Candid, Solution-Focused & Gritty

Looking for Someone Extraordinary

A response and open letter to Peter Reek, Smart Savvy + Associates, for whom I created a brand design.

We are looking for someone extraordinary to add to our recruitment team.

You are: Humble, hungry, (people) smart, courageous, candid, solution-focused & gritty.

You bring: Professional proof of success in marketing, communications and/or sales (5 years).

You want: A great team. A daily challenge. Your income to grow with your effort.

We are: Growing, focused, connected, selective, committed, smart, savvy and expanding to new markets. We believe: People are the Plan.

If you want to chat, catch my attention with a private message and explanation of why the quote pictured below describes you.

Smart Savvy + Associates: We are looking for someone extraordinary
Life is like a box of crayons. Until it’s not.

Oversharing on Social Media

Marketing + Capitalism: Corporate control over public discourse. Where democracy goes to die. Photo of Amal Hussain by Tyler Hicks, The New York Times.

Candid

Why would I pick on you, Peter?

What would motivate me to commit professional suicide by making myself untouchable and unemployable in the eyes of the design and marketing community?

I remember learning something about communications theory when, back in the early 90s, I was studying Fine Arts and Communications at Trinity Western University, which I understand is also your alma mater.

“You cannot NOT communicate.”

There are things that we communicate, even when we are silent. That seems to be what we are coming to terms with at this moment in history. It is the ones who have been silenced who have the most to say to us.

Humans can also interpret meaning in communication that might be opposite to the intended message. When we say one thing to the intended audience of the message, there are people who are experiencing something quite different when they come to the conclusion that they are not the target audience of a marketing campaign.

The unintended consequence of messages like this is that “most people” don’t matter.

Marketing Mismanagement

Well, I remember when I first left Domain7 at the end of 2012 that I had been struggling with depression and a lack of engagement with my work because some middle managers had been hired and they were making my life a living hell. If I had been asked about who we should hire, I would have said that we need more designers to help with the work of serving the needs of the customers and the users. Instead, they hired project managers.

We had just finished a workshop to encourage our clients to think about redesigning their sites to simplify the creation and management of their online brand presence by using responsive web design: Design for the Mobile Web.

I had been tasked with a responsive web design for the Gauge Mobile public-facing website and the user experience design for their web application. However, in the course of a month, the project went through three project managers, and none of them understood what the client was looking for or how to move the project forward. The client had specifically asked to work directly with me to collaborate on a solution to the design problem together. Instead, layers of bureaucracy had been created to prevent me from communicating with the client and, ultimately, undermine our collaboration.

After months of project managers obfuscating communication and trying to put out the fires, the client was ready to walk and demanded a refund. So, the crisis was dropped in my lap.

“We have a week to deliver this project,” the project manager told me.

So, I could finally work directly with the client, and I worked overtime to deliver the project in the time allotted.

Now, I was beyond frustrated. I told our human resources manager that I would be catching up on some vacation time and taking a three-week break, effective immediately.

My wife was dealing with a chronic illness, and I was care-taking while preparing our house to be put on the market. When I came back to work, I was presented with a solution to my frustration with the agency hierarchy. The leadership sent me to have a talk with you, Peter, at Smart Savvy + Associates.

I remember doing a card sorting exercise. We were exploring the possibilities of where I might fit in a creative organization. I might have mentioned something about feeling depressed. I remember you said something to the effect of, “You said the D-word.” And, whether it was intended or not, I had the feeling that I had committed the unforgivable sin of marketing, self-promotion, and job crafting/career management.

At that point, it seemed you had run out of time to work with me, and it felt, to me, that the process had ended inconclusively. That was the last time I heard from you. The unintended consequence of that encounter was my conclusion that I would never be leadership material and that I was a waste of your time.

By this point, I am sure that I had been labelled within our agency as a troublemaker. I had been sending email messages to the team to try to generate a conversation about how we could give designers more of a voice in decision-making and advocate for a more collaborative design thinking process in our work. The human resources manager shut down communication and declared that he would be the filter and gatekeeper for any messages that I had for the team. Granted, I was probably not communicating appropriately and effectively with the team. All I knew was that I was not being invited to the table, and I was not being heard. They effectively told me, through the actions of the human resources manager, that my voice was being silenced.

Then, the managers came up with a solution for me. They would give me a leadership role on a large design project. They assured me that I would be working collaboratively with a team of people, but we needed to create a responsive web design for Claremont McKenna College, based on the success of the recent launch of the Regent College website. The catch was that we would have three months to accomplish what had taken nearly two years for Regent College.

I came up with a solution to create a static site generator with XSLT to rapidly build an interactive prototype with HTML, CSS and JavaScript and delivered the project on time and on budget. However, over the course of those three months, people were being pulled off the project until there was only myself and another designer, who wasn’t able to help me with the actual work. Instead, the project manager tasked him with creating wireframes to maintain communication with the client. Then, the project manager credited these wireframes for the salvation of the project during the team debrief after completion of the final deliverables. I was livid, but I kept that to myself. It was already clear that my voice did not matter.

At that point, I had had enough of marketing managers and project managers undermining the process and taking credit for work that they did not understand and had nothing to do with.

I had been working at Domain7 for close to seven years, as a freelancer and as an employee. I had watched it grow from thirteen people to 50 people. It became a microcosm of the changes happening in the world. The world of business, marketing, human resources, project managers, and 360-degree annual reviews invaded the creative, collaborative, inventive, and experimental world of our startup culture and turned it into a siloed and competitive hierarchy and an engine for growth and capital. As much as we tried to #humanizetheweb, the capitalist machine had no room in the agency for all of the humans. Because of outsourcing and the commoditization of design, only a select few would be able to succeed in the long run. For the corporation to succeed, humans are, unfortunately, expendable. Unless, of course, you are an executive or manager.

Career Mismanagement

When the slave drivers say, “Create more bricks, but we’re not going to give you any straw,” it is only natural for the slaves to rise up and say, “Let my people go.”

I made the biggest mistake of my life by deciding to leave, ignoring your advice to make sure I have somewhere to land if I am going to jump ship. Let my life be a cautionary tale for others.

A few other employees had taken a leave of absence and had returned to their former positions or had reinvented themselves to contribute in other ways. So, I thought I could do the same, and I made plans to take a leave of absence at the end of 2012 to try to rediscover my will to live and find out whether I had the ability to be creative anymore. When I notified the human resources manager of my decision, his response was, “As long as you know that we cannot guarantee your position.”

That should have been a clue that I should have considered my steps much more carefully, but I was hoping that my strong relationships with the original members of the team could be a buttress against the naysayers on my return.

Also, as I had mentioned before, my wife’s health was deteriorating, so I wanted to take some time to take care of her.

I made an agreement with the owner and founder to be able to keep working independently out of the Abbotsford office. My intention was to remain connected to the agency and the relationships I had cultivated, while I explored opportunities in education and creative collaboration. I hoped to bring back to the agency the leadership qualities and creative experience that I apparently lacked. I was looking for opportunities to learn and collaborate that had not been a significant part of my recent experience in the agency environment since the managers had enforced the silos of our hierarchical structure. Because of the way the work was distributed among the team members, the hierarchy ensured that designers could never work together.

Within the first month of leaving the agency, I was working out of the Abbotsford office and was surprised to discover that the human resources manager was shutting down my email address. It was at that point that I realized I was not a valued member of the team. They had no intentions of hiring me back. I was on my own. I could only assume that, because I had been vocal about my grievances, I had failed Agency Politics 101.

I had not had any intentions of going out on my own. Freelancing was the last thing that I wanted to do. But I quickly realized that I had to chart a different course for my career. I interacted with the open source community. I took Leadership courses at Trinity Western University as part of their Adult Degree Completion program in an effort to complete the degree I had started. I applied for a faculty position in the Graphic + Digital Design (GDD) department at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV). I connected with an artist collective. I attended Creative Mornings. I became more engaged with the Graphic Designers of Canada and I became VP of Web for the National Executive. I was awarded a probationary position as a member of the GDD Faculty at UFV, and started teaching in September of that year. I was expected to enroll in the Provincial Instructor Diploma Program, prepare curriculum for four courses, and teach those courses for two years.

Burnout

At the end of 2013, I realized too late that I had taken on too much.

While I had finished teaching two courses, I still needed to prepare for two more courses for the following term.

Our house was physically falling apart and springing leaks as I tried to make home improvements and repairs that ended up making things worse.

And I was under so much stress that I was unable to sleep. Lacking sleep, I discovered that I no longer had the ability to think, to organize my thoughts and put together the curriculum for the two courses I would be teaching the following term.

My wife’s health had been slowly deteriorating to the point that she could no longer climb stairs in our home without assistance. We were afraid she was dying.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t cope.

Some opportunities had already fizzled out. Others became unmanageable. I panicked and I quit everything or just disappeared.

  • The startup position
  • The faculty position
  • The national executive position
  • The open source community
  • The artist community
  • The design career

Suddenly, the façade that I had been trying to build collapsed.

Wandering in the Desert

I would go out for coffee with my old boss. Twice I asked if there might be an opportunity to return to the agency. He said he would ask the team. The answer came back: “No.”

For the past six years, I have been wandering in the desert, watching colleagues leave the agency, while I have been sitting at a desk in the Abbotsford office. Not many people from the original team remain. One designer was let go from her position when she was returning from maternity leave. Others were fired when the focus of the organization shifted away from the maintenance of legacy websites. Another moved to work in the agency’s Railtown office in Vancouver. She left and rose to the position of Design Director at MetaLab, but has since become a Product Designer at Facebook, London.

I have had the privilege of working with a couple of my former colleagues from the agency as a freelancer. I have benefited from the opportunity to take on a project that was no longer a strong fit for the creative direction and business model that the agency was pursuing.

The problem with freelancing in this area is the challenge of competing with the designers that are graduating from the program that we are teaching in Mission and Abbotsford. For example, one of the reasons it wouldn’t make economic sense to hire me back at the agency is that they hired a student to replace me. Fresh, young talent can bring an energy, vitality, and new ideas that surpass what I can offer. I can only assume that a junior designer is also less expensive.

I worked with an artist collective to design a 250-page book profiling 100 local innovators, creatives, and artists.

I did freelance work for another local advertising agency. I collaborated with a new startup formed to work on digital strategies for the local industrial equipment, services, and manufacturing market. The advertising agency bought the startup and moved out of Abbotsford to Surrey. I connected with a social media and public relations company to create a collaboration with the UFV Graphic + Digital Design department and The Reach Gallery Museum to host a Pecha Kucha event for the first graduating class of the program. That company moved to Fort Langley. I collaborated with a local marketing consultant until he found a National Director position with a non-profit organization. I worked with a director of marketing developing a website and print materials for industrial and automotive LED lights until it became an endless struggle to get paid. I worked with the marketing manager for the master-planned community in which I live, exploring brand design and environmental graphics for the recently developed retail spaces until I discovered the parent company in Hong Kong was reluctant to spend money on marketing. I worked on user experience design for a local design studio, specializing in real estate projects, but that didn’t turn out to be dependable work.

I am a sessional instructor at a university where I have been filling in for a faculty member who is returning from her studies in Italy. My contract will not likely be renewed in January. So, as a member of the precariat, my life may become more precarious.

Work has dried up.

So, I thought, perhaps, after 30 years of work as a designer, I just have to come to terms with the fact that I may no longer be relevant as a designer, and I have missed out on the opportunity to be a leader in the industry, which is where I suppose I should be at this point in my career. I guess I just didn’t have what it takes. I must retool and reinvent. Or disappear.

The Value of Experience

I am discovering, in my work with Designlab and GDD, that my value may no longer be in my skills as a designer, but in the experience that I can pass on to the next generation by providing the historical and technological context for the reasons we do things the way we do. I have hands-on experience in letterpress, photo typesetting, mechanical pasteup, offset printing, photography, graphic design, video production, advertising, branding, corporate communications, web design, programming, open source development, and user experience design, because I have been following the profession for the past 40 years, since I was a teenager.

Truth in Advertising

I turned 50 this year. One hundred years ago, the world was killing humans at a rate never encountered before.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

The total number of deaths includes from 9 to 11 million military personnel. The civilian death toll was about 8 million, including about 6 million due to war-related famine and disease. The Triple Entente (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.

The killing continues.

We are coming to terms with the decision to silence the voices of those who do not have a share in our capitalist economies.

This includes the people we have marginalized, abused, and imprisoned because they survived the genocide and slavery upon which our countries have been built.

We raise up politicians to be public relations representatives and marketing managers for oil companies and weapons manufacturers.

Multinational corporations have built the infrastructure that is killing the human race and causing the mass extinction of species. One hundred years after the end of World War I, we outsource our wars by selling arms to Saudi Arabia and assuming the debts of Texan oil companies to fund the American war against global democracy. We build our economy on the oppression of the poor. Follow the money, and we will find the connection between social media marketing, the attention economy, and the campaign of misinformation that has resulted in Facebook, Twitter, Donald Trump, Rachel Notley, Justin Trudeau, Mohammad bin Salman, Jamal Khashoggi and the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

This has less to do with Russia and everything to do with the corporate control of our public discourse.

In 1964, people knew that something was wrong.

We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. We have been bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as: cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons. By far the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity. In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world. We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life. But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication. We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes. With this in mind we propose to share our experience and opinions, and to make them available to colleagues, students and others who may be interested.

Silence

There are particular voices that do not tend to get a lot of attention in corporate business and marketing circles. We became designers because we are introverted, quiet, thoughtful people who have wondered how we can have a voice in society. We were told that if we become artists, we will starve. If we become commercial artists, we can make a living.

I have been reading/listening to Beth Comstock, Anand Giridharadas, Chris Hedges, and Louis Hyman on the topic of marginalized voices. A common theme is the corporate domination of our public discourse, work culture, and private lives.

Natalie Portman and Yuval Noah Harari’s conversation reflects on the #metoo movement and the breaking of the long silence.

Tarana Burke, who started the #metoo movement clearly utilized technology in a very powerful way that, I think, really gave gave women a sense of solidarity and safety in numbers. We’re seeing it today with the very emotionally impacting Kavanaugh hearings in Washington in my country, which is very, very difficult to watch, but also very inspiring because of the courage of people who have been silenced for a very, very long time.

I think one woman inspires another and then it becomes a movement and then people realize that they’re protecting each other.

I think also it was a revelation because so many people — not just women — were silent about their experiences that I think people didn’t realize how widespread it was, and people thought they were alone.

The technology actually made them realize that there were others like them and not only others like them but many times others with the same perpetrator.

I think, also, once people realized that their silence could potentially hurt other people, they started to come out.

When they realized that their speaking out could help support another person who had come forward to help their credibility, they also bravely came out, because, unfortunately, it is still so devastating for people who come forward. Their lives are extremely impacted. They are terrorized. They are harassed. They have horrible, horrible repercussions for coming forward still after all of this, today.

You really see the kind of sisterhood and solidarity and a decision to to say that this is unacceptable. Now that it’s been revealed, I think even to people who were victims of this kind of behaviour, I don’t think anyone realized how widespread it was.

Marketing Strategy

Silence is a tactic often used by undemocratic authoritarian corporate power to control and manipulate the masses.

Because of the democratization of the tools of production and the disruptions brought about by technological innovation, undemocratic corporations are in the process of relinquishing power to the people. People have been trained in the tools and techniques of mass communication and are equipped to use laws that protect free speech, satire, and the fair use of intellectual property for journalism and public education.

Gritty

We are complicit. I do not speak out because I enjoy speaking ill of others. I am an introvert. I have made a life out of avoiding conflict. However, if I do not speak out, who will? My life doesn’t matter. I don’t factor into the economic life of this country. I have been prevented from participating because of precarious work and employment, but I still have a voice. I speak for those who do not have a voice.

Our livelihoods are dependent on the success of corporations. However, it is abundantly clear that the success of corporations is not dependent on the well-being of most people. According to corporations, most people don’t matter.

</rant>

Solutions-Focused

What is the solution?

The solution requires a reorientation of our values around the value of being human over the value of capital. Capitalism has shown itself to be at odds with humanity. It has proven to be a means of consolidating power into the hands of a very few people and ossifying the corporate structures and physical architecture that enforce the patterns of human behaviour that ensures its perpetuation and self-preservation.

The solution will require a change in thinking, behaviour, and social systems that will result in a decentralization of power. It will require an understanding of the dynamics between hierarchies and networks to discover an equilibrium that conforms to a symbiotic relationship with our biological and geological ecosystem.

We have less than a dozen years to figure this out, if the latest reports on the environment are an accurate assessment of our current reality.

Targeting Marketing

To change our minds will mean changing our vocabulary. The solution is the end of marketing.

I am not your target market. I am a human being.

We need to reimagine our social architecture.

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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