This is a post Keenan Cummings wrote for BEAKER. Keenan is the creative director and co-founder at Wander, a beautiful way to experience and express yourself through places. He spent his career working in branding and design strategy roles at Fwis, Johnson & Johnson, and VSA Partners, before realizing he wanted to build products from the ground up. He spent the last eight months reshaping his portfolio and leaving behind most of the illustration, copywriting, and branding work to focus heavily on product, UX, UI and even some front-end code. He keeps a running log of work and information at blog.keenancummings.com
I was an agency-trained, senior-level, print/branding designer and left to work at a startup. Here’s why:
I want my work to feel valuable.
It seems the higher up the institutional chain you climb, the more abstract the value you generate, and the more you are worth. The roles become so far removed from the end goals they are managing, and you have to wonder how long you can stay focused on what matters — making peoples lives better.
“The vast majority of the wealthiest people I’ve met are far more about building value for themselves than they are about creating value for anyone or anything beyond themselves.” (Are You a Role Model, HBR)
But this doesn’t add up in the startup world, mostly because there is not time nor room in the equation for anyone that doesn’t directly affect the outcomes of pursuing whatever the goals may be.
In a startup, value is a concrete measure of your contribution. I enjoy the clarity and trepidation that brings to the work. Things can fail, and the onus is on the person or team that failed to solve the problem correctly. (No blaming ‘bad’ clients!) Likewise, the triumphs are deeply felt because of the intimate relationship you have with the possibility of failure.
I want to stop talking about good work and start making good work.
Startups are notoriously biased toward action — it’s a survival tactic in a competitive field.
I’ve spent a lot of time on research and development, writing pages of airy ‘positioning statements’ and the like. It often felt like intellectual glut that gummed up the process. “Research & Development” feels valuable, but I’ve found that it rarely delivers.
Startups trade R&D for insight and iteration: talk to users, find a solution, something elegant and surprising and useful, and try it out, not as a print out on the wall to be discussed and over-thought (and yes, over-thinking is symptomatic of many if not most stalled innovation processes), but something out in the real world with other people using it.
I want other people to find value in my work.
That value is directly tied to making people’s experiences — and *hopefully lives — better. You have to deliver on that if you expect any kind of real impact.
Client work can often be far removed from any real world positive affect. When your goals happen to align with a client’s, then sure, it’s great to help them achieve that. You’re lucky if you can build a roster of clients you deeply believe in.
More often you are operating under one major but overlooked assumption — that lending clarity and delight to any message makes the world a better place, regardless of the real value of the message you are helping to sell.
Working as part of the team that is defining not just how a product gets communicated and used, but what that product is and what it does for people — that’s an opportunity you rarely get with client work.
*Part of the reason I have a very specific idea of the type of startup I want to work for. There are plenty of problems I don’t care to solve, and more power to the people out there tackling those.
I want my mom to understand what I spend my time doing.
You ever meet someone very successful and say to yourself “what the hell do they do?” You ever meet someone that can hardly answer that question themselves?
I’ve come to believe that “coordinating teams of interdisciplinary, strategic partnerships for generating long term sustainable growth” is code for makin’ spreadsheets and delegating real work (the spreadsheet has even become the symbol of faux productivity).
I want to design with empathy, and that means being close to the ground.
I want to get as close as possible to the people that will love, hate, use, abuse, praise and sh*t on my work.
There is power in making something for someone you know well, someone that you’ve taken the time to listen to.When you are designing for a real person with a real problem you exercise that designer’s empathy that you’ve been trying to squeeze out of yourself when you read vague marketing reports about a ‘target’ consumer or an archetypal customer.
You sit down for a casual cup of tea and a chat and they blow your mind with insights into what the problem is and how to make something that really works. You take that with you, synthesize and sift through it, and cone up with something that you are uniquely qualified to come up with. It is grueling, sweat-dripping-from-the-brow work — empathy exercise. Getting it right is intense and rewarding.
I want my stamp on the things I make.
I don’t want to contractually hand over credit for my work to any institution. Too many designers do great work that is absorbed by client’s contracts or even by the agency they work for.
The industry is changing. Designers are getting involved long before the brief is created. They are helping identify opportunities and build platforms and even products and in turn, generating an immense amount of value. The industry is demanding much more out of agencies but the rates aren’t changing. And we aren’t just talking learning new tools or building a web team or hiring film producers. Clients are demanding deeper domain knowledge, broader expertise, and bigger ROI.
I can go create this value somewhere else, for something I really believe in, and for a company that is moving quickly and iterating responsively.