A Radical Idea For Nonradical Creatives: Part 2

WARNING: This is going to get very political very quickly. If you are not inclined to reading that kind of thing, skip to “So here’s an idea:”.

This is kind of a companion piece to a post I wrote almost a year ago, on the occasion of a big day of action for OWS. Remember that? I do. Like most other people, I was (and am!) supportive of many parts of OWS. But I also firmly think that lasting change tends to happen in a gradual, boring, difficult manner, and that’s precisely why most people don’t get involved in the things that actually make those changes. I have endless respect for people who don’t simply take the streets and hold up signs for a bit, but rather go and really work with mayors and council members and state representatives and congressmen and senators. One of the signs of a stable democracy is that a sudden mass demonstration doesn’t change massive things in a matter of months. You might bemoan that fact, but remember that every year thousands of people march on Washington in support of overturning Roe vs Wade. If the powers that be looked out their window and did whatever the biggest gathered crowd said, well, that would be a rather flimsy version of democracy. For better or for worse (I’d argue for the better), we have structured our society to absorb a lot of shocks. That means that, while big events may come, go and indeed inspire change, the actual work gets done over decades by non-profits, advocacy groups and the people who keep knocking on doors when the streets empty, the news cameras click off, and the signs are put back in the closet. It’s thankless work, honestly, and it’s done tirelessly by those people you probably find annoying – the people who aren’t talking so much about revolution, but ballot initiatives and voter registration and meetings on weeknights when you’d rather be doing anything other than listening to someone go on and on about socialized medicine vs socialized healthcare. I think it was Dorothy Day who said “Everybody wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes”.

Furthermore, we’re at a point in the US where campaign finance laws have given those with the most money unprecedented power over our political system (and they already had quite a bit). SuperPacs are flooding TV with some absolute bullshit, and spending millions of dollars doing it. A lot of great, worthy, noble groups don’t have that money. Funny how money rarely follows those who are trying to do something other than make money. Hm. The only way to overcome so much money and power is to meet it with an opposing force. Or rather, a bunch of tiny opposing forces. You may not be able to out-spend them, but you can out-culture them. And in the end, that’s what brings about the biggest and best changes.

During the height of OWS I saw loads of artists and designers making all manner of things for the cause(s). Full-disclosure – I almost helped start a group project dedicated to just that. But then I started to have second thoughts about where OWS was going, and then the holidays came and we got busy. And I feel sheepish about that. I bet everyone who was involved does to some degree. And the people who are really helping to push along the various causes are still doing it, but without our help since it’s, you know, not exciting anymore. I was looking around last week at the various single-payer health insurance advocacy groups in my state. You know what? They almost to a one have sites that are poorly designed and logos that are just awful. They’re organizers, not designers. But they need to communicate, to get people excited, to have a visual presence. And a lot of them have no money and no idea how to do it, so they have someone’s kid design something sub-par for them.

At the same time creatives are, for whatever mad reason, still doing spec and low/no pay work for massive, for-profit companies. Doritos, Apple and Axe Body Spray are still getting loads of free work thrown at them morning, noon and night. Shitty clients are still offering to pay in exposure and something cool for your reel. Crowdsourcing sites still have thousands of designers lining up to work for… let me check what’s on the front page of Crowdspring right now… oh yeah – $500 print design for T-Pain (obviously he can’t afford to hire someone, dude’s got a hat budget to watch). Most of the people who throw work at Mr. Pain won’t see a dime for it, and yet this is somehow valuable for “the experience”. Doing free work to help a wealthy man become wealthier is valuable. For some reason. Promise.

There are a lot of things going on here, and it can be frustrating. It can make you feel powerless, or worse, make you cynical. Let’s be honest- cynicism isn’t a product of age and experience, it’s a defense mechanism. The only reason we associate it with maturity is that, over time, more people just give up. And that’s sad.

So here’s an idea:

If you’re going to do free/spec/low/no-paying work, don’t do it for for-profit companies.  A good reel is a good reel and good work is good work. If you do amazing stuff, no one is going to care if it doesn’t resolve to an MTV logo at the end. The vast majority of stuff on my reel is personal work, done for no one but myself, and I still somehow bring in clients. You don’t have to play the game. Find a non-profit, charity or advocacy group that you believe in, and do your amazing reel-building work there.I’m not talking about the American Cancer Society or Amnesty International or other big groups- they can afford to pay for good work. I’m talking about your local group that is trying to convince the city council not to shut down more bus routes, the regional advocacy group for single-payer healthcare, the people going door to door on issues that you care about. With all of the creatives out there, there shouldn’t be a good cause with terrible branding. It’s silly. If you’re going to work for free, work for something better. DO something better. You may not be able to organize something yourself. You may be a terrible speaker and have a crippling fear of other humans. But you have skills they don’t have, and that is important. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. I can’t really design logos that well and I don’t know the first thing about websites, but I can make dumb little cartoons. What can you do?

It’s tempting to always want to start your own thing. It’s exciting, getting something going that’s your own. And if you have a really great idea, go for it! But I think it’s just as important (if not more) to find people who are already doing the work you can’t (or won’t), and support them. Change doesn’t just happen through nonviolent resistance and impassioned speeches (as vital as both of those things can be). It happens bit by bit, as the culture changes. Look at how far marriage equality has come in the past two decades. That happened because the culture slowly changed. We’re creative people- we make culture. We can change culture bit by bit, and be a great help to those who do the hard, frustrating work of seeing something through year in and year out. People love to play with the aesthetics of a cause. Commercial artists sell posters with ripped art from actual events for which people lived and died, and people cheer. Stop pretending to be involved and get involved.

We’re about to have an election. You may have noticed this. I honestly can’t wait til it’s over, no matter who wins, if only so we can get on with the things that need to be got on with. We’ll be at the beginning of another big cycle, with elections in two years and another presidential election in four. A lot can be done in that time. Remember 2004, where Kerry’s “War on Marriage” was a major thing that worked against him? Now being anti-marriage equality is a hindrance in more and more states, and the country as a whole. That’s only 8 years. That’s not long. The country changed, and it changed between elections. Instead of flaking out, getting bored or cynical and waiting for another election year or exciting protest event to whip you up into a sudden fit of civic responsibility, use your skills for something meaningful. Help others. Help yourself. Help the people who are making a difference, as opposed to those who simply want to personally profit off of your free work.

PS – Sorry to use the term creatives. Still hunting for a replacement umbrella term.

PPS- “BUT SCOTT, I’M NOT A LEFTY LIKE YOU AND I HATE ALL OF THE CAUSES YOU MENTIONED!” That’s fine. I’m certain that the people making the Atlas Shrugged movies will take all the help they can get. They might even pay, too, in order to avoid being “looters”! Point is, unless you just don’t give a shit about anything, there’s someone you can help. I’m going to argue for shit-giving.

1 Comment

  • 04/15/2013 at 11:12 pm // Reply

    (but, Scott, I’m not a lefty…) and I still think this post is fan – tastic!!

    I love the idea of ‘creatives’ partnering with non-profits to affect change. It doesn’t happen nearly enough (the proof being glaringly obvious).

    I try to engage with non-profits by having a specific hourly rate that is reachable… realistic and tailored to the 501c3/ngo budget. In this way there is dignity for them (no ‘mooching’) and some day-to-day incentive for me. I mean, let’s face it, it’s hard to do great work for free if you’re not eating because you’re broke.

    Either way, I hope this inspires heaps of artists to reevaluate their priorities.

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