Elliott Earls: Skillz Pay the Billz + other Graphic Design Musings

Elliott Earls is the head of the Graduate Graphic Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. He’s a graphic designer who blurs the line between graphic design and art. He’s also a performer and artist whose work has been represented in major art museums. This afternoon, at Typo San Francisco 2014, Earls was all of these things — and a dynamic speaker with some very quotable takeaway points.

Photo by: Amber Gregory

Earls’ designs, and the work his students produce at Cranbrook, explore some very experimental terrain. We strive to “unlearn the fundamental values of design so that we can test them,” he said as he showcased the array of media, topics and tones he and his students have explored.

After his primer on Cranbrook, he discussed his various design projects. These project range from posters and performance videos to branding for Cranbrook, but they all showcase Earls’ desire to explore an idea across different contexts and media.

“Powerful work flows from problematic spaces and conditions, not from resolved ones”

“Powerful work flows from problematic spaces and conditions, not from resolved ones,” he said as he described a project that explored sexuality in a latent way that “echoes of our culture and resonates subconsciously.”

Skillz pay billz advice for designers

Photo by: Amber Gregory

Earls got a lot of positive reaction form his audience, but the line that garnered the most applause was “Never forget. Skills Pay Billz.” His advice on making money as a designer? Keep labor costs low and develop an awesome aesthetic that drives up the value of your work. Oh, and don’t let medium or or social consensus define what roles you take as a designer. There’s a wide skill set involved with design, and it stretches across art to branding to news and beyond, Earls said.

The graphic designer ended his Typo San Francisco 2014 presentation with an appeal for higher-quality creative criticism. He says he instructs his students to think beyond whether they “like” or “don’t like” a graphic design. Instead, we should all discuss a piece’s interpretation, themization and contextualization so that it becomes part of the historical, evolving design dialogue.


Elliott Earls

Elliott Earls is Artist-in-Residence and head of the Graduate Graphic Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Mr. Earls has led the graduate program at Cranbrook since 2001. His work as a designer, performer, and artist is represented in major collections including the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, The Wolfsonian Museum, and The Miami Art Museum. His work has been featured in both solo and group exhibitions at Art Basel Miami Beach. As a performance artist Earls was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from Manhattan’s prestigious Wooster Group. Earls has performed globally including featured shows during the Exit Festival at Maison des arts de Créteil, and at Music Hall, Detroit. Earls' work as an artist has been exhibited widely including a major recent installation at the Triennale Museum in Milan.

Text — Emily Hubbell — @emwritesbiz