Us vs Them: We welcome Richard Turley as the latest It’s Nice That guest editor
Over the next two weeks the creative director will share a series of articles and artists reflecting his opinion of the creative industry’s current landscape and how we move forward.
This article is published as part of Us vs Them, a guest edit of It’s Nice That commissioned and curated by creative director Richard Turley. To read further articles from Richard’s takeover head here.
Most professions use a few suss tactics to build walls between the “lay person” and the skills they’re trying to sell. The plumber arriving at your home at 3am to fix a burst pipe uses a sharp intake of breath, a shake of the head and a lengthy pause to add a couple of zeros to the bill. Fancy restaurants make you wait for a table they know is ready. Lawyers will make you pay for pointless meetings where they’ll pepper in long, archaic words you don’t understand, in order for them to type a letter that they’ll already have a template for. And so on.
The advertising industry (and to an extent the design industry, too) had its own tactics. The variety of snake oil this industry sold was access – via their shops – to a sweet honey named CREATIVITY™, an elixir with magical qualities and transformational effects on whoever ponied up enough cash to sip it. With CREATIVITY™ you no longer made spots flogging sugary drinks or posters for theatre productions, or logos for banks or whatever. No. With CREATIVITY™ you created… culture.
And fuck did people like the sound of this CREATIVITY™ stuff.
CREATIVITY™ flew off the shelves. People couldn’t get enough of it. Queen bees were so pleased that they took it upon themselves to invent conferences and award shows that celebrated CREATIVITY™. They wrote manifestos and mission statements attesting to their shop’s unique brand of genius. These manifestos used different adjectives, but all generally aligned around the exclusiveness of CREATIVITY™ being some kind of sacred act that only a few (them) can really do. Where once you imbibe CREATIVITY™ you can suddenly zig whilst others zag, or “zag when everyone is zigging” or whatever the fuck that was about. Some pointed out these myths were really just ways of codifying a junior creative having an idea for a sports shoe ad on the way to work into something aspiring to an artform (and that – not inconsequentially – could command huge fees), but not the sellers of CREATIVITY™, they just kept on peddling that CREATIVITY™.
And maaaayyyybbeeee those manifestos were nonsense and this whole concept of CREATIVITY™ was a bit dubious, but who cares when the CREATIVITY™ was soooooo sweet tasting. Some might have said that this was gatekeeping and that it was just a ruse to keep the money inside the hives that CREATIVITY™ was able to buy, but who cares about stuff like that when you saw the hives it had built! The traditional suit and tie office – a less self-conscious place – was reimagined as an adult soft play area with sofas, sandpits, innovation spaces, snooze zones, desks were pushed to the side and bars were installed. And get this – dogs were allowed into the office! It was almost the more condescending the building, the more it reinforced the idea that “CREATIVITY™ lives here”. (There is a really good essay here by Sally Thurer on this, which you should definitely read).
But – shock horror – whilst the hives CREATIVITY™ built were being fortified, the wider world began making its own honey. Easy-to-use tools enabled by new technologies allowed anyone (who could be bothered) to watch an explainer video and figure out a half decent logo, ad for their business or illustration for their site. New social media channels allowed them to go straight to market, making their own messaging. And guess what? It worked. Some of it was actually really good. Not as much of your expensive CREATIVITY™ was needed. In fact, work that many people bought summer houses on in the 1990s could now be done by a teenager in their bedroom, or by a folksy start-up from the kitchen table. (Which is great, by the way – no-one should need to go to an expensive design shop for a logo they can make themselves, just like no-one should spend thousands on an accountant when they can do it themselves using an app on their phone.)
Anyway, now CREATIVITY™ wasn’t needed so much, the hives it built started to feel a bit raggedy. But the myth-telling continued. Except now these myths weren’t being told for the benefit of the lay person, but repeated over and over for the benefit of the hives themselves. Away days in expensive faraway hotels were booked for the senior staff to ponder why no-one needed CREATIVITY™ quite as much as before (in between scuba diving lessons and having a private chef spoon feed them canapes). And they decided – whilst sitting on those sun-kissed beaches – that the problem wasn’t CREATIVITY™ itself, but instead that the message about how great it was had somehow got lost along the way. So, they invented STRATEGY™ to make it appear that their CREATIVITY™ was even more complicated and out of reach to anyone but themselves. And then things like BRAND SUBSTANCE LOCATOR™ and, best of all, PROPRIETARY NO-PROCESS CREATIVE PROCESS™ which stated once and for all, that the only place you can get CREATIVITY™ was here, with us and nowhere else.
And brilliantly, they did this by somehow failing to notice that the PROPRIETARY NO-PROCESS CREATIVE PROCESS™ was the same no matter what shop sold it, and worse, had been rolled out everywhere. From big corporations to small companies, marketing and communications departments to start-ups, it was available as explainer videos, online classes, Wikihow sites.
See if this sounds familiar:
Worker bees receive a brief. Visual and cultural references are scraped and screen grabbed from algorithmic social media. Google images, It’s Nice That, Arena… Those PNG files are piled into Google Slides or Keynote, sifted through and filtered for taste, appropriateness and sparkle. The scrape then becomes reworked, remixed in Illustrator or whatever into something unique enough to feel ownable (but not so unique it spooks the horses). Strategy is blended around these visual prompts, justifying the direction, supporting the thesis. A competitor audit is thrown in. The deck is duplicated and tidied up and all the references you copied are deleted before being presented to a client, or your upstream higher-status decision maker to decision-make.
I've seen variants on this pattern for the last six or seven years, in different companies, on different continents, whether the UK or US, India, Japan, Brazil.. And usually down to the references scraped. Now – setting aside for a moment the mass adoption of chunks of this workflow from outside the hives – any process that’s duplicative, formulaic and EXACTLY THE FUCKING SAME EVERYWHERE™ has a tendancy to spit out work that is duplicative, formulaic and exactly the fucking same everywhere. (Sidebar: I’m no coder, but I’d say it’s likely a machine is being taught to learn this shit somewhere in the Valley as you read this). Now you can blame the tools, shit creative directors, shit leadership, shit clients, pandemics, working from home, endless pitching, cultural imperialism, new media platforms, Trump, Brexit, cancel culture, the content crisis, fish bowl brains or how each and every system infantilizes you in the end, but it seems there is something about how creative people are organised en masse right now that is blocking anything especially interesting emerging. There are thousands of great creatives, artists, photographers, writers, directors, animators, designers, tons of amazing production houses, small studios – but knitting them together seems beyond the ability of these institutions.
What does all this mean? Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing. Maybe I’m wrong about all this stuff. Maybe culture hasn’t all been moodboarded in Brewdog ads and we’re actually living through a renaissance in great creative thinking. But I’m seeing this guest editorship as a chance to throw a few perspectives out there. We have a couple of pieces where we dip anonymously inside the industry, hearing from those at the top and bottom about how they see the work they do. One of the pieces I commissioned for this takeover was a conversation with Emily Segal on what she thinks is going on. In conversation with Lucas Mascatello, she reveals her belief that, “It's where technologies meet one another that the most interesting and important problems arise.” And I’m pretty sure, even if you disagree with everything else in this rant, we can agree that where we are now – where we have been for a while – is at an intersection. Between technologies. Ideologies. Cultures. Systems. Conflicts between old and new definitions of what we do and how it’s going to be done in the future. For example, on one side you have machines moving in. On the other you have a UK design industry that grew at twice the industry average last year and is worried there won’t be enough designers in the future.
1 of 5
Richard Turley: Barneys (2019) (Copyright © Richard Turley, 2019)
The American playwright Sam Shephard said: “Life is made up of contradictions. The tricky part is to stay in the middle and not take sides... If you can stay right in the middle of a contradiction that's where life is, right in the middle of a conflict”. Myself, I’m like Sam and have always liked the conflict, contradictions and fuckedupness; I’d probably go as far as to say that I’ve built a career on it. And right now I see a ton of fuckupness coming for the PROPRIETARY NO-PROCESS CREATIVE PROCESS™ mob as they go round in circles on one side, whilst gathering networks of independent, tooled-up soldiers to knit themselves together ever more effectively. Has it ever been easier to start a thing? Make a thing? Launch a thing? With most “things” only taking a handful of people, a laptop, a Google Drive and the will to get it started. And all this whilst the fundamentals aren't changing anytime soon, namely that we like to share and consume things (things being anything from videos, images, products, sugary drinks, sports shoes, ideas…) and people will probably turn to people like me and you to help make those things (and that especially applies to anyone who has just left school – believe me, the people who are about to employ you have no fucking clue what’s going on (and if you’re feeling really bleak, email me, I’ll try and talk you round).
A lot of what’s in this takeover has been focused around where my head is at right now, because pertinent to the earlier evisceration of agencies – and staying true to living slap bang in the middle of the contradiction – I’m starting my own agency, Food (with two friends and a Google drive 😉). Why? Because of all of the above. Because like, networks and decentralised accelerated futures, and new wave profit-based cultural belief systems and like, the end of aesthetics, subcultures, lifestyle brands. Because people keep asking us to do work and we needed a few organising principles. Because we’re opportunistic reworlders. Cashed out rewilders. Tugging on the fumes of past successes. Lost in the sauce. I suppose in my most peak life coach mode, my hope is saying some of these things out loud might give you the confidence to do your own thing too – whatever that might be. Because you probably can.
OK I’m out. RICHARD TURLEY™ is done. Here endeth the lesson. The sermon is over. Hope you enjoy the things we made for you and make sure to go off in the comments.
Us vs Them with Richard Turley
This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by Richard Turley. To read further pieces from Richard’s curation click on the link below.
Become an Extra Nice Supporter
The story, and the entire of Richard Turley’s guest edit series were made possible by Extra Nice and our supporters. To become a member and unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, and get your hands on some exclusive perks, head below.
About the Author
Richard Turley is a graphic designer and creative director. He started his career at the Guardian Newspaper in London. In 2010 he moved to New York to be the creative director of Businessweek magazine before moving to MTV (2014) and then Wieden + Kennedy (2016) where he led the re-brand of Formula One. He is the co-creator of the NY newspaper Civilization and the editorial/design director of Interview magazine. He co-founded the creative studio, Food, in 2021.