many official signs and documents are printed in languages like English or French, or, in other words, the language of the colonizers—and this negatively affected literacy rates.

Jamra and Patel created a typographic system that included 10 fonts that cover the written languages of Ge’ez, N’ko, Tifinagh, Adlam, Arabic & Ajami, Vai, Osmanya, and also includes support for Latin-, Greek-, and Cyrillic-based languages as well. Hundreds of millions of people are served by this type system that were grossly underserved before and the pair developed apps like calculators that allow native users of the language to perform simple tasks on their phones in their own language.

Kigelia’s availability was widened all the more by being licensed by Microsoft and it will be included in their Office apps. The ability to have materials to read in their own language has increased literacy levels. What’s more is that the fonts stand to include more people in the active development of their cultures as they now have a mode of communication that was made with them in mind and with the help of their elders, scholars, and historians.

Going forward

Back to today; to a world waiting to get back to something like normal. We’re not exactly sure when that will be. We’re praising the efforts of workers doing jobs that are just plain dangerous right now and “thanking” them as a society by temporarily paying them a wage that should be the bare minimum that anyone should get at any time. What exactly is normal, and do we really want to go back?

Designers and artists are value creators; we have the ability to make or break internet shipping companies, cell phone manufacturers, and even presidential candidates by creating or multiplying value where there was little or none before. That value doesn’t ebb away when times are tough. Our skillset doesn’t get a bailout, but every bailout you read about will be on a medium that is created by designers. We have a valuable skillset, so let’s not let the opportunity pass to throw our weight behind the future we want to see.

Designers will be needed to make the ads that we see after any future economy is reinvigorated; we’re going to make the marketing that signals to everyone that it is safe to spend again. They’ll need us just as much as we’ll need them. But we don’t have to flock again to big brands and Adobe and whatever else. There are plenty of organizations (profit or non-profit), affiliations, companies, and partnerships that are looking for creative work. There are social issues that need a designer’s eye and political campaigns that need ethical graphic artists. What do you want to see succeed and what needs to be relinquished to history?

Personally, I want to see fairer elections happen, a society that prioritizes more equitability in human and civil rights arenas, and to see more organizations that combat the climate crisis. I’d like to see less of a reliance on a parasitic capitalist system, less dominance on big corporations when defining things like legislation, regulation, and even success as it comes to a career in commercial art. When I’m able to get back into the job market after this, those are goals that I want to aim for when it comes to choosing where to work. That’s a privileged perspective and honestly, one that the job market may forcibly change for me, but that’s my plan. I’m dumping Adobe Creative Cloud and saying hello to Affinity’s products. I’m trying to reach out to organizations that I respect, and whose missions reflect my values to find out how I can be a part of their team in the future.

Coronavirus will pass. And that will leave everyone with some choices to make; commercial artist, billionaire inventor, or whomever else. We could go back to burning more fossil fuels, and in turn, designing more collateral for ExxonMobil. Or we could design the new world that we want to see. This is an inflection point—let’s not waste it.

¹American Amnesia, Introduction: Prosperity Lost, page 3.

²Prisoners of Politics, by Rachel Elise Barkow, Introduction, page 6.




Matt McGillvray

Graphic/Web Designer | Portland, Maine. Writing about ethics in design and working on a book about the intersection between design activism & the climate crisis