Who Are We Fighting For?

The Art Directors Club (a professional organization for designers, typographers and art directors in the advertising and design business) hosts an annual “Young Guns” competition for working professionals under 30. It’s a great organization and this intense competition has highlighted work from some of the most talented members of the design and advertising community.

Unfortunately, each year the competition’s marketing materials are more and more offensive as they rely on common themes of “staying up late”, “drinking coffee”, “eating take-out”, “wearing headphones” and “working on the weekends.” What does this mean? Is this all that we are? Young bare-knuckled designers fighting it out to see who stays latest? I like coffee but I like my weekends too! wtf?

While many of us work very hard at what we do (I like to think I’m a pretty tough worker myself), the exploitative nature of these messages is becoming clearer and clearer in a modern world where battles for maternity (and even more laughable in the US, paternity!) leave become louder and stress, shitty take-out food and basic work/life balance become part of the national health care issue.

These agencies and the ADC itself seem complicit in perpetuating this message and forcing it into the minds of young, often recently graduated, creatives. The message appears to be: to be the best you must work long, hard hours (thus reducing your entry-level wages even further), eat free meals (Thai again anyone?) and only socialize with your co-workers (make sure to drink heavily and bond with them at the ping-pong table before getting back to your computer).

They are telling us not to cook at home with our friends (friends from different industries perhaps?), not to have children (as if you would think about such a thing in the design/advertising world) and not to take on any personal projects (doesn’t the google staff have a personal project mandate?). Our loyalty seems not to be just to creativity itself, but to the desk, the physical space.

I suppose I’m at a loss for real answers but I have a lot of questions like, “is this ethical?” “is this sustainable?” and “how do we justify this extreme loyalty in light of current events?” Will we be too busy staying late to finish a pitch and miss out on the next revolution? Will we be fighting with each other for ADC awards and not have the energy to creatively solve crises in our own community?

Also, if we call foul, do we risk being seen as weak? Uncreative? Un-hireable in the professional design/advertising world? Personally I’m trembling with fear as I type this. But why? I already mentioned I’m a hard worker dammit!

And ultimately, are we just following a previous generation’s lead? Is this wise?

[Editor’s note: Read ADC’s Young Guns committee chairman, Justin Gignac’s rebuttal here.]

August Heffner, Design Inspiration, Imprint: Print Magazine's Design Blog

About August Heffner

August Heffner is a graphic designer, art director, educator and illustrator. He was born in an antique store in St. Louis, MO and moved to New York City to work for his design heroes Matteo Bologna and Stephen Doyle. For awhile he worked for a really, really big branding firm. He is now a design manager at The Museum of Modern Art, the art director of Diner Journal as well as an illustrator and educator.

33 thoughts on “Who Are We Fighting For?

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  2. Andrea S

    To all those who take August’s article as a personal affront, and to those who choose to write senseless attacks themselves:
    Please stop discussing the obvious. It is so very contrived.
    Obviously a person needs to practice, frequently and with fury in order to become better than their previous self. That isn’t what he is discussing in this article. He’s discussing the very ethics of a contest, in general, that occurs in a country that is already very sick with overwork – ADC is merely an example in a list.
    Furthermore, as designers, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Our industry is an army of people who by nature are supposed ask questions, poke, probe and look at things from the inside out to get to the deeper meanings for the sake of uncovering truths and meaning, while upholding ideals to illuminate the view.
    He is seeing and discussing problems much larger than a simple competition, or even a single industry. The issue of underpaying employees to work long hours with little respect to our health and safety is the meme. This issue has infected nearly every industry throughout the country and the symptoms of this disease bubble up in a wide berth between the classes and expensive healthcare while festering under the lagging educational system. YES, it’s all related. 
    The very fact that Heffner has the GUTS to bring this topic to the table and point to a veritable power to say “Are you aware of the consequences of your actions?” proves that he, moreso than any coward who tries to shame him rather than ask the questions of yourself, is a greater designer and thinker, and he unfortunately finds himself in the minority.

  3. Patrick

    Hmmm, well past my 30s with 3 boys who I coached, played with and spent many hours, I remember then and still do today working hard many hours a day. I work hard because I want to be the best at what I do…just like our sports heros working hard to stay on top. It’s about passion and love of the work. I’d do this even if not paid.
    But with that said, between 21 and 30, I paid my dues, worked my ass off, learned from my elders and mentors, and looked toward the validation of the awards to say the effort was worth it. After 30 I had learned (although I’m always learning) and figured it all out so that I could balance my life…got married had 3 wonderful boys…participated in their lives…and still work hard to keep up with the trends, technologies and the business shifts. 
    I don’t need the awards as much (although who doesn’t like recognition) as I’m confident that I’m good. But between 21 and 30 I worked crazy hours because I could, had tons of fun with friends, partied, clubbed, danced, drank, slept sometimes and worked my ass off. And many times I worked the hours because, let’s face it, I wanted to be better than the next gay or gal. And at that point wasn’t so sure I was good enough. Age and wisdom have a way of helping one see this. 
    But understand, like the golfer who hits 1000’s of balls a day, the tennis player practicing their serve for hours, the baseball player taking hours of batting practice—we work hard to be the best. The ones who aren’t putting in the time and effort are not at the level I want to be…and that is okay for them…but for me…I’ll continue to strive to be the best I can be. 
    No one is forced to work late, eat cold take out and replay the playlist…they can quit and find a job that gives them the time and weekends they need. The ones who do…choose to. And if we didn’t there’s plenty of people that will. Why? THEY want to be the best too. 
    This is the problem with America right now—and why we are being surpassed in industry, creativity etc.—without people striving to be the best—to reach new heights—to work too harder—to make our opportunities—we will fall behind—there are others willing to do it. And these people allow the ones who want a different lifestyle to afford to have it.
    I’m not saying we should be taken advantage of—I’m saying to be the best, we choose to work too hard. And from 20-30 we’ve got the energy, passion and let’s face it,  lack of responsibilities to be able to do it. 
    My 2¢

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  7. Joe

    We are NOT a generation of whiners. We are a generation of doers that care passionately about a great many things. Look at Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller of Project H Design (http://projecthdesign.org/index.html). Look at those that saw the genocide happening in Uganda and formed the non profit NGO called Invisible Children in response to what they saw (http://www.invisiblechildren.com/about).
    Sure, if you focus on the Paris Hiltons and Britney Spears of my generation you could call us a bunch of whiners, but your tunnel vision has precluded you from seeing the great and grand things that my generation is doing. Not to even begin getting into the tab our generation is going to have to pick up for the previous generations MASSIVE SCREW UPS (Iraq War, Afghanistan War, the Great Recession). But that is our reality, we are not whining about it… we see the problems and we are beginning to engage and address those issues.
    Your attitude displays your ignorance, and I am personally tired of “your” generation putting these lables on my generation with out even so much as a simple goolge search on what it is that we ARE doing right. Take some time. Do some light research, and keep your whining to yourself.
    Come on all you Young Guns– whether you have an ADC award in hand or not– let’s rock it and change the world together!

  8. GOAT

    I don’t get this generation born in the 80’s. They are complete whiners that want trophies for just showing up to the game. FCUK OFF! Work hard, Live Hard, Play Hard. 

  9. Kelly Rakowski

    Matt Cassity, I totally agree. Mr. Heffner’s post is less of an attack on Young Guns and more of comment on our work-a-holic culture. The unfortunate rebuttal post overshadowed the discussion on creating a sustainable work culture/life model and successfully made it into a Young Gun thang.

  10. Matt Cassity

    I think we’ve gone off the mark here a bit with the intent of this post.
    I suspect Mr. Heffner wasn’t looking to rally an all out attack on the campaign or Young Guns as a competition, but more the reinforcement of notions (in every industry) that work is more important that life in the “live / work balance.” True, for many designers work is life — but, man, is that living? Am I right or am I right?

  11. PJ Richardson

    you guys missed the entire concept, its not about being stuck at work because of a slave driver or what have you, but about the passion to work long hours out of the passion of just enjoying what you are doing.

  12. HPSTR

    The true call to entries is the list rediculously talent creatives who were inducted into YG over the years. I mean do these campaigns and PR really make much difference in who decided to enter? Doubtful.
    Take a few minutes out and paruse the list of all the Young Guns. You can’t dispute the crazy amount of talent. That’s what gives Young Guns gravitas! That’s why people enter.
    I have a feeling many of you use these same individuals as design inspiration. Sagmiester, Todd St John, Ryan McGuinness…
    I’m sincerely sorry for those who didn’t get in. Lifes not fair. and creative talent isn’t equal its the cold hard truth.
    PS: can I see a show of hands of people here who submitted to YG? I have hunch most of you did. maybe I’m wrong.

  13. emily

    I find the Young Guns ad offensive for several reasons. I don’t relate at all to the hyper-macho call to arms. Even if, as Kenedi’s rebuttal claims, the images of battered and bruised dudes  (because showing similar photos of women would have called up a whole other set of problems) are meant to reference the “fight within” to make good work, the violent portrayals call to mind self-torture and self denial more than inspiration and creativity. The past ads featured with Kenedi’s article are even worse. “Validate your ego?” Babies saying “Gimme”? Is this really the message that ADC wants to send to the next generation of talented designers?  Compete mercilessly with your colleages, sacrifice your time and energy to your work just to attain the ego boost you get from industry approval? Is it thoughtfulness and passion that these ads are trying to tap into or merely narcissistic and single-minded ambition? I can see how promoting this ethos would benefit advertisers who want to have such people uncritically creating their campaigns, but I’m not sure how this will elevate the design community and the individuals whose work shapes industry standards. The best designers I know are both great at creating compelling images and reflective about the larger impact these images will have in the world, something ADC definitely did not do when coming up with their competition ads.

  14. Nessim Higson

    I am the Art Director / Designer of this campaign. The one that has been deemed “encouraging of . . . and propagating” bad practices within design. While I agree with and commend August on aspects of his crit and commentary, I feel the need to emphasize that the words and visuals of this current campaign center more around passion and drive than they do a continuation of bad practices within the industry. This is not about people being forced to work unfair, long hours. But more about someone in love with what they do, fighting, pushing, kicking to create great work. Yes, sometimes it requires staying up late, listening to that same playlist over and over, and struggling with oneself. I would argue that anyone passionate about anything will often go to extremes in seeing things through and achieving a certain level of success. [ Insert thousands of examples here ]
    While August has brought up a valid topic and conversation, it has been taken out of context. He has also sprinkled in some unnecessary exaggeration to “sweeten” his commentary. I have a wonderful daughter, aged a year and a half and I generally leave my studio at 5:30 – 6 everyday to go to the gym and spend time with my family. Salads have been our favorite meal of late btw. Balsamic vinaigrette = yum.
    Dan, the focus is on the “fight.” The internal “fights” we have with ourselves. The “fight” in producing great work that can often happen with clients. etc. This campaign is being taken far too literally and I would encourage you, August, and everyone else to take a step back and see it as simply a call for entries that is meant to provoke, cause dialogue, and hopefully stimulate people to enter the competition. Something is working as we are all here.  Also, I take breaks, and leave the office while it’s light out. Often to take my daughter to the park. She likes the swings . . . 
    I love the dialogue, observations, et all. However, how about we all tone down the jabs and exaggeration?

  15. Jeff hn

    Dan T – have you considered that there is a reason that creatives don’t have to fight for a living wage? That they either have enough societal, cultural, and family support that they don’t need to fight? And, in fact, I’d suggest that they ARE fighting through organizations like the freelancers union.

  16. Dan Theiman

    Mr. Heffner, Please feel free to cook at home with your friends, have children, and take on personal projects. No one is suggesting otherwise. 
    This is not a question of ethics. Creatives are not factory workers fighting for a living wage. We work long hours because we’re fueled by passion and a desire for perfection. Young designers start from scratch on new sketches at one in the morning not because we’re forced to, but because we’re honing our understanding of the nuances of visual communication. It’s a lifelong learning, and we love what we do.
    Perhaps it’s best for you to take the afternoon off and contemplate a new career that affords you ample leisure time.

  17. Jeff Hnilicka

    So, I’d rather post this comment to Gignac’s rambling rebuttal, but I figure my chances of critical dialogue are much higher in this thread (anyone notice that the only support is coming from fellow staff – sheesh).
    I’m also not in the design/ad world, but the art world has close to the same issues that August has outlined here. Although I’ve not heard of a totally masturbatory award going out to an underpaid curatorial assistant, I’m sure it happens, and I’m lucky enough not to subscribe to that RSS.
    Why I’m excited about August’s post is that this conversation brings up some essential critiques of Richard Florida’s and the Creative Class – and I hope that this discussion can be brought out into a wider framework. Yes, of course, this ad and this award is gross and boring. But it goes so much further than that.
    An unjust work environment that thrives on individualist heirarchies and facilitates abusive entry-level and intern jobs is inheriently RACIST, CLASSIST, SEXIST, and HOMOPHOBIC.
    How do we make that leap you may ask? Well, first off, not being in the commercial ad world, I thought to google Justin Gignac, the Young Guns Committee Chairman. It took under two minutes to find his TOTALLY RACIST AND SEXIST AND CLASSIST Virgin Mobil Ads. I won’t even waste the time to put a link. It’s that easy to find.
    But beyond that, weak worker rights in creative industries are good for those in power. What sort of people are able to take low-paying jobs in expensive cities? What demographics can pursue a passion in 10-14 hour workdays, and not need another job, or have their childcare covered, or not need to pay back student loans?
    And then again, beyond creative industries, now is a moment to find solidarity, to demand justice for the epic and growing discrepancy between the wealthy few and the many have-nots. So when someone tries to address a concern of growing urgency, instead of engaging in a conversation about the possibility for a need to shift values, d-bag Gignac just reinforces that status-quo.
    Artists ask the most important questions of our day. Designers compose the answers for tomorrow. Looks like this competition isn’t really looking for either.

  18. Sarah Sandman

    As a professor, my students contantly ask me, “What do I need to do differently? I can’t quit my job, but I can’t handle all of the pressure. I never sleep!” I tell them to “Get 8 hours no matter what, go for a run or hit the gym, get a good breakfast and then see what your mind offers. No doubt you’ll have better ideas.” I commend this post! 

  19. Dan Funderburgh

    Of course there are benefits to working long hours. Of course many people work because they are inspired by an idea, and not because of base economic incentives. I think the question raised – bravely – is one of emphasis. If you love to work and it’s not punishment then why does the campaign focus on the punishment. 
    Obviously the ADC isn’t singly responsible for the pervasive local, national, and global culture of workaholism. But perhaps if the designers of the poster had been encouraged to take a longer lunch and leave the office while it was still light out – maybe the poster would have been about the brilliance of new ideas instead of about crippling pressure and cold take out. 

  20. Jessica Hische

    i think everyone here including the author is assigning a whole lot more to the words of the ad campaign than is actually there. As a previous young gun myself, it is absolutely true that you HAVE TO work harder and generally longer hours in order to reach a certain level of skill within the industry before you are 30 years old. This doesn’t mean you have to do it for free, or for an agency—most of those eligible for young guns and past winners did most of their long hour logging working on personal projects or freelance work which DID pay them (and in most cases better than their day job). Yes, work/life balance is important, but when you are young and can put the hours in to develop your skills, do it! Then settle down once you are at a comfortable level in the industry that you can have a family, can vacation every weekend, can work 9-5 or 9-2pm or however long you need to. I think most people that are young guns candidates work because they love to work. It’s not punishment, it’s not something you do to make money and retire early. I plan on working the rest of my life in one way or another because I love what I do. If there were more hours in the day I would fill them with fun projects not with leisure time in front of the TV. 

  21. M

    Interesting comments everyone! Did you notice the CORBIS AD at the top?? It offers images 24/7/365 – do THEY think we should be working 24/7/365? Hmm. I didn’t see any comments on that. Maybe only the Young Guns are calling Corbis, since, you know, “they’re staying up late and working on weekends”. So… someone took money from them to allow a forum for others to ironically – and foolishly – rip this poster. Really? Hypocrites. Oh, and guess what, you are helping the entries (and furthing that which you distain) by giving it press, as it gets shared. Well done, y’all.

  22. Confusion

    Let’s not confuse passion with obligation. They are very different. One might argue that many successful people regardless of industry have worked hard to get to where they are. Whether we deem the road taken to get there a enjoyable one – I think that lies in the eyes of that unique person.

  23. Greg

    Although every company wants to get the most out of their employees, they’re expectations should not be directly linked to an hourly commitment. Even in respect to an hourly commitment, the onus should not on the employee to blindly donate their time. It is the responsibility of the company and it’s leaders to cultivate the proper work environment, to develop the right process and attract the right clients to entice employees to WANT to work harder, during the day as well as after hours.The same is true in sport. The best athletes are the ones who work the hardest and the ones who have the right environment and people around them helping them do so (exceptions may apply).If the client, the process and the environment is all good, I’ll gladly put in as much time as needed to do a great job. Not only for my own personal expectations, but for the company too. But the opposite is true as well. I’ve also been in a position where I find myself counting down to 5pm when I can just high tail it out of there… but I don’t stay in those situations for too long.

  24. Ed

    Look at that poor guy in the ad. If he’s supposed to be under 30, he already worked himself bone dry. Looks like he’s 20 years older. I’d rather enjoy my outside life than win a silly award.

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  26. Kelly Rakowski

    Not to mention that horrible ad for the competition. Why all the ugly, violent words? Why so masculine? It’s offensive. August makes some very valuable points, we need reclaim our creative, calm lives. Let’s sit down for an hour lunch and discuss ideas with friends. Peace.

  27. Zach

    This post highlights a major issue goes that no one seems to want to address in the creative world: unpaid labor. If you work overtime you are giving your time and labor for free to your employer. Young people often believe they are expected to work late hours and that this will generate goodwill with their employer. If you done consistently, what you are really generating is simply an expectation that you will work for free, and perhaps worse, that you cannot manage the amount of work you have effectively.  If you stay late only an hour a day, it adds up to 240 hours a year.  What else could you be doing with that time? Volunteering? Learning a new language? Simply spending time with your friends and family? It’s sad to see ADC celebrate this kind of life-sucking culture.

  28. Stu

    Honestly – this stuff makes me sick to my teeth. I’m surrounded by younger creatives being squeezed for every ounce of their worth until they hate the business. Greedy boss milking them dry.

  29. Jenny

    I’m not in the industry of “designers, typographers and art directors in the advertising and design business,” but this article speaks to me.  Work/life balance is often — often — on my mind, especially in these 10 years I’ve been working in New York City.
    The examples given here are a few of many that could be sited, revealing what I’ve found to be a steadily growing (in many regions and industries, at least) environment of work-a-holism and career competition that can leave a “worker” personally bereft.  So many employers and organizations are complicit in this — and too many employees “go along.”  I find this atmosphere/ideal problematic in many ways — personally, professionally, and culturally disturbing, at least, as well as incompletely fulfilling.
    I have made conscious decisions in my career life that would be seen as “nonproductive” and “not competetive” by many workers and employers.  And I may suffer for them in categories like “salary” and “fame,” but it turns out these things are not what I’m living or working for.  I’ve been told I’m smart and talented and able to work hard in the office and on my own, but perhaps I’m no “young gun.”
    I’m at a loss for real answers, too, but I think the questions being asked here are excellent.

  30. Kenneth Casey Swoyer

    This is a great post.  It’s disgusting how hard work is measured in hours and not the actual quality of work.  Laptops have become even more valuable as a mask to sit in front of under the guise of a working person.  “Sure I didn’t do anything but I was here with my computer for six hours more than necessary so please promote me.”  What’s the next level after duration?