2 Minutes With … Kelly Small, ECD and Author of The Conscious Creative

In pursuit of a more ethical way of working

Kelly Small, executive creative director at Grassriots Inc., is an award-winning creative director, designer and author with deep roots in communication design, marketing and advertising, and a special focus on ethical and inclusive practice. 

Small's book, The Conscious Creative: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work, published by House of Anansi Press, is a collection of over 100 actions for ethical creative practice and is now available.

We spent two minutes with Kelly to learn more about their background, creative inspirations, and recent work they've admired.


Kelly, tell us ...

The town where you were born, and where you live now.

Calgary, Alberta, but only for about three years. Lately I've been between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Toronto, Ontario, but Toronto is my home. All Canada all the time!

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

A creative. I dreamt of being an artist, a designer, a writer. If I could make things, I wanted to do it. Bonus answer, I think paleontology featured for a brief period of time when I was 4 because dinos were the hot thing.

How you discovered you were creative.

I drew a lot of cartoons as a kid, and folks seemed to like them! I won a few local art and design contests with them, and as a kid who lived for adulation, those positive reviews really fueled the creative fire. Real talk, I think my drawing skills peaked around that time.

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

Does '80s Paula Abdul count? Listen, I grew up in a small town in the pre-internet days. I didn't have a ton of access to the sorts of inspiration in literature, music, art and design that I do now. OK, to get serious though, I wasn't much for idolatry as a kid, but The Diary of Anne Frank changed everything about how I see the power of creation and the incredible impact that people—creatives in particular—can have by vividly documenting their own authentic experiences across different mediums.

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

The moment during my master's program when I realized I had been asking my thesis question my whole professional life: Is it even possible to work ethically within a capitalist system? This was the early catalyst to my new book, The Conscious Creative.

The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.

Alanis Morisette during the Jagged Little Pill days. Fave band or musician today?! How do I possibly choose? I have eclectic taste in music, from '90s alternative to electronic to folk punk to indie to hardcore to queer party music that you might find on the Drag Race soundtrack to Vivaldi—oh, Vivaldi!—but if I had to narrow it, I'm going to say the Shins. *stares off into space* I saw them on my 30th birthday on the rooftop of The Cosmo in Las Vegas … it was magical.

Your favorite visual artist.

It's a tie between Barbara Kreuger and Jenny Holzer.

Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction.

This question is way more binary than it needs to be!

The best book you've read lately.

Everything by Roxane Gay. Bad Feminist was life-altering. Admittedly, I haven't read these lately per se, but lately enough that I want to call out how much of a genius she is. Also, I recently discovered the too-real hilarity of Jenny Lawson's Furiously Happy. I'm about to dive into Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock, which I'm pumped about.

Your favorite movie.

Oh man, are you going to judge me if I say Garden State? 

Your favorite Instagram follow.

@hellomynameiswednesday. They are an ICONIC activist and artist.

How the Covid-19 crisis has changed your life, personally or professionally, in recent weeks.

Covid has devastated so many folks, and I don't want to minimize that. For me, however, it has been an opportunity to have a little more time for self-care in place of commuting across the city and participating in more book promotion than I would have if I had to show up in person. The shift toward work flexibility and a default to online meetings has been incredibly beneficial for me. I think there's a lot to be said about how Covid has, in some ways, created a less ableist working culture. I am hopeful that we consider this as the world opens back up.  

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.

My role as creative director on the multi-award winning World Vision No Child For Sale campaign. We reached 1 in 3 Canadians with this massive campaign highlighting child labour practices and their connection to everyday consumer goods. My research for the campaign was absolutely life-changing in terms of doing my due diligence as a consumer. The campaign performed incredibly well, and so I'm hopeful it did the same for many others. 

No Child for Sale: the 3D's of Child Labour (2013) | World Vision
Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.

Easy. The Conscious Creative: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work. This design research and authorship project is the book I wish had existed when I was a creative director struggling with the ethical implications of my work. It has since been picked up by a publisher and is now available for purchase everywhere. 

Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.

Adbusters magazine was seminal in helping me to understand how creative can transcend its role as a tool of capitalism despite the bombardment of messages that glorified consumerism in the '90s.

Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.

Envy definitely isn't the word, but lately I've been celebrating the work of activists who are generously using their creative talent and labour to make and disseminate grassroots campaigns about allyship and the BLM movement, Indigenous rights, and queer and trans rights. Mireille Cassandra Harper and her widely shared guide to avoiding optical allyship is a great example.

Your main strength as a creative person.

I can synthesize new information really quickly into something consumer facing, and because I'm a strategist, writer and art director, I can produce the work, too.

Your weakness or blind spot.

I've had a couple different leaders tell me, in varying ways, that I'm too nice. Part of me wants to push back on this because I worry that the feedback is rooted in patriarchal approaches to leadership. The reality is, I probably also just want folks to like me. I'm only human! Working on honing my hard-assedness. Stay tuned for a more bad-ass me in 2021 (probably not).

One thing that always makes you happy.

The magical trifecta of quiet, a cup of tea, and a fresh episode of Drag Race.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Cisheteropatriarchy! And cold takeout. Both are pretty disappointing.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising. 

Can we just assume I'm independently wealthy in this world? I would create independently for purpose-driven clients on my own timeline and explore every new idea that popped into my brain—or I would indulge my introversion as a full-time writer in quiet retreats surrounded by trees and water. And mountains. Those too.

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Ashley Epping
Ashley Epping is program lead at the Clio Awards.

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