Graphic design as art

We might not recognise it as such, but graphic design is an art form – and moreover it’s the art form to which the public is most frequently exposed. Yet most graphic designers don’t consider themselves artists, and don’t take advantage of arts funding and opportunities to develop their practice.

Graphic design interprets the world back to us using sophisticated composition, intuitive navigation and high-level text to strike that instant, lasting connection. It facilitates discussions between designer and client to resolve a complex problem as a creative work, ready for multiple modes of engagement across multiple contexts. It makes the written word come across to us seemingly transparently, rendering good design invisible while elevating its content. Graphic design is the art form through which we most commonly interface with the world’s organisations, governments, distribution systems and ideas.

Not every piece of graphic design we see is art, purports to be art, or even wants to be art. And, like any art form, graphic design work varies markedly in quality and effectiveness. Yet most graphic designers wouldn’t see themselves as artists, and wouldn’t consider pursuing artistic opportunities for creative development and presentation. Either that, or they just don’t know where to start. Let’s have a look at your practice.

Do you create new work that was not generated specifically for a client’s brief? Do you constantly search for opportunities to expose your work to critique? Do you exhibit or publish your work for a critical response? Do you show new work in public spaces? Are you perhaps represented by an agent who secures exhibition, publication or sales opportunities for you? Do you research the creative tradition to which you contribute, as well as maintaining an active understanding of current trends, consciously locating your work within your unique tradition? Do you seek collaborators in your own or in other creative fields and create new work together? Have you come together with others to set up a publication or an exhibition space? Do you mentor other creative practitioners or seek mentorship yourself? Do you experiment in your practice, taking your techniques to new levels through that investigative process? In short: are you an artist?

You may be surprised to hear that many people who are active in such areas don’t consider themselves artists. Indeed, there are multi-award-winning artists across all art forms who struggle with the term. So why not look instead at your practice, at what you do and what you’d like to develop? There’s no check box on an arts funding application ARTIST? YES/NO; it’s all about the work. A funding application is a useful tool for your career development, whatever your art form – and whether you ultimately choose to apply or not.

Applying for funding is one of the most effective ways to challenge yourself as a creative practitioner. There’s a resentful attitude I often hear whispered against artists who receive grants – because, after all, receiving a grant sounds very easy indeed, as does enjoying the opportunities afforded by funded space and time. In reality, applying for a grant is highly competitive and existentially demanding. It’s a process that asks of you that you define your values, your purpose, your career path. That you position your work in an artistic context and that you understand your contribution to your art form. That you articulate with convincing clarity what you can achieve within a funded period and what impact this will have on your career, as well as on the arts in Australia. And that in doing so, you’re able to present a proposal that’s more compelling than your hundreds of competitors for those scarce funds. It’s a challenge – but it’s a very constructive one.

Given arts funding is undergoing the most exciting period of change that we’ve seen across our lifetimes to date, now is the time to start researching and considering opportunities. The Australian Government’s Office for the Arts now defines the creative industries as including music, performing arts, film, television, radio, advertising, games and interactive content, writing, publishing, architecture, design and visual arts.

The Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body, is currently undergoing the biggest shake-up in its 40-year history. Gone are the art form boards that used to define the areas that could be funded; instead, an expertise-based board will appoint peers to make funding decisions and they will do so in response to demand from applicants. So if there were a lot of illustrators applying for project grants, for example, then the Australia Council would do its best to ensure it had the best art form peers available to make those funding decisions.

Arts funding bodies like the Australia Council, the various state government arts departments and your local council or shire, offer a range of programs to apply for, and often there’s more than one application round per year. There’s also funding opportunities in education and health departments for projects with different kinds of participation models or outcomes. You can apply for funds to create new work, to seek mentorship, to operate an artist-run gallery, to present work in public spaces or in inner-city areas at night, to promote health and well-being, to undertake a residency, or to experiment across art forms.

If you collaborate with other creatives, there are also bodies like Screen Australia, with its $20 million Australian Interactive Games Fund that hopes to support outstanding new work.

For regional areas, the state-based regional arts organisations such as Regional Arts Victoria partner with the Office for the Arts to offer a range of targeted funding programs via the Regional Arts Fund. There are grants for projects and for professional development, and there are also quick response grants for when you need an answer fast. Beyond government funding, there’s a growing range of philanthropic trusts and foundations that offer funding opportunities across a range of specialisations. One of the recent trends in arts philanthropy has been towards significant grants for individual practitioners or thought leaders, investing in sustained artist-led creative development rather than one-off projects. The Myer Foundation is a leader here, and the Australia Council also offers such fellowships. Renowned Australian graphic designer, Stephen Banham, recently won a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship to research his beautiful book, Character.

Representation and exhibition are vital ways to develop your practice, expose your work to critique, and find new audiences. Australian illustrators’ agency The Jacky Winter Group operates the gallery Lamington Drive, the animation house Flutter, and also offers residencies. Former graphic design gallery The Narrows now specialises in curated projects. In Victoria, Warrnambool graphic design agency o2 Media has inaugurated the Regional Design Awards, starting out with a focus on graphic design as well as emerging talent. Awards offer important opportunities to gain recognition for your work, as well as getting your work in front of prominent experts in the field.

My top tips for successful grant applications or award submissions are going to sound trite – but they’ll set you in good stead! Start by taking a good look at what they’ve funded before. There’ll be a list of past grant recipients (often you can read the reports of past grant assessment panels).

Be sure to read the selection criteria clearly and respond clearly. That’s what you’re being judged against, so be sure to answer what they ask. If you’re required to submit a budget, your budget must add up and it must balance. I can’t tell you how many applications I’ve seen, both at Regional Arts Victoria and as a peer or juror, where the budget’s been an absolute mess!

Keep in mind that this is a test of your ability to manage granted funds responsibly, as well as of your ability to plan well and be resourceful. Use language that you’re comfortable with; don’t imagine that you need to make up some arts-speak in order to be successful. And once you’ve written the application, read it back a few times – or better yet, ask a friend who knows nothing about your work to read it through critically and let you know if it makes sense.

Take your time with it all, but structure your time well, making it a regular activity to reflect critically on your practice and seek out new opportunities. Your prospects for funding, support and development are limited only by your imagination – and if somewhere along this journey you come to identify as an artist, then you participate in enriching Australia’s culture, one idea at a time.


First published in Desktop #298 October 2103