Makers gonna makeMakers just have to

As I meander through stories and biographies of artists and designers (both past and present) a common theme emerges – makers make because they feel they have to and they can’t imagine doing anything else. What’s not clear yet is the motivation. Does this insatiable need to make stuff come from an in-born sense of insecurity? Do we as makers (writers, visual artists and performers, myself included) send our thoughts out in to the world to elicit a response from another being that might answer the deep-seeded questions we have about who we are, why we’re here and how important we are in the big scheme of things? Perhaps it’s that we’re all hopeful narcissists – we’re chasing fame and fortune or hoping to be cited as a key influence in the progress and understanding of human-kind?  The benefits of being an artist or designer could very well lead to these outcomes, but what happens to us as makers if the response we get is not as we had imagined or, worse yet, that there is no response at all?

As makers, why do we yearn for the approval of others – our clients, our employers, our fellow-makers? Why do we chase jobs that dangle the carrot of opportunity to work with “high-profile clients” or “global brands”? Why do we get this immense sense of pride when we see our work strewn across public space on billboards and banners? Why do we crave for our art director to say “yes, nice job” or for the client to hug us with gratitude after a pitch? We know that the work we do is mostly short-term, it’s a fleeting campaign or artefact or website that lasts for a year or two in the public eye. We work long, hard hours on this because our own sense of self-worth relies on it. We don’t judge ourselves on our output but rather the response to it – we don’t feel we’re ‘good’ designers if we do work that isn’t recognised by others to be ‘good’. If a large organisation like BMW or Coca-Cola thinks we’re worthy (because we know they’ve got the money on the line and wouldn’t risk it on a ‘bad’ designer or artist), they obviously know what they’re talking about don’t they? Do they know good design?

My wife and I are ‘makers’. By day we design, by night we write and illustrate. The thrill of producing something from nothing is time-consuming and heart-wrenching but equally exciting and satisfying. We often question our motivations. Was it inevitable, based on our personalities (and our genes) that we would be makers?  Do we really need the approval of others as evidence to ourselves that we matter or that we exist? We know that given the opportunity, we can influence our built environment on a large-scale and so our perfectionist selves toil and sweat to make sure that our thoughts and ideas are heard, understood and used by others. For some reason, we feel we must “do” and maybe asking why is  a mistake. Maybe there isn’t just one answer.

Whether we are makers or not (and whether we realise it at all) everyone is responding to their world all the time. We consume gigabytes of information daily – each piece shapes our opinions and gives us our own slant on the world and all of its problems. For some reason, makers need to tell everyone else (whether they want to listen or not) their version of events. We do this in written word, visual art or performance but often, these things don’t have financial benefits so we turn to design. It sounds like a pretty good deal initially – with design we get to make (which is really important to our identity) and we get paid for it which is really useful if we want to continue living. When we leave our educational institutions we present our degree and folio to any employer who will give us 5 minutes and proudly declare, “I did it, I did it!” as if we’re the first ones to have ever had a mediocre design education.

After the first few years, one comes to realise that university, tafe or any isolated academic environment does not train you to become a designer – it’s missing that one vital ingredient, the client. It’s only through repeated disappointment (when your idea gets thrown out by the client or the art director) that you begin to learn what design is – a compromise. For a while, like any grieving stage, you close your eyes and pretend that it’s not happening. You believe that one day, if you persist, someone will see your genius for what it truly is and your ideas will matter.

Occasionally, as random as a poker  machine pays out the top prize, a client says yes, yes I like your work, you matter . You get that uncensored, unchanged design idea through the client gates and out in to the real world. The billboard gets printed, the brochure distributed, the flags don your vision in the city square. The sense of pride you have is immense, almost unmatched to anything before. This feeling feels like it will last forever, perhaps years, especially when you win that coveted industry award and have a trophy to show for it. You officially call yourself a prodigy and believe you’ve now got the experience to take on the art director for his job. But in reality, time passes – 1 month, 2 months, 6 months slowly ticks away as sure as a metronome keeps time. The irony of course is that the feeling wanes, the drudgery of client negotiation returns, the endless days of concept re-work consume your every thought and you persist once again, hoping that one day, the client will say yes to your unchanged output soon.

There’s a problem with this model for the makers. Design masquerades as a paying seductress. It lures you with its siren song singing, “Come forth, channel your creative energy (i.e. your insatiable need to make) in to something that will give you money to live. You will get that feeling of maker pride, I promise. The world cares. Your creative director cares. You can make a difference.” But the reality is, over the course of one’s 40-year career it will probably amount to 17.3 months of  pure ‘maker joy’ (if that’s what you want to call it) but hey, who’s counting?

I should pause for a moment before a rant descends upon me; despite my cynical outlook thus far in this post, a professional design career is not all doom and gloom. I’m sure I could do no other job – getting paid for those fleeting moments of ‘maker-joy’ is somehow addictive. Like the rat who continues to run the maze looking for the cheese: he knows it’s there somewhere, he just needs to keep looking. It’s just like art really, you may paint 10 paintings but only like one, you may compose 70 songs and have barely enough for an album. What design gives you that art does not is the relationships you build with the people you work with and those you work for. This is one of the unsung rewards of any design career. I’m quickly learning that these relationships are probably the most important and rewarding aspect of professional design. My career is only 11-years old and I’ve had the pleasure to work with and learn from some very talented thinkers. With that said, whilst I may be proud of the work I produce in my professional career, what I’m finding is that it’s not scratching that ‘maker-itch’ within me often enough. I need to tell & show people my version of the world without filtering it through the lens of creative director or client.

Art (or as I like to call it, self-expression) is playing an increasingly important role in my life outside of my professional design career. Sure, it means late nights but the late nights don’t matter when you’re doing it for yourself. It’s also frustrating, sometimes the maker itch simply can’t be scratched because the day has been spent negotiating a way through yet another client critique minefield and by golly, that endeavour is tiring! But, it does not, it cannot stop my overwhelming need. I’m a maker and I will continue to make; not for the gratification of a client and their business objectives, not to reach my KPI’s or climb another rung in the professional ladder, not even to win one of the 4-million awards that the creative services industry dangles in front of businesses every year to try and help them evaluate their self-worth; none of that business-y stuff matters when your goal is to tell your story and to tell it your way.

I make! Not because I’m insecure but because I’m actually too secure; perhaps too sure of myself – just like I was when I wandered in to my first design job. I’m too sure that my version of events counts. I truly believe I can affect positive change in our world and the harsh reality is that there’s a real chance that the client’s budget may not  help me get there nor will the creative director’s opinion of my colour palette selection. It may not count to anyone except me, but, if the output of my own self-expression can inspire someone else to tell their version of events, then the reward for me isn’t in the  response  from the outside world, it’s in the contribution to it.

If this message in a bottle gets to a young designer out there about to embark on their career, or a seasoned designer who once had dreams of being an artist or performer when they graduated from college because they had the same urge to make, I leave you with this:

Find some time in your day (it need only be 1o minutes) and sketch what’s in front of you, write down what comes to your mind or play that favourite series of notes on your piano that you used to enjoy so much. Every mark you make, physical or digital, tells your story and tells it your way. Who knows where another soul will take it or what meaning it might have for them. We can choose to share our view with the world or not – our own version of events is too important to exist only in that little film projector in the mind.

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