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How much would someone pay for a piece of art that could never hang in the halls of a museum or even grace a living room wall? Is there any way to ensure authenticity in the age of copy and paste? Will digital marketplaces democratize or devalue the work of designers and artists?

These questions have surfaced recently alongside the swift rise of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. 

Though the finer points of NFTs and how they truly function can seem difficult to grasp, they’ve nevertheless fueled a reckoning over the ownership of digital assets. They’re also opening up new ways for creators to have a say in the sale and distribution of their works. And it seems now is as good a time as ever for these discussions, as the NFT boom has played out over a period during which nearly all of our interactions with art come online.

It’s not just headline-grabbing price tags and pixelated social media avatars that are at stake, though—the whirlwind emergence of NFTs is sending ripple effects through the design world. From newfound audiences for obscure digital collectibles to marketplaces that put power in the hands of designers, follow along to take a deeper dive into how NFTs are shifting design and explore the platforms that can help you get involved.

NFT 101

So what, exactly, is an NFT? 

The concept of a non-fungible token is, at its root, more intuitive than the name might lead on. Let’s start with the basics: While fungible items, such as a dollar, can be traded for their exact value by simply picking up any other dollar, non-fungible means something is original and therefore unable to be exchanged with something else. Where creative works are concerned, non-fungibility is an especially useful term in that it denotes uniqueness.

NFTs are stored in digital wallets attached to a secure blockchain, much like the cryptocurrencies (or digital money) used to buy them. While the first non-fungible tokens sprang up in 2015, they rose to popularity more recently as Ethereum, the cryptocurrency with which most NFTs are purchased, inched its way into the mainstream. 

If this all sounds a little theoretical, it’s worth noting that the commercial allure of the NFT ecosystem is very real. Through the first three financial quarters of 2021, total sales of NFTs reached $3.5 billion. 

Notable NFT purchases run the gamut from iconic online moments to a distinctly 21st-century take on auctions and fine art ownership. Some examples include:

  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet—”just setting up my twttr”—which netted $2.9 million.
  • Model Emily Ratajkowski created an NFT of herself posing in front of another artist’s print, a physical reproduction of an old Instagram post of hers. The NFT, which sold for $175,000, was an effort by Ratajkowski to reclaim her image.
  • The highest-priced NFT artwork to date, the digital artist and graphic designer Beeple’s collage titled “Everydays – The First 5000 days.” It fetched $69 million and was the auction house Christie’s first fully-digital offering.

A new playing field, by and for designers

If you’ve been following along with the NFT craze, you may have noticed that the conversation often stretches far beyond the content of the artworks at hand. Attempts to justify their adoption might cite the essays of German philosopher Walter Benjamin before addressing manufactured scarcity, then finish with a broader discussion of decentralized economies. It can all seem a far cry from an internet token representing your favorite meme.

It’s not just talk, however. NFTs reduce barriers between clients and designers because payments generally take place instantly and within one centralized interface. They also pave the way for designers to have a say in how their work is sold while offering a more equitable, sustainable resale market down the line. 

Traditionally, the profits from a work of art are delivered to its creator once—at the time of initial purchase. Should it appreciate in value on the secondary market, the creator sees no future financial benefit when the piece changes hands. But if an artist converts their digital work into an NFT, in a process known as ‘minting,’ they may also help set the rules for future sales. That means designers can get royalties each time the NFT is sold again, sometimes reaching 10 percent.

NFTs also have more avenues available for designers to showcase and sell their work through an array of marketplaces. For designers, it’s an entirely new way of finding clients or buyers and allows for more organic discovery.

Take Foundation, for example. Like other popular NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea or SuperRare, it lets users explore digital works and see real-time valuations. “Trending” pieces come about naturally, as a function of what visitors view and bid most upon. In contrast to lengthy contract negotiations or one-off projects that leave designers chasing payments, Foundation’s goal is to “foster a network of mutual support between artists, creators, and collectors.”

While the NFT movement is in its nascent stage, it’s already opening doors for digital artists and designers around the globe—especially those whose work might have previously been more difficult to classify. As 3D designer and artist Auriea Harvey described in a recent interview with It’s Nice That, “I have found it freeing to have NFTs as an option. Suddenly, digital work doesn’t have to be a hard sell… [people] are coming to understand how and why to collect digital-born works.”

Whether a short-lived sensation or a lasting solution, NFTs make it clear that there are possibilities for designers to try out new markets and reach broader audiences on their own terms. 

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