Surrender the Journey
For more than five months Neil and Jen Baker Brown have chosen the most inefficient means
possible — driving 18,500+ miles — to meet with individuals and organizations across the country in an attempt to curate a collective vision of the future where the combination of work and life is the great adventure. In this article series, they are reporting on their travels, conversations, experiences, fears, challenges, hopes and especially the expectations and opportunities for the future creative.
The Future of Creativity: New Tools for a New Generation
Robust web-based design tools are disrupting the creative industries at large, compounded by the rise of ‘robots’ taking over the mundane tasks of production.
It’s hot. It’s humid. More than humid, moisture hangs in the air suffocating any hope of reprieve. Mid-August weather in Atlanta at the height of the afternoon is brutal — especially since the week prior, palm trees were overhead and white sand was between our toes. Thankful beyond measure for the brisk, forced air at the Octane Coffee Bar nestled within a refurbished elevator factory, we sip a perfectly cold-brewed, iced coffee. The large open space is brimming with a mass of people; laptops open, notebooks cracked, meetings adjourning, textbooks highlighted and journals scribbled. It is hard to distinguish this coffee shop from the modern corporate, open-air office. To be clear, we are simply killing time due to our early arrival. I overestimated traffic — a first for my time in Atlanta, as I generally tend to underestimate its congestion.
Next door is home to Matchstic, Atlanta’s premiere brand identity firm. Craig Johnson, President and Co-Founder, meets us at the entry and welcomes us into a large open space, ringed by a library, offices, conference room, kitchen and loft. We head up a short flight of stairs where Craig tells us more about the firm, from its genesis to a future of growth. “In the beginning we were a general graphic design firm, but after a few years we began to realize that we had to focus our business on our core strengths. We couldn’t be everything for everyone.” They began as many creative firms, starting small and growing slowly as business opportunities continued to blossom into larger and larger projects. Within a few years, Matchstic brought acute focus to ‘starting fires’ through the strategic development of brand identity and crafting a brand’s visual language. They staked their claim early on, and have stuck to it over the years.
“We had to focus our business on our core strength. We couldn’t be everything for everyone.”
Craig Johnson, President & Co-Founder of Matchstic
Like many creative firms we have met during our journey, Matchstic is wrestling with next steps for long-term sustainable growth to maximize earning potential, create greater value for their team and generate positive impact for their larger community. All of which is just good business.
Larger projects, expanding beyond regional clients, broadening capabilities, strengthening talent and avoiding the work of robots are all key elements to their future growth. Yes, we discussed rising above the robots. Only partly kidding, Craig made it clear that “We’ve always tried to stay away from work that might easily be automated. If a robot can do it, we should head in a different direction.” While we laughed at the topic of discussion, this reality is upon us. The creative industries are leaping into a great new frontier. One rife with challenges, yet presenting boundless opportunity for those willing to stake their claim in the great unknown.
The production of ideas will be given over to the robots. Or at least the algorithmic, software robots that are already rearing their heads in retargeting ads across Facebook feeds and Google search results the world wide. TheGrid.io is a prime example of robots designing and building future websites. Based on the numbers listed on their sign up page (at the time of this writing), one can easily calculate TheGrid.io has generated $6.1 million in pre-sales alone. A staggering sum for the promise of no longer needing a web designer nor developer. Persado recently raised $21 million in venture capital to quite literally build robots to write our content—well digital robots to be accurate. (This article was typed by human hands, I promise.) While Persado’s parameters and constraints are defined by a human, the production is executed by the algorithm.
The production of ideas will be given over to the robots. Or at least the algorithmic, software robots.
A recent study (2013) by Oxford Martin School estimates that nearly half of U.S. jobs will be automated within a decade or two. In this same study just two short years ago, the authors posit that the ability to persuade will not be automated. However, earlier this year Persado’s CEO claimed their software platform “generates the most persuasive language to drive action.” He calls it “persuasion automation.” And guarantees a thirty percent to 200 percent increase in the performance of the message. This demonstrates how quickly the world can change in two years, even with the well researched foresight of Oxford academics. While automation will not replace all human input, it will have an impact especially on creative production.
Percolate, Canva and Visage have accelerated the democratization of the production of creative assets. Individuals with limited skills can now more easily execute, expand, manage, distribute, develop, design, manipulate and create an infinite variety of deliverables through the power of their web browser. It is reminiscent of the Mac and Adobe revolutionizing the entire design industry, across all disciplines. As an example, we have seen a decrease in the number of typesetting jobs while graphic design jobs have skyrocketed in the last two decades. When will the winds shift yet again?
More recently, the Digital SLR broadened the photography business significantly, which has now been shattered thanks to Instagram and the iPhone. To compound all these changes, the total size of the creative, problem solving, critical thinking, knowledge-based labor force is rapidly expanding. Coined as the ‘creative class,’ it is quickly becoming what could be the largest labor force in U.S. economic history. While many lament the ‘way it used to be,’ these innovations and changes are wildly exciting, and point toward a future that pushes the creative to areas well beyond the execution of ideas.
“To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people.”
E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered
As we travel we find chronic instability in the climate of creativity. Agencies struggle to maximize earnings and strategically drive value for clients. Recently PepsiCo’s Brad Jakeman stood before thousands of agency executives preaching a harsh message that agency models are breaking. Photographers are faced with new challenges in a world of Instagram and Snapchat, and the emergent prerequisite to have tens of thousands of followers on social media in order to work with brands.
We have met wildly talented, self-taught photographers (Karston, Jeremiah, Tyson, Saunak, Cesarin, and many more) that have built a massive following with nothing more than an iPhone and Instagram account. They have become their own media companies, now working with some of the world’s best brands. How will the future historians mark the shifting sands of the creative industries in our forthcoming decade? Will the catalysts and causes be easy to spot in retrospect? Have they already passed through our rear view? Has creativity, and its demands, evolved?
The rising abstract challenge for all creatives is the ultimate opportunity to design our collective culture, to shape our collective future. We can fundamentally shift the driving forces of consumerism. We can devise the messages of mainstream media. We can develop strategies that help brands engage individuals in authentic, honest dialogue (not intended as nonsense jargon here.) We can radically shape the research and development of products—physical and digital. We can alter the course of history. To join the ranks, the future creative must employ skills well beyond the ability to craft aesthetics, or write compelling copy, or illustrate a graphic icon.
Imagine a world where the value of creativity is tied to the outcomes its ideas generate, rather than the cost to produce the assets to support its ideas. This possible future state will require significant shifts in the typical creative skills, requiring the creator to carry greater responsibility and accountability. This future creative must redefine their understanding of value and value creation. They will develop a heightened self-awareness of their position of privilege, the unintended consequences of their daily decisions, and their ability to craft our collective culture. A tall order! One that sounds to be the next great frontier, rife with challenges yet presenting boundless opportunity for those willing to stake their claim in the great unknown.
Imagine a world where the value of creativity is tied to the outcomes its ideas generate.
Today, individuals are educated and compete for jobs that simply did not exist just ten short years ago. There were jobs—entire industries—that faded into history, and no one laments their loss today. In the not too distant past on the isle of Manhattan, an entire industry employing hundreds, likely thousands, existed to move horse manure from the cobble stone streets to wooden carts to the docks to long narrow barges, all to be shipped up the Hudson River to local farms. Not one New Yorker complains they no longer have to concern their strolls with fly infested horse droppings.
As we travel we’re always on the lookout for the intriguing individuals and exceptional organizations working to shape our current and future reality. Reach out directly if you would like to connect or make a recommendation on who we should meet. We also appreciate any introductions! Follow our journey at social.bakerbrownco.com, learn more about the individuals we’re meeting along the way on our site, and sign up for our newsletter.