Does Creativity Scale?

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20th May 2024
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8 min read

Slow Productivity

I've been exposed a couple of times in the last week to Cal Newport's Slow Productivity book. Once through Nathan Lozeron's Productivity Game book summary, and once more through one of Ali Abdaal's recent videos on financial freedom.

The TLDR of Slow Productivity is three core principles:

  1. Do fewer things. Try not to do everything. Doing more just means you have more to do. Instead, focus only on the important task/s, without distraction.
  2. Obsess over quality. With a reduction in the amount of things you do, you can spend more time doing each one to a higher standard.
  3. Work at a natural pace. Don't rush. Instead, work at a pace required to achieve the quality you expect.

Newport also goes on to discuss some tools for enabling this kind of productivity, such as allocating specific times of days to specific tasks, and reverse task lists. It's worth a read, or at least check out Nathan's summary above.

The idea of Slow Productivity is a good one in my mind, and as a creative I find the principles attractive.

however, while Slow Productivity resonates with creativity, I don't think it resonates with the business of creativity.

The Creativity-for-Profit Dichotomy

I'm pretty sure in every place I've worked we've ended up rushing to complete most projects. Either because the process has taken too long and we've run up against a deadline. Or the process has taken too long and we need to salvage some modicum of profit.

Creativity can't be rushed.

Sure, you can run through the creative process and turn out good, or even excellent, results on time. But true innovation takes time to incubate and cultivate.

Newport talks in his book about how to be creative often means appearing like you're being lazy.

Lozeron summarises it well by saying:

McPhee realized early in his career that great work doesn't require more activity ‐ it requires profound insights, which come while going on long walks during the workday or lying on his back outside.

As I've mentioned before, having downtime and allowing our mind to wander permits our subconscious to work on problems in the background. This is a powerful creative tool. Maybe our most powerful.

But who's going to pay for us to lie on the grass?

This made me understand why a lot of breakthrough happens in academia. The commercial pressures of revenue generation just isn't there.

Creativity does not readily scale to increase reach and/or impact to enable business growth. It is hard to systematise or automate, and difficult the distribute.

Any shoe-horning of creativity (in the traditional sense) to make it fit a particular business model distorts the quality of the creative outputs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the idea of scaling creativity in non-traditional ways is a thought-experiment I've been ruminating on recently.

I thought I'd list out a few of my musings for discussion.

Creativity By The Hour

There's only so many hours you can work in a day.

And you can only sell one hour per hour.

I remember in a job I had early in my career the boss running these kinds of numbers (remarkably, he'd shown me his calcs, even as a recent graduate). I can't remember the figures, but he'd worked out precisely how many designers and engineers on staff he needed to turn a profit.

He'd found only way to scale was through proportionately increasing the body count. That's not scaling, just doing the same things more times.

And if you're counting hours, there are limits on what a client is willing to pay for each one.

If the number of hours is tightly constrained, in the end you're still stuck rushing the project out and the quality suffers. Unless, of course, you can find a client (read: institution) willing to pay you for as many hours as you need to take to achieve the creative outcomes you're obsessing over.

Creativity By The Project

Project-based or value-based creative work is a natural progression from creativity by the hour.

At its foundation though, project pricing is often still based on estimated hours spent. At least initially. To determine the value of a body of work, we start with how long the project will take and what that time costs.

However, the benefit of project-based pricing is it detaches the cost from the hour spent lying in the grass. Instead, it attaches the cost to the project deliverables. It doesn't associate the cost with the minutia, only the outcomes.

The trap with using time to estimate project costs is that we fall into the same issue above; we underestimate how long a project will take and we're soon caught playing catch up. Reducing the quality of work along the way.

Or otherwise, it incentivises the creator to rush the job to increase the effective hourly rate. Good for them if they're naturally fast. Bad if it reduces the quality of work.

The value (pun intended), of value-based creative work however is that pricing can go up from there. As how your work is perceived changes, the cost separates (like the shuttle from a booster stage) away from how long a project will take you to complete to instead how much value you provide. This is as much about branding as it is true quality, but perception matters.

At some point on the value spectrum there is enough room in the budget to focus and produce quality. Creativity scales not with reach, but size of impact.

Systematised Creativity

Something fairly new in the design space is systematising creativity.

Rather than increasing the cost to the client to produce a bespoke, high-quality body of work, the premise is to produce a more narrowly defined work scope and be able to produce it faster while maintaining quality.

The difference being that instead of increasing the amount of value delivered, a fixed amount of value is delivered at a reduced cost to the creator.

I've written before about subscription services in the creative industry and where I think their place might be. I believe the subscription model can only work when systematised.

Since writing that article, I think my position is largely unchanged, however I don't think I really gave enough credit to the system that these services (particularly Design Joy) had created. There are very specific guardrails around how the work is managed and delivered. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into it.

The creative work can, more or less, scale by however good your system is.

I do, however, still think this method of scaling promotes a quick-churn approach to creativity. Creativity scales with reach, not the size of impact. And ultimately, there is still a limit to how many hours one has in a day to do the work. Unless you can automate that too.

Automated Creativity

When thinking about what automated creativity service might look like, I first imagined AI.

Can AI automate creativity? No, I honestly don't think we'll ever see truly creative AI. A simulacra of creativity, sure. But happy to stand corrected if that ever happens.

Instead, if you want to think automated creativity, think Canva.

By building a creative platform (maybe with some AI mixed in), they've effectively outsourced the creativity to the client. Through creativity, they've empowered their clients to solve their own problems. From Canva's perspective, the creative process effectively happens automatically, separate to time.

Is the impact high? Absolutely not, but look at the scale. There's a reason Canva is worth boat loads.

Productised Creativity

I read somewhere recently that J. K. Rowling is now worth in the order of $1bn.

While she's certainly the exception more than the rule, Rowling serves as an excellent example of productised creativity. Using her creativity, she wrote a series of books that were then produced in volume and the IP licenced for other profit-making activities like movies and merch.

After the initial creative investment, the scaling is effectively limitless. The creativity isn't sold by the hour, or by the project. The creative process has been entirely decoupled from the scaling mechanism.

It is worth noting, however, that as far as I can see this ceases to be creativity as a service. It is creativity that's finished and bundled, and distributed. The client can't ask to have one in blue.

This can of course apply to all kinds of creative work; books, films, courses, software, physical goods. And most can scale both in reach (volume) and impact (quality). Though of course, the profit margins in digital goods are far better than physical ones.

btw; physical art can also be productised, but it's not about scaling with reach but scaling with value (impact).

The caveat of course with all of these is that you have to own it. If you're not making the investment yourself, it's not your IP to productise. Someone else profits from the product.

You have to pay yourself to lie in the grass.

So does creativity scale?

As you can tell, I've spent some time thinking about this. I am, after all, in the business of creativity.

When I started writing this article I was pretty certain my conclusion would be no.

However, I think the answer is yes, but...

Every way of scaling creativity as a service comes with its limitations and drawbacks. Speed or quality. Bespoke or volume.

I think what the right answer is will depend on what the service is, and who it's for.

One thing is evident though; reach has a much larger effect on the limits of scale than impact does. Both Rowling and Canva show that numbers in the billions are possible with low impact and high volume. Even Design Joy claims to turn over $1m as a one-man operation with a systematised process.

How many design agencies developing high quality, high impact creative work have you seen turning over a billion dollars?

Tagged: business · consulting · creativity · design · design studio

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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