Conscious Creative, The: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work

Conscious Creative, The: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work

by Kelly Small


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An actionable guide to mindfulness and practical ethics for any creative professional who wants to make a living without selling their soul.

It can be difficult to live according to our values in a complicated world. At a time when capitalism seems most unforgiving but the need for paying work remains high, it is important to learn how we can be more mindful and intentional about our impact — personal, social, economic, and environmental.

As designer and creative director Kelly Small had to do to navigate a crisis of ethics and burnout in their career in advertising, we can admit our complicity in problematic systems and take on the responsibility of letting our own conscience guide our decisions.

Start with one or many of these 100+ rigorously researched, ultra-practical action steps:

  • Co-create and collaborate
  • Get obsessed with accessibility
  • Demand diverse teams
  • Commit to self-care
  • Make ethics a competitive edge
  • Be mindful of privilege
  • Create for empowerment, not exploitation

With a humorous and irreverent tone, Small reveals how when we release unnecessary judgement and become action-oriented, we can clarify the complicated business of achieving an ethical practice in the creative industries. Discover the power of incremental, positive changes in our daily work-lives and the fulfillment of purposeful work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781487008024
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Publication date: 08/04/2020
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 688,782
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

KELLY SMALL (they/them) is an award-winning creative director, designer, and writer with deep roots in communication design, marketing, and advertising, and a special focus on ethical and inclusive practice. A proven creative leader, strategist, and affiliated design researcher with Emily Carr University, Kelly holds an interdisciplinary master’s degree in design, with research focused on creative industry ethics, social innovation, and sustainability. Kelly lives in Toronto with their wife, Dahlia, and bonus kid, Evan.

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledge Your Role in the System

Say it with me: “My name is ________________ and I’m a tool of capitalism.” A vital first step toward an ethical practice is being aware of and owning our roles within a troublesome consumption-machine and the human, animal, and environmental consequences that come along with that. Being aware of the impact of the systems within which we operate can empower us with an enriched understanding of the work that we do and, hopefully, help us advocate for change. There is a fine line between being aware of issues and being crushed by the weight of the systemic problems we face. Aim for the former to stay in a headspace of action and empowerment, and remember, we can’t single-handedly save the world in one profound act. What we can do is implement some of the actions outlined in this book, and develop some of our own, to effect incremental change toward a more equitable world.

Help your Audience Live (Mentally) Healthily

Over the years there have been all sorts of sketchy ways the creative industries have been complicit in manufacturing needs. The practice of manipulating audience behaviour has become increasingly stealthy through the use of things like dark patterns (manipulative interface designs that trick users into doing things they may not have wanted to do), the repetitive hyper-targeting and re-targeting of ads and past-viewed products, and addictive experiences in digital product design. Aiming to identify and avoid these modes of practice is a key step toward an ethical practice.

I would argue that we can’t be conscious creatives if we’re exploiting self-esteem to sell a product, infusing fat-phobia into our marketing messages, advertising nutritionally void foods to kids, producing experiences that capitalize on a dopamine/reward response, selling high fashion using violent, misogynistic imagery, or promoting mindless consumption. These ethical pitfalls aren’t always simple to avoid, however mindful awareness, positive intentions, and advocating for the promotion of healthy behaviours in our audiences are steps in the right direction.

Make it Analogue

When creating with objectives toward developing strong and connected communities, consider that reliance on or defaulting to a technology-based solution might not serve our cause well. Social Innovation leader Ezio Manzini believes that a community’s reliance on digital connectivity can actually weaken a once-solid social fabric. This replacement of authentic, real-world connections with connections based in superficial, digital realms can, arguably, compromise a community’s resilience. If technology is necessary in your creative work, ensure it plays a supporting role and never replaces face-to-face human connection.

Acknowledge The Privilege of Ethical Practice

Let’s promise to stop judging the people around on us whose choices we don’t perceive to be ethical. Having the ability to make socially and environmentally conscious decisions can be steeped in a privilege not universally shared. For example: ethically made materials, resources, food, and fashion often come at a higher price point and are therefore inaccessible to many people. To have the choice to work for an ethical employer often demands earning a college education, which requires financial means and intellectual aptitude. Advocating for change can require long hours, emotional labour, mental fortitude, and a requirement for presence in collective action not always available to those whose safety, mental health, or physical health may be compromised. To be supportive allies in the pursuit of a better world, we must start with an understanding of the complex systems that can impact our abilities to act. When we withdraw judgment from other people’s choices, we can remember to do the same for ourselves. Usually we are doing the best we can with the awareness and the resources we have at the time.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher


“Thoughtful, practical, and irreverent, Kelly Small provides a blueprint for creatives to approach their work ethically and an irrefutable case for fusing one’s personal values and professional endeavours. I am honoured to count Kelly Small among the most exceptional alumni of Emily Carr University and to witness the positive impacts of their groundbreaking research. The Conscious Creative is essential reading for every person aspiring to build a more responsible practice and a must-have for emerging and student designers, artists, and makers.” — Dr. Gillian Siddall, president and vice-chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art + Design

“As creatives we influence how people understand and interact with the world, what paths they can follow into our shared future. The Conscious Creative lays the foundation for not only why but how creatives can apply ethics to their practice and hold themselves accountable to their work and their role in society. Rooted in ethics, Kelly Small’s book is a boost of radical optimism for anyone who looked at the world and thought, ‘We can do better, and I think I know how!’” — Morten Rand-Hendriksen, Senior Staff Instructor, LinkedIn Learning

“All creative acts change the world, for better or worse, and all creative work for corporations contains an ethical component, which always extends beyond maximizing shareholder value. A playbook for creative thinkers who want to act professionally and ethically, because it shouldn’t be an either-or choice.” — Faris Yakob, founder of Genius Steals and author of Paid Attention

“Kelly Small offers hope to creatives who want to craft a sustainable, inclusive, and just practice within the capitalist framework of commercial design. If you are searching for a moral compass, this little book of big actions may be just the tool you are looking for.” — Ellen Lupton, designer, curator, and author of Design Is Storytelling

“Ninety-five percent of the designers who have ever lived are alive today. It’s up to us to decide what our profession will be about. With this refreshingly approachable book that leans into turning intent into action, Kelly Small is breaking new ground that helps us all choose to lead. You won’t be able to not put this book down, because you’ll be tempted to interrupt your reading to take action.” — David Berman, RGD, FGDC, CPWA, author of Do Good Design: How Design Can Change Our World

“There is no better time for a book like The Conscious Creative to guide us through the uncomfortable work of challenging the creative status quo. I have no doubt that this essential reading will revolutionize the design industry.” — Ailsa M. Blair, design leader

“Put this book by Kelly Small on your bookshelf where the design industry’s non-existent code of ethics should be. Read it. Give it to design students and design schools. Give it to your friends who get excited about their new jobs at ethically questionable companies. And honestly, The Conscious Creative is not just for designers; it’s also relevant for marketers, content writers, advertisers, founders, and anyone who works as part of buying and selling in a capitalist world. This vital book makes a clear and compelling argument about why creatives need to make a non-negotiable commitment to ethics, and it’s filled with numerous accessible strategies for how to put those ethics into action.” — Kat Vellos, designer, facilitator, and author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships

“A vast toolbox of fantastic ideas that I will use in my work and share with others. I know that The Conscious Creative will change how I create and that my work will only get better after reading Kelly Small’s words.” — Bif Naked, recording artist, activist, and author of I, Bificus

“In this time of massive social, economic, political, and environmental change, no designer — or anyone for that matter — should be without this essential volume on their bookshelf.” — Niamh Redmond, research and design leader

“A must-read for all creatives or anyone interested in the #marketingwithpurpose movement.” — Geoffrey Colon, Head of Brand Studio, Microsoft Advertising

“I was blown away by Kelly Small’s take on how we all can create more purposeful marketing work by being aware of ourselves and our work.” — Michael Abata, Cultural & Consumer Senior Futurist, Target

“Kelly Small’s experience as a former creative director provides valuable insight … Small’s thorough breakdown of ethical concerns in the workplace can benefit anyone wanting to grow as an ally in a nation rife with issues of disparity.” — Cascade

“What Kelly Small brings to the table is a healthy dose of both inspiration and practicality … Kelly Small’s personal story is an inspiration in itself, shared throughout the book with candour and courage. If you’re a creative searching for cleaner, healthier, and socially just ways to practice, you’ll not find a better place to start looking. And the timing couldn’t be better.” — Applied Arts

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