In Search of a Truly Creative Occupation

This post is the first of what I hope will be a series. My friend Adrian Hanft and I are going to try having an ongoing conversation about art and creativity. Initially it was going to be held via email, but we’ve agreed that it might be more interesting to have it via our blogs by way of the internet. With any luck it won’t end up being a bunch of ill-thought drivel.

Topic 2: Talent in the Workplace

Adrian: My first job out of college was working at a Costco. At the time I desperately wanted to be a designer, and I hated that job. The funny thing is that sometimes I daydream about the days working in a warehouse. I worked with a guy named Paul who was as creative and interesting as anyone I have met in the design world. I remember you used to have a mentality that you could be as happy working as a janitor (actually I can’t remember the exact occupation you used, but you get the idea) as you would be as an artist. Do you still feel that way, and what (if any) is the relationship between a person’s creativity and their occupation?

Jason: Actually, my current job is at least 50% non-design. Some of what I do could be called ‘designing workflows’. EXAMPLE: We have a task to complete every issue, how do we do it efficiently and have documentation so that we can prove when and how it was done?

Other things that I do are copy editing (a necessary skill for any good designer), project management, production, write documentation, office technical support, web coding (HTML,CSS,Javascript,Server-Side Stuff) and video editing.

Anyway, I’m not sure I’d be happy as a janitor necessarily, but I could do a variety of jobs and BE HAPPY as long as it involved some sort of problem solving on a regular basis. Graphic design and studio art work are definitely things that I approach as problems/puzzles.

The more I get to know about my own capabilities the more apparent it is that my artistic abilities are secondary abilities. These secondary abilities are birthed from a more primary skill: compulsive problem solving or a compulsive necessity to make something that is incomplete complete or improved, better.

Adrian: It isn’t that hard to add some visual polish to a crappy concept. If that is the “art” part of being a designer I am not at all interested. People that think that is what I do don’t realize how insulting that is. The fun part (and the real value) of a designer is that they can improve the end product. If you want frosting, hire a baker. If you want me to help make your project successful, let’s talk about design.

Jason: I guess that could be a description of ‘artistic abilities’, but I find myself quite delighted in doing many things that are not at all ‘artistic’.

What really bothers me is the measure of importance of what I do. I’m not a snob, but it seems to me that I’ve been given a lot of capabilities that the majority of people don’t seem to have. I can be egotistic about it, but I really shouldn’t. The older I get, the more humble I am about my talents. The talents are not something I created. They are things that I’ve been given, gifts. Sometimes it bothers me that I’m not doing something more important with these gifts.

Adrian: I will confess to being a little snobbish in that regard. For example, I am amazed how often I write a quick “fake” headline for a web comp and those words end up on the finished website. I can’t believe someone who has known about a company for 20 minutes can burp up a better headline than the president of that company. But copywriting isn’t really one of my gifts. Design might be. And it is in the moments when I do produce something truly good for an irrelevant product or company that I ask myself, “am I wasting my talent?” Should I be working on things that are more important?

Jason: What ‘more important’ means is elusive though. It could mean better paying, something that makes you famous or something that helps people. I definitely lean towards helping people. A weekly magazine about country music stars doesn’t seem very important, but I think there’s a micro and a macro option here. In what I think follows a Lutheran approach to life I’ve focused on the micro. What can I do to help the people in my immediate vicinity?

Adrian: I think it’s interesting to think of that as a Lutheran characteristic. The work I do isn’t world-changing and the chances of fame knocking on my door based on the design I do for a local business is really slim. But if I work hard and have a positive impact on the people I work with makes the work feel a little more important. Is that what you mean by “micro?”

Jason: Well, it’s possible that calling that ‘Lutheran’ is a ridiculous. I have a tendency to be ridiculous and wrong.

Yes, that’s what I mean by ‘micro’. I like to think that a lot of ‘micro’ effort is the only way to produce ‘macro’ results. Maybe it’s a matter of improving the morale of your workplace. Maybe it’s a simple matter of providing assistance to those that need it.

But back to the main topic: it’s problem solving that’s important for having job satisfaction. At least for me. And problem solving in a design-y environment involves a lot more than putting polish on a crappy idea. I’m in agreement with you there. I don’t know if it’s insulting, but thinking that designers merely ‘make things pretty’ is certainly a misguided concept about what designers do. Okay, maybe that misguided concept IS insulting.

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