Elliott Earls Gives Keynote at Graphic Design Career Day
On the morning of April 10th, the noted designer, artist, and performer Elliott Earls gave a group of Kendall students a wake-up call. The artist-in-residence and head of the Graphic Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art was the keynote speaker for the annual Graphic Design Career Day, and his multi-media presentation and provocative statements about the creative process opened more eyes than the free coffee in the back of the room.
“I truly believe in the power of education,” said Earls in his opening statement. “But education has absolutely nothing to do with grades, and less to do with a degree. It has to do with getting more power, more agency, and more ability to determine the trajectory of your life. I have never been asked what my GPA is. Your portfolio is either good and you are interesting, or not. The deliverable is knowledge. If you learn something while you’re here, you’ll be able to put food on the table forever.”
Earls went on to showcase a sampling of his work, which he summed up as “an elegant dissent” against the dominant culture. “When you look around, the culture as a whole has a character to it,” he says. “A lot of my work is set up in opposition to those things to motivate or goad the reader to change their perception of social issues and take action.”
Among the highlights he shared was an 11-poster series representing the various departments at Cranbrook. Many of the posters feature glistening surfaces and fleshy forms informed by the pornographic element in contemporary culture. Earls’ particular combination of digital technologies, hand-drawn elements, computationally derived hair, texture mapping, and laser-cut actual objects combine to create familiar, but not-quite recognizable, images that he intends to evoke emotional responses to social conditions.
While his own work has a mature, individual style, Earle cautions students not to skip steps in developing their own technique. Just as practicing scales helps you become a better musician, he says, “The classical method of teaching art gives you a strong foundation in becoming a more effective designer.”
However, he also challenged students to confront traditional approaches to making art. In the typical educational model, he says the idea comes first, and elements are only allowed to remain in the work if they support that idea. “In my approach, design can be a tool to interrogate, to come to a deeper understanding of your subject matter,” he says. Some people call that post-facto rationalization and say, ‘You just made that up.’ I say, so? Who says you can’t do that?”
Earls closed by telling the students, “When you’re young, you have a very narrow view of career paths. There are so many possibilities school doesn’t address. But the kinds of things you’re learning to do are super-powerful, or can be. They can prepare you for an exciting and rewarding career. Life doesn’t have to be done in a cube farm. You don’t have to do that if you wake up.”
Following the speech, Meghan Boland, a junior in Graphic Design, said she enjoyed seeing work that commented on a social and political level, “instead of just selling something.” She also appreciated Earls’ advice for approaching work, explaining, “Sometimes you need to free your mind and just let the art come out, then wrap your idea around it.”
Sophomore Colton Kranz, who also plans a career in graphic design, was reassured by hearing about Earls’ career path, which took him to a boutique studio and the music industry before finding a better fit in his current role. “I struggle with some of those things myself,” said Kranz. “I really don’t know where I want to end up yet, and I probably won’t know until I get out there more. But it gives me some relief to hear it’s not so cut-and-dry with only one direction you can go.”
Following the speech, Kendall students continued to probe potential career paths during a panel discussion with six recent graduates and senior portfolio reviews to cap off the day.