From technicians to talent: Three phases in creative markets

Epistemic status: Just the kernel of an idea.

Epistemic effort: Been kicking around this kernel of an idea for a while but without really investing in fleshing it out or drawing conclusions.

There’s an interesting thing that seems to happen predictably in so-called “creative” fields as technologies become less expensive to own and less complex to operate.

I first noticed this in the printing industry. Thirty or more years ago, the tools for printing and publication were so expensive and complex that only mid- to large-sized organizations could own them, and only specialists could operate the machinery. As a generalization, the people who did the work of printing were more like technicians than artists, employed for their technical knowledge rather than their creative talent.

We’ll call this phase one of the pattern.

Then along came desktop publishing. The tools became cheaper and easier to operate, such that anyone with a personal computer, a home printer, and the right software could throw together some text and a bit of clip art, and “publish” their work. In a sense, printing was democratized.

Of course, there were still differences in quality and distribution. Professional printing didn’t go away. But the market diversified such that 1) professional print shops got less of the market because things like cheap flyers could be produced “in house” and 2) the total market got bigger, because people who wouldn’t have been able to afford a professional print run for cheap flyers could now afford to do it themselves.

The last and, for my purposes, most important thing that happened is that the people operating the machines changed. As printing became accessible to everyone, no longer were the technicians the sole people who could do the work of printing. Now, even someone with little relative technical knowledge — or talent, for that matter — could print something reasonably well.

We’ll call this phase two of the pattern.

What’s kind of interesting is what happened next. As printing became democratized, access and technical ability were no longer differentiators. But that allowed something else to emerge as a differentiator. Gradually, boutique print shops focused on craft were able to carve out small niches in the market. Again, the total market became larger, as customers began to be more discerning and recognize uniqueness and talent, while each segment of the market lost a bit of their former piece of the pie. Now, there were three tiers — the low-tier desktop printing, mid-tier professional print shops, and luxury-tier boutique letterpress and engravers and such.

And the people doing the work were different. In phase one, they were technicians. In phase two, they were everyone. Now, it’s people with talent, creativity, and drive who have distinguished themselves from everybody else.

I’ll call this phase three, the mature phase.

What’s interesting to me is that this pattern has been repeated in the graphic design industry and the video industry as well. Years ago, the technicians did all the work. You needed some talent, yes, but much more, you needed the resources to own the complex technologies and the knowledge to operate them. Then, the tools became accessible to everyone. And slowly but surely, as more players entered the field, it stratified, creating a boutique tier on top that differentiated on talent, creativity, and craftsmanship rather than resources or technical knowledge.

It’ll be interesting to see if a similar pattern will emerge in other industries whose technology costs and operator complexities are decreasing (3D printing, for example, or machine learning).

One last thought . . . maybe there could be a phase zero, before phase one, in which tinkerers play around with the tools — or even tools that aren’t a part of the industry because the right tools don’t yet exist — These tinkerers would definitely be in the “technical” category, as much interested in building the tools as in doing the work, but I wouldn’t classify them as uncreative. In some ways, they’re the most creative of the bunch. They’re the ones that see the potential before the market even exists.

Artist. Designer. Traveler. Reader. Writer. Thinker. Believer.