How the Creative Machine is killing our creativity


I have a number of friends who work as freelance creatives.

They’ve spent years either going to school or honing their craft on their own. Investing time and money into their work.

One particular friend of mine, a writer, has been doing his craft as a freelancer for more than two decades. Yet he often complains about the type of freelance work he’s doing. It’s never satisfying for him and often feels exactly like the fearful version of work.

“They want me to write a bunch of bullshit,” his words, not mine. “I tell them that the messaging is all wrong for their audience, and that word-length doesn’t matter as much as conveying a powerful story, but do they listen? No. They just want me to put the words onto the page, not to actually think about what I’m writing. So what’s the point?”

I see this everywhere: creatives are treated less as knowledgable experts and more as though they’re part of some production machine.

We’re explicitly taught in this economy that the creative individual is little more than a cog in a larger moving thing, the business.

The result is what I call the Creative Machine.

It’s when writers are explicitly given instructions on what to write, and absolutely no freedom to explore outside of the bounds. Word count, tone, specific messaging, all outlined for them. It’s as though they’re hired not to actually write, but to make what has already been written just sound…better.

It’s the same for all creatives. For designers, musicians, photographers, architects, and so on.

For example: photographers are told where to stand to get the best shot, or where the perfect scene is, or what filters to use and when to edit what from the photo, all from clients who have no idea what they’re talking about because they have little-to-no experience.

Graphic designers are given a vague project brief and then, after hours and hours of toiling away, are told the work isn’t what the client “had in mind.”

Even though the client, in each case, hired the creative in the first place to make great work, they disable the creative from actually doing that type of work. The client leaves no room for exploration, for expression, for reaching down into the depths of vast knowledge that the creative has about his or her craft.

Creativity has very much become a factory line of moving fingers, click-and-drag, “do as exactly as we tell you” work. And it’s killing not only the amount of high-quality work that’s being produced, but it’s killing the creative’s ability to grow themselves.

It’s a symptom of today’s creative economy

Why don’t creatives just break away from clients who can’t trust them for their expertise? Why are so many designers, photographers, musicians, and writers drawn to work that basically allows them no freedoms?

There are a number of reasons. And clients that do allow creative freedom are out there. But the primary reasons I can think of for maintaining the Creative Machine are: ignorance (on behalf of the client), and debt (on behalf of the creative).

Many creatives end up investing countless hours and dollars into their craft.

A simple art degree from a decent educational institution can end up costing anywhere from $16,000 to more than $32,000. A decent DSLR camera costs, at minimum, $4,000. Not including all of the truly-necessary add-ons like lenses, flashes, lighting, backdrops, etc.

Need a good computer to write and produce content? You’re looking at at least $1,000, not including software costs or regular Internet access for emailing clients drafts.

So we end up with this large debt as creatives that we can’t seem to shake. If you’re just getting out of school you may have heard that you need to build a portfolio quickly, so you take the work you did in school and you foolishly do some free work for family or friends, then you buy a web domain for $10 a month and a designer (or free template) for a few hundred dollars, and now you’re so in debt that you’re willing to do the mechanical tasks clients request of you because, hey, you’ve got bills!

And clients don’t know any better because nobody has told them otherwise. They keep requesting design or writing work from freelance creatives who are more than happy to just do the bare minimum.

If every freelancer who was approached by a potential client who requested mechanical work of them simply said: “No, I need more freedom and you need to do x, y, and z if you want better results,” we would have a totally different economy for creative work.

We would have better work too. A lot of it.

So what do we do? I think we need to address specific questions, no matter where you sit on the fence (are you a creative or a potential client looking to hire a freelancer?):

How do we ensure that students who are about to leave the safety of an educational institution don’t fall into the trap of the Creative Machine?

How do we educate agencies and customers to look towards creatives for more than their physical abilities (to type, design, or take photos, for example), and more for their thinking abilities (to formulate the right messaging, to break away from contemporary and push on more timeless design, to change the mood and tone of the photo)?

The answers aren’t going to be easy, and we can’t do this all by ourselves. It will take an entire generation of creatives to get enough momentum to break the Machine. But it does start with each of us, individually.

What are you willing to give-up in order to make, and get, better work?