12.14.12 | Transblog
So, I was going back and forth on writing on the subject of making money as a Designer. Having a business background, it’s somewhat of a shock to me to see how many Designers shy away from the conversation, or who are uneasy at the mere mention of the topic, often citing that money is the root of all evil.
That idiom, by the way, is from an often mis-quoted Bible verse:
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10, American King James Bible).
So to be completely knit-picky, it is more correctly “the love [and coveting] of money” that can lead people down the wrong path. Fortunately, this leaves room for the opposite to also be true: that careful, thoughtful use of money can bring much good into the world. (Wow! I’m talking about money and quoting the Bible together in one blog entry, nay in the first paragraph! Will any Designers actually continue to read on?) Anyway, it wasn’t until I was sent this clip from a close friend that I made the final decision to write this.
Now, I hate to be perceived as the guy in the program who constantly advocates on the part of money-making, but I’m tired of the struggle that many of us, as Designers, seem to have with that idea of our practices as careers and, furthermore, as tools for making a buck. To me, it seems to parallel the similar dilemma faced by highschool indie bands trying to choose between selling out and signing to a label or upholding their principles and making music their way. The two choices, for some reason, being perceived as mutually exclusive of one another. Well, here’s the reality. Signing to a label, provides you a better chance at making music your whole life. Maybe at first there’s some compromise involved, but if you’re good enough, you eventually get to make music the way you want. Those that don’t sign, choose a harder, far more unpredictable path. Maybe you continue making music on the side, while you work in another field. Maybe you believe that you need to suffer for your art. Maybe you find another way to success. Maybe. I’m not saying that anything in life is certain. I believe Design-after-grad-school isn’t far off from this. Do we take a potentially lucrative job where we follow someone else’s predefined methodologies? Or do we take a stab at upholding our own practice come hell or high water (or homelessness or starvation)? Granted it’s not usually so black and white, and in either case, it’d probably be a smart idea to have a plan, be reflexive, and always keep your goals in mind. Given an opportunity to do what you love and to still be able to live comfortably, however, why not seize it and effect change wherever and whenever you can? Being a Designer with a voice in the conversation is better than not being in the conversation at all. Isn’t it?
Now in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been making a point of using a big “D” when I spell out Design/-er. I’m obviously trying my best to differentiate what I’m calling Design from what is perhaps the more traditional sense of the word. It might be an even stronger case for me to use completely different nomenclature and call Design, say, Innovation —perhaps even Strategic Innovation. I think it important to differentiate the fact that I’m talking about Design in regards to Systems Thinking and in particular as a means to identify spaces for interventions within Systems. I’m not talking about making, or philiosophizing, or inventing, but rather strategically pulling pieces together to create robust ideas around gnarly problems, looking big picture, and implementing solutions. Thinking about sustainability and resilience are important topics at the moment. But if you really want to talk sustainability, you have to talk money. Unless you live in a world where omelets are made from comet tails and unicorn eggs*, you’ll have to eventually deal with this reality. Starting to think about where and what interventions might work, then actually making a move and implementing these interventions, involves a great deal of discussion around real numbers.
So, let’s talk about social business vs. charity. I think Sinclair does a great job differentiating the two in this talk. He talks a lot about humanitarianism —which I think is pretty pertinent to a recent discussion sparked by Bruce Nussbaum about humanitarian design being the new imperialism. Sinclair, however, is both careful and explicit in how he addresses humanitarian efforts in his open source housing initiative. His opinion on charity is fairly clear. In fact, he expresses that a big part of the world’s problem stem from big business, from the “over-developed” world, swooping in, throwing money at a situation, and swooping back out. He avows, on the other hand, that he does not believe in the concept of sweat equity, relating that he finds nothing more insulting than saying I’m coming into your community with a gift, and now you have to build it, for free. The exchange of money, here, conveys not just the building of monetary and economic value, but also, just as importantly, social value. Paying people for their work, consequently, augments the sense of ownership in the community. What’s more, Sinclair is clear in his belief that humanitarian work doesn’t mean imposing what we do here on other places, but collaborating and co-designing with communities to explore what needs they have, which resources they have available, and how they might best find interventions. In the western world, almost nothing is done for free. Even pro bono work, which is often confused with work done for free, is in the end merely a job being performed, for the good of society, at a reduced price to cover costs and wages. In the US, we understand the value of the services we provide and take care to not belittle what we do. So, why would we devalue what people are doing in other points on the globe, especially in collaboration with us?
Social business and strategic innovation seem to go hand in hand. I believe strongly in accountability, transparency, and implementation. I think that these things combined with a triple bottom line (Profit, People, and Planet) approach are a strong proposition for what could be a powerful social business structure. So get out there. Start to implement the wonderful things you’re designing. Be honest about the role money plays. Recognize some of the great things that money can do. Be clear and candid about your finances. And try to keep in mind that making money is the only truly sustainable, resilient way for you to do whatever it is you love doing, have a voice in whatever conversation you choose, and live in whatever manner you want. Lastly, know your value. Don’t diminish what you have to offer, here; when you think about it, there’s a lot at stake.
*Yes, I’ve made that assumption that Unicorns are a monotremes.