The Fourth Wall

8.24.12 Make Stuff? Or Make a Difference?

Subtitle: Not that there’s anything wrong with stuff!

As an independent designer, I’ve been watching (and parsing) a slow, steady paradigm shift in my beloved communications industry. Our clients — mostly nonprofits and associations — have long supported “boutique studios” all across the DC Metro area, developing decades-long partnerships that have included us as key adjunct creative personnel… that special kind of personnel who buy their own health insurance, don’t get paid for holidays, have their own complex technology set-ups, and perhaps offer these things and more to an empowered team. What defines a boutique studio? Small, independent (1-10 staff). Niche or specialty (healthcare, museums, annual reports). Personal (you work directly with the principal). Collaborative teams (clients, staff, and vendors). Mom & Pop. Pop & Pop. Maybe Mom & Daughter. (Above, logo design for a Mom & Pop business).

But why, you ask, am I sort of speaking in the past tense? Because over the last decade and a half or so, many of my colleagues in the local boutique studio community have closed offices to pack up and move the practice home (sans staff), or left the field entirely… starting new, unrelated businesses, becoming painters or pursuing fine crafts, raising families. And, please know, most of these former commprofs are happy, successful, and still making a difference in the world. It isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing and worth analyzing. (Above, Web site design for the writer’s jewelry business So Charmed).

With client attrition at an all-time high for the boutiquers still sweating the big and small stuff (the stuff of all sizes that must be sweated in order to run a business), this boutiquer has been examining the phenomenon seriously, analytically, and strategically. Because type, color, imagery… playing with these delicious tools still makes me very happy… but it’s the thinking, about my own and my client’s goals that really is my thing. There are trends to track, opportunities to be found, shifts to make; yes, even in my own corner of the marketing world. And this week, as I’ve worked on projects, interacted with clients, read articles and thought about the past and the future, and then worked on projects some more, it came to me.

Yes, like a lightbulb going off! All too often these days, clients of boutique studios are hiring us to make stuff. A logo, brochure, conference collateral. And the stuff itself only has a certain (lowered) value, especially with Web sites and freelancers offering “stuff” for cheap (or free!). . But what those of use who got into this long ago — and stayed despite crazy ups and downs — have always done and must continue doing (and selling) in order to sustain our hearts and our profession is the act of making a difference. You know, fighting cancer, promoting Internet freedom, changing the world…making. a. difference. (Pictured above, a membership brochure.)

So, it’s not that I don’t love the stuff, the artifacts of my practice; and trust me, with 25+ years as a marketing communications professional, I’ve got a jaw-dropping portfolio crammed full of stuff. It’s just, well, that’s simply not why I do this. A brochure is not a reason to juggle schedules and deadlines all day long, to patiently help clients understand the difference between CMYK and RGB, or to assist them in embracing new channels of delivery such as email and social marketing and blogs. (Above, book cover, below, logo for fundraising event, used across digital and print platforms.)

But you see, thing-makers are a dime a dozen. This is both the problem, and…

…the opportunity. We don’t have to stop making gorgeous objects, whether as independents or as a part of a high-functioning organizational team. Clients and organizations don’t have to stop requisitioning and purchasing these artifacts. But, if we pause to examine the objects we make and buy, assessing their power to support greater missions and to affect change, if we look for relationship and collaboration in our processes, we all can become much more effective communicators. We’ll stop making stuff and start making a difference.