The Future of Creativity: Understanding Value

Surrender the Journey

For more than five months Neil and Jen Baker Brown have chosen the most inefficient means
possible—driving 18,500+ miles—to meet with individuals and organizations across the country in an attempt to curate a collective vision of the future where the combination of work and life is the great adventure. In this article series, they are reporting on their travels, conversations, experiences, fears, challenges, hopes and especially the expectations and opportunities for the future creative.

The Future of Creativity: Understanding Value

Challenging to understand and even more complicated to define, the proper perspective on value creation is a critical function for the future creative.

Settled east of arid salt flats and flanked by the Wasatach mountain range, Salt Lake City is home to a unique, startup academic endeavor at the University of Utah. Multi-Disciplinary Design, College of Architecture + Planning is nestled on the third floor of a brutally minimalistic building in the heart of campus. “The program was started with the philosophy that in the modern world the boundaries that exist between applied design disciplines often aren’t as easily defined. The adherence to siloed solutions is breaking down,” says Jim Agutter, the founder and Director of the Multi-disciplinary Design (MDD) program.

The MDD curriculum maps the future of design through production, research, strategy and entrepreneurship. The visual design of their curriculum looks to be a choose your own adventure series, more than a linear educational path. It is a fascinating approach, and will prepare students for a variety of future opportunities beyond the traditional career path—beyond the historic precept of the value of their work.

These students are being groomed to become multi-disciplinary product designers, design researchers, product development experts, directors, practitioners, visionaries, and leaders. Ultimately, students are learning to value the outcomes their solutions generate, rather than an ephemeral artifact they have crafted over many sleepless nights. This is a hopeful signal of the future creative mindset and a new perception of value. Keith Diaz Moore, Dean of the College of Architecture + Planning says “I would argue at the root of this program is its constant attention toward the impact design can, should, and needs to have in addressing the challenges of this century. It does so in a way that confronts prevailing assumptions about design, and embraces the challenge of preparing the creative mind for the future.”

Having clarity of vision for the future, while looking beyond immediate circumstances proves challenging for even the most imaginative.

As we travel, we meet with many designers, agencies, freelancers, and creatives seeking to understand their vision of our collective future, and its critical challenges. It makes for stimulating conversation. However, many are focused on working diligently toward a similar set of financial targets: incrementally maximize earnings, widen profit margin, land bigger projects and larger budgets, increase hourly rates and much more. Sound familiar? This is our reality. It is the same old, boring battle many creatives find themselves engaged.

For many, the creative mind believes his value directly correlates to his skilled labor hour—the retail market price is three times the cost per hour, plus materials. It is simply a time and materials equation. In life and on our journey, we meet with many entrepreneurs and investors. I have yet to meet a single entrepreneur (nor venture capitalist willing to invest) with the goal of creating value at 3x labor cost. Their focus is on much larger valuation tied directly to a predetermined set of clearly defined outcomes: social, economic, environmental, etc.

All areas and activities of the business are specifically designed to achieve those outcomes, which in many cases forces the company to be nimble, iterate, and react to market demand and arising opportunities. One must wonder, what can the we learn from this counter perspective? Can creatives imagine an approach more complex and dynamic than the rudimentary time and materials equation in order to maximize the value their exceptional skills generate?

“I just don’t have the imagination for any other way to monetize the value we create beyond the hourly rate or a fixed project estimate.”

An Anonymous Colleague

As creatives, we are taught early on that our value is tied to our craft and the time to execute our skill. It is reinforced in every class critique we suffer through, in every brainstorming session at our first real creative job, on every invoice sent to a client, and at every awards ceremony echo chamber. All are designed to center on the subjectivity of aesthetic. Could it be that our lust for aesthetic merit (and its accolades) is the very means to our devaluation?

Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future where good, thoughtful, considered, empathetic, human-centered design is ubiquitous in our world—a world wholly saturated in “good design.” It is a world where design is fully democratic, instantly available to anyone with the privilege of owning a standard handheld device subsidized by the local mobile phone retailer. In this hypothetical (soon to be reality) modern world, the emotional debate of aesthetic subjectivity will be silenced.

The emotional debate of aesthetic subjectivity will be silenced.

The world is rapidly changing. A digitally connected life, wholly quantifiable, is cresting the horizon. And investors around the globe are betting big on our connected world—one of the most over-hyped investment categories currently. Our home’s systems are connected to the internet and monitored 24/7 with modern thermostats, smart power meters, and more. Even our refrigerators have internet access. The cars in our garages are networked to our phones, watches and laptops.

The global wearable device market has grown 225% in 2015. Google acquired Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. Last year Cisco estimated that the Internet of Everything equates to a $19 trillion global opportunity over the next decade. In short, every tiny detail of our lives will be a data set stored and instantly accessible. Heart rates are monitored by our watches. Breathing is tracked by a simple clip-on device. Beacons in retail environments can directly notify consumers and track their engagement and purchases.

Imagine presenting and pitching new concepts to a client that has mountains of data instantly demonstrating and predicting what will and will not engage and activate their target audience. Imagine a world where access to this data is as simple as a few clicks via a web browser. Where will aesthetic, intuitive subjectivity stand in that discussion? Much less charging hourly for aesthetic pontification.

A select few, forward-looking creative agencies are gambling on a future where instant networked connectivity affects every single minuscule element and detail of life. R/GA is one such firm that is placing big bets, leveraging their client relationships, investing heavily in their brilliantly talented team and taking wisely calculated risk on an entrepreneurial and disruptive future. Stephen Plumlee, Global COO, explains “as a large global agency, we must move with a calculated pace that will create value for our clients, staff, shareholders, and partners. We are working diligently to take the best steps forward to becoming the agency for the connected age.”

In 2014, Stephen led the charge to establish R/GA Ventures, which he currently manages, and the R/GA Accelerator. The initial accelerator programs focused on connected devices and the internet of things with great success. Subsequent programs have focused on Connected Commerce, Sports Tech, and Food/HospitalityTech. R/GA works intensively with ten startups in each of its programs, an ecosystem consisting of top creative talent within the agency, a vast mentor network, highly diverse strategic partners, and their clients—the best brands in the world. R/GA has successfully translated the traditional client service business into a multi-faceted ecosystem generating exponential value for all involved.

“We are working diligently to take the best steps forward to becoming the agency for the connected age.”

Stephen Plumlee, Global COO R/GA

This focused risk tolerance is not reserved for large agencies generating substantial annual revenues. Kristian Andersen started a career path similar to many young creatives. He took a job as a designer. Within a year he jumped out on his own as an independent contract freelancer. Fifteen short years later, Kristian is now a venture capitalist along with three partners through the newly minted firm High Alpha. At launch last year, the company announced its inaugural capital fund of $35 million.

It is important to note that Kristian did not simply fall asleep one evening a freelancer to awake an investor. Andersen explains that in the early days as a creative service business “The risks we took came to us naturally because we had such strong relationships with our clients. They knew we were committed. The transition began simply.” Ultimately it solidified a new perspective of possibility and fresh approach to developing revenue through shared outcomes in partnership rather than exclusively focusing on the simplistic method of monetizing the labor hour at 3x its cost. While incrementally growing a creative service business—contractor to an agency—he worked in parallel to nurture and develop opportunities that would lead to exponential value.

“The risks we took came to us naturally because we had such strong relationships with our clients. They knew we were committed. The transition began simply.”

Kristin Andersen, Co-Founder HighAlpha

Understanding value can be tricky; defining it even more so. To be contracted to execute a set of tasks—even highly creative tasks—is a low value proposition as it requires no burden of liability (no risk) on the one being commissioned. Creatives must shift their perspective that creativity, and the artifact itself, is the exclusive value. Employing a more enlightened view that the outcomes generated by the imaginative solution holds the greatest value, new opportunity quickly falls within focus. In our near future, clients will no longer pay for the outputs or deliverables an agency produces but rather compensation will be based on the quantifiable outcomes the creative team generates for the company.

In the forthcoming hyperconnected, wholly quantified human existence the creative industries are facing an entirely new set of challenges. But more importantly the real opportunity is to foster, facilitate, and craft exponential value through strategic partnership and shared risk in order to participate in the shared outcomes. All of which is a part of the journey to capture the
reward, the upside, of a job well done.

“Entrepreneur is a term that refers to an individual that creates value in the marketplace by taking an economic resource from areas of low productivity to areas of high productivity creating a greater yield.”

Jean Baptiste-Say, French Economist

Students in programs such as Multi-disciplinary Design at the University of Utah have a fresh perspective on how their ideas, their craft, and their skills create quantifiable value. While this may not be an explicit aspect of the program’s curriculum, these young minds will be conditioned to fail with great frequency, grace, and humility. Otherwise, they simply will not complete their first year. These are skills for this century—a time of growth and disruption.

To compound the matter, the creative economy is the most rapidly growing sector in the global economy. With no end in sight for its growth, the creative community is quickly becoming the largest labor force in modern economic history. To rise above the fray, capitalizing on nascent opportunities will require a burden of risk shared through strategic partnership. The future of creativity brings with it boundless prosperity.

As we travel we’re always on the lookout for the intriguing individuals and exceptional organizations working toa shape our current and future reality. Reach out directly if you would like to connect or make a recommendation on who we should meet. We also appreciate any introductions! Follow our journey at, learn more about the individuals we’re meeting along the way on our site, and sign up for our newsletter.

Related resources:

  • Designing Logos: The Ultimate Resource Collection
  • Online Course: Creative Strategy & the Business of Design
  • How to Design a Digital Portfolio - Workshop

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