Designing Ourselves Out of a Job?

Sad Draper. I still haven’t seen the end of Season 7, please no spoilers.

It feels strange to type this, but I’ve been working in creative services for over a decade.

First at The Walt Disney Company, then at a few larger agencies in and around Los Angeles. After that I went freelance for a short time while I ran an arts publication called Proxart, and now I’m running point as managing director for an agency some friends and I started in 2011 called Toi.

Now that we have a team of fifteen-plus people, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of, not just agencies, but creative professionals in general.

From my point of view, as in every industry these days, things are changing rapidly. And for most of us, the fight isn’t even really to keep up, it’s to make sure you’re going in the right direction. It does you no good to be a hustler if you’re hustling yourself or your company into a corner.

So I’ve been doing a lot of research recently about the future of creative services and, boy howdy do people have a lot of opinions.

Some say things are fine; just keep doing what you’re doing.

Others say, no, the robots are totally taking over.

Others still say, well, it’s not that bad. You should probably just expect to be making less money than you were expecting to make because, frankly, the robots are getting pretty good.

Opinions are all over the place.

What got me thinking about this today is this quote from an article in Communication Arts magazine called ‘More Is More’:

“People need to push themselves to do things that are more unique,” says interactive designer Sean Klassen. “It’s getting to a point where anyone could design most of what we see online. If everyone is making designs that look the same, there’s no reason our clients can’t use Squarespace.
“We could be designing ourselves out of jobs.”

For context, the article is trying to make the point that interactive experiences should be more experiential. That we should think more about how we can use the web as a canvas to create things that are more contemplative and interesting to look at—like “slow food,” we need a “slow web” movement.

Now, I’m not here to criticize the article. I don’t necessarily think most people are looking for a “slow web” experience—I’m not, I’ve got books and the great outdoors for that. I would, however, like to focus on just how easy it is to create a website without knowing the first thing about web design. As Sean Klassen said in the pull-quote: “If everyone’s making designs that look the same, there’s no reason [your] clients can’t use Squarespace.”

He’s absolutely right. And if they don’t want to use Squarespace, they can use Wix, or, or that new-fangled AI platform, The Grid where our robot overlords design your website for you.

And this applies to just about every creative industry nowadays.

Video production and photography,
web development,
email marketing
you name it.

Creativity-as-a-service is a competitive space where, if we’re not careful, the creative class could become to Squarespace what cabs are to Uber: expensive, slow-moving, choice-restrictive, bloated service providers who are only still in business because a certain segment of the business community is afraid of change.

Add to the mix something where people can get a logo for a few bucks—where you’re competing solely on price—and I think it’s a real possibility that we could see a continued decline in creative services work over the next decade.

That is, unless we look for ways to use those services to our advantage. It’s true that services like Squarespace and Fiverr are helping pull money away from traditional designers, boutiques, and creative agencies. But it’s also true that marketers and the businesses they work for are still spending money. The money’s not going away, it’s just going to different things.

So I’d like to share some things I’m learning and that we’re putting into practice at Toi.

1. Don’t sell what you do. Sell why your solution will help your client sell their product.

According to an RSW/US survey published in January, 2016, “creative” is still the number one thing marketers are looking for from a relationship with a potential agency or other service.

Source: 2016 New Year Outlook Survey — RSW/US —

The word “creative” is loaded, I know. We’re all too familiar with the client that says, “just do whatever you want, as long as it’s creative.” But I think, after years of hearing this, what clients want is simple: they want Don Draper.

They want you to wow them.

And I don’t even mean with the quality of your final product. I mean, can you sell your client on what you’ve created? Can you be more excited about what you’re pitching them on than they were when they approached you to solve the problem?

Is it possible they could’ve produced something similar on Squarespace? Yes.

But can Squarespace choose photos and a typeface and a color palette that are going to appeal to your client’s target customer, and then explain why it placed the buttons in that order? No.

Don’t sell what you create. Sell why your solution will help your client sell their product.

2. Get nerdy.

Next up, if you dig a bit further into these RSW/US numbers, you’ll find that the marketers with the money aren’t just looking for you to be “creative.” A full 83% of respondents to this survey say they’re looking to increase demand for companies and people that understand how to get and interpret marketing data and analytics.

Source: 2016 New Year Outlook Survey — RSW/US —

And something tells me they aren’t just looking to play some game of marketing fetch where you can simply to point to analytics you pulled from Google and say, “See, we brought you numbers—bye!”

They can do that themselves.

They’re looking for you to dive into those numbers and draw educated conclusions about how to improve performance, or drive sales, or get them more readers, or improve ad performance. They’re looking for you to help their brand create a more emotional connection with their customers.

Contrary to popular belief—at least anecdotally, in terms of how I’ve heard people talk about data and analytics—I think this is as much about the creative you use as it is about the placement of your CTA buttons and the overall user experience of your brand on the web.

Did you choose photos that are relatable?
Did the video in your Facebook campaign provoke somebody to take action?
Did you choose a typeface that’s readable?
Did you write copy that’s interesting and actionable for your client’s target market, and is it easily transferable to all of their social media channels?
Did you choose colors that are going to appeal to your client’s customers?

Those are creative questions that need to be answered alongside whether or not you put the CTA buttons in the right place. Data can help you answer all of that if you’re using it correctly.

As with being “creative,” Squarespace can give you the data. But Squarespace can’t tell you what to do with it.

3. Be a human being.

“Spending an inordinate amount of time and money on your sign or your jingle or your Web site is beside the point. It’s every point of contact that matters. If you’re not consistent and authentic, the timing of that first impression is too hard to predict to make it worth the journey.”
— Seth Godin, ‘All Marketers Tell Stories’

Marketers are looking for creative, they say. Marketers are looking for analytics, they say.

No, no. Marketers are looking for a connection. They’re looking for solutions that will provide them with an opportunity to connect with the person they think will benefit most from their product, or service, or message. They’re looking to cut through this thick fog of never-ending media we’re living in, and they’re looking for you to provide their brand with the knife.

We’re the only ones that can do it too. You know why? Because we’re human beings. And all of the best AI in the world still doesn’t understand how to predict what pulls on my heart strings and create a marketing campaign around that to appeal to me.

For the purposes of this piece, anecdotally at least, I’ve focused on the agency vs. Squarespace fight mainly because it’s what I’m most familiar with. And because I think it’s real. But also because, contrary to a lot of writing that’s being published these days, I actually feel like agencies have the opportunity to thrive in this new startup economy we’re building.

Like everything in the ‘60s, agencies were built on a factory model. You have a job, you do it, you get paid for it.

Today, we have the freedom to pick and choose.

To be free-agents and take on the kind of work we want. Agencies can manage multiple client relationships with multiple creative partners and multiple teams of varied capacity and creative and analytical strengths. And the creative class of freelancers, contractors, and employees can float around to take on the work they believe in without having to worry about whether or not there are options out there.

For companies and marketers who need creative services, yes—especially as the production of some creative services becomes cheaper and more readily available—they have more options. And we have an obligation to design and create things that work for them.

But these services can be tools in our toolbox, not competition. Because they can’t think for themselves. They can’t rationalize or empathize or draw conclusions from what’s been created on their platform. They can only do what we tell them to do.

So. No. As long as you’re focused on being a human being who produces creative solutions for other human beings, you won’t be designed out of your job.

We all need you too much.