What's the corporate responsibility of a creative studio in a crisis?
A few weeks back Out of Office decided to dedicate their Thursdays to working for free, offering their design services to anyone who needed them. This decision raises the question of what our industry's responsibility is in a time of crisis, and how further studios could help.
- Lucy Bourton
- 9 April 2020
- Reading Time
- 5 minute read
Like many over the past few working weeks (and weekends too to be honest), Elana Schlenker and Mark Pernice, who make up design studio Out Of Office (OOO), have felt a little lost at what to do.
Rightfully overwhelmed at the feeling of how many people need help right now, and what their place within that was, a few weeks back Elana suggested the pair dedicate a day to offering up their design services. It’s a decision which saw the studio help in a small way, but it’s also acted in tandem with helping themselves too. “Selfishly, this is one of the few things that’s giving me purpose and helping me feel connected,” Elana tells us. “It’s definitely a balm for me, not just those we are helping.” Whereas for Mark the move represented an already concrete belief for him: “If you put other people’s needs first, it’s a great coping mechanism when you’re feeling helpless.”
Starting a few weeks back, every Thursday Mark and Elana can now be found working – for free – for a whole host of clients they maybe wouldn’t usually be in contact with. The work so far has involved student crits, branding for community organisations, and other smaller businesses popping up in adaptation to this particular time. From helping an artist trying to navigate what to do after a cancelled show, to the branding for a new food start-up, “many people who are reaching out are doing so with projects that were formerly just things they daydreamed about,” points out Elana. In turn, the pair are approaching these new briefs with the same dedication as usual, maybe just on a bit of a tighter deadline. “There’s more a sense of urgency and we’re trying to fit a lot into each Thursday,” adds Mark, “but we’re really trying to give these requests the same importance as our regular studio work.”
In their move of dedicating their Thursdays, Mark and Elana demonstrate how a step, however small, can ripple throughout local and global communities at a time like this – and help the designer sitting behind a desk at home too. Their decision also raises the question: what is a design studio’s corporate responsibility in a time of crisis? It’s not obvious at first how the problem-solving and aesthetic eye of a designer is essential or necessary, but at the very heart of this industry is a want to communicate.
This is an act which is needed – in a way that is clearly cut and as engaging as possible – when our brains are already filled with worry, and the noise of a 24-hour news cycle. “There might be people who think: ‘I have three children I need to care for at home…. I work a service job and don’t know when, or if, I’m going back. How could a design studio help me?’” adds Mark. “We understand the inherent limitations of design, but there’s still a lot we can do – help someone format their resume, make a digital flyer to promote the new businesses springing up… What we can all do right now is use our experiences and resources to help those around us.” In order to do this in a welcoming manner, Elana points out how the studio begin conversations by asking “’How can we help you?’ rather than impose what we think is helpful on those around us,” she says. “It’s everyone’s responsibility – not just creative studios – to use our skills to raise up those around us, if we are able.”
Mark and Elana are also open about the fact that they are in a fortunate position to be able to do this. They have one another, for a start, but are also free from the responsibilities of larger studios and agencies who need to ensure the future of employees. Discussing this with the pair, they’re the first to admit “we’re not going to point fingers,” but do make the fair point that they hope “a very hard look at how we structure our businesses, and how that impacts the way we treat and care (or don’t care) for our workers,” will develop out of the crisis.
If taking a day out of your week to work for free isn’t understandably feasible for you, the pair also recommend a number of smaller steps you can take, both as a group and an individual. “A smaller step might be just offering your services to your immediate network, just take a few hours, anything helps. And certainly do not feel guilty about helping yourself if you need it the most,” suggests Mark. Elana on the other hand recommends trying to compartmentalise your time, “this is why we are trying to keep very specific hours on this project,” she says. “If we didn’t, it would be easy for this totally overtake other work… Beyond donating time, if you’ve still got a job ask yourself how you can support those who don’t, or divert resources to freelancers and other creatives in your network.” It’s simply a process of trying to “share whatever resources you have available to you”.
Overall however, Elana rightfully says: “There’s no right way to do this and there’s no wrong way (unless you’re hoarding masks and Purell, in which case, you’re an asshole) – if you can help, you should. If you need this time for you right now, take it.” This pair have however found a large amount of comfort in utilising design as an aiding, helpful tool, and maybe you might too. As Mark sums up: “While this is the scariest thing we may have been through, it’s a chance for us to experience awe in the very definition. I’m trying to keep this in mind,” he says. “Most of our time will be consumed by the virus and our livelihood, we’re realistic about this. But if there’s also any time to reevaluate our priorities, rebalance our lives, to slow down and reflect, create, turn to art, turn to nature if it’s available, start caring about each other again, this is it. After this,” he concludes, “the world will never be the same and we are welcoming the changes.”
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About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.