Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Artist

In the Oscar-winning film The Artist, the main character, a silent movie star George Valentin, is caught in a particular predicament. His entire industry is changing from silent to sound pictures, and he is not ready nor willing to catch up.  The story follows his gradual fall from stardom, loss of all riches, and the end of his relevance as an artist.

On the eve of my 58th birthday, I sometimes catch myself identifying with George Valentin.  Our industry is changing too. From making objects design has moved into proposing scenarios, experiences, and social modes of communication. From individual project the focus shifts to communal effort, from proprietary ideas – to open sourcing, from industrial manufacturing – to self-production. There is no clear direction: the key notions, according to Paola Antonelli, are “ambiguity”, “vulnerability”, “open-endedness”.

There are now new players in the field. For example, I look at a list of jurors at a prestigious design competition. If only a few years ago such list would be composed of design directors of manufacturing corporations and principals of independent design consultancies (like myself), today the picture is different. These jurors come from Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, and they have titles like ‘director of global concepts’ or ‘senior director of experience design innovation’.

These people represent the forefront of design today. Schools of design are busy updating and reorganizing their curricula to be sure the young graduates are competitive and familiar with the changing field. But what about us, seasoned design professionals? There are, of course, plenty of furniture and product companies who are still drudging ahead as if nothing new has happened under the sun. Should we continue working for those, oblivious to the spirit of change? Or should we try to reinvent ourselves, adapt to the times, jump on the bandwagon, so to speak?

Incidentally, The Artist has a happy ending. Our hero discovered tap-dancing as a new language for making a different kind of movies. The lesson is to look for personal and unpredictable ways. A successful design career will continue neither as perseverance, nor as compromise, but in finding a new relevance for the changing times.
Blogger RWordplay said...

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May 15, 2013 at 7:07 PM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

Gertrude Stein coined the phrase the "Lost Generation," to describe those men whose dreams, aspirations and ambitions were broken and scattered by the carnage and nihilism of the First World War.

I have coined the phrase the "Tossed Generation," to describe men and women over the age of 45, who have worked in the commercial and fine arts, publishing and advertising, and who, after spending a quarter-century gathering experience, honing expertise and establishing a reputation, can no longer find work. (Yes, the George Lois(s) and Bob Greenberg(s) continue to prosper, but they are the exception, and have fixed things so they stay that way.)

The new players own the balls and the fields, to use an antiquated metaphor, and they don't want those us who insist on the value of the "eternal verities," even if we have acquired a working knowledge of the "new," in its various forms and applications.

A 25- or 35-year-old creative director or founder of a startup does not want or need the advice of someone old enough to be his/her father or mother, unless that person is in finance, or has money to burn. It's their time and they are creating their world; one shaped by perceptions of the media and tools that shaped them.

So what do we do? I am tempted to sell my worldly goods, take my 2,000 books, and retire to a quiet place and read, write and think and answer the occasional and unexpected call.

If you are an industrial or graphic or interior designer, I recommend you look at the world and see what delights or discourages you and find a way to either remedy it, or interpret it in some critical light that the current generation finds instructive or amusing.

We are at the mercy of their tastes and their tastes, as you have observed run into the collaborative, into the multidimensional and in multimedia spectacles. The workshop is not dead, it just performs in the service of the Jeff Koons and a handful of other masters and patrons. The individual craftsman can still flourish, if the work of his or her hands flatter the sensibility of those with money to spend, see,or

What I've found in my business——Brand Strategy and Advertising is that potential employers/clients/associates know what I know and can do is valuable, they simply can't place a value on it.

What's more, Creative directors who still have a seat in latest iteration of the Aeron Chair are timid and frightened. They only hire young souls from a handful of places——Miami Ad School, SVA, or Atlanta Portfolio Center, so they don't have to waste a minute training, let alone mentoring anyone. Or they look to some celebrity collaborator, say Spike Lee, Jay Z or Wes Anderson.

As for those talented people who don't get hired, the smart ones form their own groups and pursue what excites their imaginations and hope Google or Facebook or Pinterest or Nike or Gagosian will see their products and order it, or snatch it for a hefty sum.

You mention relevance. Relevance is a dubious concept in a world that exists in a medium of transience. There is no purchase in what you saw yesterday, or expect to see tomorrow. There are only lucky throws of the dice and the narcotic of nostalgia.

What's left for us? The simple commandments true to all faiths: Be grateful for what you have, appreciate each moment you are given, and be generous. Put another way: live with an open hand, heart and mind. The happy ending we all seek lies within us, to seek it anywhere else is to fall prey to any number of bad choices and dead ends.

Until I drop dead, I will listen to music that isn't there and will seek that thing that waits for our noticing.

May 15, 2013 at 7:16 PM  

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