"NYC Grates" Risograph image by Kelli Anderson

The Price of Advice

By Kelli Anderson

When we asked Adobe Creative Resident Kelli Anderson if she had any back-to-school advice for art and design students, she responded with a question of her own. In this thoughtful essay, she posits that too much advice is doing her field more harm than good.


Will the creative community ever get its fill of advice?

We have hand-lettered mantras, letterpressed slogans, Instagrammed mottos, legitimately thoughtful manifestos, advice studded with gold leaf, graceful India ink swashes, and more chalkboard commandments than one can sneeze at. Nary a process has been left unexamined, a creative journey unconsidered, or a pep talk on failure averted. Some of the wisdom excavated along the way has been brilliant—hard-won, insightful, and sincere reflections on the human experience. But much of it leaves the viewer wondering how to best tune out the platitude in the middle of their lettering poster. 

Regardless of quality, the sheer scale of the design world’s advice-industrial-complex may catch our friends in other fields off-guard. Can you imagine the motivational slogans of heart surgeons? Fishmongers? Electricians? Meanwhile, any moment of the day, a quick look at social media will unfailingly remind that (lest we forget) yes, we should indeed still be doing what we love™.

Since advice is a nurturing impulse (a way to pass wisdom on to the future…or just next year’s graduating class), is there really any harm in this oversaturation? Does the monotone nature of our conversation on success, work, and failure actually hurt us?

The result may feel good and empowering, but it also creates the distorted impression that an individual’s good work, alone, will translate to a proportional reward.

I would argue yes—there is a dark side to the peppy culture of pretty advice. While other shades of goodwill, such as compassion, generosity, and friendship, only improve with quantity, advice has a cumulative effect—pooling emphasis and importance around the notion of individual initiative. More than slogans, working hard, being nice, and doing what you love have gradually become canonized as the actual reasons that success or failure occurs. When the logic of advice is allowed to co-opt reality, we begin to believe that individual initiative is why things happen.

The result may feel good and empowering, but it also creates the distorted impression that an individual’s good work, alone, will translate to a proportional reward. Conversely, failures stemming from other factors—like ingrained structural prejudice or simply bad timing—may too easily be misattributed to an individual’s lack of commitment, failure to work hard enough, or insufficient love-doing. A culture of self-help advice fosters a belief that we exist in a pure meritocracy, where everything is fair, and that our shared work of shaping an equitable community is done.

This is not the world we live in.

When reflecting upon the reasons behind my own career successes, I must admit that I’ve benefitted immensely from factors not directly under my control or even of my choosing. A good public school education, parental $upport for grad school, a lifelong financial safety net, mental and physical health, a supportive partner, having a safe place to live, and even being white all surely played a role. Privileges like these should not be advantages, and yet they almost definitely still are. And privilege gives us a longer leash—with it, we can simply get away with a little more. We can take more risks without the threat of starvation or jail time.

Advice is, indeed, a universally empowering force, but it caters—specifically— to such a context of privilege. For someone like me, the barrier between success and failure is juuussstt about as thick as a motivational poster.

Because of this, advice is not the best thing we can do for one another. The assumptions of advice-culture distract us from addressing reality. It robs of its urgency the very project that we are all supposed to be working on together: that of making our community a more fair, diverse place. If we allow the magical thinking of self-help to run the show—if we believe that individual initiative is all that matters—how will we ever realistically address the -isms, $-inequity, and other barriers to entry in our field?


Learn more about Kelli Anderson, her work, and the Adobe Creative Residency program.

August 8, 2015

Author: Kelli Anderson is an artist and designer who believes that design can subvert our expectations about how the world works. She is one of Adobe's 2015 Creative Residents.  

Image: Kelli Anderson