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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.

Originally posted to Critithinker on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 01:03 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You'll Probably Find For-Profit Trade Schools (11+ / 0-)

    teaching the on-the-job craft so that new hires can be expected to be profitable by lunch the first day.

    This has happened all across the economy because we've carefully designed our economy to work this way starting around the beginning of your career. Workers are being treated sensibly, businesses are being managed sensibly, for the goal of getting extreme returns in the shortest possible times.

    It no longer matters what's best for the medium or long term. If it did, they'd be managing for that.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 01:18:36 PM PDT

    •  You got it... (8+ / 0-)

      ...outsourcing the mentoring. And by the people who don't intrinsically create the product.

      And thus, product integrity gets watered down in the process. And the product quality certainly doesn't improve because that doesn't fit the model either.

      I'm just hoping the small business economy can survive the madness. In a perfect world, hanging on long enough to provide distinguishable product, meeting the demand of the people who truly are committed to buying local, etc.

      But it might not happen in my lifetime!

  •  What (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    karmsy, caul

    cripples economies, is the idea of monopolies.

    The idea that an actual need can be effectively monopolized on a universal scale, hence, the need to 'crush' anything 'too big'.

    "If I can destroy you, and everyone like you, I win, neener, neener..."

    I can monopolize glittery shirts, something people want,but not clothing, something they need.

    I can ban services or products I don't like, or wish to deprive others of, but those capable of acquiring, or creating those things themselves see no need.

    Except the greedy, people who desperately want things they don't need, and so things others have, yet they personally don't need, belong to them in their minds, feel terribly threatened by independence in others, and wish to monopolize independence itself.

    Say hello to communism.

    Peace Shopper- Saving more than pennies :-)

    by Maori on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 01:24:45 PM PDT

  •  Interesting read (8+ / 0-)

    Thanks for this. It's a very different world from the mid-80s, when I also graduated. It's hard to believe things feel more bleak than they did in the Reagan years, but they really do. The corporate stranglehold on our government, on the judiciary, on pretty much every facet of life is really scary, and really depressing. You provide a nice overview of its progression over the last 30 years.

    "There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning." —Warren Buffett

    by Joan McCarter on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 01:36:48 PM PDT

  •  Oh how the world has changed! (10+ / 0-)

    There was a great front page article in the Washington Post Sunday about executive compensation, and the role it plays in income disparity.  There's an in-depth comparison of the CEO from Dean Foods in the 1970s and today -- their pay, their homes, their lives. All of the changes trickled down through organizations, and played a role in what you encountered.  I've seen it posted here many times, the Tea Party crew does have a reason to be angry; they are just angry at the wrong people.

    Thanks for your thoughtful story.

    •  I know, it's crazy... (9+ / 0-)

      Executive #1 in my diary went on to write a book called Love and Profit. About managing with compassion. Executive #2 was quite a different story.

      I haven't written very much on Dailykos...I get such great information and insight from other diarists. But this was my attempt at connecting the dots from my personal experience to a much, much larger problem.

      •  Thank you for giving a clear picture of ... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MsGrin, Critithinker

        ....the corporate world and its more recent changes.

        I tend to think that the older corporations, which you first encountered, had not fully learned the rules of being a corporation.  

        Those rules are:
        1. Maximize profit
        2. Do what you have to do to continue in business.

        In other words, if the corporation has to take less profit and do some heavily publicized charitable work so that the community around it will allow it to continue to exist, then it will modify rule one to serve rule two.  

        Furthermore, along that line of thinking, if an action violates the law, but produces large profits, and the fine for that violation is comparatively smaller than the profit, then the corporation will violate the law.

        It's my opinion that the older corporations operated with more of a long view of the future, had more humanistic values, and did not make every decision a financial one.  

        In other words, the older corporations were more like a person.  Sometimes they did things because they were fun, or because they were the morally right thing to do.

        Now, it feels like the corporation is being operated as a machine to make money.  Every decision is based on finance and profit.  That isn't a pleasant place to be, and the decisions of the corporation will often run counter to a person's moral and ethical code.

        Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

        by Zydekos on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 10:55:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Great insight, Zydekos... (0+ / 0-)

          The corporation I wrote about was also a microcosm of what happened historically to corporations all over our country. For instance, persons who possessed the family name that the company was named after were still sitting on the board by the time Executive #2 assumed power. But by the time he cashed out, most were gone. They grew up in that town. They knew so many employees in that company personally. Not only would it be beneath them to cash out causing massive layoffs like he did, they wouldn't get away with it!

          I think unchecked power in corporations has always been a problem. I personally believe that the "old corporations" don't exist anymore, or they've morphed into something much more sinister. And because they are not regulated, they simply...can.

          The real promise of America's economy is people with good ideas who stay true to producing them with integrity and at a fair price. That as they get bigger and more profitable, they have more responsibility. And if they don't want the responsibility, stay small.

          And you are so right that this is a moral question. We need to reject giving more power to behemoth corporations, buy from the smaller ones that you know have integrity if you can, grow more of your own food, and buy local as much as humanly possible.

          •  The Corporation and The Three Laws of Robotics (0+ / 0-)

                Thanks for the kind words, Critithinker. Here's another thought along the same line.  

                  In 1942, Isaac Azimov described his imagined future of Robotics in the science fiction novel, I Robot.  He invented some  basic operating instruction that needed to be incorporated in each robot's programming to protect humanity and gain people's acceptance of robots.

            The Three Laws are:

            1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
            2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
            3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

            Later, Asimov added a fourth primary law to precede and govern the others:

            0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

            Compared to the modest protection proposed in Azimov's Laws of Robotics, the basic rules of the corporation provide absolutely no protection to the individual human being, or to humananity, or to Earth's ecosystem on which our life depends.  

            That's a terrifying, but I think a true vision of the corporation as a dangerous entity that exists among us.  It exists only with our permission through special laws that give the corporation special priviliges.  We must all learn what it is---a machine to generate profit without consideration of human values. Then, ideally,  humanity should decide what additional controls should be placed on the corporation for our safety and survival.  

            Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

            by Zydekos on Fri Jun 24, 2011 at 05:11:56 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  From my earliest full-time employment (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MsGrin, Critithinker

    (slightly after yours, in the late-80s), we had a name for the upper managers who dressed well, and got paid a lot, but seemed not to do much. We called them by a name started with a "p," was synonymous with white creepy-crawlies living off an unsuspecting host, and, well, it sure wasn't very nice :)

    A fellow I recall from one job I had, always dressed immaculately. He looked like a fashion plate. When the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I can remember this gentleman striding briskly around the offices, looking all important. But his expression wasn't grave, or concerned. It was blank and lost.

    These people have enjoyed a heyday of sorts recently. But a lot of them are going to be eaten-up first in the coming collapse.

    Thanks for the diary.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 05:40:43 PM PDT

    •  We called them "skaters"... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      You've seen them...They're the ones where you walk by their office and you realize you have no earthly idea of what they do. They float from one amorphous corporate title to another. They are pleasant enough. You never see them get mad, but you never see them present an actual idea, much less challenge the boss. And the thing that is so unnerving, is that you figure in a layoff crisis, they would be the first to go. But that's not always the case. They've managed to go through their whole lives existing just that far enough under the radar.

      And corporations hate risk. They'll continue to pay someone as long as that person doesn't rock the boat. If their balance sheet defines productivity on the fact that someone isn't bucking the system that person can hold onto their job.

      Our extreme economy changed this to a certain extent, but the skaters are still there.

  •  Before your generation (4+ / 0-)

    companies trained high school graduates for technical and management positions.  In many cases, even the HS diploma was not a requirement.  It worked well because people only received training when there was a job that needed it.

    Now, people are expected to get their own training and must try to guess what kind of market there will be for their selected major when they graudate.  Under this system, supply and demand have become seriously out of whack and people are carrying huge educational debt.  Some people go through this cycle a second time, training for a second career...or third, as each job gets offshored or simply disappears. It's easy for companies to dump people they have no investment in.

    What is needed is a tax break for companies that spend money to provide on the job training, to be paid for by raising the general tax rate on businesses.  That would encourage companies to recreate in-house training programs, and bring jobs and applicants back into sync. Plus, with an investment in their employees, companies will be a little slower to lay them off.

  •  Flooding can lead to mold issues (0+ / 0-)

    and illness often from mycotoxin exposure.  A neighbor of mine died of it is why I've looked into it.  The stuff he had inhaled is literally used to make bioweapons (yellow rain dropped on Laos in the 1970s).

    Nice diary - great snapshot of how the nature of employment has changed.

    'Give away to the rich and punish the poor for the extravagance.....crazy' --LaFeminista

    by MsGrin on Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 11:18:05 PM PDT

    •  I'm sorry about your neighbor... (0+ / 0-)

      I learned a lot from that flood. Getting sick like that scared the hell out of me.

      But also to have seen the sheer contrast of my experience (literally, within a day, there were mountains of bottled water on street corners in Des Moines) to what happened — and is still happening — as a result of Katrina was shocking to me.

      Now when I see news footage of people walking around in flood waters, I want to scream at them...nasty stuff.

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