NFTs and Visual Design: Converts and Concerns

If you’ve never heard of the phrase “the zeal of the convert,” I strongly recommend clicking that hyperlink and exploring the idea.  In essence, it’s the phenomenon of “fierce devotion of someone whose belief system has changed because of personal experience or argument, especially as compared to someone who has held their beliefs since childhood.”

This concept by no means applies only to religion, and the current NFT landscape is fascinating proof.  Nobody grew up with cryptocurrency. Nobody started a business twenty years ago on the sale of an NFT.  This is new territory for everybody.  And you had better believe that there’s enough zeal to go around.

Welcome to the Jargon

There are countless explainers out there to break down NFTs to the layperson, and I’m not going to try to write another here.  I’ll let Patrick Freyne do that for me: “NFTs (non-fungible tokens)… are unique units of digital data that are stored on blockchains.  Blockchains are decentralized ledgers that keep track of transactions and are used to underpin cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.”

You can’t help but love Freyne’s conclusory thought: “I know that that’s a lot of jargon… but there’s a lot of money wrapped up in this.”

Virtually any digital asset can become an NFT, though the most frequently-discussed tend to be “a simple quirky image of a character… variously adorned… in order to create hundreds or thousands of different iterations.”  See the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collection of cartoon ape NFTs, or the pixelated Cryptopunk for examples; see also that one of said pixelated Cryptopunks sold for over $11 million.

Freyne, then, is clearly right about “a lot of money” being tied up in the affair.  And while that part of the discussion is hard to ignore, I’m more interested in a different aspect: the visual design of NFTs, and what it may mean for future designers and visual communicators.

Divisive Design Details

This discussion tends to be as polarizing as the rest of the NFT conversation; few see the impact on creators as neutral or minor.  It’s either a unique “populist uprising against traditional art world gatekeepers and… a source of income for digital artists who never had ‘original’ art pieces to sell,” or it’s an expensive trade on “complicated, surprisingly environmentally destructive blockchains, and… the market is eventually bound to collapse.”

Let’s take the ‘pro’ side of the argument first.  As relayed in Gestalten, “there is a consistent amalgamation of artists and creators developing work because they want to have a holistic control of their art and royalties… outside of galleries, museums, or record labels.”

This makes sense, especially at a glance—if an artist could sell and/or exhibit their work outside of these barriers to entry, why not do so? 

NFTs might create previously-unavailable or unlikely opportunities for artists, but they also raise questions about art itself, and value assignation.  Artists like Manuel Rossner seem to have little concern about art’s evolving definition, saying “This new way of defining artworks adds another meaningful dimension to it.”

A Matter of Taste

Those who do have concerns see things rather differently for the future of art and the work of artists.  Freyne quotes artist and writer Darren Caffey on the NFT profit motive and its intersection with art’s ‘value’: “Whether you sell it or not, it has value for you at the end of it that is distinct from ‘profit’.  Profit is something that comes secondarily.  I don’t think you’ll find the personal value that comes from profit.”

Art has never been wholly separate from money, but Caffey’s put his finger on an important point. NFTs are so intrinsically linked to the profit motive that it’s worth asking about their actual artistic merit.  A large amount of NFTs are, after all, templates with swappable ‘traits.’

To quote directly from Bored Ape Yacht Club’s homepage, “Each Bored Ape is unique and programmatically generated from over 170 possible traits, including expression, headwear, clothing, and more.  All apes are dope, but some are rarer than others.”

Is there a problem, really, with the sort of factory-style output of groups like Bored Ape Yacht Club?  Are all apes, truly, dope?  Well, that depends heavily on taste.  Is there a problem with Jackson Pollock?  How about Piet Mondrian?

In other words, art creation has gone through so many different modes of creation that the “factory generated” look of Bored Apes might not be as unusual a design choice as it appears on first glance. 

We can abstract this further with an example from a ‘non-creative’ field: the automotive industry.  Let’s say you’re in the market for a luxury vehicle, and you are interested in a new Corvette.  Does the manner of assembly (in a factory, alongside thousands of identical components and similar finished products) take away from what Caffey calls the “value,” distinct from profit?

Too Soon to Tell

Again, it’s a question of taste—as all design and creative expression is.  It’s also a question of zeal.  If you’re a convert to the NFT movement, your interest likely stems from a variety of sources, including profit, the personal value you place on the NFT, your enjoyment of the art, your enjoyment of the status that comes with ownership, and so on.

Those opposed to the phenomenon see things differently.  They worry about the profit-forward nature of many NFT communities.  Combined with the virtually automated creation of NFTs, they might also worry about the changing standards of artistic value/expression.  And for many, environmental concerns are paramount

Maybe the best thing to say of NFTs is this: engage to the degree that makes sense to you.  It’s too soon to be certain of much, but if you’re the early adopter type and trust the evangelists, it might be worth dabbling in the blockchain.  If you’re concerned about its implications for art or simply unsure of NFTs’ complicated ecosystem, don’t feel pressured to buy a Bored Ape.  They’ll be around—and if they’re not, their own design model ensures that there will be something very, very similar.