Defining My Core Values As A Hand Lettering Artist

I refunded and turned down a $3000 project because of racism. I used my core values to keep my integrity intact to prevent hurting others with my art. Something I wish I would have given more thought to in the beginning of my illustration career.

I love what I do, but only if that means I get to do work I can be proud of. I’ve reached a point in my career where I don't need to take on every inquiry that comes my way so I can be more selective on the clients I take on. But it wasn't always this way.

It’s one of my biggest regrets that I started my illustration career with a scarcity mindset. Where I would do practically anything if it meant I could design for the money. I took on clients that didn't respect me, made design choices I knew weren't in the best interest of my client just because they told me to do it. I was spineless, broke, and desperate.

I wish someone told me to say no more often because it’s the best way to keep your passion and integrity intact as an artist. That it’s was better to have a day job that takes care of the bills even if it sucks, so you can concentrate on making projects that you truly believe in.

I’m sharing this with you because I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did. For you to create a life of creative freedom that you can build up over time till you can make a happy living from it. So before you start to take on clients, create products, or teach; consider what your core values are. Decide on what your goals and boundaries are so you can create a list of values to live by.

As an example, here are my values. Something I didn't actually fully realize until they were all tested this week when I had to cancel and refund a $3,000 job.

  1. Create work that you are so passionate about you would do it for free.

  2. Only make design decisions that will improve your clients business.

  3. Make work that will only have a positive impact on others.

I went through a situation this week that shook me to my core and had me question a lot of things. Without naming names, I was hired to create a chalk installation for a local perfume boutique in Portland, OR that needed signage to better explain their fragrances to customers.


Create work that you are so passionate about you would do it for free

This was a dream project that combines my love of drawing flowers and plants with vintage lettering in beautiful chalk no less. I was so excited. This would have been a project I would have most definitely done for free at the beginning of my career just to put it in my portfolio.

But, while I was creating two sketched concepts for my client to review, I came across a word that made me uncomfortable. Oriental. Without giving it much thought, I replaced the word and sent off the concepts to the client.

There was a bit of back and forth with some subtle revisions and then boom. The client wanted me to switch the word back to Oriental, and I refused. She explained to me that it was an industry standard term, that all the other perfume retailers used it, and provided well-researched links to back up her point that the word Oriental is not racist. Needless to say, this left me with a dilemma.


Only make design decisions that will improve your clients business

This brought a lot of tensions to the surface for me. Although this project seemed ideal, was I really going to let one word ruin it? To turn down three grand over a word. After much thought and endless conversations with peers, fellow students, and designers, my answer was a resounding yes. The project was stopped in its tracks.

She wasn’t willing to compromise even after much deliberation over email and on the phone. And I wasn't willing to go against my core values for money.

Regardless of your stance on whether or not Oriental is a racist term when it used to describe things and not people, someone out there would. I live in Portland, often referred to as the PC capital of the world. So if I used this word, it would most likely reflect badly on my client and hurt her business and I never want to be a part of that.


Make work that will only have a positive impact on others

Let’s face it, whatever your stance, this word would most likely offend people. It could hurt them and would be just another reminder of how awful this world can be and how racism is still alive and well. I believe that all of the positive impacts this sign could have had to help people better understand fragrance and beautify the store, would do more harm then good witch completely goes against my third core value.

Art reminds us of our humanity and makes us think to better understand ourselves and the people around us. It should be used to help us love, not hurt.


What are your core values?

When I refunded her money, I felt defeated. I was embarrassed I hadn't caught the word sooner and avoided this project altogether. But after a few minutes of disappointment, I felt a wave of relief and actually ended up dancing. Yes, literal dancing. My shame was washed away and I knew I had made the right decision because I had my integrity intact from aligning my work to my values.  

So with all that said, have you given any thought to your values as an artist? A formula to help you work with the right clients by combing your morals, talent, and unique voice. What would they be?