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Why I'm Starting a Blog 20 Years Too Late: Or the Life and Death of Art Businessman

About ten years ago I drove to Houston to help my Mom move. The night before the movers came I stayed up late talking with her and my sister, looking through old boxes of wrinkled artwork, forgotten pictures, broken trophies and piles of schoolwork.

Somewhere in a stack of worksheets with handwriting dating it circa first-grade I came across a single sheet of paper with a simple question and two answers.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?

As someone perpetually questioning what they're doing in both life overall and general day-to-day existence this was the jackpot. I had already mined my childhood for clues, but this, this was a direct solution. If not answers, at least it would give me insight into 6-year-old-me's take on the question.

1) Baseball player

I loved baseball growing up. If I wasn't playing on a team or with friends or neighborhood kids, I would play a game by myself bouncing a tennis ball – or if I was lucky enough to have one, a racquetball – against the neighbor's house. They had a large windowless brick wall running parallel to our driveway. Bless their hearts, they never once complained of the hour upon hour daily thoomping. This one corner of a brick, about knee-high, happened to jut out in a way that when a ball hit just right it would careen high into the air onto the roof of our garage. A home run. This is how I learned to pitch. The thing is, these memories are from when I was 9 or 10, around when I started getting good at baseball. I always correlated my love for the game with my success playing it. Not for the game itself, but the rewards of winning. At six I sucked. I picked flowers in right-field. Chosen last. Batted last. My parents had to convince me to keep playing. So this was refreshing. It was nice to be proven wrong. Look, the love came first. I'm not a cynical person after all. At least not in first grade. What's next?

2) In the art business

The art business? What kind of kid wants to be in the art business? An art dealer? A critic? I loved making art. I would draw for hours at a time, tongue out, time melting away. An artist and baseball player seemed about right. But the art business, what the fuck is that?

But I knew. Art business is the rational of a 6-year-old who's told you can't be an artist when you grow up. The rationale of a boy whose economics-degreed, suit-wearing, golf-playing, businessman dad – who himself grew up with four sisters and a single mom in a trailer home – who the boy looks up to and loves very much, tells him you don't make any money in art. So it's a compromise. We do it all the time. But when you see pessimism and hedged dreams come out of a jumbo pencil – your jumbo pencil – it's a punch in the gut. It takes your breath away. It's heart-breaking. It might also be the first indication that you'll grow up to be a designer.

The Journey from Ball Player to Art Businessman

Ten years later and I haven't stopped thinking about that answer. I realize this simple Q&A sums up my my string of jobs, my career ups and downs, my day-to-day struggle. It's my secret life-path algorithm. My own personal IP.

My childhood and teenage years can be summarized as Ball Player vs Artist. One vs Two. If you're a 14-year-old 6-footer in Texas who is good at football, okay at basketball and very good/potentially-great at baseball, art isn't something you spend a lot of time making. This was fine with me. I loved sports. They weren't forced upon me. Athletics and art are both considered extracurricular, and I just didn't have time for both. Athletics gained you access to popular circles, (most) teachers' graces and attractive girls. People of a certain age treat you with this strange type of respect verging on reverence. Art puts you on the fringe. You're an outsider. Different. Weird. In hindsight that place looks wonderful and interesting and where I wish I had been. But to teenage me it was simply too scary. I wasn't brave enough to do both. It wasn't even a tough decision. Baseball won. Until I started losing.

Once I realized I didn't have a million dollar arm, or even a scholarship arm, I waited for high school to end. College became the battleground for the "What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up" question. A battle for the number two slot. It was between art and art-business, which is how I ended up in advertising. An art degree wasn't an option due to my lack of support/lack of balls situation. After getting weeded out of pre-med I stumbled upon a shortcut to graphic design, or what I was starting to learn was graphic design. In Texas many people still referred to it as commercial art. But what I studied wasn't proper design, or commercial art for that matter, it was Art Direction in the context of Creative Advertising. It was all big-idea concepts, selling and out-clevering the next guy. All business and no craft. Turns out it was an excellent education for the world of design.

By the time I graduated I came to my senses. Twenty-two-year-old-me believed advertising was the devil's work, but the internet was from heaven. Advertising was for corporations. The internet for the people. So I learned HTML and got a job at an interactive design studio making apps delivered on CD-ROMs attached to the back of textbooks. My business card said Designer. The descendent of commercial artists. A real Art Businessman. I had made it.

Design = Art (Business)/Art

Advertising is not art. Pretty much everyone but junior creatives realize this. Everyone knows where advertising stands. It is what it is and we accept it as part of our culture and economic system. Always intrusive, constantly evolving but still recognizable, sometimes funny and entertaining, we put up with advertising because it drives so much of what we love: newspapers, magazines, television, the internet, radio, podcasts. We get entertainment for free and pay with our attention. It's a great deal. It's the pesky bird on the ass of the elephant we love. It's the rich uncle who pays for family vacations and gets drunk and funny.

Design on the other hand is relatively new. It's still mysterious. We're obsessed with it, yet we don't really know how to define it. Where advertising creates hopes and dreams we didn't know we had, design ingrains our hopes and dreams into products while removing frustrations before we know we had them. If advertising is our rich uncle we put up with, design is that attractive cousin we have powerful, confused feelings about. Advertising lives outside of the core business. It's external, like clothes. Design needs to be interwoven, inseparable from the core. Design is internal. An organ. Blood.

Many people more intelligent than myself think design is art. Or can be. I won't debate it. In theory any craft can be elevated to an art-form. I can only speak to my experience, which is this: what I've been doing for the past 17 years is purely business. There is no art in it, but it's easy to fool yourself. There's enough visual problem solving, sketchbooks and color palettes to let year after year after year go by before you realize what has happened.

And like athletic ability in a teenage Texan, today's society values design. There are rewards to be reaped. Inner circles to join. Reverence abounds. While I'm a pretty good designer, I'm a shitty businessman. Despite this I've succeeded enough to be comfortable, to support a family, to work with friends, to have my own company. I've been successful enough to make the compromise seemingly worth it, to make 6-year-old me happy, and my father right. But it's not, and they're wrong.

For the Game Itself. This is That.

The only craft I know worth a damn is design. In particular digital design, web design, interactive design, interface design, product design, whatever-you-want-to-call-it design. I love design. It's just taken me a long time, too long, to realize what many successful designers figured out long ago. Whatever creative or artistic aspirations you have need to be left at the door. Or better, let loose in their own space. Away from clients. Away from requirements. Away from invoices and spreadsheets and meetings and presentations.

This isn't me turning design into art. It's me taking the business out of design. I'm here to play. I'll invite the neighborhood, but even if it's just me, I'll be here, throwing the ball against the wall, aiming for that corner brick.