We live in a strange time in commercial art history, at the intersection of self-help and design thinking. Founders and creatives burnt out on hustling are finding solace in mindfulness practices; we can chart a rise in meditation app development and a renewed interest in non-religious spirituality within the last four years. There’s much wisdom we can garner from professional coaches, many of whom now specialize in developing creatives. Abundance has opened the possibilities of my own career beyond what lays in front of me.
Yet there’s a nagging quandary I can’t shake despite loving what I read about abundance thinking: how does this model, used to sell nebulous assets like self-confidence, direction, and purpose apply to design’s inherent scarcity structure?
At the heart of commercial art is advertising. Advertising exposes a lack and seeks resolution through a good or experience. George Lois famously stated that “Advertising is poison gas,” and the concrete aspects of design, like budgets, seasonal campaigns, and trends underscore the immediacy of action. “While supplies last” rings through my childhood ears. As I’ve previously discussed, advertising at its best is the ground where our dreams germinate until we have the skill and power to realize them. Most advertising sadly does not move us in this manner. How do we reconcile these realities?
Abundance thinking in design starts at the root (chakra, if you’ll permit me). What is the core of your practice? Last week I attended a branding workshop run by a brilliant copywriter and friend who asked for the single most powerful piece of advice I’ve ever received regarding creative business. Immediately the words of my college head of department, an illustrator named Ron Mazellan, ran through my brain in his infectiously positive cadence:
“Some of your jobs haven’t even been invented yet.”
Without realizing, I unearthed a pinnacle of my philosophy: the acceptance of infinite possibility. Music has twelve notes. TWELVE. From this tiny spectrum all musical expression was born, every genre, every band. While I appreciate the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” it stems from a place of scarcity. This positioning does not trust us to be ingenious or novel. Holding this belief takes power from our individual experience and diminishes the interconnectedness of humanity. If we approach design thinking from a place of infinite possibility, we can build new systems from preexisting pieces. This requires abandoning the known for the unknown, which is why it rarely happens, but it IS possible. From this place of abundance, I built out my brand, a new title, and a new way of considering the world around us. Believing nothing new exists around us limits our potential and our resourcefulness.
“Music has twelve notes. TWELVE. From this tiny spectrum all musical expression was born, every genre, every band. While I appreciate the phrase ‘nothing new under the sun,’ it stems from a place of scarcity. This positioning does not trust us to be ingenious or novel.”
Every industry from utilities to entertainment requires advertising, and effective design thinking, to purvey their goods. These industries are full of businesses ranging from high brand recognition to near obscurity, and they all have cash for marketing. We mistakenly assume those with big name recognition have budgets to burn when often they have the least. Bigger brands rarely need to break the bank unless there are multiple competitors operating in the same space; we know who they are already. Smaller names in niche markets need their dollars to work harder. Generally, we’re not interested in gigs that don’t deliver on creative fulfillment or social currency. Why do we limit ourselves?
Is prosperity at the heart of your practice? Even with saturated markets, there are plenty of marketplaces out there for everyone to purvey their goods. Instagram is currently staged as the marketplace for online sellers, when there are so many platforms and opportunities to connect elsewhere. When we succumb to the myth of one marketplace, we scramble to be seen and heard. We scramble for opportunity along the well-worn path.
Assuming the obvious way is the only way is scarcity positioning. This mindset does not trust our training or abilities to create opportunities. The cult of personality perpetuates this myth, that a few influential names and brands hold the keys to prosperity. In some ways, we’re succumbing to our own marketing. Some of us are better suited to connect with quiet brands or traditional business types, and these partnerships can be as lucrative as loud, trendy partnerships. Saturating markets only where “cool brands” hang out is how we perpetuate scarcity, assuming the good work is only in a place of high visibility. We’re readily drinking our own KoolAid, the fallacy that good work only stems from slick, sexy places.
“Generally, we’re not interested in gigs that don’t deliver on creative fulfillment or social currency. Why do we limit ourselves? Is prosperity at the heart of your practice?… When we succumb to the myth of one marketplace, we scramble to be seen and heard. We scramble for opportunity along the well-worn path.”
Commercial art practices since the early twentieth century foster a scarcity mindset and encourage impulse. Some of these concepts are non-negotiable; there are only so many budgeted dollars per quarter, but how many of these brands we covet have sub-brands or divergent audiences? We believe working with visible clients will make us cooler, more relevant, give us more power, and help us avoid vanishing into the sands of time. We believe career achievements will give us total satisfaction so we can check a box on life purpose.
We endeavor to be timeless in our problem-solving with the hopes it will endure. The best solutions feel like they were plucked from some higher state of awareness, becoming not only an answer but The Answer™. There’s something almost transcendent at play when commercial art dissolves life’s anxieties and lets us float, entranced, in the moment. The best of design creates a state of mindfulness and presence, and we feel connected to the human experience through something as mundane as soap.
Is there a presence within your practice? Can you embrace your individuality and find alignment with your creative output? Trends can be a wonderful way to try on a new point of view. Like a loud blazer or novelty shirt, trends can dress our work in a new light, inspiring fresh ideas and forging a new direction. The novelty shirt isn’t always appropriate for our everyday lives. Sometimes it doesn’t fit well. Sometimes it feels like a desperate attempt to escape our realities.
“There’s something almost transcendent at play when commercial art dissolves life’s anxieties and lets us float, entranced, in the moment. The best of design creates a state of mindfulness and presence, and we feel connected to the human experience through something as mundane as soap.”
Trend hopping is a scarcity mindset that unearths a dissatisfaction with our present selves. This positioning discounts the value of our voice and upholds the belief that x makes money and therefore “I” can only garner success via the tested course. In reality, the world likely hasn’t seen what moves you. Seven billion people fill this planet, half of which are on the Internet. Someone out there aligns with your exact vision. There are so many creative expressions that can motivate buyers and move audiences; why do we limit our collective expression to a handful every quarter or year?
This is the most open, flexible time in human history. Anything goes as long as it’s sported with confidence and purpose. When I started seeking my voice, there was no market for it and zero consistent outlet. The trend was extreme photo-retouching and pixel perfection, and it didn’t align with me. I had to believe I was 85% refined and 15% sloppy for a reason. Thanks to the internet, I made a place and gave name to the act of applying powerful words to real-life objects.
Our relationship to our chosen industry and creative expression is a direct reflection of how we view ourselves. Are we in an industry because we love it or because it makes us feel cool and accepted? If others didn’t validate our choices, would we hang them proudly in our portfolios? Dabbling in new ideas helps us grow, which is why trends are useful tools. At the end of the day, a statement piece truly works when you’ve molded the trend to your life, not the other way around. Relevancy matters immensely, but are we relevant to ourselves first? While we are beholden to our markets and systems, we can choose how we participate, as well as the perspective we take. When we validate ourselves and find personal alignment, our work resonates in a new way, forging untrodden paths and markets. If we’re willing to dismantle the framework that binds us to scarcity, we find plenty of space for openness and abundance.
Originally written for Working Not Working. Danielle Evans is a freelance designer exploring the intersection of design & us. She examines social equity, mental health, business, and ethics through the lens of creativity. On top of writing, she has worked with incredible brands like Disney, Target, Cadillac, theGuardian, Wix, and Sketch. Sign up for her newsletter or visit her website.