Design Culture or Design Class?

Where sincere aspirations meet dubious commodification

I've always had a love/hate relationship with the so-called “creative agency culture”. In one hand there's that rich and meaningful environment where ideas flourish, trial and error are welcomed and chaos and complexity live and thrive. In the other hand, there's the most commonly found shortcomings of every industry. But today I will add the influence of Silicon Valley's ethos and the "financial" metaphor that are shaping our culture with an unhealthy dose of extreme shallowness, senseless competition, vanity and arrogance.

In many aspects -it seems to me- that the precarious conditioning of the creative industry has made the agency culture more vulnerable and irrelevant but at the same time something desired and idealized. How can this absurd dichotomy sustain itself? I would argue that the creative agency has become just another consumption item, or rather consumption service, that can be desired and idealized as I said before, but after being processed into the market's “logic” becomes irrelevant and disposable.

Shallow Hacking

Certainty was never available in this market, but there's plenty of “choices” though (if you pay the right amount). For the creative industry, the labour of designers plays a crucial role in that open market of possibilities. As a result there's less and less compensation for many creative and production fields, including a rising demand in designers with extra labels in their resume, that only satisfy a data driven “design as a service” mentality (one of the reasons why many webpages almost look the same).

But still, creative agencies are the main place to make a career related to design and have a (more or less) stable income to stay afloat in a flickering economy. The privileged position of doing a job that requires no extreme physical effort or a repetitive task looks appealing, but in no manner this environment can avoid that many design professionals are getting completely burnout in an increasingly "algorithm oriented" creative work.

Actually, design careers - as no surprise - are being part of the great resignation. Digital Agencies, theorically, should be in a position to offer some private and work life conciliation benefits, which (apart from monetary retribution) are some of the main reasons to quit a job nowadays. Objectively there's more than what meets the eye, because an increasing dependency of complex structures related to the automatization of tasks is only the tip of the iceberg. There's many mental issues that have been dragging at least 2 generations of the labour force into an existential crisis.

Hegemony as a Service

One interesting case I’ve noticed on the creative sector is the gradual and prevalent absence of the Art Director’s role in the definition of many online campaigns that include, for example: illustrations.

Many professional illustrators complain about the lack of “vision” in many digital campaigns today, and even a kind of coercion to engage in some dubious practices that are more in tune with counterfeiting or piracy than creative effort. Of course, there is a goal in every creative campaign, but in a precarious and competitive environment, an art direction position seems like a waste of precious time and money for the company. The economic justification (in the eyes of the market) for online content is the commodification of attention and not a creative concept that values the consistency of an idea but the endless pursuit of impact, virality and profit from that exposure.

We have reached to a point that we often confuse a "creative trend" with a lack of resources or simply with a subordination to a scheme that gives results solely and exclusively for a platform.

Just like in the case of websites that look suspiciously alike each other, in order to please an algorithmic criteria, the illustrations included in some digital campaigns must be standarized, quick, cheap and not necessarily related to the core values of a brand. There's no mystery that an industry obsessed with time management, efficiency and productivity can see market opportunities in the automation of even the slighlest trace of "unpredictable humanity" in a project. The unique voice of a creative effort is subject to the designs of a monolithic strategy that only seeks results not cultural relevance. Then we started to see the same kind of illustrations, the same kind of websites, everytime, everywhere.

MeMe Hours

Recently, I ran into the story about MADBIRD, a scam in the shape of a design agency, right in the middle of one of the worst social and economic crisis. Apart from the reprehensible idea of scamming people and taking advantage of the precarious situation of millions of jobs gone due to the pandemic restrictions, the most interesting aspect of the story is the construction of the myth, the lie behind the allure of success and exclusivity… all thanks to the ubiquitous influence of social media.

It could seem like an unreliable coincidence, that almost at the same time, not only a bunch of documentaries, but also the plot for 3 series on different streaming platforms are plots about the recent influence of Silicon Valley in the labour market and economy.

And I'm going to obviate the comedic social commentary of the eponymous Silicon Valley series that ended in 2019. I'm talking about dramatic series like Super Pumped, The Dropout or We Crashed. Each one of them recently released and work like a sort of retelling of the myth behind the entrepreneur, the unicorn, the promise behind "fake it till You make it", the narrative that transpire each and every professional career nowadays, in order to make it valuable.

Unfortunately I don't really think that those shows are going to add anything relevant to the debate. The effect could be (once again) what happened, for example, to films like The Wolf of Wall Street, that instead of helping to rise awareness about the cruelty of the egotistic behavior of the neoliberal doctrine, it has becomes the inspiration that fueled a generation of some of the worst digital gamblers that felt reassured and validated in a tribe of crypto bros or whatever they're inspired to do with their lives.

As for creative agencies it seems that the profit in business is locked up in a system that fosters inequality and the depletion of authentic social connection or any healthy relationship with the environment in exchange for economic reliability.

Is that the reason why many designers, from different fields of specialization, search for a lost identity? I bet a lot of young designers today are hesitant to be a part of any monolithic structure that only perpetuates most of the problems that they themselves are not exempt from.