The Curse of Casual

One of the first things I did when I moved from a full-time studio job to working independently was list my phone number on my site. Right up top, pretty hard to miss. In an industry fueled by gotta-have-it-now deadlines, giving people an immediate way to reach me seemed like a smart idea. I expected to budget a few extra minutes into my day to field long-winded project inquiries and perhaps an impromptu student call. I expected having to choke back my yawning mumbles if and when an art director woke me up at 2 in the afternoon. I even expected a few Nigerian Princes to generously propose lucrative investment opportunities. What I didn’t expect was the slew of late-night, emoticon-riddled text messages, as legitimately inquisitive as one can be when stirring a complete stranger from their sleep to ask things like: yo son so what basically do u do as far as the advertising goes :p?.

For anyone curious if the above was an actual received message, the answer is a begrudging yes. Kind of a pain in the ass, okay, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few weeks later, it happened again — different enquirer, similarly ridiculous in its syntax. Not long after that, I had a client end a phone conversation by confirming that the address on my invoice was indeed where I lived, only to learn that he was “right around the corner” and that we should sit down for a minute to discuss some new projects he had planned. Mind you, I work from home so this conversation happened in my dining room. Turns out the appearance of professionalism is tough to maintain when you’re incinerating a toaster strudel in the next room.

The whole phone-number-made-public debacle aside, brazen nonchalance has managed to pop up elsewhere. I recently had a client inform me that she would be late in returning some concept feedback because her friends were still voting on sketches. When I asked to her to clarify, she jovially linked to a Facebook page she’d created, asking people to vote via photo comment on which direction they liked best. Then there was the client who wanted to come over and watch me work on her logo. Then the one who tried to pay me in kimchi (okay, not a terrible trade). And of course, the one who will never pay me ever, no matter what, ever.

Each time I recount one of these stories, people react a little differently: I get some sympathizers and some eye-rollers, those who supplement tales of their own and a few who are clearly more annoyed by my complaining than anything else. Fair enough. Everyone’s got their own point of view and we all operate within our own standards of professional client behavior. But even the dissenters are keen to entertain the question: how low-key is too low-key? Because regardless of how you look at it, my whiny anecdotes illuminate what is apparently a growing industry perception: this is some casual shit.

To be fair, I like casual; I like not wearing a tie, that I can work in the park for an afternoon, and that people ranging from creative directors to total strangers embed links to Star Wars YouTube clips in their e-mails. It’s all part of what I genuinely believe makes this industry so unique. We’ve successfully fractured the paradigm of the typical office environment and emerged more creative, more efficient, and more collaborative because of it. Make no mistake: casual is the future of the working class and we are the torchbearers of its revolution.

But, like many things, casual exists on a spectrum. And like all spectrums, the far reaches can fade into dark territory. Popular culture’s done a great job of illustrating the billionaire-genius potential of the nerd kingdom, but it’s also been quick to peg us all as hoodie-clad coffee shop lurkers, dicking around in Photoshop with no requisite credentials other than a piece of fancy Cupertino hardware. Where’s the threshold? Where does the face of the creative class slip from refined artistry and thoughtful problem-solving to lazy, flippant hobbyists? Because whether or not you realize it, you do have a face. Not the one you see in the mirror, but one that’s been predefined for you — a visage molded from public perception and the collective reputations of your colleagues, that you unwittingly wear to every client meeting, to every interview. It’s the face people see before they even meet you, when they go to make that first phone call (or craft that thoughtfully-worded midnight text message). Perception, after all, is reality: regardless of how professionally you may take your craft, if you’re already classified as non-essential personnel, how significant can your work ever really be?

And therein lies the darkest shade of the casual spectrum: the perception that, behind the cool posters and fancy fonts, we’re all sort of a joke. Serious enough enough to consider but trivial enough to forget. Underpaid, negligible, and pretty much exactly where we belong. No one wants to be there, and no one should have to be. But it’s on our own shoulders to keep each other out of the dark and flexibly in the middle — a toe in each end, professional work punctuated by cool approachability. After all, the face we wear together is the one we create together.

Let’s embrace casual — but keep it from becoming our curse.