When discussing medium with fellow junior creatives, digital is the outright forerunner for nearly every designer I know. In fact, the debate is far more which design software you use - is it Adobe? Blender? Are you desperately trying to understand ToonBoom by the end of the week? - not whether you work digitally. However, digital artists and designers, despite providing the professional skills necessary in nearly every corner of the industry, have always found it a little difficult to make money out of our originals.
Before I get in to the nitty gritty, I should probably introduce myself. I’m Elizabeth (Lee) Stephenson, a designer and illustrator specialising in 2D digital work, currently studying Illustration and Visual Media at LCC. So far, I’ve done a little bit of everything, and even been paid for some of it. However, one thing that remains consistent is that - because 80% of my work is digital - clients, tutors, and peers have decided that it’s easy. Critiques are a little slice of nightmare fuel, and actually being paid for the hours you put in to something is nigh on impossible.
Designers have always been exploited, and with the rise of digital, clients have decided exploitation is charity.
So, like most designers who spend their days plugged in to the internet mainframe, when I heard some of my favourite designers were making upwards of 20 thousand USD for a single jpeg by minting them in the blockchain, I just about lost my mind.
Sharma, R (2021) defines NFT’s as “cryptographic assets on blockchain with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguish them from each other. Unlike cryptocurrencies, they cannot be traded or exchanged at equivalency.” In simpler terms, NFT’s, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are uniquely coded jpegs encrypted within cryptocurrency, primarily Ethereum, to then be bought and sold within the crypto network. In even simpler terms, they’re like Pokémon cards surrounded by cryptocurrency, that are sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Michael Winkelmann, professionally known as Beeple, made $53 million USD in real terms, and over $70 million USD in Ethereum on paper, through NFT sales in early 2021. This translates to roughly 3300 Ether, each created through digital Proof of Work (or POW) blockchain processes. His most expensive work, Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) – fig. 1, sold for $69,346,250 on 11th March, 2021. At the time, this was the most expensive NFT ever sold. It has since been overtaken.
Design has always thrived at the forefront of technology, and in the mid-pandemic crypto boom of early 2021, there was absolutely no exception. Designers had found a niche in which their work was being appreciated monetarily, and were utilising it quickly and effectively. The only problem is, this wasn’t the full story.
Due to their reliance on electricity to be produced, cryptocurrencies utilise a great deal of carbon with each transaction. In fact, the production, sale, and transfer of ownership of each NFT, across an average of 8000 transactions conducted by Memo Akten (2021), produces roughly 211kg of Carbon. That’s equivalent to an EU residents electricity consumption for 1 month.
One of the most popular NFT trading platforms, SupeRare, has been home to Crypto Artists for an average of 11 months. The average artist who has been using this platform for those 11 months, has a Crypto Art related carbon footprint of over 2 tonnes, or the equivalent of a plane flying 57 hours, non-stop.
The total number of all NFTs on SupeRare, have a Carbon footprint of over 4 Megatonnes – or driving a petrol car 20 million miles, or an EU residents electricity consumption for 2 thousand years. And this is just one of many sites.
The above figures were produced by Memo Akten in December 2020, before the major mainstream boom of NFTs. The Carbon production has since become far, far worse.
In their article drawing attention to the Carbon cost of NFT transactions, Akten stated “I am absolutely not blaming the artists. I have no doubt in my mind that they have no clue this is happening.” However, this is no longer the case. As NFTs have become more popular, the carbon related issues have become more well known.
At a point when the majority of designers are aiming to decarbonise their work and minimise their carbon footprints, a small number of highly successful artists and designers in popular internet circles have chosen profit over environmental longevity. Having been exploited in their craft for so long, any opportunity to make large profits was quickly jumped at – with little concern for the toll on an already dying planet.
It could, of course, be argued that this is not the fault of the designers, and that the system itself is broken. However, is it not the prerogative of all designers to work within a broken system in order to fix it, from the inside out? We’re all culpable, somewhat, for feeding in to the entirely profit driven form of hell that we currently find ourselves – we eat fast food because it’s cheaper than vegan, we took on that big-name brief because we need the exposure. However, when it comes to entirely designer related circles, where designers themselves are causing the problem, there is very little cause for sympathy or exemption.
One of the most concerning developments of the NFT saga, is the subsequent move from giant corporations and to join the NFT trend. Pringles, DC comics, and powerhouse fine artist Takashi Murakami have all joined the current NFT climate, bringing what has previously been a quiet struggle between designers to the forefront of the public conscious. And, in the style we have become accustomed to with the majority of these ‘get rich quick online!’ schemes, the market was quickly overrun and saturated by people desperately trying to jump on the gold train to a burning planet. The market remains oversaturated and, while Ethereum is currently sitting at an all-time high, many artists are now not making back the value of the cryptocurrency it takes to produce an NFT.
Designers, artists, animators, and freelance practitioners of all varieties, deserve respect in their work and decent monetary compensation for the value they add to society. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for yourself, for a small company in house, or for the world’s largest design agency – we all deserve respect. We all deserve to live our lives in safety and security. And we should, under no circumstances, be expected to sacrifice the wellbeing of our planet in order to do so. As designers, it is our responsibility to accept people and their practices, and champion an inclusive and sustainable design industry open to all. Improving the interpersonal treatment within the industry - treating clients and collaborators with respect, understanding the importance of varied practices, and removing the corruption of nepotism and cronyism as the primary methods of ‘breaking in’ and getting work, are the only ways to avoid a repeat of the dangerous NFT saga.
The climate damage done by NFTs and the artists who rely on them for income is virtually incalculable at this point. We could well have undone any good done by increased sustainable design practice in the past year. It is our job, as designers just beginning to understand our identities and roles in the future, to create a creative environment where climate destroying technology like NFTs and their successors, are both unused and unnecessary.
Thanks for reading,
BBC (2021) ‘What are NFTs and why are some worth millions?’, 12th March
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-56371912 [Accessed 8th April 2021]
Clarke, M (2021) ‘NFTs, explained’ The Verge, 11th March
Available at: https://www.theverge.com/22310188/nft-explainer-what-is-blockchain-crypto-art-faq [Accessed 8th April 2021)
Howson, P (2021) ‘NFTs: why digital art has such a massive carbon footprint’ The Conversation, 1st April
https://theconversation.com/nfts-why-digital-art-has-such-a-massive-carbon-footprint-158077 [Accessed 8th April 2021]
Kastrenakes, J (2021) ‘Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million’ The Verge, 11th March
Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/11/22325054/beeple-christies-nft-sale-cost-everydays-69-million [Accessed 8th April 2021]
Memo Akten (2020) ‘The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt (Part 1)’, Memo Akten, 14th December
Available at https://memoakten.medium.com/the-unreasonable-ecological-cost-of-cryptoart-2221d3eb2053[Accessed 8th April 2021]