Advice for Creative Technologists
When you’re just starting out, getting into the professional field of creative technology can be challenging. It’s hard to find a corner of the industry that feels like it suits your interests and strengths that also allows you to make a living. The phrase “creative technologist” isn’t even standardized and can mean wildly different things between companies. Nevertheless, chances are that you see yourself as an artist who uses technology as a medium, or you’re [pardon the overused phrase] “working at the intersection of art and technology.”
In this writeup, I’d like to offer some thoughts on my time as a creative technologist. I will be speaking to some lessons I’ve learned and things I wish I could pass back to myself when I was just starting out. When I finished grad school for electronic arts in 2010, it was daunting to try to understand where my skills would fit best in the workplace. I knew how to shoot and edit videos, compose and mix music, work with AV hardware, and write basic software in Max/MSP [and a tiny bit of C++]. Most of my pre-graduation work experience was with setting up computers or hardware and a bit of event production. I was an ok generalist at those things, but not strong enough in any one thing that I knew specific companies to go after. I eventually figured something out and joined Fake Love in 2011, but the field continues to be a moving target. Also, most of my experience I’ll be speaking to is coming from working in the world of advertising and production, so keep that bias in mind if you’re looking into being a creative tech in another sector of the industry.
Nine years later, finding a good job fresh out of school with this background still isn’t an easy problem to solve. However, the industry is a lot more mature and stable these days. There are a lot of exciting options out there for you to put these skills to work (or maybe you want to start your own company or studio). Once you’ve found your destination and are ready to get to work, here is some bits of advice for making some of that work a little easier. I’ll touch on the following:
- What is a creative technologist?
- Teamwork and Communication
- Focusing and growing your skills
- Maintaining Inspiration
- A list of smaller points
What is a Creative Technologist?
I actually don’t think there is an agreed upon definition across industries. I’m also not going to try to place my own standard on it in this article — there are lots of other write-ups out there that try to hone in on it. The finest point I’ll put on it is that it’s someone who is a bit creative, has some good experience with technology and bridges the gap between the two. I think it’s best to read the job description that your hiring manager put together and really dig into what they are looking for when you apply.
Some places may just be looking for a software developer or UX person with a slight creative twist. Some agencies may just be looking for a creative person who doesn’t actually do production-level software development or anything concrete with technology, but is good at synthesizing ideas from technology they come across. These can all be valid, but just be careful with assumptions if you’re expecting every creative tech role you find to focus on projection mapping, sensors and audiovisual bonanzas. A lot of my point of view in the rest of the article is for creative technologists looking to work in a production and advertising environment and likely working with clients coming from other industries. The experience of a creative tech can be very different in a company that is looking to produce a singular product, or a web development shop that maybe doesn’t even do all that much with hardware and sensors, or a shop focused on longterm museum exhibits, or a larger corporate entity that has a research “lab” where the only client is itself. Nonetheless, some of the following tips definitely apply fairly broadly.
For the first point, I don’t want to belabor all of this too much since it applies to every industry but I think it’s worth pointing out some specifics to this area of work.
Respect yourself. This can be a very fun but tough line of work at times. You often have to deal with stress and pressure of working with brand new technologies that you may not know super well and are trying to learn on the job. Timelines are tight, things don’t always work and you won’t know why. You may be doing work for some of the biggest companies in the world. Live events don’t wait for you. Make sure you’re taking time for yourself. Advertising has a reputation for putting people through the wringer and burning them out. That doesn’t have to be how you do it. Give yourself boundaries. Keep doing your own personal work. Find ways to be proud of the work. Respect your own principals, and you may find yourself lasting longer and feeling more fulfilled for it.
Respect the project and the client. By their nature, most of these projects have never been done before. Oftentimes, your client is taking a bet on whether this whole project will work out and be successful. They also may not know the fine details and limitations of the particular technology being used, or maybe they haven’t done an interactive project like this before. Help them understand, guide them (or educate your team that works with the client). Many are receptive, but you really have to put yourself in their shoes to see where their hesitations may be. Communicate in a way that is honest, but helps them feel like there are always solutions to their concerns. Build trust early — it can pay off if there are stumbles later on in the project.
Respect the arts and artists. There are a lot of parallels with projects you’ll work on and things going on in the art world. Make sure you’re taking time to gather inspiration from those works and uses of technology. However, there is a fine line between feeling inspired by something and ripping it off — make sure you’re following good ethics. If you find yourself getting too close to an existing work, work with your team to change the direction — or reach out to the original artist directly. Make sure you give back to the arts community as well — donate money or time, host meet ups, do some writing, contribute to open source initiatives, etc.
Respect the user. Oftentimes, these projects often aren’t actually for the client. They are for their client — their customers. Your goal is to make a connection with them. This means really putting yourself in their position. The things you’re making are likely going to be experienced by someone who has never seen them before. Make sure the intended interactions are intuitive and easy to understand. Let the user get immersed in the experience and find their own path without spelling everything out with textual instructions. Help them feel guided and not forced — give them agency. Another component to respecting the user is that you’ll need to keep a sharp eye on polish — little things like a mouse cursor or menubar on screen, or an exposed wire can really break that sense of immersion in certain situations. Final polish is important because if a person didn’t care enough to fix those small things, why should a user respect the experience?
Respect your team. There are a couple parts of this for me — moving through being more of a member of a team to leading a team (which is actually a subtle difference, if you’re doing things right). As a manager, your role is to enable your team to do the best they can do. This means making sure they have clear instructions, aren’t overworked, that they are taking time for themselves, and that they feel heard. As a team member, you need to understand that everyone is coming to a project with different skillsets, backgrounds, strengths and anxieties. Trust in the fact that everyone wants to do their best, and that can drive you to keep pace with them. Tell people thanks for the little things and the big things. Tell them their stuff looks awesome. Build each other up. I’ll expand on this in the next section.
Teamwork and Communication
As your career advances, you’ll start working with larger and larger teams of people. Creative technologists that don’t learn how to work well with a team will eventually hit a limit in the size of projects they can be a part of. The community is also still fairly small and close knit, so word will spread quickly about whether someone is a team player or difficult to work with. Putting in the effort early to make sure you’re a confident team member will really pay off later on.
When you’re starting out at school, your teams may be your classmates or collaborators. This environment is great because you will have similar ways of thinking about the approach and end result. You all may have similar value systems about what is important for the work you’re producing. You may not have a client (outside of your teacher) and you’re just working to make something you hope people enjoy.
Eventually your teams will grow to include people who may not share the same love and respect for arts and technology that you do — or they may just show that respect in a different way. Large projects are rarely just technology. There’s design, UX, creative thinking, money, logistics, hardware, and just managing humans. When you reach a professional setting, your internal team will consist of team members in disciplines like production, accounts and sales, creative direction, and design. Depending on your company structure, you may be working with external teams like fabricators for physical set design, or AV technology integrators for installing the hardware and running cables. Finally, you have the client. Sometimes it’s just one person representing the client’s company from their side, but sometimes you’ll be dealing with many people on their side, especially if you’re integrating with their technology directly.
Here’s the thing: you need all of those personalities and skillsets to make this business work. It takes effort and experience to understand the viewpoints of all of those other teams you’ll be working with. You’ll need the outgoing, sharp, confident salesman to sell the concept. You’ll need the reality-bending creative director to make it something exciting. You’ll need the tactical masterminds of your producers to make it happen (and make a profit). You’ll need your introspective, nerdy tech team to help bring it to life. Trying to do all of these things with one person can certainly be done, but it’s nice to take a step back and let others do what they are really good at while they let you do the same.
Once you have your team together, communication is the next hurdle. With everyone focusing on different elements to make the best possible product — sometimes things get lost in translation or slip through the cracks — especially when working with new technologies. You’re learning limitations in real time and you need to communicate those findings to the broader team. Make sure you’re speaking up when you need something. You may want to even err on the side of over-communication just so everyone understands what issues you’re working on or working through. You may be asked to explain certain decisions in plain english to slightly less technical people on your team. Why did you choose that particular model of touchscreen or that sensor? Why did we choose that particular AR library or mobile device?
Another important point on communication is learning to accept criticism. A background in the arts can help with this, but isn’t a prerequisite. Your professional reputation is very closely tied to your ability to hear, accept and learn from criticism. Being difficult and combative can seriously hurt you. Don’t get immediately defensive, don’t try to point fingers — listen to the other person and try to understand their view. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat — another skill is identifying when criticism is valuable and when it is baseless. In either case — say thanks for the criticism and move on. Make sure you’re being assertive and sharing your views too. Enjoy the give and take, and trust in each other.
Every project is different, but there are usually a couple core things you can do to start a project off right — wiring diagrams and software diagrams. Wiring diagrams help you organize your thoughts about the hardware you will need and any potential problems — “Hmm…can that cable extend 200ft and also send a 4K signal?” A wiring diagram also helps communicate to other team members and very often comes in handy when communicating with venues, fabricators or other AV integrators. You’ll likely need to know power requirements for your installation and network needs and having diagrams ready to go can really keep things moving.
The same can be said for making a software UX diagram if you’re working on a fairly complex system. Breaking out a flow into a timeline of events and where different components come in:
User does this.
Sensor component gets this.
Backend does this.
Display component does this.
A diagram like that makes it really easy to communicate with your tech team when you’re dividing up tasks and helps them all see how they fit in the bigger picture. It can also help make the UX crystal clear to the team so that there isn’t a forgotten element. Finally, working on a plan for QA and risk management early in the process can also be really helpful for your team. A risk management plan can help everyone, not just tech, plan for issues that may arise when you finally install the final project. Throughout development, make sure you’re sharing early and often with your creative team so they can know how to adjust their strategy if something isn’t working the way you had hoped.
Focusing and Growing your Skills
The title of Creative Technologist is still a bit of an odd one. It’s very general — similar to the title of “webmaster” in the late 90’s (I’ve borrowed this point from Andrew Bell’s 2012 Eyeo Talk). Being a generalist is in some ways a requirement of the field. You need to know a little bit about sensors, display tech, software development, and a few others things just to create your first project. However, every year we’re adding a new technology and rarely removing any of the old ones. You shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to keep up with every little change and shift.
Here is a broad overview of all the things you may be expected to know a bit about if you’re a senior level creative technologist in 2019. I don’t mean to say that you have to know all of these in depth, but you need to know enough about them to know when and how they are used. And yes, I’m aware there are things in this that are missing, incorrect or in the wrong place — consider it just for demonstration purposes :)
Considering the above and how futile it would be to try to master all of them — it will become important for you to find a focus for your skills and develop what you feel you are really, truly good at. You will need to keep some of that generalist knowledge, but finding a skill to call your own is going to be really helpful career-wise. When I’m looking for new hires or freelancers to work with — I rarely go for generalists. I need someone with strong skills in graphics, or backend development, or sensor integration, or a hardware expert. If you present yourself as having those specific things, I know exactly who to call when I need someone. I would be more concerned about a generalist having to learn the new skills on the job rather than a specialist who has been down a similar path before and already knows what to do.
It will take time to find a focus. You may get into something, and a year later find its not for you — that’s ok. It’s enticing to try to learn all the things when you see so much cool work out there. Schools with arts and tech programs programs also don’t always give you enough time to find that focus. To fill out your credits you might be taking classes with topics in web development, Processing/openFrameworks/Unity, AI, machine learning, AR, digital fabrication, wearables, generative audio, interface design, video production, and others. That can be a lot of skills to digest in just a few years, and you may find yourself falling in love with all of them in different ways. (Sidenote: attending one of these programs is absolutely not a requirement for a career in arts+tech. You can learn plenty on your own or in other industries).
On the flip side, going too deep on one skillset or tool can also be detrimental to career growth. Think about people who spent years mastering Flash — could the same thing happen to today’s Unity developers? The key is finding balance. You may be better off in the long run if you focus on learning and mastering a methodology and approach for projects, rather than getting too hyper specific on the technologies themselves. I used to be pretty good at making stuff with Quartz Composer and devoted a lot of time to it, but kids today are probably like “What the hell is Quartz Composer?” — but the thinking behind how I built projects has stuck with me. Once you learn the rules of programming, most of it is just relearning vocabulary in a new language.
Once you start working on professional projects, you’ll be learning on the job. This makes the concept of focus start to get trickier since it’s not as self directed as it might be in a school environment. There will be things you may be forced to do to finish a project that you find you’re not actually all that good at. That’s fine! You have a lot of options when that happens — keep pushing and learning that skill over time OR recognize your own limitations in the moment and make sure you have the appropriate help next time that problem comes up. If you find yourself on a path to be a manager, know that good leaders know their limitations, and know when to augment their team to account for their weakness in a given area.
Smaller points that have helped me along the way:
I wasn’t sure how to categorize the following, but I think they are useful nonetheless. Send me some of yours and I’ll add them here!
If your professional work is similar in format to your personal arts practice, you may reach points where you feel too burnt out to do personal work or struggle to find work you want to do. That’s all ok sometimes as long as you can recognize it and work with it. I think it is still important to continue to do personal art work because you can freely explore projects and ideas that may not have the same goals as the business you’re involved in. However, those personal projects are still amazing for learning unexpected things and processes that you can apply to business projects later on. In my past several years at work, I’ve been able to do live performances, make weird mobile games, make music videos, and countless other small projects. Some of these were made entirely outside of work, and some were made during free time at work, but I’ve learned something from all of them.
It’s also really important to stay connected to your community and network so you can be inspired by your peers and build each other up. I personally enjoy hosting and organizing meet ups when I have free time. Just simply creating a space and time for people to meet and share their work can be huge. Communities don’t just happen, and they need encouragement to grow. If you’re not seeing a community you want to be a part of, go ahead and start something.
Get it in writing.
Contracts are hugely important at all levels of this industry. As a freelancer, I got burned a couple times early on because I was either too trusting or didn’t assert myself and ask for a contract with specific details. These projects can change on a dime and in the worst case you should be prepared to protect yourself in the event something changes or gets cancelled. Even for smaller projects that feel like a favor but there is still money changing hands, don’t feel embarrassed to get the terms recorded and agreed upon. If you’re building towards something large on your own, you will probably want a lawyer on retainer so they can help you review more complex documents. Don’t be afraid of asking for this stuff or sticking up for yourself with things like strict Net 30 payment terms — you won’t be seen as being difficult, it’s just business at the end of the day.
Learn your Value.
This is related to getting it in writing. If you’re working freelance or starting to feel things out — be very wary of anyone who offers a job for exposure or connections. If the project is for a brand or expensive event, they can afford to pay you well. The budgets for these things are usually pretty good — you’ll know passion art projects when you see them, but if a client is paying, you should get paid too. Taking a pay cut can be bad for everyone else in the industry and can make it harder to raise that level in the future. Of course, some people need to take work to build a portfolio and get their foot in the door, but make sure to keep your self respect in tact and make sure you make allowances a temporary thing, not a permanent one. I won’t get into specific numbers here since they can vary by experience level and what city you’re in and what the project is, but ask around to your peers (or message me privately if you’re looking for advice). You can also look at whopaysartists.com for some other perspective.
The same goes for if you’re looking for a full-time job. There are a wide range of these available — small studios to very large agencies that will have a spread of salary and benefits. If you’re joining a small startup studio, try and get some equity or some kind of share in the event they take off, but don’t take that in exchange for a lower salary. Also — don’t feel like you have to stay at the same rate for freelance or otherwise — you can raise your rate between projects if you feel like your skill level and contributions warrant it.
Understand your ethical boundaries.
In advertising, you may work for industries or companies that you may disagree with. Or maybe you just don’t think the product is all that great. You may be asked to work on projects that capture data or photos without a user’s consent. You may be asked to do something that feels suspiciously similar to an artwork a friend or peer made. This discussion is much bigger than this paragraph will allow for. Make sure to find your voice, and talk to your coworkers, managers or peers about what feels right on a given project.
Check software licenses!
This is heavily related to the above point on ethics. If you’re working with open source software, most authors will add a license to their offering. Generally its something like an MIT License that allows for just about any use case. However, some authors have strict “non-commercial use” clauses that they add to their readme’s. Aside from being a potentially thorny legal issue, you really should be respecting their request to only use this in an artistic or not-for-profit context. Reach out to the author if you have a question about usage. Also — if your project has the budget for it, try setting aside some project money to send to the author of the open source module that probably saved you days or weeks of development time.
Privacy and data security for these projects are starting to become much more serious.
This is a sort of “water is wet” statement, but it’s worth emphasizing. When you’re doing your own personal projects you may not be doing a lot of email and photo capturing that you have to worry about. Once you start working with large brands, this becomes a much bigger topic for every project. It’s particularly thorny when you’re working with a client in finance, or medicine and health. There are compliance rules from their respective industries that you will be required to follow and that may eat up extra development time. Additionally, things like GDPR in Europe and CCPA coming to California in 2020 are making things much more difficult with respect to capturing data. As a citizen, this is all fantastic news — but as a developer you may have some things that will need to get tightened up with respect to data collection on future projects. It’s never too early to start figuring out protocols for this stuff either. Protect your passwords and access tokens, keep things on private or hidden networks whenever you can, etc.
Always abide by the “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy. Keep the technical approach simple, robust, and straightforward. There will be enough complexities that come up on their own. Keep things contained to a single app if possible. Unless you have a ton of time, don’t always reach for the newest technology if something tried and tested still works and achieves the same result.
Never trust wireless in production.
Trust me on this 🙂
Networking for creative technologists needs its own article altogether. Unless your project requires something that needs to be wireless — make sure there is a hardwired connection as an option. I’ve had tons of projects that work alright in the office, but new network gremlins appear once you’re on site. You can sometimes mitigate issues by bringing your own router. Existing wifi networks that you don’t control can have any number of show-stopping issues like weak signal or port blocking or too many other clients. Also — bluetooth — I’ve also had a lot of issues relying on almost anything bluetooth in production. If you have to use it, do your best to stress test it.
Try to avoid solutions that alter the client’s product in a significant way.
The tech component should ideally blend in anyway, but care should be taken to leave the client’s hard work untouched. You probably won’t be able to change the look of a product to add sensors or make it easier for the interaction you have planned. I’ve had several projects where I’ve chosen a more unusual sensing method just to avoid adding something visible to a physical product. The same can go if you’re demoing their technology solution — you may not be able to get access to some of the specialized hardware features or make a new UX with their native software.
Related to the above — request information as early as possible when an idea you’re pitching involves deep integration in a client’s API or service. This is especially true if you think you might be trying to do something that accesses their user data in a non-standard way or requires access to a theoretical “Surely they have this database internally” private API. Try to get on the phone with an engineer on their side and talk through what you might need. Keep in mind that a client comes to you for this project and has a given budget. The budget for the project usually accounts for having an external company do it all, and that may make it difficult for them to devote an internal development team to your specific need. Also, sometimes you may be requesting access to sensitive data that would require significant legal review and code audits that could slow your development cycle down. Of course every company is different and may be looking for that type of innovative collaboration, but definitely one to watch out for.
Notice the repeat events in your industry and plan ahead.
This is really more for work in advertising and events, but it’s going to help you a lot early on to make mental notes of when things like SXSW or E3 or Comic Con or CES are, or when TV upfronts or awards season is, or when the Olympics/World Cup happen, or when everyone goes on holiday in Europe. Each year you’ll probably be involved in some work tied to one of these events. Really big projects may take months to plan and even longer to execute, so you may hear about projects a year in advance, or just 2 weeks before the doors open.
Make friends with everyone on an install site.
You can learn so much from everyone you work with at an install and it just makes the whole process more pleasant. You may have AV integrators who are running cables of different types (do you know about fiber versus copper?), stingers to run power, and hanging lights with cheeseboroughs, and worrying about how much power comes out of their lunchbox (that’s a real term, I promise). You’ll have fabricators who are using chalkline reels to set locations on the floor and duvetyne to black out windows and masonite flats to protect floors. Learning the lingo and the process that goes into these other team’s jobs will serve you well on future jobs as well. If you’re not sure why something is being done a certain way, just ask!
If you’ve got a huge installation that could fail if one display adapter in the entire chain were to malfunction — bring a backup. Eventually you’ll reach a point of needing much larger redundant systems.
Keep a document of technologies you come across.
I keep a document of links and descriptions of weird technologies or vendors I come across while researching for pitches. You never know when you’ll need to remember who that LED floor vendor was, or who made that glow in the dark powder, or that weird fiber optics website, or who made those really nice outdoor capable TVs.
Projectors are almost never bright enough.
They just aren’t.
Team diversity is very important.
A lot of other write-ups cover this better than I could, but in the field of technology there is still a lot of work to do to boost diversity at all levels. Make sure you’re doing your part to look at and network with a wide range of candidates.
Presentation is huge.
I mentioned this is a bit above, but I’ll reiterate. Taking the time to hide your mouse cursor, or making things run at 60fps, or cleaning up wires can make a huge difference between a professional piece that someone took pride in, and a sloppy weekend project. Along with that, really think about how to make your project something that can run forever, or at the very least, easy to maintain. Build in reboot scripts to recover from crashes and power downs. Build in monitoring systems. All of these things feel small, but can help your clients feel at ease and taken care of when they know that you’re thinking about all this stuff for them.
Along with the above — working with temporary installations can be very different than permanent installations. Permanent installations need a level of planning that require a much longer development period. For permanent installations, you’ll also need to document the process very thoroughly — not only for the client, but for yourself when you have to return to a project a year or two after you have forgotten how it worked.
Perseverance pays off.
This is a tough industry. You might find you’ve taken on too much in a given project and it’s headed off the rails. You might have a startup that doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would. You might find your dream job at that one place turned out to be a nightmare. I still dont quite believe what I’ve seen my 9 years transform into — just from sticking with it. Keep pushing, keep learning from hard times and mistakes— you’ll find your peace, at least for a little while.
— That’s all for now — I’ll keep adding more tips in here as they come. Thanks for reading! And thanks for the people who contributed some ideas and editing. (Additional points and feedback from Jasmin Rubinovitz, Raphael Palefsky-Smith, James Powderly, Paul Elsberg, and Tim Stutts)
Other suggested articles I’ve written if you like this:
Survey of Alternative Displays
Experiential Activations and AI
History of Creative Coding
How to Keep an Installation up 4evr (Mac OS)
Guide to Projectors for Interactive Installations
Guide to Cameras for Interactive Installations
How to do projection in full daylight