The next big client isn't knocking on your door. You are.
I haven't seen many companies barging around, waving fat wads of cash to create the next big whatever. That is, not without major strings attached. Until the next wave of savvy clients arrive, you should consider using the power of design to make something better. Anything, really. Use your powers to design something useful for you, and by extension, the world.
When I think of how creative minds are put to use in today's companies, a vivid image takes form. I imagine that our clients are visiting a firing range.
The people behind the cash register are the project managers, confirming our client's credit via VISA, AmEx, or MasterCard.
The account managers provide the clients with instruction as to how to use the various guns available, and on display behind the counter. They want to provide a great experience for their clients, providing earguards, special protective glasses, and any other items necessary to protect them.
And what about the creatives?
We are the guns. Not the hired guns -- literally the guns themselves. We get held by the clients and fired off repeatedly -- sometimes straight into the bullseye, other times into the concrete wall behind the target, the client's foot, and so on.
There's nothing wrong with being a gun, per se. (Trot out the old cliche here: People kill people.)
Yes, a gun can kill or disable you immediately. It can be held like a club in the hand and used to strike someone down. There can be lingering effects from its use, leaving people in a coma or a wheelchair for the rest of your life. It can also easily kick or backfire, harming those who wield it.
But being a creative thinker makes you much more dangerous than a gun.
Creative thinkers can bend time and space. They can re-imagine how we live in unintended ways. You pull the trigger of the designer, and more than just bullets and daisies come out. There are designers who can claim to have helped millions of people with a single, well-executed idea.
Design firms don't get hired because they have flawless customer service. That's a gimme.
Clients want to see what happens when they get to fire the gun.
You can't own a gun without taking good care of it. Otherwise, it won't work properly. Sometimes it can even break due to negligence.
Some of my brightest, most talented colleagues around me have been held carelessly and fired repeatedly to no clear, constructive result. When they had no work on their hands, they would endlessly ruminate on the fate of their talent, struggling to keep focus until the phone rang with the next project. Then the cycle would begin all over again.
Over time, many of these brilliant minds end up exiting our profession.
You can argue that those vanished competitors make more room for your livelihood, but really, they don't. Each of us has a unique contribution to make with our talent.
Whether through poor handling, lack of stomach, or a waning of the optimism and fortitude necessary to sell a strong idea, the people that make up our industry are continually struggling for a sense of purpose beyond providing a service. We have among us enough collective brainpower to hatch any number of compelling ideas that could change the world positively in a matter of months. But without a "real" problem to solve and money on the line, there seems to be little momentum to carry out such a grandiose master plan.
So, let me put just one idea forth. Let's plant a seed and see what can grow out of it.
There are plenty of Web sites sprouting up where clients post their problems, and designers upload their ideas that solve their problems. The best idea gets a sum of money. I find these sites somewhat evil, because in effect you're doing spec work. It's like gambling, except the odds are wildly out of your favor. You can't really be in the design business and offer a possible fee for an idea that will be judged in such an arbitrary manner.
So let's turn the tables. Lose the paying clients. Forget the concept of gaining something tangible as a result of your ideas, other than your names being attached to them. Focus your attention on matters of life, death, and struggle.
Let's imagine a site where you give away ideas that solve issues of sustainability, poverty, and so on. This would not be a plain old competition or contest. There are many contests out there that gather these types of ideas in a yearly fashion. I'm saying, whenever you have an idea that would make a big difference, you donate it to the site. If your idea is too big to feasibly make real, the site would pair your idea with a nonprofit partner to support it. Your reward: the effect of your idea being felt in the world.
This site could provide real solutions to real problems that need design thinking and design making. Designers can upload their ideas, rate their quality, then help steer them towards the appropriate nonprofits and other organizations that could make them real. It could be a kind of nonprofit incubator, fueled by the collective knowledge of thousands of designers.
I imagine that the site would need some sort of play pattern, kind of like TypeTees.com, where users can quickly evaluate and flag ideas that seem feasible. Over time, the best ideas are skimmed off the surface to be made real.
Community-centered, collaborative design. Now that's something that hasn't been tried on a global scale.
Sounds pretty naive, eh? Thousands of good and great ideas would be pitched and die on the vine. Plus, you could imagine people at major companies hovering right over that site, poaching every great idea they could possibly snag for their own use.
Well, I say this: Even if one-tenth of this idea was made real, and out of that, one-thousandth of the design thinking pitched to the site was made tangible, it would have an impact. More than we could probably measure.
For every ad agency that puts together a nonprofit project to make one compelling idea around social responsibility real, there are a thousand others that could make a difference. There's just no one to act on them.
For every organization like the Designer's Accord, whose ideals I strongly prize, where are the ways we can move from having a community conversation to real community action?
What's holding us back, besides the time investment in making this kind of systematic system of giving a physical reality?
Only our fear that, if we give our ideas away, we will have nothing left to make a name and livelihood for ourselves.
Some of you out there are already investing your design skills into projects that give back to our fellow humans.
For the rest of you, this is a call to arms (pun intended). Stop waiting for that next big client project, and in the meantime, start making your own.
This means choosing to be more than just a gun.
This doesn't mean you stop doing client work. It means that you need to actively choose to invest some of your time into using design thinking and design making to improve our world in a tangible way.
Yes, such an investment could potentially cut into your landing the next gig. Each of us is competing more ruthlessly with our peers to gain those blessed few contracts. Food needs to be eaten, a roof must shelter your studio, and so on.
But I'm not asking you to shirk your livelihood. I'm asking you to listen to your creative mind while the wind whistles through and the tumbleweeds blow. You might find something in that quiet landscape that the world needs.
When I took three weeks away to travel through Japan, I found a number of compelling ideas within me that I've just been itching to execute. They only emerged because my mind was free from work long enough to start to see the possibilities for design in how we live our lives, not what we do to earn our living.
When will I find the time to start making them real? That is the struggle.
What am I waiting for?
I can see this will be a defining question for my life. And perhaps yours.