An actionable guide to mindfulness and practical ethics for any creative professional who wants to make a living without selling their soul.
It can be difficult to live according to our values in a complicated world. At a time when capitalism seems most unforgiving but the need for paying work remains high, it is important to learn how we can be more mindful and intentional about our impact — personal, social, economic, and environmental.
As designer and creative director Kelly Small had to do to navigate a crisis of ethics and burnout in their career in advertising, we can admit our complicity in problematic systems and take on the responsibility of letting our own conscience guide our decisions.
Start with one or many of these 100+ rigorously researched, ultra-practical action steps:
- Co-create and collaborate
- Get obsessed with accessibility
- Demand diverse teams
- Commit to self-care
- Make ethics a competitive edge
- Be mindful of privilege
- Create for empowerment, not exploitation
With a humorous and irreverent tone, Small reveals how when we release unnecessary judgement and become action-oriented, we can clarify the complicated business of achieving an ethical practice in the creative industries. Discover the power of incremental, positive changes in our daily work-lives and the fulfillment of purposeful work.
About the author
KELLY SMALL (they/them) is an award-winning creative director, designer, educator, and author whose career is driven by the pursuit of practical action toward ethical, inclusive, and sustainable futures. Founder of creative agency Intents & Purposes, professor of design ethics with the School of Design at George Brown College, and affiliated design researcher with Emily Carr University, Kelly holds an interdisciplinary master’s in design and received the Governor General’s Gold Medal for their research into the ethics of commercial creative practice. Currently authoring a book about practical ethics for a youth audience, Kelly lives in Toronto with their wife, Dahlia, bonus kid, Evan, and dog, Richie.
Excerpt: The Conscious Creative: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work (by (author) Kelly Small)
Acknowledge Your Role in the System
Say it with me: “My name is ________________ and I’m a tool of capitalism.” A vital first step toward an ethical practice is being aware of and owning our roles within a troublesome consumption-machine and the human, animal, and environmental consequences that come along with that. Being aware of the impact of the systems within which we operate can empower us with an enriched understanding of the work that we do and, hopefully, help us advocate for change. There is a fine line between being aware of issues and being crushed by the weight of the systemic problems we face. Aim for the former to stay in a headspace of action and empowerment, and remember, we can’t single-handedly save the world in one profound act. What we can do is implement some of the actions outlined in this book, and develop some of our own, to effect incremental change toward a more equitable world.
Help your Audience Live (Mentally) Healthily
Over the years there have been all sorts of sketchy ways the creative industries have been complicit in manufacturing needs. The practice of manipulating audience behaviour has become increasingly stealthy through the use of things like dark patterns (manipulative interface designs that trick users into doing things they may not have wanted to do), the repetitive hyper-targeting and re-targeting of ads and past-viewed products, and addictive experiences in digital product design. Aiming to identify and avoid these modes of practice is a key step toward an ethical practice.
I would argue that we can’t be conscious creatives if we’re exploiting self-esteem to sell a product, infusing fat-phobia into our marketing messages, advertising nutritionally void foods to kids, producing experiences that capitalize on a dopamine/reward response, selling high fashion using violent, misogynistic imagery, or promoting mindless consumption. These ethical pitfalls aren’t always simple to avoid, however mindful awareness, positive intentions, and advocating for the promotion of healthy behaviours in our audiences are steps in the right direction.
Make it Analogue
When creating with objectives toward developing strong and connected communities, consider that reliance on or defaulting to a technology-based solution might not serve our cause well. Social Innovation leader Ezio Manzini believes that a community’s reliance on digital connectivity can actually weaken a once-solid social fabric. This replacement of authentic, real-world connections with connections based in superficial, digital realms can, arguably, compromise a community’s resilience. If technology is necessary in your creative work, ensure it plays a supporting role and never replaces face-to-face human connection.
Acknowledge The Privilege of Ethical Practice
Let’s promise to stop judging the people around on us whose choices we don’t perceive to be ethical. Having the ability to make socially and environmentally conscious decisions can be steeped in a privilege not universally shared. For example: ethically made materials, resources, food, and fashion often come at a higher price point and are therefore inaccessible to many people. To have the choice to work for an ethical employer often demands earning a college education, which requires financial means and intellectual aptitude. Advocating for change can require long hours, emotional labour, mental fortitude, and a requirement for presence in collective action not always available to those whose safety, mental health, or physical health may be compromised. To be supportive allies in the pursuit of a better world, we must start with an understanding of the complex systems that can impact our abilities to act. When we withdraw judgment from other people’s choices, we can remember to do the same for ourselves. Usually we are doing the best we can with the awareness and the resources we have at the time.
What Kelly Small brings to the table is a healthy dose of both inspiration and practicality … Kelly Small’s personal story is an inspiration in itself, shared throughout the book with candour and courage. If you’re a creative searching for cleaner, healthier, and socially just ways to practice, you’ll not find a better place to start looking. And the timing couldn’t be better.
Kelly Small’s experience as a former creative director provides valuable insight … Small’s thorough breakdown of ethical concerns in the workplace can benefit anyone wanting to grow as an ally in a nation rife with issues of disparity.