Are designers, illustrators and visual artists turning into commodities?
I was recently asked by a reader to discuss the health of the graphic design and creative industries in general.
His concerns centre around what appear to be the ‘commoditisation’ of these industries and the people working in them, with the following example:
On an online exchange, you can buy a decent quality illustration for $5 for commercial use.
This means that an illustrator somewhere has theoretically lost out on a commission with a client worth hundreds to thousands of dollars.
“Commoditisation is the enemy of meaning. In ages dominated by the forces of commoditisation, individuals pay the price with devalued lives. By contrast, unique skills requiring mastery and expertise, like the skills of a brain surgeon, are safe from the threat of commoditisation.” ― Tom Hayes
I define commodity here as a product with little value beyond the intrinsic value of what has been produced.
New creative talent is joining the market every day. Many are using cheap or free design tools having been self-trained.
Many are willing to work for free, for very low fees, or they are adding more commodities like new images, web design templates, and photographs, which can be bought for comparatively low prices.
A lot of creative work can be commoditised like this.
With the introduction of robotic typists that write articles based on trending topics, this is creeping into writing too.
As more options for cheaper creative products and people pour into the market, the jobs for those that previously would have worked for higher fees are being eroded.
To many, it would appear that we’re seeing a silent and subtle job cull on a massive scale.
As Blair Ennis describes in his excellent manifesto: Winning Without Pitching, what is happening is a widening of the gulf between “commoditised tacticians who bid their services against each other online, and the expert practitioners who command significant fees for leading their clients to novel solutions to meaningful business challenges.”
This means that there are opportunities for creative professionals who accept that the creative industry is changing.
In adapting to an unprecedented environment, I believe we can benefit from unprecedented rewards.
But we can’t fall into the gap that divides what Ennis calls ‘commoditised tacticians’ and ‘expert practitioners’.
This is the land of the mediocre. This is where you are in the process of being turned into a commodity. This is the gladiatorial ring, where you have to compete; where clients can choose someone else over you because they can.
This is where you are forced to lower your price to attract work from anyone, rather than to add value and become indispensable to a few.
It’s ok to be here when you’re starting out and inexperienced, but the trouble arises when you hang around here because you are not improving and you are oblivious to what you need to do to change.
So how does one adapt and win in this new climate?
As Ennis describes it, on one end of the spectrum, you have those that command significant fees through their deep expertise.
This is the zone in which the creative individual or company is on a path towards mastering a distinct and specialised creative service package.
You can read more about specialisation in various of my other articles.
Those that will suffer from working with fewer of the best clients once they are experienced, are those that view and practice their work at merely the artistic level.
Read that again.
This means that you view your job as solely a maker of art, whether it’s a photograph, a website or an illustration.
But those with the ability to stand out, attract the best clients and command the highest fees, need to go a little further.
They need to see creative work with clients as a process.
They need to view themselves as not only the artist but the authority on leading the client through the process of a reaching a meaningful creative solution.
“Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.” -Brian W. Aldiss
So, for example, the top-end illustrators might be those who understand that a software company relies on clear and colourful animated ‘explainer’ videos to help their customers make more sense of their product.
They understand the value of their unique illustration style and know how to speak it within the context of the client’s need.
In the hypothetical words of the illustrator to the client:
“Many of my other software clients have found their brand engagement with customers increase by using animated videos [hands over the data or a positive testimonial]. Would you like to talk about how we might make this work for you?”
This extends beyond the creative projects themselves, and into actually finding those clients who are a good fit for your services.
You are getting into a conversation about helping your potential client well before the project starts.
Conversation is your marketing, in addition to sharing your work and becoming known.
“Being an expert is more than understanding how a system is supposed to work. Expertise is gained by investigating why a system doesn’t work.” -Brian Redman
No longer do we need to sell ourselves as creative commodities.
We need to talk to the kinds of people who will benefit from our willingness to improve their lives with our art, and be paid well for it.
To command the highest fees you need to change your approach with clients from that of an order-taking ‘get paid by the hour’ commodity, to something more closely resembling a consultant, who happens to provide a honed, artistic element to the process too.
You need to move from ‘artistry’ (commodity) to ‘expert practitioner’ (process).
You as an expert practitioner must now view your craft as not only the making of art but the ability to inspire in others a shared belief in the value of your art.
Are there opportunities in commodity work?
This is not to say that the commoditisation of creative work is not itself bringing many positives, something often missed in the debate.
Firstly, there are opportunities now for smaller companies, like startups and individuals, to use cheaper creative work to support their businesses in the early stages, when they may not have otherwise been able to.
Meaningful art and design that makes an impact on its users is growing and vital, and relies on ‘expert practitioners’ who understand process to carry it out well with their clients.
But at the other end, commodity products and cheaper labour allow others to get a vital start on projects and businesses that can eventually develop into ones that do rely on more focused design expertise.
Secondly, creative commodities allow us to build additional income streams that might have been previously non-existent.
This is now available to businesses small and large, from the self-taught teen working in his bedroom on website templates, to larger creative organisations who can partake in the same market.
Businesses will not want to overlook this, because these income streams can become major sources of scalable financial clout, with less reliance on ongoing client work that doesn’t scale well.
Not only that, but by making and selling duplicatable creative products, this allows creatives to leverage their time better to focus on higher-end creative consulting projects, to spend more time making products, or to enjoy the freedom that comes with extra income.
Whether you want to position yourself as a skilled service provider, or you want to focus on making lower cost creative products at scale, or both, you can do very well in this rapidly changing industry.
As creative people, we are known for our ability to innovate.
There is no better time than now to use our adaptive skills to take a bet on our strengths.