in Life Optimization

Elle Luna: An Artist at Best or Designer at Worst?

Ever heard of Elle Luna? You’ve probably touched her work. She was a crucial designer behind three of the biggest apps in Silicon Valley – Medium, Mailbox, and Uber. Uber 1.0 was super ugly until she came around, Mailbox was built under her design lead, and she scaled Medium from the earliest days.

Sounds like an accomplished, fulfilling career, no? Elle didn’t feel that way. She jumped from success to success never feeling content. She started having dreams about a white room with nothing in it, visions that she couldn’t escape. So she did the logical thing, and went to Bali for 6 weeks in order to find herself.

In Bali, she spent her time in a hut without walls, painting portraits of local villagers and discovering a love of textiles. The experience empowered her to pursue artistry full time, so she went back to San Francisco, found the white room of her dreams on Craigslist, filled it with paint, and has since left her designer days behind her entirely. Pretty heartwarming, right?

She even wrote a viral blog post about the experience that turned into a cult favorite book: The Crossroads Between Should and Must. Should is all the things that society says you should do, and Must is what your inner self says you must do. Needless to say Elle has embraced her Must, and she encourages many others to do the same.

It’s a fantastic parable for doing what you love. Girl works hard, hits the big time, isn’t satisfied, and quits the real world to go do what she loves. This is straight out of Eat, Pray, Love.

When I heard Elle’s story, I loved it. But then I saw her art, and the narrative changed. Her story morphed from a guiding light to a cautionary tale. Something about the whole thing seemed inherently wrong to me. I realized that my greatest fear in life is that I don’t live up to my potential, and to me, the story of Elle Luna is exactly that.

Note: I have no business telling Elle how to live her life. She’s happy, she’s making a living, she’s creating art, and what I think is completely irrelevant. I don’t mean to disparage her or what she’s doing. But her story is too perfect of a parable. not to share.

A Tale of Passion Pursued, or Potential Eschewed?

I don’t like Elle’s art. It’s not that I hate it – it just doesn’t speak to me. I think her moon banners are trite, her portraits unexceptional, and her sketches ordinary at best. It’s professional art, but nothing special when compared to other professional art. That’s my opinion, and it’s moot, since she has an audience paying hundreds of dollars for it.

But that’s the thing – Elle didn’t start off as an artist. She was a designer, and a damn good one at that. Look at how gorgeous AND useful her app designs are. They’re pretty, simple, and effective. Few can deny the value that she has added to those projects.

Meanwhile, I’m not the only one who doesn’t care about her art. Some love it, some don’t care, and most people aren’t affected; whereas her designs were unanimously praised, and used the world over.


As John Maeda phrases it above, design is the intersection of art and science (subjective and objective value in my phrasing), both beautiful and useful. She went from being a talented designer who positively impacted millions of peoples’ lives in the most meaningful of ways (reading, communication, transportation), to an unexceptional artist who makes a few wealthy art collectors’ lives marginally better. The value of her creations became subjective and limited in scope.

Must Is Easy When You’re Elle Luna

What if everyone did that? What if everyone chose Must over Should? That’d be the classic artist utopia offered after the Singularity, when robots become capable of taking care of humanity’s every need, freeing us to become artists and do whatever we like (or Must!).

But in the meantime, somebody needs to clean the toilets, take out the trash, and sell products. I doubt any of those are personal Musts, which means that if we all followed Elle’s lead, we’d all lose our jobs. And most people aren’t as privileged, successful, or wealthy as Elle Luna to make the artist jump sustainable.

Would she have been a successful artist if she didn’t have that glowing design career behind her? What if she starting making art right after high school instead of going to IDEO? Would anybody care? Would she be successful? Would she love her life more?

Those are big what-ifs, but unless you have 3 triple A apps to your name, they are the questions you grapple with, not Should vs Must.

Here’s another angle – what if her art was as successful as her designs? What if her personal brand was as well known as Ubers’? Art offers a very different kind of value than scientifically useful design, but it is value nonetheless. Making something people like to look at isn’t quite the same as streamlining daily processes, but both have value. Indeed, the value of a designer is a commodity, while the value of an artist is not – any talented designer can streamline a process, but the work of an artist is 100% unique.

An Artist at Her Best, or a Designer at Her Worst?

The tale of Elle Luna can be told as that of an artist embracing her true calling after years of languishing under the Man, or it can be told as that of a designer throwing aside her impressive talent for helping others in order to help herself. I see it as the latter, but I can understand why someone would see it as the former.

I come off as an arrogant, unfeeling Objectivist in this way. Who am I, or Ayn Rand for that matter, to tell Elle or anyone how they should spend their life? Then Rand is just another Man doling out Shoulds and holding us back from our Musts, which is not what I believe. I’m all about Musts and loving your job. But I’m also all about adding value to society.

If Elle is happy as a designer and ecstatic as an artist, should she forego that extra joy in order to pay her dues to the rest of the world? She owes us nothing, but if the Venn diagram below is apt, art is more of a passion than a purpose. (or maybe I’m just a fogey businessman who doesn’t understand the value of art).


Can Must Come With Should?

If Elle’s lifestyle is happy, fulfilled, and sustainable, that’s all that matters. It’s once she tells others to do the same that I get uncomfortable. I disagree because I value design for many over art for the few, and think that it’s simply not possible for most people to embrace their Musts today (without her star power).

Perhaps the right answer is a balance. For now, everyone does as they Should, and needs more Must in their life. But overcorrecting the scales and going full Must is just as bad. Perhaps to live well, one both Should and Must.

An artist who loves making art nobody else loves is just as bad as a scientist who spends their life writing theoretical papers with zero applications. Both love their lives, both struggle to get paid, and nobody (other than them) cares. If everyone embraced their Musts (Kant’s categorical imperative), the majority would be making stuff nobody else cares about. Isn’t a world where we’re making stuff we love to make that’s also loved by others the best possible? That’s the world I’m groping for.

Is Elle Luna in that world? I suppose she is, since she’s enriched my life and millions of others with her design, her story and (apparently) her art. And if she inspires even one more person to embrace their Must rather than their Should, she’s a true hero.

  • Cameron Ottens

    Of course you could (in theory) get both easily by simply having people work 50%. Elle’s example would be 50% art and 50% design, for example. In simple immediate math that still looks like 50% bad by your reasoning, but in a less competitive, less workaholic paradigm, there’d be room for other talent, likely more than enough to pick up the slack.

    If the choice weren’t all or nothing, if it weren’t so stark, people would likely find joy and benefit in both personal and group imperatives.

  • Gina Medaris Murrow

    You put into words what I was thinking regarding Elle Luna’s “should & must” narrative. On one hand it is the message many of us long to hear—don’t worry about doing the shoulds in life; go do the things that make you excited! But not all shoulds are bad. As you pointed out, the answer is somewhere in the balance.

    Perhaps Elle Luna is still doing certain shoulds in her life, she just doesn’t talk about it. A person has to do the chores in order to keep life moving forward. Maybe her message is just incomplete, focusing on the fun and not on the work that gets one to the fun. Perhaps she should let us see behind the curtain a little bit more.

    I think Elle is handing out courage badges, like the Wizard of Oz giving the lion his courage badge. The cowardly lion had the courage in himself all along; he just needed someone to believe he could be courageous.

    And as you pointed out, we still need to keep doing some of the not so fun stuff that keeps life moving forward and that takes care of our fellow humans. There is joy to be found in work, even work that isn’t obviously exciting.

    Thank you for being brave enough to point out what’s missing in Elle’s message.