I was a graphic designer in a corporation. Little did I know how much it would teach me about what has crippled our economy.
I decided long ago that to be a "creative" in a corporation is an oxymoron. But long before that, the corporation that hired me straight out of school as a fine arts major, when my home state had no design jobs to speak of, was a wealth of learning, of trust, of camaraderie and of promise. Here was a place, that at the ripe old age of 21, gave me responsibilities that I still marvel that were given to me. I had a "mentor", an art department person who had been there longer than I, who took me on my first press check. Who taught me how to prop, build sets, and art direct photography in the studio. Who took me on location shooting. Who taught me how to proof color.
These are all things that a university doesn't teach you. But my university experience was ideal and unbelievable as well. You see, when I was a junior at Colorado State, I showed what semblance of a portfolio I had at that time to the art director of University Communications. He'd owned an agency previously and was now head of the department at CSU that created promotional materials for all of the many departments at the school. He hired me as an intern and I did that my last two years of school. I wasn't paid, and in fact had to pay for the credits I received in the internship. But it was well worth it. Through that internship my art director set up interviews with Hallmark and the publishing company that would eventually hire me.
You have to understand the environment at the time. This was the early 1980s. My professors were wonderful, but they were tough. From the time I was a freshman art major, those professors were warning us of the job climate. That it was highly unlikely we'd find a job upon graduation. Even less likely to find a job in design, and at best, you might find a job in "paste up". (I'm dating myself here, this is pre-desktop publishing)
This doom and gloom speech was based on fact, but it was also effective. The next morning there were usually 5 or 6 students who'd dropped out of class. What were left, were the seriously talented or the relentlessly optimistic.
We also knew that the engineering students had companies like Texas Instruments interviewing them on campus. To have any company interviewing art majors was a miracle in itself. Getting the job meant I could pay off my school loans. But it also meant leaving my home state of Colorado and the large, close knit family I left behind. I always knew I would come back.
I was there for 12 years. The first eight years were some of the best years of my working career. I was constantly learning. And the corporate environment at that time actually encouraged our "weirdness". The corporate executives were respectful even though you could overhear them say, "those crazy designers...", which, we took as a compliment. The CEO of the company still said hi to you in the hall and knew your name. There wasn't just one art department, there were several. (And the position I started at was available in 3 different departments. Incredible to imagine that now.) The art departments were this raucous combination of people from many different backgrounds, from all over the country. There were farm kids from Iowa, with a stellar work ethic but blazing talent (ISU has an excellent design school) and wicked funny humor. I got to know my first gays in the business. Some closeted and some not so closeted, that formed my understanding and respect that I hold to this day. We wore flashy clothes, rejected the concept of a suit, experimented with haircuts, fixed up our cheap apartments in the most creative ways imaginable, went to clubs (yes, Iowa had dance clubs), threw theme parties (to this day, I'll never see more elaborate Halloween costumes, or "beach parties" in the middle of Iowa winters). The art departments were the loudest in the building, lots of laughter and stunts, blenders firing up on Friday afternoons. But mostly, we worked hard, many times late into the evenings, and learned how to design magazines.
There's was a shift in the traditional corporate career. You start out learning "the craft". You work hard and you are promoted. You are aware of the structure and that it exists, but because you are learning, it doesn't seem to impede you. Then you get into management. In my case, I did less and less designing. More trips, more meetings, more performance appraisals, more EEO seminars. And I simply felt like I wasn't done learning how to design. Hell, I still don't, 30 years later. I became incredibly restless. I couldn't see the point in sitting at a meeting anymore.
Then the Midwest Flood of 1993 hit. We had an outdated text processing system that was completely destroyed. We could not go back to work in the multimillion dollar building we went to everyday because it was unsafe. So overnight, Apple sent 60 Macs to an empty office space off location and designers and editors learned desktop publishing in 3 weeks. The production manager called it "guerrilla publishing", and it was a type of hell. Many people did not have running water in their homes, but they showed up everyday. Invaluable, and perhaps the best way to learn. But when we'd moved back to the building, I got sicker than I've ever been. Maybe it was stress, or all the "disease bugs" that you never hear about hanging out in the air when a community is rocked by what was called a 500 Year Flood. When I recovered, I realized that this was also a shift of consciousness. A natural disaster brings out the best and the worst in people and it gave me a new perspective. A year later, I quit to freelance. People thought I was crazy, I was leaving at what might be called "the top of my game", whatever that means. I've been freelancing ever since.
Times are harder than ever now, and I struggle at times. I always knew I would draw from what I learned professionally from my corporate job. I'll forever be grateful for that.
What I didn't expect was an understanding that what bothered me so intrinsically about my creative growth process bumping up against a relentless corporate structure is at the heart of why our country is economically faltering so badly right now. My personal experience has become a metaphor for what happens when you trust the corporation too much. What was good about my corporate experience is that it valued me to a point. It compensated me and provided benefits, trained me so that I could produce products that made millions of dollars (not for me but for the company). But once I hit management, the one thing I was hired for, design, therefore valued for, was diminished. And from what I could see I wasn't really producing because whatever creative idea I had that didn't fit their model, never even had a chance. My ironic question always was, wouldn't I have some insight as to what would actually work, since I'd been trained in the environment?
Other things have changed as well. New hires at corporations are not mentored anymore. Upper management is not consisted of people who worked their way up through the ranks of the company. So what is happening instead? There is less and less investment in the lower ranks of employees. The economy dictates that if you were lucky enough to get hired, you will hang on for dear life. Which means you won't demand anything of the company. The employee works harder for less. Until they burn out. Is it a creative environment? There's no encouragement to come up with better ways to solve a problem or make a better product. You are just getting by. I imagine what I would have been had I not been mentored. A young, inexperienced kid, making a lot of mistakes at the expense of the customer. Seems like that's where customer service is nowadays. They follow a script, but they don't really know the product.
When I was at my corporation, the president of magazine group (I'll call him Executive #1) started out as a copy editor at that company. He retired in 1991 and his salary had been about $330,000 a year. Executive #2 that took his place, and then retired 15 years later, cashed out with $90 million in stocks and benefits. Before Executive #2's retirement, the company had laid off perhaps 20 people in my 18 years of affiliation with it (and many of those employees were placed in other departments). Since #2's retirement, the company has laid off hundreds of employees. It just laid off 75 employees the other day.
All this from a company that seemed old fashioned even in the days I worked there, for it's midwestern work ethic, or the fact that it was a publishing company based in Iowa, and not in New York.
Corporations consist of two classes. The upper management corporate class, that is most likely not "trained" in the product area. I mention this because this also serves to remove them from any connection to the people who actually produce the product. When "retirement" comes, they still sit on the original corporate board as well as the other corporate board memberships they've collected over the years. They just shift the millions from one model to another and watch their projections and charts and if they need to outsource to save money, or get rid of employees that cost them too much, they see no problem, nor any emotional connection to it.
And the corporate working class. People who are grateful to have a job to go to everyday and the constant reminder that as this department gets liquidated in the set of cubicles down the hall, they could be next. So they keep their mouth shut. They don't make waves. And they are too beaten down to be creatively finding solutions.
Sometimes people try to put a distinction between creatives and everyone else, although I'm not sure it's valid. You know how people will say that they "aren't creative. They can't even draw a stick figure..."? As a designer I hear that a lot. What I tell them is, "Creativity isn't about how well you draw. Creativity is solving a problem in a way that no one else has thought of."
On the bad side, there is the notion that creatives are weird, we don't get practical matters, or that we are elitist, or what could we possibly know about economic matters?
What I do know is that creativity and innovation is what sets a company and it's product apart from others. And it is what will set America apart from other countries. But if our economy is based on money simply shifting around based upon the decisions of men in board rooms, and not on actual, identifiable and measurable products and services, doesn't it then become an imaginary economy? Our financial crisis of 2008 was proof of that. And how we are still struggling is affirmation as well.
I truly care about what is good for America. And corporations are not. Not as they exist today.
In my very small corner of the world, every job I had, determined whether I would get hired again — "only as good as your last job," they say. I've prided myself on improving upon a product, redesigning it, making the communication more clear, more effective. But when such a large portion of our economy is not based on product integrity, on simply cutting costs, on not training people to be better at their jobs and more on cultivating the culture of desperation, it affects all of us. Adding insult is the huge tax breaks/incentives that corporations get. You would think there would be an explosion of small businesses to fill this gap. Of former, frustrated corporate employees now finally able to pursue their dream on a smaller scale. But because it's gotten so bad, no infrastructure exists to encourage it. The lip service is there, "small business is the backbone of America's economy" and all, but fear is the bigger motivator.
So the corporate working class will stay in their jobs as long as they can, until they become another statistic. What sustains a person at their job is knowing that they can make a difference, perhaps making the product better. But in this climate of working harder for less, ultimately an employee realizes they won't get compensated so why do more? I've also found that they won't speak out about what's wrong politically in America or get involved. They are either too tired to learn the issues. Or they can't reconcile knowing more when where they work is part of the problem. So they just turn off. Go home at 6:30, watch TV, then get up and do it again.
Even with the struggle, I prefer where I am. It's more difficult, but it's real. I try to make a difference by doing good work, making products better, and even being involved in local politics. I know what the corporate monster has become and my heart aches a bit for my friends still working inside it's walls. But I believe there's a world of creativity in there waiting to make America better and stronger.