Workshift

A Tale of Technological Revolution and the Daily Task of Learning New Things and Adapting to Change

Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash

I have been thinking about the nature of work for as long as I have been working. Or perhaps it was grade 8, when I decided that art was my calling, and commercial art would be my profession.

I had developed an interest in history and progress and the evolution of ideas.

I imagine this as a Krista Tippett conversation, where she asks, “What was the religious or spiritual background of your childhood.”

I was raised in a Charismatic Christian biracial family, the first son of the first son of a prominent Chinese family from Hong Kong, with relatives scattered around the world. This upbringing has had a profound influence on my work.

I grew up in Tsawwassen, a small suburb of Vancouver. In this bedroom community, our house was only a block away from the schools I attended. South Park Elementary, Tsawwassen Junior Secondary, and South Delta Senior Secondary. In both junior and senior high, I earned awards for achievement in art. This recognition set me on the path of art as a profession. At the time, I was convinced that the only way for me to make a living with art would be as what was referred to as a “commercial artist.” The unfortunate alternative, I thought, would be a “starving artist.” The senior high school accommodated grades 10 through 12. I finished Algebra 11 in grade school 10 so I could focus as much of my time in high school learning the tools of the trade. We had access to several tools.

The two art rooms held equipment for phototypesetting, a photography darkroom, process camera, screen printing, letterpress, and offset printing. I learned the entire design and reproduction process, from typesetting to mechanical paste up, to photo mechanical transfer (PMT), to negatives, Rubylith, goldenrod, and metal printing plates, to inking the rollers and running the press. Only later did I realize what a privilege it had been to have had access to all these tools.

My father, as a paediatrician with a private practice, owned a building in Tsawwassen that was half medical office and half day care. After several years, Dad closed the day care and replaced it with a Christian book store, called the Good Shepherd Bookroom. This is where I started to learn about the history of philosophy, art, music, culture, and theology from a man named Francis Schaeffer.

After graduating high school in 1986, I was accepted to a two-year Graphic and Visual Design program at Kwantlen College, which at the time was in the industrial area of Newton in Surrey, BC, a small campus that shared rooms for classes in journalism and a garage for training in auto mechanics.

In 1988, I graduated with only minimal experience with computers, having trained primarily in the same methods that I had learned in high school. We rendered type by hand, sketched images with gouache, and created felt pen comps (comprehensive layouts) as deliverables for client approval of layouts and designs. In college, I first learned about the Bauhaus.

I began work as a junior graphic designer in 1988 at a design studio called Doug Fleming Graphics in the Yaletown district of downtown Vancouver on Hamilton Street. At the time, it was an industrial area, and there was a large parking lot nearby where people had once parked to attend events at BC Place Stadium or Expo 86. Now high rise condominiums have replaced the parking lot and Yaletown has been transformed.

Yaletown is an area of Downtown Vancouver approximately bordered by False Creek and by Robson and Homer Streets. Formerly a heavy industrial area dominated by warehouses and rail yards, since the Expo 86 it has been transformed into one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city. The marinas, parks, high rise apartment blocks, and converted heritage buildings constitute one of the most significant urban regeneration projects in North America.

By the time I left the studio at the end of 1990, it was renamed Fleming Design, and had grown to occupy a three-storey building on Homer Street. We had worked on projects for Pacific Centre, Bosa, University of the Fraser Valley, Nettwerk Records, and the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. I had been hired to do mechanical paste-up, but about 6 months into the job, we were introduced to the Macintosh and Aldus PageMaker. Later, we added Aldus Freehand and Adobe Photoshop.

In 1990, my grandmother in Hong Kong had given me and my siblings each a large gift of cash. I decided that I should use those funds to take the next step, and learn how to run a business. So I purchased a Apple Macintosh IIfx, licensed some fonts, QuarkXPress, Illustrator, and Photoshop. I opened my business at the beginning of 1991 out of my parents’ garage, calling it Bauhouse Visual Communications.

Here is where my faith overwhelmed any business sense I should have been developing. My regular clients were mostly related to the church I had been attending at the time, South Delta Baptist Church. I worked for the church, Camp Qwanoes, The Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in B.C. and Yukon, and Campus Crusade for Christ.

The name Bauhouse was intended to refer to a sense that I had at the time that the Christian subculture had turned its back on the arts and had lost its influence because it no longer spoke the language of the dominant culture. Christians would try to imitate the culture by creating cultural products to compete with the “worldly” media environment, but they tended to suffer from poor production values and an unfortunate association with judgmental theologies, rigid hierarchies, televangelists, faith healers, prosperity gospel preachers, tacky Jesus-branded merchandise, doomsday authors, and sex and money scandals.

I decided that I needed to learn more about how I might be most effective as a designer while at the same time trying to gain a better grasp on the role of faith in a rapidly changing secular society. Considering myself something of a subversive revolutionary, I enrolled at Trinity Western University to study fine arts and communications. I wanted to learn how to build community. I had a feeling that perhaps the church that existed did not really resemble the gathering and assembly of faithful followers that Jesus had originally intended. Just as the Bauhaus was founded on a synthesis of art and technology to rebuild society out of the ashes of the First World War, I wondered how design could be used to build the church, as it faced captivity, exile and assimilation within a secular society.

I doubted the reality of the spiritual experience and ideas I was raised to believe in. But if God was love, Jesus was the most successful social revolutionary, and the Spirit was somehow manifest in the world in some sort of metaphysical body where each of us were cells mystically connected to a cosmic brain, I thought that the only way to find this God would be to discover love by being part of the building process. According to my reading of the scriptures, the only things that mattered in this life and that would last into the next was faith, hope and love.

Knowledge puffs up. But love builds up.

So, Bauhouse was a play on words that referred to my work as a freelance designer out of our house, but it also referred to building the house of God, inspired by the story of Nehemiah, who was tasked by Artaxerxes to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed by the Babylonians. I was clearly not normal.

This is the sort of thing that I just kept to myself, rather than expose my crazy ideas to the critique of normal people.

While working in Vancouver, I would frequent book stores to find authors like Paul Johnson, Robert Bellah, Studs Terkel, and Bill Moyers, exploring history, sociology, and the world of ideas.

At TWU, I learned about Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, and Neil Postman, exploring the invention of the alphabet, the history of media, and the transformative power of literacy as a technology.

I was convinced that the technologies that we were using to create our media environment were changing us in profound ways, and I wanted to be part of the revolution. But I also understood that each technology that we adopt comes with costs as well as benefits. There are always unintended consequences. But the rapid pace of change does not allow us the time to think things through before we are already dealing with the effects of the changes.

When I entered the workforce, I new that I was part of the changes that were displacing people who had learned very specific technical roles in the industry to mass-produce the artifacts of consumer culture in the form of corporate brand identities and commercial messages. Digital production methods quickly replaced the expensive, time-consuming manual crafts used to manufacture typography, images, and designs for print reproduction.

I figured that the best way to learn, to stay at the leading edge of the technological curve, would be to just go out and do what I wanted to do. Free agency was touted as the future of work. I gave it a go. But I admit that I wasn’t very good at it. My dreams were far beyond my experience, capability and resources. But I was determined to figure things out as I went along.

I’m not sure why, but numbers have been a common feature in my work history.

  • Force Four Productions
  • Design One Graphics Group
  • Domain7

These are the three main phases in my work history as an employee, as a part-time graphic designer in a video production company in Vancouver, as an art director at a print design studio in Langley (7 years), and as a senior designer at a web agency in Abbotsford (6 years).

When work was in short supply, I would supplement our income with freelance design work.

Family health issues have punctuated my career with moments when life became unsettled, and I would try to reinvent myself.

A health crisis in our family led to my departure from the design studio in Langley. I accepted a part-time position as a designer to create the brand identity, print materials, and website for a non-profit organization that raised funds to support Christians in areas of the world where they faced violence, persecution and injustice. I did freelance design work to fill in the rest of our income as a young family. It was in 2003 that I revived my business as Bauhouse Design.

Again, a health crisis put pressure on my work at the web agency in 2012, and I took some time off, starting at the beginning of 2013, hoping that my departure would be a temporary situation while I regained my footing and reignited my creative spark. To my dismay, I discovered what I had feared. My position would be permanently terminated.

I enrolled in classes to finish my degree at Trinity Western University, I engaged in professional meet ups in Vancouver, and I applied for an instructor position in the Graphic + Digital Design program at the University of the Fraser Valley. In the fall of 2013, I began my first-ever teaching position with two courses.

At the end of 2013, my wife’s chronic and near-fatal health issues reached a climax, and the stress and anxiety of the situation, led to insomnia and my perceived inability to follow through on the two-year agreement to complete the Provincial Instructor Diploma Program while developing new curriculum for two more courses that I would be teaching in the next term.

Life suddenly came to an abrupt stop when I resigned my position at the university.

Through 2014, I was invited to join a volunteer team as a designer in a crowdfunded effort to create a book to profile 100 artists and creatives in the Vancouver area. We successfully crowdfunded the production costs and published the 250-page second volume of the WeMakeStuff project.

In 2015, I incorporated a business, BLDRS Collective, with the vision to build leaders to design a resilient society. First, I acquired a short domain name, bldrs.co, and then came the cute, snappy vision and acronym of the creative collective. The idea was to engage with local businesses and employ recently graduated design students to find a way to build a collective of creatives and create business opportunities for independent entrepreneurs.

I collaborated on a project to design a book of recipes for a Vancouver coffee bar and bakery, Crema.

I had been partnering with a new marketing venture as an independent contractor to develop the marketing and content strategy for the Phantom Screens website redesign, until that new marketing business was purchased by a well-established local marketing agency, effectively ending that partnership.

I collaborated with an independent marketing consultant, building Shopify and WordPress sites, but that partnership ended when he took a full-time leadership position with a non-profit organization.

In 2016, I worked as an independent contractor, designing and developing a website for Run for Water, an non-profit organization that runs annual events in Abbotsford and Calgary and a foundation to raise funds for clean water in Ethiopia.

Now, where does this leave me? I wonder sometimes if my 30-year career as a designer is coming to an end. I used to work in an industry where design was a niche set of skills practiced by a relatively small professional community. Now that the largest technological monopolies of the world have proven the transformative power of design for business, the desire to be a designer has increased and the barriers have decreased. The tools of production have been democratized to such an extent that design has become a commodity, lowering the perceived value when design can be crowdsourced for very little expense or turned into a design competition with no chance of fair compensation for those who participate.

I am willing to admit that my skills and talent may be lowering relative to the rising tide of talent. Perhaps the problem is that I have been trying to limit the practice of design to a small market, one considered to be the Bible Belt of British Columbia, which can sometimes feels like a cultural wasteland. To experience culture, to be at the centre of the action, one must travel into the business and cultural centre of Vancouver. However, the cost of living and real estate are limiting factors.

Must I simply give way to the next generation? If I need to consider more training, what should I be training for? Or, at this stage in my life, should I be lowering my expectations for employment?

I am willing to reinvent. But I’m running out of ideas.

Well, the truth is, I have so many ideas, I have hit the wall: the paradox of choice. Creativity requires constraints, a properly framed design challenge, and a constant focus on the small, achievable tasks that accumulate to create sustainable and lasting change.

So we focus on the present, what’s in front of us, daily taking the next step on a path that can only be found by walking.

Stories about the future of work. Written by you.

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

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