Content Creators and How to Lay A Golden Egg

content creators

COULD THIS BE a Golden Age for content creators? Has the Internet, not to mention the enhanced interconnectivity created by social media, expanded our opportunities? Many of my fellow writers, and designers, and various other creative people, now smack in the middle of this industry in transition, don’t necessarily see it that way.

To the contrary, some of them think the digital revolution, despite all its conveniences, has severely diminished the value of what they have to offer. Some may even resent that term “content creators.”

And I can understand their angst. Most of our tools – that equipment and software that at one time only we knew how to operate – have been borrowed by the neighbors – the marketing people, and even clients – who like using them and aren’t ready to give them back.

How about a little whine

The democratization of design enabled by desktop publishing and digital photography were only the beginning. Now, even our buddy Apple is in the garage next-door, constantly hacking together tools for the rest of the neighborhood; tools that could make us seem pretty useless. First the Great Equalizer cranked out iWeb, iMovie, and Keynote; and now it’s Pages and iBooks Author.

On top of all that, the value of what we do is being called into question more than ever before by the clients that once paid for the skills we brought to the table. Sure, there were always those who’d raise an eyebrow over the cost of creating a photo shoot, or a brochure, or even a dumb little ad.

But now that they can economize by creating these things for themselves, they have an even harder time understanding why we’d charge so much. Perhaps because the thrill of saving money sometimes overcomes one’s objectivity toward the final product. And besides, who can resist falling in love with something you made all by yourself, however amateurish it might end up looking.

A more positive perspective on change

I’ve been thinking and writing about this a lot lately, exploring it in recent blog posts, for instance one about open content and another about content marketing These are topics of much discussion in the marketing industry No wonder they’re also movements somewhat denigrated among old school creatives.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that, instead of focusing on what we’ve lost, we would do better to see it as that Golden Age of opportunity, if only because we have little choice, and little control over this latest seismic shift brought on by changing technology. At the very least, we might as well make the most of it.

The golden eggThe alternative to my Golden Age might be the Golden Egg; in other words, to reenact the story of the Goose That Laid The Golden Egg, and rather than nurturing a gift that sustains us, become obsessed with the big payoff, clinging to whatever advantage we think we’ve earned. Such strategies usually fail, and as one early version of the fairy tale put it, “Greed loses all by striving all to gain.”

Then only hours ago, my eyes were opened further, when I attended a monthly meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the AIGA, the professional association for design. (The abbreviation stands for the organization’s former name, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which of course in itself reveals yet another manifestation of these changes.) I went to hear graphic designer Alan Lidji, the second presenter in the club’s Seasoned Pros Speaker Series.

Learning from those who’ve passed this way before

As I learned in his presentation, Alan and I are almost the same age; I popped out about eight weeks earlier than he did. But coming of age in the 1960s, and in adjacent Dallas suburbs, we both became enamored with the same changing world, and our ability to change things, as seen through the blur of the same hormones. I identified strongly with the cultural waves he recalls, those events and influences that contributed significantly to the designers we both became, and which he still is.

Now we’re both what’s affectionately termed old farts, but I think Alan would agree that neither of us feels any less relevant than we did 30 years ago.

He still operates Lidji Design Office, still advocates ideals he calls his 10 Commandments. He extols the benefits that computers brought to the graphic design business instead of mourning them. He doesn’t complain that his operation is much smaller now than it was years ago, only pointing out that technology allows him to do the work it once took five or six designers to do. Most of all, in the face of seismic shifts that, in the balance of things, were as significant in their day as any we’re experiencing now, Alan kept right on being Alan.

The Luby’s of Life: You do have a choice

Someone reading this is bound to be thinking, “That’s fine for Alan, but what about those on his staff who were replaced by technology? And I say, if they were paying attention while they were there, they might have reinvented themselves, as little Alan Lidjis.

The AIGA meeting reunited me with veteran colleagues I hadn’t seen in decades, other designers like Willie Baronet and Doug May, and photographers Pete Lacker and Jim Olvera. The common thread I observed among all of them is that, while they’ve all been impacted by dramatic changes in the advertising and design business, they’ve focused on work they love doing. And rather than cling to the past, they have at the very least adapted, and in some cases reinvented themselves from the ground up.

And that, in a nutshell, is my whole point.

A musician friend, Ezra Vancil, told me the other day he feels a certain sense of accomplishment just in the fact that he’s “still standing.” Having started out in the music biz alongside colleagues who shared the same dream. But now, to be one who’s still standing years later is big.

Ezra didn’t give up or cave to the changes that have always confronted artists and creative people, changes which are especially challenging to musicians today. And more than that, he’s not just standing, but reinventing himself and the music business for Dallas musicians he’s connected to, showing them, in the seismic shifts taking place in their industry, how they can shift their thinking and become their own recording companies and promoters.

If we old farts from the Baby Boomer generation have anything to teach those younger, I think it might be the danger of getting too invested in what you’re used to and comfortable with, and by contrast, the power we all have to reinvent ourselves and keep up with change and whatever else comes our way.

6 thoughts on “Content Creators and How to Lay A Golden Egg

  1. I had the good fortune of being forced from my comfort zone by a design professor who told me that I should change my major from architecture to photography. He said that he could tell from my fervor for photography that I would never be truly happy doing anything else. I knew no photographers then, and I wondered about the wisdom of doing something so radical. It took me a year to convince myself that I should follow his advice, but in the middle of my junior year I moved next door to the art school. There I met a photographer, an adjunct professor, who actually made his living taking pictures. Pictures that he made beautiful. Not “beautifully.” Beautiful.

    He transformed seemingly mundane subjects into compelling imagery, turned the ordinary into the extraordinary and made penetrating portraits of real people. He became my mentor, and before I began my last year in school, he gave me this sage advice. “Learn to shoot people. If you’re going to make it in this business, you have to be able to photograph people well.”

    Overcoming my fear and pushing myself to shoot portraits was agonizing for me — until I had my first success. And then I was hooked. I got great joy from it, and when, in a few years I started my business, portraits of people on location formed its core.

    That business has changed, expanded, contracted, morphed and evolved. From analog to digital, manual to automatic, chemistry to computers, the environment in which I operate today is completely different from what it was when I began — except for one thing. People can’t buy a great picture of their child, spouse or CEO without the services of a really good photographer. So I strive every day to be that photographer who can put my subjects at ease, coax a comfortable expression from them, and have them say when we’re finished, “That was painless!” That is something they value, and they will pay real money for it.

  2. Jim: Isn’t it interesting that, in your last point about portraits, we circle back to people, in your case the subject of a portrait, as the thing that may be most critical to us all, the thing we cannot do without. I wonder if we’ll find, in the inescapable appeal of the human face, or the human voice, or any human connection, the essential element that will always have a centering effect on all these pendulum swings. Thanks for writing that.

  3. Jim,
    Your lovely recognition makes it appear that I have it all figured out. Not so much. I’m still scared shitless every morning. ”What if I lose this account, or that account.” I’m as petrified as my first day at Tracy-Locke, so long ago. I, sort of, wish I could relax long enough to do what some of my contemporaries seem to be doing so effortlessly with their new spare time. But, then I know that’s when I would become flabby and irrelevant. And, I really don’t want that.

    I do love what I do. I truly feel that we all have more to offer because of the years we have spent doing it. One of the reasons I love Frances Yllana is because she is culturally imbued with a deep respect for those that came before her. American kids her age don’t have that. I didn’t have it. It’s a shame on our society.

    So, here’s to all of us getting a place to speak about our lives. For me, it was a self-revelatory experience, and charged the old batteries to keep the machine running to do new things. I’m getting excited just thinking about the future.

    Thank you so much for coming to my talk.


    • And thank you for talking, Alan!

      By the way, you’ve reminded me that I’d intended to add a link to your 10 Commandments of Lidji Design Office. I’ve gone back and added that so readers can further appreciate the value of your experience. And may there be more Franceses out there to appreciate it.


  4. Was great to hang with you blokes! And good to hear some new stories about Alan. I feel more connected to myself and my “career” than I ever have, and to some extent I now feel on the outside of the design scene. I stay connected to it through events like this one, and with the encouragement of Frances and guys like you all. I find that most of my spare time is spent thinking about and planning stuff related to art, and I’m comfortable with that, as odd it sounds to me.

    In any case, thanks for the mention Jim, and all of you keep being who you are!

    • Willie: I get what you’re saying. I expect to resume making art again before too long, but having moved back and forth between those two worlds, I can relate to the feeling of compartmentalization that you’ve hinted at. But thanks also for correcting the impression I may have given that you’re still in design – you’re actually the one I most had in mind when I brought up the idea of “reinventing oneself.” So on that subject, well done, Willie!


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