Jeff Ostberg
“Maintaining Integrity” originally ran in a 2000 issue of AIGA’s The Journal (vol. 18, no. 2). It’s part of a series in which we seek out and republish the best yet-to-be-digitized articles from our vast print archives.

A few months ago the Utne Reader, the magazine that republishes its pick of alternative media, ran a cover story titled “The Great American Sellout.” It caught my eye because the phenomenon of “selling out” is not one that’s discussed much anymore. People rarely say it now—“He sold out!”—about either acquaintances or public figures. It’s a term that suggests, more than anything, a 1960s way of thinking and value system.

In 1967 The Who released an album titled The Who Sellout, with Roger Daltrey on the cover sitting in a bath full of Heinz baked beans clutching an enormous can. It was ironic, of course, a satirical Pop Art gesture that was inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg. Fans would have no trouble understanding that there was no way The Who would ever sell out. They did though. Only 30 years later they sold their music to Nissan.

Photo by David Montgomery/Getty Images
Photo by David Montgomery/Getty Images

The idea of selling out as it was once understood embodied a deep divide. On one side were purity, authenticity, and self-determination. On the other side was money. If you’re prepared to give up the former to acquire the latter then you have sacrificed the one thing that was truly yours—your integrity—for something as crass as material gain. By crossing to the other side you destroy your credibility and there can be no going back.

Too simplistic? For some of us the idea dies hard. I admit to a degree of disappointment (though not surprise) every time I hear an “alternative comedian” doing a voiceover for a TV commercial. Don’t they realize how pathetic it is? Do they really expect to be taken seriously after that? They do—and they are. These days, it seems selling out is perfectly acceptable. “With the economy on a mad run… attitudes have changed,” notes the Utne Reader. “The rewards now are so high it’s often seen as foolish, even pathological, to resist. Dreaded no more, selling out has become the ultimate career goal, the universally desired destiny.”

Not long ago an art magazine editor told me he had taken a promising young art writer to visit one of London’s most respected art critics. He lives in a modest apartment in a run-down, unfashionable part of the city. After the meeting, the young writer revealed that he was appalled to find a well-respected figure in such unglamorous circumstances. For him it was an eye opener. Until that point he had taken it for granted that critical presence as a writer would sooner or later translate into financial success. It didn’t occur to him that the older writer had knowingly chosen this path because he would rather have the intellectual freedom to pursue his commitment to art than have financial rewards without freedom. The editor said it was a typical reaction. He expected the young writer would soon drift away into more lucrative pursuits.

In the past few years many other critics have taken the same route, preferring a fat paycheck to long-term satisfactions. It’s still possible to hang on to your integrity when all around are losing theirs, but it takes a degree of inner directedness many seem unable to muster.

There was a time when the purity of a firm stand would have won general admiration and that was its own reward.

These days you’re more likely to be misunderstood for what will appear to be a self-destructive lack of self-interest. Why cling to your convictions as though they actually mean something when they have zero value in the marketplace? The old idea of integrity means being true to yourself, but this supposes you have a fixed and stable “self” in the first place. In a culture that puts a premium on continual, dynamic self-reinvention, the self tied to set of rock solid principles and beliefs looks decidedly old-fashioned and hopelessly slow on its feet. Much better to go with the flow of fashion and let the exigencies of the moment decide who you are and what you’ll think and do next.

Yet it is possible, philosophically, to play it both ways. The existentialists famously believed that “existence precedes essence,” that we are here as beings before we are anything in particular. That doesn’t absolve the individual from the obligation to choose the right thing to do. If anything, it makes acts of personal choice all the more crucial since we can be anything we like. The fact that you behave heroically today doesn’t make you a hero tomorrow or the day after. To be a hero you must keep choosing to be heroic. And so it is with the designer, who must constantly choose what kind of work to do and what kind of designer to be. To do anything less—to take on a project for no other reason than that it’s offered—is to be in a condition of what the existentialists would call “bad faith.”

As a writer I’ve been struck by how little of themselves designers are sometimes prepared to invest in their projects. To me this looks like bad faith. No writer of worth will take on an assignment that means nothing to him or her. To do so is to agree to become a ventriloquist’s dummy, allowing the client, the person behind the writing, to operate one’s voice. There is writing like this of course. I tried it two or three times many years ago to see for myself what it felt like. It felt completely wrong. No amount of money could compensate for the sensation that something personal had been denied.

When I raise this point with designers they often argue that design is different from writing, that it’s less personal. Caught in a contradiction, design suddenly reverts to its traditional posture of being a humble “service” and designers conveniently forget that the tendency in recent years, driven from within the profession, has been towards design with a dimension of strong commitment and a distinctive personal voice. Pursuing such a course isn’t easy. Staying true to a personal vision will involve saying no as often as yes. It almost certainly means pushing against the grain. It can be a lonely path. Self-doubt must be confronted and overcome. You probably aren’t going to be rich (not compared to those with fewer scruples).

In the past year I’ve had a series of conversations with a London designer whose attitude impresses and inspires me. I don’t think she would regard herself as remarkable, but she stands out among many of her contemporaries for trying to build a way of working as a designer that starts with consciously held social and political principles. She is talented enough to succeed in any area of design, but she chooses to work only for clients she considers to be worthwhile, charities and cultural organizations for the most part. Hers is not a fashionable point of view. In discussion with design colleagues she has learned to tread carefully for fear of seeming eccentric, elitist, or judgmental. For many of her peers, she reports, issues of social justice that she regards as central simply don’t appear to register on their collective radar.

Holding your ground like this, when it would be much easier to give in, is the essence of integrity.

Right now design finds itself being pulled two ways at once. The beguiling sirens of the prevailing sellout culture urge us to take the money and run, and on one level, design’s relentless image factories are heavily implicated in this fundamentally cynical view. Yet, for designers prepared to take existential chances and hold out for something deeper, design offers an open territory, a field of play in which authentic values can be forged. The overriding problem with selling out, however big the bag of gold, is that it makes your own world much less interesting to be in. When you sell your integrity you sell your self, and without yourself what, in truth, have you got?

Illustration courtesy of Jeff Ostberg.