Design vs. Art: Dealing With My Creative Identity Crisis
By Raymond Stone on June 23, 2019
This article is also on Medium.
I make a living as a UX designer. For the past several years I've considered UX design my primary trade. Over the past few weeks (months) I've found myself in one of those creative ruts I fall into at least once a year. These ruts drive me to seek the creative fulfillment UX design only partially but not entirely satisfies. In 2018 it led me to create half of a digital 3D model of San Francisco's AT&T Park (now Oracle Park) as well as buy real art supplies and start a sketchbook that I abandoned for nine months after filling just two pages. My 2019 rut has led me to create a YouTube channel with its own identity crisis that will only resolve itself when I resolve my own. The 2019 rut has also led me to redesign old personal projects (video) as well as revisit the sketchbook in preparation for large scale art project ideas seemingly forever trapped in my brain.
But what keeps me from going all in on creative expression? Where does the fear come from that traps me inside the small bubble of UX/UI and prevents me from rebranding into the larger bubble of a creative generalist? Maybe because the bubble analogy makes some sense here. The smaller bubble would appear to have a stronger surface that gives it more integrity to stay afloat than a larger bubble that would more likely have a thinner surface readily able to burst at any moment. After all, based on my observation the vast majority of creative industry experts advise up-and-coming creatives to pursue careers as specialists instead of careers as generalists. I actually understand and even somewhat agree with the advice based on the most common goal of up-and-coming creatives. Most up-and-coming creatives simply want enough recognition for their skills to find gainful employment that will lead to making decent livings doing work they love. We live in a world that rewards specialists. To ascend to greatness in any craft, specialists put in the time and effort that generalists simply cannot within the same interval. As the famous Bruce Lee quote goes, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
However, the specialist-over-generalist rule only applies to unknowns looking to make names for themselves. While practitioners of any craft develop reputations based on foundations of specialization, they may freely wander into the uncharted waters of adjacent or even unrelated fields upon completing those solid bases. Over the past half year or so I've seen my UX career rise from the desperate feeling of the industry leaving me for dead to the point where I now have canned responses to the daily inquiries I receive from recruiters. These inquiries provide the reassurance that I no longer need to spend every waking moment nurturing a portfolio that begs the world for work. I can now spend that time on long term career growth by shifting to more broad creative fulfillment. Basically, it goes without saying that the freedom to wander only comes from the assurance that bills remain covered.
But what does this creative generalist call himself? A “creative”? Something about that title seems lacking, even if the unofficial title doesn't even matter and thinking about it wastes time and energy. The thought persists and will not go away simply because I call it useless.
How does such a creative traverse the social media space? It seems that per platform, the choices come down to creating one disjointed profile crammed with work of all creative disciplines, or creating separate profiles for each discipline along with the separate everything those profiles require (e.g. logins, handles, passwords, confirmation emails). The latter choice requires more scatterbrained probably unsustainable effort, but each platform remains focused on cultivating audiences thirsty for those specific disciplines. The former requires less scatterbrained effort but will neither capture nor hold the attention of those seeking to consume specific creative work. I should note that “identity” in the title of this article in part refers to online identity and not simply personal identity.
So why consider this at all, outside the burning desire for personal creative growth, of course? For one, transforming into a generalist mid-career has professional benefits for those who do not want to remain in junior-to-mid or mid-to-senior roles forever. Ascending into a creative director, design director, or creative executive role will require a breadth of creative skills that go beyond UX. But transforming into a generalist also enables creatives to exercise creativity in a way that prioritizes ideas over raw execution. Raw execution skills have monetary value but the ability to generate ideas has virtually limitless world-changing value.