Gotten Good - Todd Roeth

For Better or Worse

Once in a while, when I am sitting still in my truck at a stop light, the car in the next lane begins to roll backwards. In my peripheral view, I sense forward motion and slam on my brake pedal, only to realize I wasn’t moving in the first place. It was instead the car beside me moving backwards. That feeling is always bewildering. It’s similar to composing a frame in a 50mm lens when I ought to have a 35; I walk slowly backwards with my eye in the viewfinder until the subject fits the frame, or I abandon the shot. Either way, when I open both eyes and look around, I am often baffled at where I have ended up. I’ve looked up to realize I am standing in fresh flower beds, mud puddles, oncoming traffic, I’ve backed up against barbed wire, thorn bushes, and countless other places I would never walk into if it were not for the purposes of looking through viewfinder of a camera to frame the desired shot according to my understanding of good composition.

I am nearing 20 years in the professional field of design and visual communication. I am now firmly categorized as a capital-C Creative and I operate in the similarly capitalized Creative Economy. And this also feels very similar to the above situations. At this round and even milestone, experience and exposure have been lately giving me an odd sensation. Instead of feeling a sense of progress – of forward momentum in my career, I get the sense I am walking backwards, or my work and it’s subject matter is getting smaller. When I look up with both eyes and look around, I am often baffled at where I am standing.

The knowledge, premises, processes, and ulitimatly the purposes for which I spend my time and devote my skills have evolved – sometimes slowly, sometimes in leaps and bounds in very short periods of time. But always in the same direction. And after two decades, I have backed up far enough that the subject matter of my career – at least this particular compostion, finally appears all in my frame. (Yet not yet all resolved.) I am starting to take my eye off the viewfinder, stand up straight, and take stock of where I stand.

I am not standing on particularly desireable ground. It often feels like a crowded and noisy mall parking lot. Full of traffic, pot holes and discarded plastic bags. I am not standing in a spot I would have walked towards in my own personal time. But then, this is a career, not personal time. It is work. And work takes us down paths we wouldn’t choose to walk on the weekends. Every day of my career I’ve traded warm romantic notions for cold hard experience. I’ve lost idealism in trade for increased margins. I’ve lost the fight for whitespace for the sake of shareholder value. I’ve lost the naïveté of a new designer and gained the ability to navigate near shore sprint planning sessions. By many a modern measure, I’ve been winning by loosing.

As I learn to evolve, elevate, or reduce creativity to a commodity and package, portion, promote and sell it, I look around the crowded mall parking lot I’ve come to stand in. I’ve learned to decipher the signs. I’ve figured out how to navigate the traffic. I now know that the top line needs to always be higher tomorrow, and the operating costs can never be low enough. And all the means (capital-C Creative securely included) are always in service to the same end; the answer is always more. More. Ideally, for less.

It took me quite a while, but now that is clear. No one ever had the heart to tell me, or maybe they knew it was something I needed to learn on my own. And now that I have, I can either bury my head back into the lens and keep staring through the tiny viewfinder, or stand up straight and keep both eyes open. For better or worse, each tactic looses and each wins something.

Design has become the cover for unnecessary consumption.
— Peter Saville