automation creativity design business

Is there an “eye” in AI?

The topic of Artificial Intelligence is a hot one when it comes to industry, government—even civilization. Its rapid development has made what is possible seem limitless. What does that mean for creatives? The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

I started as a graphic design intern in Boston during my junior summer in college, 1997. My first task was to take many camera-ready art boards for different surgical blade types and digitize them using Adobe Illustrator. Needless to say, I had some mad bezier pen tool skills by the end of my stint. This job, however, was a milestone not just for me, but for the design industry as a whole. We were turning a corner, moving beyond paper and pen to monitor and mouse. Many senior-level practitioners struggled to accept this new toolkit; many design schools still resist incorporating digital art into their curriculum.1 But, most embraced it, valuing its relative speed and ease, taking busywork our of the equation in order to open the door for bigger brainstorms. Over time, and despite the frustration with QuarkXpress’ tendency for quitting mid-layout without saving changes and Photoshop’s seemingly hourlong rasterization, designers came to appreciate the benefits of this modern-aged toolkit.

Today, the toolbox opens itself further to automation—the gifts of AI. Instead of spending time trolling the internet for various images that fit the idea in our brain and cobbling them together in Photoshop, we can just plug our criteria into an AI engine and, poof! Dog on a tricycle with a bird on its shoulders in no time. So, what is to stop our brilliant computers from replacing us as creatives all together? Simple. Who came up with that canine scenario to begin with?

A recent article featuring Scott and Jake Friedman addresses this very subject. Storytelling: the challenge with which clients task writers and designers. Take a message and communicate it in a unique and meaningful way that captures the attention of its intended audience. The best creatives do this with an elegance and innovation that we define as good taste.

I am not afraid of AI because of what I experienced in those early days of moving from camera-ready to digital files. We’ve been through this before. AI can not make something out of nothing. These engines pull from existing knowledge inputted from humans and their experience. Though ChatGPT may be able to create some stunningly witty copy for that next ad campaign, AI won’t have the nuanced skill and context to impart that essence of newness, individuality and experience that only humans can bring. As Jake Friedman puts it, creatives are the conductors of taste: “It’s a delicate skill but it’s utterly human—it’s the conductor who sets the tempo and brings everything together, making something cohesive out of a jumble of inputs.”

There may be a few years of adjustment, just like when digital layout tools were made widely available. Everyone will think they are a creative, because AI did what they asked it to do. Soon, however, clients will realize they do not have the same intuition and specificity we creatives hold. All of these plug-and-play logos will start looking the same, ad copy will keep using the same tired puns, and it won’t be long until we hear that familiar knock on the door. They will open their eyes to the limits of AI. Me, I’ll just see it as another tool in the box, one that hopefully won’t freeze my computer.

design business WFH

3 Tips for Quiet Quitting (when you work for yourself)

The latest buzz term in the post-pandemic workplace is “quiet quitting.” For too long, the American can-do culture has about done us in—expecting success to rise from pushing the limits of what it means to give it your all. Add to that the historical societal expectations for child rearing placed on women that kept us completely out of the higher tiers of corporate America, and many times, out of the building completely. To shove our way in, we had to do the same job but better, and do so without letting it be known that there were children who needed to be picked up from school, teacher conferences to be had, or doctors’ appointments to be booked. For mothers, the adage, “Never let them see you sweat,” quickly became, “Never let them see you parent.”

Since the nineties, accommodations like paid paternity/partner leave, flexible work schedules, and the recognition that, frankly, moms bring good sh*t to the table, has increased our position on the corporate totem pole, but the majority is still not at the top. When we are, we certainly are not getting paid the same as our male counterparts for it. Don’t even get me started about the limits that ethnicity, race, age, sexuality, marital/partner status, and physical ability add to this heavy load for many. We’re all trying to claw our way to the top, but those claws are getting worn down, and there’s nothing like the screeching halt of a pandemic to point that out.

Cue the Great Resignation and with that, people deciding that driving their own decisions about work and home balance is how it should be. Now, people are quietly shutting those laptops at 5 o’clock (in their own time zone) and, behold! corporate America is still standing. Perhaps it’s because people are returning to their desks the next morning with a sense of self-control, satisfaction, and balance. 

So, is this a choice we can sustain and stay a successful economy? And if so, how does the self-employed lot accomplish this without losing respect from their contractor, let alone their gig? 

I would argue, yes, we can afford to shut it down at a reasonable hour. I’m not alone, of course. Many studies have shown that workers were just as productive when they had to work from home, even when putting in less hours sitting at their desks. Dogs were walked, bread was made, and yes, even emails were answered. On the flip side, the home as office also blurred the lines of the work day and now we’re boomeranging fast to try and sharpen those lines back up. The hybrid work week (part home, part office) is a result. Quiet quitting is another.

So how does a fully-remote, self-employed contract worker (and mom) quietly quit when there’s competition for work and looser work schedules all around? Here’s how:

  1. Set up expectations from the get-go.
    If you start answering emails on Saturdays, it doesn’t take long for the needy client to learn (and exploit) that you’re always working for them, always. 
  2. Don’t lie when life happens.
    Got a soccer game to go to? A kid to pick up? Tell your client exactly why you can’t make that meeting. It normalizes life as part of the work day and helps remind employers that freelancers are people too.
  3. Do good work and trust it.
    If you prove yourself a reliable asset to your employer, they are bound to give you more flexibility because they want your quality. But, when you are “on the clock,” be there fully, and try not to mix your work and home life (Does “No one will see if I do a quick Instacart order while I do this Zoom call,” ring a bell?).

A combination of measured commitment, embracing one’s reality, and openness is all it takes to release yourself from guilt and restore balance when or if the line between your home and your office gets smudged.

design business self care

Feast or Famine

Contract work can be feast or famine. My workload is usually a small snack peppered by a random all-you-can-eat buffet. As of 2020, I’m a mom first, but love graphic design and have a lot of experience doing it, so I enjoy the challenges that sporadically come my way. I like to work. But, I don’t like feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin. I also hate letting people down. So, saying “no” has never been a strength of mine. All of this can lead to a lot of stress and hard choices (not to mention many grey hairs) if not managed well. Over the years, I have learned how best to evaluate which project mix is best, and what I need to kindly decline. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not always the projects with the highest payday that make the A list. Here’s why:

1 A Thanksgiving turkey would be nothing without the sides.

What designer doesn’t want to design a big glossy magazine, multi-tear website, an entire branding system, or fun series of packaging? All at the same time? Not fun. I like to remember advice that my sister-in-law gave me when she was teaching me how to knit: Always have a couple of projects on the needles. That way, you won’t get bored. I also like to remember that design is only a part of my life. There are other demands on my time that are equally, if not more, important than whatever project comes my way.

So my advice: remember the sides. If you have a few projects to choose from, take a big juicy one, but throw some fries on that plate as well. Now, this could be a bigger project too, but maybe it has a looser timeline, so you won’t be working full throttle on both at the same time. Maybe, it’s updating a website you did a while back in addition to that 24-page catalogue. It could also mean working with a familiar client while working with a new one. You know what you can give and take from the known, but a new one may need a little more active attention.

2 Saying “no” doesn’t have to mean “goodbye.”

Trust me. Business people are used to hearing “no” a lot. If you handle it well, they’ll return to you with the hopes that the timing will be better next time. How do you do this? Flattery, and then, what I like to call, “explanation light.” Don’t overwhelm them with details about why you can’t help them out. Just thank them for thinking of you and tell them you’d really welcome the opportunity to work with them in the future, but your docket is already full. That’s all. Further explanation will just waste their time and doesn’t change the end result. They may even leave the conversation a little impressed that you are so in demand—they have good taste!

Additionally, give them a time when they can return to you and then reach out to them at that time instead of waiting for them to make the first move. This shows them that you really do want to work with them, and you were counting down the days as to when you could see their lovely address in your inbox again.

3 Play favorites (with projects, not people).

How you mix up your workload should depend on a longer-term way of thinking. If you start to get busier, take a breath and look at what’s on your plate. Are the projects helping to serve your portfolio or develop the skills you would like to see improve? Is the client pleasant and easy to work with, appreciative of your skill as a professional, respectful of your opinion? If you are successfully growing your business, you’ll have the luxury of being a little pickier. Think of your portfolio like a vision board. If the only things pinned on your wall are projects that just pay the bills or take forever to finish, then maybe you should rethink the mix. What do you want that wall to look like and then take the projects that help you reach that goal.

I realize none of this is rocket science, but it helps to have someone remind you that it’s OK to say “no”—especially for us people-pleasers. As long as the reason you’re turning work down (or taking work on) helps you to feel satisfied in where your business, time and energy are being directed.