- February 25th, 2011
- 57 Comments
As many people who work in a creative field like design and development may already know, sometimes our clients just do not understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. The boundaries that we are seeking to push are not ones they approve of for their project, so our creative ideas get backburnered until we can find an appropriate project as well as an agreeable client where you can flex these creative muscles freely. In fact, the standard business processes, especially the ones we allow ourselves to be strapped into, tend to work against us in this aspect.
Allow me to elaborate. For most creatives, the most genuine and innovative ideas can often come without provocation. Which is unfortunate, because that tends to relegate these ideas to one of two categories. The personal project category that we get to whenever we find the time to break away from our work plates to snack on something different. Or to the professional project pool where we wait on that client who will allow us the freedom to incorporate this idea into their project. At other times, the ideas we have tend to be in response to the client, their business or something they have laid down — some sort of foundation — for us to build upon. These ideas are somewhat prompted.
Now this is not to say that the prompted ideas are any less potent or powerful than the ones that we arrived at alone, only that the ones we get to by ourselves tend to be more imaginative and exciting in our eyes as those are the ones we feel unencumbered by the clients rules or specs. Which also means that they are the ones that we get to work less on due to the fact that we have to pay the bills, and in most cases, that means some kind of compromise on the part of the creative mind. We can say that we think outside the box on every project, but we have to admit that when a client comes to us, they have one or two ideas in the bucket ready and those specs can be considered somewhat of a box that we must work in.
That Is Just How Business Works
Now I know that there are some who are scratching their heads, knowing that this is just the way how business works, and they are confused at to what exactly we are asking them to consider. And yes, we understand that this is the standard way by which this game is played. Businesses have needs — they turn to other experts or specialists to have these needs met. They explain exactly what it is they are looking for, and the experts comply, delivering the experience that hopefully surpasses the client’s expectations. But what if we could change the standard rules of gameplay here on a much wider scale, affording this much freer approach to any designer or developer who wished to truly work unhindered.
Just a quick note: this article is not trying to say that working with all clients is a dull, innovation adjacent venture, or even trying to say that you will never have to work under these more standard rules of gameplay. But we usually have ideas of our own — ideas that we would love to see through without having to compromise or consult with a client or anyone else for that matter to approve what we are doing.
Think of it like the difference in a movie director working independently on a film rather than working for a major studio. They have much more freedom to make the film as they see fit, without any interference from above. For a while this was an approach that not many designers or developers have thought to not be feasible, but that is all changing.
Thanks, by and large, to the avenues being created by and granted access to by the Web.
The Game Changer
Before now, and in some ways still, we have always had to take our ideas to someone else in order to help us make them happen. We had to reach beyond ourselves to find those with the means and know-hows to reach further than we had access in order to get our idea out to the masses and have it connect with the audience. Essentially, we had to sell our idea to someone else in order to get distribution and manufacturing. However, the Web is granting creatives the chances to write their own opportunities, and make things happen for themselves, without having to depend on someone else.
Understanding that the term “sellout” tends to carry negative connotations, but what I mean is that we have to pitch the idea and someone has to buy in order for it to happen. When they buy, that tends to put them in the controlling seat. They hold the final say over the outcome of the project, or even where the project ends up. For some creatives, that compromise alone can take a lot of the fun and excitement out of the equation. But without those buyers, the project would tend to remain an unrealized effort. So there has been an underlying coercion for creatives to play the game and compromise their ideas when necessary in order to connect with the masses.
Enter the Web, and services like Kickstarter7, communities like YouTube and Vimeo, and suddenly the middle men that we needed to make our innovative ideas a reality, are not as much of a necessity as they once were. There is a great article by Ryan Carson8 that highlighted two examples of just how those in creative fields who are no longer waiting for opportunity to knock, instead create those opportunities for themselves. And in these cases, what remains important is that they remain the ones calling the shots.
Now I know there are those who think that this is approach is a complete waste of time. However, already today there are creatives who are just as equally excited about this evolved approach which allows them to completely take the reigns of their creative projects9. So below we have taken a look at both the benefits offered and challenges posed by this new gameplay structure to help better see what exactly this approach means and entails.
First, we are going to look at the pros to taking charge of our creations and marching forward with them on our own as the masters of our own destiny. If you are one of those who is on the fence about this whole issue, or even if you are standing firmly against it, perhaps this section will have you rethinking things and getting you to come down on the side for it.
This has already been mentioned in the article; however, given its weight, it deserves a deeper examination of just what makes it so important. For most of us in the design and development fields, we have had to work with a client whose lack of understanding of the field can negatively impact the resulting project once their uncompromising input has been implemented. This can hugely effect our resulting takeaway and perspective with which we begin to view our chosen fields. Especially, if we find project after project that comes with compromise after compromise. This can effectively end up sapping our excitement and stifling our creative energy.
Another side effect these compromises can have is that we end up having to lose some truly innovative element of the project because of the client’s wishes, and our work can somewhat reflect a staleness on our parts as a result. When users see the final design and interact with it, they only see the compromised end result. They do not see the processes or the decisions and conditions that ultimately led to a creation that could essentially be much less than its potential. And it is this end result that is looked upon as the limits of our abilities. Client’s input is useful and necessary, but sometimes it’s not exactly what is best for our users. And yes, design is not art, but a medium for delivering messages across, but as designers we are often quite restricted by the decisions made for us, not with us.
But when we are the one who is calling all of the shots, our creative energy can flow freely, and our imaginations are subject to no one’s approval or standards. And there are those who would say that using a service like Kickstarter, where you outline a project and potential investors commit to contributions to fund your creative venture, does not put you in the driver’s seat per se, as you are still having to “sell” your idea. However, the big difference is that the sponsors and investors you get via Kickstarter do not expect to be able to provide some kind of creative input. You are the one in control.
This also means that you are the one in control of the timeline for when and if the project sees the light of day. This can be key, as there are times in the design and development fields when those elements are out of our hands and they end up derailing the project far from its potential or intended destinations. There are times when we work so hard on a project and have put so much into it until we have molded it to what we feel is perfection, only to turn it over and have it altered or never see the light of day. Consequently, there are times when we feel (for whatever reason) that a project just will not come together and should be abandoned, but we can’t drop it, so the end result is a sub-par product that nobody is actually happy with. In this field of play, those calls are all ours.
- You have to deal with less compromises that sap your enthusiasm and excitement for both the project and your field.
- Your reputation does not suffer from compromises the client forced us to make.
- You do not have to worry about outside interference, our imagination is not subject to approval.
- Your project outcome is completely in your hands, and your hands alone.
Time and Money Saver
It may seem like somewhat of a contradiction that this approach could actually save time and money, but when you look at the first example of designer Frank Chimero12 and his design book that he now can completely finance via Kickstarter, you can see how this approach can do just that. More often than not, in order to get a book published and distributed within what is commonly seen as the mainstream, you would first have to spend weeks, possibly months, writing and rewriting both the outline for the book and the book proposal (not to mention the numerous e-mails, phone calls and meetings with possible publishers). All of which is done without any guarantee of being published and distributed.
In the end, all of the time that is taken to write up these proposals and outlines for the books take away from the time we spend on billable work. And in some cases, the entire book or some parts of it must first be written before we are able to get any interest from publishers or distributors. So that time has to be accounted for as well. But by harnessing the Web and social media, we can now find the means to publish and distribute the book on our own — without consuming much time and often the costly process of seeking out and involving the proverbial middle men in the project. For instance, Smashing Magazine produces printed books independently15, without the middle man, and so can you.
This is a big step forward, and helps to connect the potential investors directly to the creative individuals, without the compromised hands of the mainstream middle men getting into the project, which simply feels more conducive to innovation. Compromised decisions can end up hurting the project’s potential. This can also mean that we will end up with less forced input which can lead to time consuming revision after time consuming revision which could end up compromising the overall impact of the message. Which might further translate into lost sales. Therefore, we can see huge savings in both time and costs by opting for this new paradigm.
- We can save a lot of time, which tends to equal money, in both the initial and final project stages via this route.
- Taps potential investors directly into the source of ideas, without any agendas or middle men getting in the way.
Smoother Sailing in the Client Pool
Now, one possible benefit that we could see spring forth from this approach is the higher chances of landing dream clients. This may seem a bit far fetched, but if there were more designers and developers writing their own opportunities and launching their own projects then that is going to create interest in the client pool, right? Essentially, going the route, you can effectively choose between working on a client’s project or creating your own which you could put in your portfolio or even gain some exposure with and consequently connect with some potential clients.
Besides, since you are engaging your heart and soul into your project, you are more likely to produce a remarkable product — a product that will help you gain new insights, learn new creative fields and leave a mark in the design community. You can also create a well-respected name for yourself. And it’s certainly worth trying.
One of the biggest problems that anyone working in any creative field faces, is the undervaluing of their time and talents. This can come either in the guise of those who simply do not see the value of what we do, or in the form of those who capitalize on our creativity without having contributed to the creative process in any way. Whatever form it may take, it means that someone is profiting off of your creativity.
Now, there are cases when there is a service attached to it that we could not handle ourselves. Back in the day, distribution was one of the main incentives that creative persons had to aligning themselves with this model in which they create the product, and do not get to see the majority of the profits from the project. Designers and developers have been signing on with company that provided them with the space and tools they need to do the work for years because of the sheer cost it saves them. Only to sacrifice shares of the profits from their work, not to mention the ability to do the work that they necessarily want the way they want it. But again, this is not the only paradigm on the market anymore.
You want to organize a design conference and sell tickets for it? There16 are17 services18 for you. You’d like to build up a shop from ground up? Again, there19 are20 tools21 for you. You don’t have to rely on anybody, but instead you can just put together everything you need and leverage the potential of social media to back up your projects.
With no middle men to have to share the profits with, this new approach can also allow us to get the bulk of the revenues generated from the projects that we have created. In the example provided in Ryan’s article, Natasha Westcoat2423’s live online paintings, not only does she save herself the time and effort of seeking a gallery show to find buyers, she saves herself the percentages that galleries, art dealers and online intermediaries, might charge if she sold the work through them. Here, she controls the profits. So it is exciting to see that the old profit share piggyback model is not the only path in which designers and developers find themselves in these days given the reach and access afforded to them by the Web.
- With this new model, the person who is generating and creating the idea is the one who will reap the majority of the rewards from their work, as it should be.
- No longer do we have to share the majority of our profits with those who offer us services that help spread the word — not create it.
- With the middle men gone, the revenues can be more evenly and fairly distributed.
Anyone who is seriously considering taking on the “independent” route, needs to understand that there might be some challenges in the road ahead. These are serious considerations that should be made before moving forward.
Weight of the World
Most of the time that we take on a project, there are going to be some elements of that cause us some bit of stress. Be it the timeline, those we are working with or compromises made. But we tend to be somewhat compartmentalized in the project and therefore our stress levels tend to be as well. If there is stress involved in the project, we can bet that we are only experiencing a fraction of that stress through the buffers provided by the numerous rungs in the ladder above us. Also, because we are usually stacked somewhere in a hierarchy, the instigators of the stress are somewhat abstracts to us. For example, if we are working with a big company, we tend to not have to interact with the client or public directly, it is done through a series of intermediaries. So when they are upset, we get hints of that, but not necessarily the brunt of it.
This is not the case when we are stepping up as the masters of our projects. We have no buffers or barriers which allow us to compartmentalize any of it. We are baring the full weight of this world on our shoulders, and are not shielded from the reactions of the public. It all rests on us. Every cog in the process, from creation to marketing, from production to distribution is our responsibility. Either we have to handle it ourselves, or we have to find the right people to put into those roles to ensure that it all goes smoothly and according to plan. If it doesn’t, the blame will fall on you and your reputation — no one else’s. Also, we need to makke certain decisions that we don’t necessarily know much about: e.g. if you decide to print a book, what about fulfillment and support?
This can admittedly be a terrifying step to take, especially when you have never worked through all aspects of the project process before. If you are not strong in marketing, or have never actually overseen the production step by step, doing these tasks for the first time can seem overwhelming. And it is easy to see why many would rather play it safer instead of working on a more demanding and involved approach. For many of us, no benefit is enough to willingly accept the entire weight of the project on our shoulders.
- If you pick the “independent” route, you are responsible for everything, and you alone will own each of the project’s successes and failures.
- No matter where your strengths are lacking, you have to find ways to fill those gaps and pick up that slack to ensure the project succeeds.
- You have no buffers to the reactions and fallouts from the project — you have to deal with it all directly.
Another consideration that must be understood is that you are not selling the idea alone, you are also promoting yourself. Which is where confidence comes into play pretty heavily. It is easy to have faith in an idea and be able to get others to sign on and ascribe to that idea through the confidence that you are reflecting in it. However, when you are the head of the pyramid, it is not just faith in the idea that all parties involved need, everybody needs to have faith in the main person behind it.
That faith in oneself is harder to project with enough confidence to necessarily have others clamoring at your heels wanting to throw in on the proverbial backing bandwagon. And given that many of us might not be used to having to promote ourselves and effectively market ourselves in order to make a project happen, this could be a necessary adjustment. It is one thing to effectively market ourselves into a job, where we are pitted against other individuals, but in this case, we are marketing ourselves against an entire, well, market. It is not just about the idea, but about our ability to make it real. Whereas now we are competing with what can be seen as more financially stable companies, not just the ideas they are pitching.
As part of a company, when we go forth with an idea, there is a reputation behind us, more than just our own. When we do it alone — not so much. So once again it is easy to understand how this could act as a deterrent. On the other side, it might as well be an area that not deters you, but vividly alerts you to something that you are going to need to work on before you move ahead.
- It is not just the idea under scrutiny, but your ability to make it happen as well.
- You must be able to effectively position and market yourself and your project against the rest of the market.
- You do not have any other reputation backing the project other than your own.
No End in Sight
Finally, you must consider that if you are going to try and create your own opportunities and run with them, you will be running for a long, long time. When you are the one spearheading the entire project, and overseeing all facets of the process, there is no end of the line where you just get to hand it over and then move on to the next project. You have to stick with this project and ride it out for the entire reach and life of the project. No matter where it leads, you have signed on to following, and that could prove to be a very long haul indeed. Somewhere, that road could potentially keep going, always requiring some level of dedication, if not participation, on your part.
This could effectively undo any of the time saved benefit that got you looking favorably at this idea in the first place. So you have to look reasonably at the long term time investments and consider how much time the project could require to completely determine if the project will be worthwhile to pursue. Keep in mind that the project will eventually endure beyond their initial projected commitments, althought the exact details depend on the project itself. And it would be better to realize this before beginning and getting others to commit, so that the project does not fall short of its potential because you actually underestimated your own project.
- You may have to be willing to commit to it for however long the project survives to maintain its integrity.
- There is no point at which you should be expecting to be able to just cut and run from the project without seeing it through to the absolute end.
In the End
Doing things on your own is risky but worthwhile. There is certainly some merit to creating your own opportunities. The tools are available; the medium for connecting with friends, colleagues and like-minded people is available; and you can freely explore your creativity and skills using both of them. I honestly believe that this new culture we observe today might change the rules of the game and I anxiously wait to see what interesting new developments spring up as a result. Please share your opinion in the comments section below.
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