3. Designer Aaron Draplin’s “Free Fridays”
If society is constituted by both a commodity economy and a gift economy, then creative professionals (including designers) have a special role in shaping those gifts. As Hyde puts it, the creative spirit “transforms the world” by taking our environment and investing it with beauty, function and meaning. To finish off this article, I’m going to explore a case study of how the creative spirit transforms the world — Aaron Draplin’s “Free Fridays”.
In his entertaining talk “Making it in the little leagues”, designer Aaron Draplin tells the story of his career so far. As well as paying tribute to the gifts he received from family and friends along the way, at the end of his talk, he explains his idea of “Free Fridays” – a few hours spent at the end of each week performing unpaid design work for clients in need of a break:
This is my idea. I work all week long, I work on Saturday & Sunday, I strike when the iron's hot [...] and I’m rewarded with a paycheck. [...] But I'm kind of tired of throwing those hours away – we don't get those back. So... what if we did this thing called Free Fridays? And I use my little mouse finger to help people I don't know. For the next bunch of Fridays, 4-5 hours, [if that was a] $150/hour big studio rate... [after] five years [of Fridays], that's $150,000 I would donate to helping people with stupid little my mouse finger. (Draplin, TEDx Portland 2014)
Throwing hours away for money
There are some interesting things to note about Draplin’s Free Fridays. First is the way that he talks about work. Counterintuitively, he describes his paid work as “throwing hours away” — and presents giving his time away as the antidote. This is reminiscent of Hyde’s description of how the great American artist Edward Hopper worked three or four days a week completing commercial art and illustration work for magazines:
Edward Hopper used to hire himself out as a commercial artist to magazines with names like Hotel Management. Hopper was an expert draftsman, and the illustrations and cover he drew during those years are skillfully rendered. But they are not art. They certainly have none of Hopper's particular gift, none of his insight [...] Hopper's magazine covers – happy couples in yellow sailboats and businessmen strolling the golf links – all have the air of assignments, of work for hire. [...] During his years as a commercial artist, Hopper created for himself what I have called the 'protected gift-sphere' by spending only three or four days a week at the magazines and painting at home the rest of the time. (Hyde, The Gift, loc. 5410)
Gifted work is a labor of love
Second, the nature of the work itself is changed by entering into the erotic sphere of the gift economy. In the view of his accountant, Draplin might just be doing a few hours of work that he doesn’t bill for. But the meaning of that work is transformed because of its gifted nature. Gifted work has a freedom and emotional content that can be absent from commercial work, from design as a commodity.
When designers pursue a project for its own sake rather than for the financial reward it could generate, they are engaged not in “work”, but in what Hyde calls “labor”. Work is what we are paid to do by the hour. Labor, by contrast, is something that we become absorbed by, something during which we don’t track time, something that obsesses us; it is a “labor of love”.
Giving re-forms the giver
Third, you can tell from how Draplin speaks about his Free Fridays that it has meaning to him. Making a gift of his design talents must in turn tell him something about who he is and who he wants to be as a designer. It also says something about his view of design’s place in the world – of its social and ethical purpose. Making design do good is as important to Draplin as making money. Of gifting, Marcel Mauss wrote (in a book also called The Gift), “To make a gift of something is to make a present of some part of oneself”.
Hyde also quotes Walt Whitman: “the gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him – it cannot fail”. The gift is as much about nourishing the giver as it is about nourishing the receiver: just as giving transforms work into labor and commodity into gift, so the act of giving can re-form the artist or designer and give a fresh perspective on their career, their work, and their purpose.
Gifted work offers insight
Fourth, by making a gift of his time, Draplin says something about the nature of creative work. We all have bills to pay, but the erotic essence of creative work is to articulate meaning and beauty out of the nudity of human existence, to shape something from the raw materials of our lives, and to leave our mark on the world.
It’s no coincidence that the labors of human creativity usually end up in museums, available to public view: art reflects, critiques, and dignifies our lives. True art cannot remain the private property of the commodity economy, but must, in Hyde’s term, remain in motion. Relatively few people may be artists, but art’s cultural function is to bear public witness to what it means to be in this place at this moment.
Gifts build and bind communities
Finally, Draplin’s Free Fridays show how, just as the rituals of gift exchange at Christmas time can reinforce the ties between members of a family or community, and bind them together afresh, so gifting outside that group can create new ties and generate a sense of shared human endeavor and identity. It’s significant that Draplin spontaneously identifies “people I don’t know” as the recipients of his gifts. Gifts, lacking any guarantee or expectation of return, can express peace and goodwill to those far off in a way that a commercial relationship cannot.
More about gifts in contemporary design
There is lots more we could explore about the significance of the gift in contemporary design.
You might have noticed how commodity producers borrow the outward properties of gifts to sell their products. Competitors like Apple and Google box their products with ever greater care, precision, and sophistication, in order to make the customer feel like they are unwrapping a gift. The result, though, never feels completely convincing, since a commercial transaction cannot carry the erotic content of a true gift.
Online and mobile games also borrow the language of gifts, both to offer in-game rewards (“free coins!”) and to attempt to drive greater engagement with the product (“send coins to your Facebook friends!”). Again, on the surface these use the terminology of gifts, but the meanings they carry are ultimately commercial.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about gifting, we’ve put together some resources below. Why not let us know what you think in the comments?
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