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Is it really that bad out there?

I live in San Francisco, and like many areas of this country, this city has been hit hard with rising unemployment and a continuing drought on spending. When I first moved back to the area several years ago, dinner conversation was usually based on the price/difficulty of renting, how difficult it was to park and about some new restaurant in town. This time round, having recently moved back to the city, almost every conversation is all about how ‘bad’ it is out there. Apart from the obvious signs - how bad is it really out there?

San Francisco was probably hit the hardest out of a lot of tech-centric areas because of the concentration of dot com activity we had in this area. Seattle appears to also have had its fair share of fall-out. And I’ve heard from friends that Chicago and other areas have extreme stories of depression of their own.

So when I talk to friends it seems to be a common thread of conversation to talk either about the bad state of things and then to wrap it all up in a sort of soap-opera-type-fix, that it will all get better soon. “This area has a habit of reinventing itself”. Or something to that effect.

But I look around and I see something different from the complete lack of work, the miserable jobs that some people do have, and the miserable people that some of them probably work with. I don’t mind the ever-increasing piles of bills, that we continuously look to massage into manageable mountains, nor do I completely resent that I don’t have an expensive silver car anymore. Okay - Who am I kidding. I’ve never stopped resenting that fact. But I don’t feel the glass is half full. Granted there isn’t even a glass in this story, but that is not a reason to consider it empty either.

What I do see is that more people are talking about what they want to do in life, and what is ‘worth doing’. People are moving to places they want to live where they can preserve a good or decent quality of life. For the most part, I know of more people buying houses than I do looking to rent for another year. Online, people I don’t know like Dooce, whatdoiknow and a.lifeuncommon are all discussing their purchases. Even if this all has been going on because of the upturn, surely this outcome is a good thing.

For the rest of us that are trapped, or feel that they technically could like what they are doing, if only they could do some of it - that’s still not all bad. There is activity out there. Sure the big �corporates’ may be hurting and they might not be shelling out six figure budgets for annual reports when the reporting is all crooked anyway, but stuff still needs making, designing and sold - because people are still wanting.

Without all the noise and rowdy competition there used to be, it is easier now to develop a stronger relationship with a client. Invariably, the client is unlikely to be in a position to afford compensating you what you would like for your services, and instead more likely to be a little better at collaborating and shouldering some of the process with you. We can’t expect business to continue the way it used to - it has to adapt to the way both client and design partner can work together.

There still is competition out there. Drop a Titanium powerbook from the TransAmerica building and you will maim some or several hybrid print/web designers who used to work at Studio Archetype or Vivid Studios. No longer in the safety of an entire team, today’s out-of-work designer has to power up, and learn every desktop application known to the planet, to be capable of taking care of their client’s simplest potential needs. This makes it hard if you’ve only just learnt how to FTP to a remote server, or that iFrame is not a spelling mistake. I’m freaking out because a long-time colleague/friend designer, revealed the other day, that he now codes all his sites in Php. I barely managed making Php print my name and age in an experiment last month. I’m a little scared about that. So with everyone so skilled up - how can we still get work? Well, that’s easy.

It has always been the same, and it is no different now - but perhaps with the exception that there’s a spotlight on it now. Ideas. Many moons ago, too many for me to care about, I walked a friend to catch his train (in England) and he told me that my only currency was my ability to have ideas. The fact was, it was anyone’s true currency (professionally) having the ability to have ideas - preferably your own. Sure that wasn’t profound, but it was a reminder that in everything I did, and wanted to do, it had to come from something that was from me. Otherwise I was just pushing pixels or picas around for someone else, and probably not enjoying it.

Now if we take a situation like we have currently, where there isn’t much to go around, and the entry-level platform for wannabe designers is extremely high. Then apart from being highly professional and courteous, the only thing left seems to be the designer’s ability to work with what is available, thus - to be truly creative. So the people that are working, and continuing to find new work seem to be the people that are firstly great at what they do, and secondly equally great at having new ideas and building them with their clients. And it seems as if smaller firms, like Open and perhaps 2 x 4, are experiencing this.

And put that with the fact that more and more people are discussing amongst themselves what they’d really rather be doing instead of pimping themselves inside crooked corporate entities that they don’t enjoy - and you have the possible ingredients of a great enterprise. I think this is going to be a rich and successful period for the smaller firms, like I mention above - including even slightly larger ones, that all continue to look for new ideas within today’s constraints.

I’m not dismissing the great work of larger organizations, or dismissing the excellent small firms that merged with larger ones to become a bigger entity. Like Studio Grip and Smallpond Studios. But I am trying to focus on the individual or small virtual groups here.

The only way to be able to continuously deliver new ideas is to take care of yourself. “Eat yer greens.” No seriously, to be able to ‘output’ you have to ‘input’ and the balance between the two is incredibly vital. This is the simple reason for research before concepting in design. And in a broader scheme of things, it is the reason to get up from the desk and get outside and experience something even if it is a view of the freeway and some homeless people fighting over crack.

Collaboration is more important than ever. Of all the people I know working for themselves or miserable in their current positions, I know a complete creative team, from a copywriter, to several designers, business development, illustrators and strategists. I could swing my cat and hit anyone of them, and I’ve thought of doing that too. So some of us have begun sharing concept work with each other and asking for critique and help.

Free-work can be a killer. In a time of having little or no fee-paying work, you might look around for projects that you could do your best on and offer yourself up for free. I’ve done this. I’ve done it simply to have the chance to work with people as well as have the chance to put something great in my book for reference. But don’t do it. I mean don’t do it completely for free. I think there has to be some sort of barter system where you can benefit adequately in return. Because the outcome of having done a really great piece of work, isn’t just that you get to put it in your portfolio, but that the non-paying client also gets an amazing piece of work — for free. What can happen is that you end up getting burnt out on free work that has no immediate impact on your ability to stay alive. So try to pick projects where you might be able to get something in return. One project I am doing for a ceramicist, he’s paying in dinnerware. When I was younger I tried to do a web site for a BMW dealership in the hope that they’d give my firm a car or two. I was a lot more hopeful then.

So I don’t see it as that bad out there. I look to those that are busy, and do great work (like above and more), I see the efforts of people like Armin here at Speak Up and I see the activity amongst friends and I feel that there’s a lot going on. Not a lot of bill-paying, but a lot of good and hard work. As long as that all keeps happening, I see no reason why I, or most of you out there can’t also succeed and benefit from this change in the economic climate.

Apart from some larger and global problems, it aint that bad - it’s just a bit harder but with less idiots out there getting in the way. Right now the competition is decent and strong, and that can only be a good thing.

If you got this far - here in the business section I plan to try to help prepare tools and guides to help some in the business of design, or design of business. Hopefully this will compliment the advice and guidance Steve Liska gives.

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ARCHIVE ID 1735 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON May.17.2003 BY damien
Armin’s comment is:

Short comment:

>but stuff still needs making, designing and sold - because people are still wanting.

One of my multiple co-workers was saying he read an article in Fast Company that said that BMW sales were way up and Starbucks' too and it related it (I think, I was mounting some boards while this conversation went on) somehow to Middle America, not just rich people. That supports your point Damien: it's shitty out there but people still want nice things. Consumerism at its best.

On May.18.2003 at 12:21 PM
anthony’s comment is:

Nice post, I enjoyed reading it, but I don't have anything witty or interesting to say (as usual).

On May.19.2003 at 06:52 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Hmm...I usually at least try for interesting, but not sure I succeed.

I agree that a down economy with many are out of work was a good enough reason to motivate me to grow as a designer and businessperson. Instead of working in a firm where all anyone did was talk about how bad things were, I decided to go work for myself, freelance and try to grow a one-man design studio. I know that sounds foolhardy, but it is slowly working, even if I only have a low-cost silver car. It is one heck of a learning curve, but I figured that if I was going to have to work for a living, it should be on my terms. If it came down to whimpering along in what I perceived to be a broken-down design firm or failing by myself, I guess I was willing to take the shot at failure. I can always go whimpering back...

On May.20.2003 at 12:37 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Sorry Damien, didn't see this article till today.

You know, it's hard to plan for things. That's certainly true of the design business these days. Any firm that has visibility beyond 6 months is doing tremendously well -- so I guess what I'm saying is that it's not a sign that the sky is falling if you don't quite know what the future has in store.

As to our merger w/ a larger studio, well that's all timing and luck. Not all of it is good luck, either. I bet SmallPond would say the same. We're just all struggling to retain some semblance of business and good work. And pay some bills at the same time. But in no way does it mean our firms have it easy or do we have it all figured out. Everyday, something can happen to close our doors.

That's a risk I'm beginning to live with, and sleep with. I wonder if there'll be this generation of designers that will always be frugal and budget-conscious? Sort of like depression-era elderly people that clip coupons and save leftovers the rest of their lives.

> The only way to be able to continuously deliver new ideas is to take care of yourself. Collaboration is more important than ever. Free-work can be a killer.

Your points are all good -- I think you and I tend to agree more than disagree because we have common experiences.

You know, it's like what people say about Republicans. You don't become one, until you've grown older, gained more assets, and know what it's like to live without things. It's the same with designers. I'm not saying that we're Republicans -- I'm just saying that these lessons in resourcefulness comes at a price. One that we're all paying for right now. And yes, it hurts.

ps. a silver Vespa can be cool too...

On Jun.02.2003 at 05:23 PM
Debra’s comment is:

It's interesting to read an article like this. I'm currently in grad school, coming right from undergrad and I'm trying to stay hopeful about getting a job, doing freelance or what have you. It's hard to justify why I'm getting more education when it may not amount to more money or a more glamorous job on my way out.

I wanted to learn more about a particular field and meet some people to help jump-start my career, grad school made sense. I think this article is useful to put things in perspective. It seems to me that you can get the work you want, but you may need to re-adjust your standards of income and living.

I just wonder what this means for someone like me just starting out? I beleive I am capable, but is someone willing to give me the work?

"Now if we take a situation like we have currently, where there isn't much to go around, and the entry-level platform for wannabe designers is extremely high." "...the only thing left seems to be the designer's ability to work with what is available, thus - to be truly creative."

On Jan.13.2004 at 08:28 AM