It wasn’t just the frigid December weather that sent a chill down my spine as I read Tom Friedman’s column entitled “The Do-It-Yourself Economy” in the New York Times yesterday. The author of the visionary book The World is Flat wrote Sunday about what he calls the “Great Inflection,” which he describes as “the mass diffusion of low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies — from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service — plus cheap connectivity.”
Friedman used a real-life example he invokes frequently—his childhood friend, Ken Greer, a marketing guy from Minneapolis—to elaborate on this theme: Greer told the story of a video project he recently completed for which the budget was “about 20 percent of what we normally would charge.” Greer explained how he was able to use a collection of free or extremely low-cost online services—from the project management tool, www.box.net, and www.istockphoto.com, which offers high-quality, royalty-free images for a few bucks each, to www.voices.com, which appears to be a crowdsourcing site for voiceovers—that enabled him to deliver the project on time and on budget.
So, what’s the problem with this story? It sounds like this guy is pretty savvy and was able to find a way to complete a paying project during really challenging times. Bravo, Ken!
Absolutely. I have no qualms with Ken Greer rolling up his sleeves and getting the job done. These are outrageously tough times for creative professionals and, in order simply to survive, we must be willing to consider ways of working that only a few years ago would have seemed objectionable…or even offensive.
My problem with this story is that Tom Friedman is amazingly gifted at predicting our economic future—he did so repeatedly in The World is Flat—and if the scenario he depicts in Sunday’s column is, in fact, the future for creative professionals, we need to change the way we work. The point I have made repeatedly here on Merge, is that the way we are being asked to work is changing radically (our world is flattening, to borrow a metaphor), and creative businesses that have been built solely on client services (with hefty fees and mark-ups for outside services like printing or photography) are going to have to adapt before they become obsolete. The thesis of Merge is that designers and creative professionals should be finding ways to build their business that do not rely only on cranking out work for clients whose budgets—and, in turn, the value placed on high-quality creative work—are melting like the polar ice caps.
Does this mean the client service business model will die? Of course not, scrappy innovators like Ken Greer will make sure that “work for hire” will always be a core way for designers and creative pros to make a buck. But, if I can take a turn at predicting the future, what this does mean is that the design businesses we will hold up as models of success a decade from now will be built on an innovative entrepreneurial foundation that will blend traditional client service work with new product development, and direct-to-market strategies.
There are pioneering designers exploring this new territory now—many of which I’ve highlighted on Merge—and many related disciplines, like industrial design, in which the entrepreneurial path is well-worn. Hopefully these examples will help to illuminate the way for the rest of us to follow.