Know Your Worth: Money and Building a Career in Immersive Design

jessica lachenal
Apr 12, 2017 · 10 min read
(image courtesy Bill Gies)

“At the end of the day, we just want to build something that is able to take care of ourselves and the people we care about.” — Uriah Findley

In sitting down to write this blog post, I wasn’t sure how to address the topic at hand. I mean, it’s about money, if that wasn’t clear already. It’s about the importance of getting paid to do what we do best. It’s about finding sustainability in our artwork in every way, shape, and form, including making sure you have enough capital to live and keep doing what you’re doing.

But even now, I find myself skeeved out about money talk in general. After all, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to ask for money to design experiences. We wouldn’t have to run through negotiations, we wouldn’t have to figure out budgets, collect receipts, or try to apply a dollar amount to our time. We’d just simply have enough and we could focus on creating beautiful work. Thing is, we do not live in an ideal world, and yes, that means we do have to work out just what it means to get paid in this industry.

Such was the topic at hand as I sat down with Foma Labs co-founders Anthony Rocco and Uriah Findley, who, between the both of them, boast some 15-odd years of experience working in experience design. It’s safe to say that in that combined 15 years, they’ve learned their own hard-earned lessons about how to make sure that what they’re doing is not only valuable to just them, but to anybody who would be willing to pay to keep them creating.

Right from the top, they wanted to make it clear: “We know this is not a conversation or situation unique to our field or area or time. We also know this is not really ‘news’ per se. But with that being said, we still don’t hear the conversation enough in our communities, so we are speaking on it so that others might join a convo and do the same.”

Anthony believes that there are two distinct disciplines or groups within experience design: there’s the “experiential tithing” community and the “professional experience design” community. Neither is “above” the other per se, but rather, they each have more than a few differentiating factors in how they each approach ensuring that their respective communities are sustained.

“The issue of sustainability arises when you step into the professional sphere while actively tithing,” Anthony explained. The true monetary value of an experience or performance is lost in translation when that happens, “and it does nobody in the community a service because if we’re dealing with a client, they pay for what amounts to be a beautiful show, but they don’t pay for any of the labor.”

Just like in any other industry, what people pay for isn’t exactly only the end product; they’re paying for the labor and effort spent creating that product. And just like with any other craft, labor should be a quantifiable metric, something for which charges can — and absolutely should — be incurred.

But that’s a rarity, for the most part, especially within what can be thought of as the “experiential tithing” community. Within that realm, many of the experiences that are designed by people are simply created as a labor of love for others, hence tithing. The term borrows less from the “taxation” meaning and leans more heavily on the “gifting” or “charitable donation” meaning. For many who claim membership to such communities, the act of creation is the reward in and of itself. Often times, these folks invest their time and money into creating experiences for their friends, loved ones, and sometimes even strangers, all because they enjoy creating.

To make it clear: there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with approaching art in such a way, especially when it comes to those who want to explore the avant garde and experimental techniques within the artform.

So, too, the existence of a “professional” experience design community shouldn’t necessarily impact the practices and habits of those who consider themselves exclusively within the other field, so to speak. For professionals, the work they create can still have the same beautiful, gorgeous ideals that the experiential tithing community holds dear, but they have the added caveat of having to work with paying clients in order to see their art come to life.

Where things get messy — and where the heart of our conversation lies — is in the intersection of where these two try to co-exist. Like with any burgeoning art form, the longevity and sustainability of said art form is inextricably linked to the marketability and sale of the works. So the ethos of the “experiential tither” (create for the sake of creating and making) conflicts somewhat with the ethos of the “professional” (creating as a career).

Underselling yourself might seem like a fine thing to do — it is, after all, a personal choice, and hey, you’re doing it for the love of the craft, right? But ultimately, what you run the risk of doing is underselling the artists around you who may rely on the income from doing what you choose to sell yourself short for.

Simply put: it’s complicated. You and I and those of us reading this blog right now might know that there are tons of aspiring artists, working professionals who certainly deserve to be hired at top dollar. But that’s knowledge that the wider general public doesn’t yet know. The whos and the hows, the ins and the outs, they’re all — still, even up until now — trade secrets, though it isn’t for lack of sharing.

To many, the finer points of immersive design remain a mystery, and so, too, does the value of good immersive design get lost in the shuffle of negotiating and dealing with people who might want to invest in the art. So don’t sell yourself short, or you risk selling your fellow artists short as well.

Anthony said, “It does everybody a disservice because when we go back to them, negotiating terms and price will make for an even more difficult conversation. More than that, nobody in the community learns how much things actually cost.”

I’ll acknowledge here, though, that saying you represent a burgeoning art form and industry might seem like a bit of a tall order. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you enter into negotiations with large companies, all of whom are potential clients.

Think: how many of your friends or family have you introduced to immersive experiences/theater? To them, you stand as an entryway into a growing art. To them, you’re the bridge to a wider world of experiences. For the most part, the same goes for any client you negotiate with. You’re bringing them something brand new, and that in and of itself is exciting; but again, do not sell yourself short in doing so.

But what goes into pricing something like an immersive experience? Anthony compares pricing out experiences to how movies are priced out, saying, “If you pay $25 for a movie, you’re paying for mass-produced experience, which is fine, but in immersive, you have real life actors you’re interacting with, and that’s different.”

The movie industry is set up to deliver a product to a mass audience with minimal distribution hassles as possible; the same can’t really be said about immersive experiences. As Anthony points out, this is especially evident when it comes to fielding live-action talent, the lifeblood of many immersive experiences. Not all immersive experiences use interaction, but for those that do, it becomes that much more important to quantify the labor and time spent interacting with guests or participants.

For example, Sylvan Echoes, one of the installations within The Obfuscia Hotel, was, for the most part, created by an entirely volunteer-based crew. For everyone on staff, we forewent getting paid in order to make sure we put out a good experience. Even then, we may have ended up paying a little bit out of our own pockets — in essence, we paid to have the guests of The Obfuscia come through. That’s backwards. That doesn’t work.

Guests were happy and delighted with the experience (at least, this is what I’m told), but we effectively paid for them to have it. All told, we had 30–40 volunteers over the course of the project, from build to execution. For a lot of us, working on the project was a labor of love; we wanted to help share some really great stories. But at the end of the day, we’re all acutely aware of the fact that labors of love aren’t sustainable. We can not subsist on good intentions alone. This is a cold, hard fact of life.

“We’re bringing this ethos into the outside community, and they live by money,” Anthony explained. “We don’t live that way. We’re bringing our ‘labor of love’ thing to their house, and it doesn’t work.” Uriah picked up from there, saying, “It’s not only about valuing ourselves, but it’s about how to value these crafts in the larger industry. Experiential tithing is great, but when you tithe to a paying client, you just actually lowered everyone’s rate. Moreover, any paying client ends up making money by selling the fact that these communities exist.” They profit off of it… why can’t we?

When Foma Labs spoke to the kids at Carnegie Mellon, a lot of the same issues came up. “We gave these kids a budget,” said Anthony. “And they said that they were going to spend it all on this or that or this other thing, and we had to ask, where did you pay yourself in that budget? Because if you’re going to do this professionally, you have to find a way to pay yourself.”

“They said, ‘It’s our first project,’” recalled Uriah. “But honestly, it’s a $20,000 project, there’s no way you should be walking out of there without least a month’s rent.”

Ultimately, Foma Labs would like to go volunteer-free. Specifically, that would mean that they see to it that anybody who works on one of their projects is paid for their time. It only makes sense; we live in an area of the world (hello, Northern California) where everybody prides themselves on supporting sustainability and livable minimum wages — we should all be moving towards making paid efforts volunteer free.

“As artists, we don’t talk about money, and that’s a problem.”

But we work with our friends, right? Like any other growing industry, things tend to be a bit cliquey, and people bubble off into their own circles. This is fine — it’s healthy, even. But when we want to work with our friends or bring them in on our contracts, how do we resolve talking about money? How do we find comfort in talking about things that — according to old-fashioned dinner table manners — should never be talked about?

Anthony said, “I would argue that it gets weird when we don’t talk about it. If we’re going to boast about how we’re an open, honest community, then we need to be able to talk about this. We have to step into the room, put on the ‘business game suits’ and pretend we’re playing ‘the business game’ now. It’s a game, it’s all a game.”

Uriah continued: “When dealing with a certain client who also happened to be friends of ours, we asked, ‘How do you feel about contracts?’ They said, ‘I love contracts.’ We said yes, we do too, especially among friends. It protects the friendship. It makes it very clear to everyone involved what’s expected and what will be given to both parties. So now if things go south, the terms are in black and white. It’s nothing personal, because we have this thing in black and white that we both agreed upon.”

So what happens if the worst should come to pass: you can’t seem to work with what somebody’s offering you? “You have to be ready to walk away,” said Uriah. “And that’s a scary prospect when it comes to talking about work, we know.”

Anthony agreed. “You have to be brave enough to say no to someone. It also goes back to something I learned back in NYU where I was taught that you don’t want to undersell yourself because you’re also not going to get the job that way. A lot of people in a higher professional realm actually know the cost of things, and when someone makes a bid on a project, all it takes is a basic knowledge of the numbers to know that they can’t possibly complete the job with such a low bid. They think, ‘That person has no idea what they’re talking about, and whatever I get is going to be crap. I don’t want crap.’”

So what does it take, then, to come to a client with a proper pitch and budget? What do you or I or all of us as artists need to do in order to make sure we ask for the right amount of money?

“If your installation has no labor accounted for any of its costs, you’re probably doing it wrong,” said Uriah. “If I look at a proposal and I don’t see labor accounted for, then I know something’s not quite right.”

“It’s a bit of a dance,” Anthony said. “The reality is that it doesn’t matter what it looks like on paper, what matters is if we trust these creators to get the job done. It’s about knowing who you’re pitching to and, more specifically, knowing what they want. When it comes to working with Foma, it’s knowing that you’re going to effectively also be representing us when you work with the client. Talk to us, get involved.”

“Put simply, always go with the bigger number, because you can always come down to the smaller number,” Uriah finished. It’s true: you can’t get what you don’t ask for. So ask. The worst thing that can happen is they say no, and you negotiate from there. But if you never contend and fight for what you’re worth, then you run the risk of never knowing what your worth might be.

For those lucky enough to be building a career in immersive design, it’s important to know that you stand at the forefront of building an industry. For each and every new boundary you push, there comes a certain amount of responsibility for the ones who come after you. It’s just like Uriah said at the top of this post: “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to take care of ourselves and the people we care about.” That’s it.

And that begins with knowing what you’re worth.

— by Jessica Lachenal, on behalf of Foma Labs

Foma Labs will be hosting The Obfuscia Hotel once again in a limited-time engagement on April 21st and 22nd in San Francisco. Visit http://obfuscia.eventbrite.com/ for more information.

Foma Labs

We design, produce, and create immersive experiences of literally any size for companies and clients around the world.

jessica lachenal

Written by

writer, editor, experience designer

Foma Labs

Foma Labs

We design, produce, and create immersive experiences of literally any size for companies and clients around the world.

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