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Agency Branding: Artsy or Artisan?

artisanIn my last post I made the case for how sharp, narrow positioning makes all the difference for design firm marketing and profitability. I think that most designers, when they come to understand how this works, would agree that narrow positioning is a more lucrative path. Nevertheless, most firms still seem to prefer broad positioning. I addressed the most common objection to sharp positioning, the fear of losing opportunities, in my last post.

I think there is something much deeper in most designers that creates further resistance to narrow positioning. Namely their deeply held artistic identities.

Expansive Artistic Impulses
Adopting a narrow position–defining just one main thing that you do, for just one kind of client, and doing that one thing well–following that path will indeed reduce the variety in the kinds of work a firm might do. A narrowly positioned firm will get really good at doing one thing well. Which is why narrowly positioned firms are so successful and valuable. But that expertise does come at the cost of forgoing all of the many kinds of work they could do. And the expansive creative impulses of the artist’s identity recoil at limits and fixed boundaries.

The artist’s identity (in our day and age) is defined by exploration, free thinking, creativity, and experimentation. The artist is often associated with a bohemian lifestyle, never settled in one place for long, always exploring and re-inventing. This identity contrasts with professional, bourgeois careers like doctor, lawyer, and engineer. The artist is expansive, the expert is specialized and therefore restricted. The artist is fueled by their angst–driving them to investigate and experiment, invent and explore. The professional is settled, focused, and reserved.

So it’s probably not just new business fears that cause design firms to resist narrow positioning. It may also have a lot to do with their creative, artistic impulses.

I think most design firm websites bear this out. How does your firm brand itself? Does the artistic identity dominate the expression of your brand? I think this is way many design firm websites place such an inordinate focus on their firm’s culture. Their brand gets expressed more in how creative they are, or how much they love design, far more than any particular focus in expertise. In fact the expansive artistic impulse leads to expressing expertise in many areas–although everyone knows that very few firms actually possess such a breadth of true expertise.

The artistic identity is a very hard impulse to overcome on the path toward narrow positioning.

How to Overcome the Artistic Branding Trap
I have two suggestions for how to overcome this strong impulse. First, read David Brook’s Bobo’s in Paradise. Many facets of the artistic angst that designer’s experience is actually common to our culture by and large. But for the designer Brook’s insights are most plainly seen. His book is insightful and entertaining in its self-effacing observations on the bohemian/bourgeois reconciliations we engage in our post-modern meritocracy. Brooks is a fun read but if you want to go much deeper in studying human angst in a more fundamental way, there is no better book under the sun than the book of Ecclesiastes.

Cultivate an Artisan Identity
After some reading there is another way a designer can work through the fears of leaving behind the “creative freedom” of working on a variety of projects into focusing on doing just one thing extremely well. And that’s to lean into the artisan identity more than the artistic identity.

Back in the late eighties, as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I had to take art history. One of the biggest surprises to me back then came in studying the early works of artists like Picasso and Matisse. I was of course familiar with their famous works. I’d studied their explorations in color, line, and perspective. Their mature works were primitive, abstract, and highly explorative. But their early work, their student work, was nothing like this. They learned their craft by drawing and painting in traditional ways–their student works are highly realistic and formally superb. They were highly skilled apprentices in formal traditions. And out from this proficiency they explored new ways of expression and articulation of their artistic vision. They learned by emulating the craft of their teachers–the great artists who came before them.

And we too, as art students were learning by emulation. But we were starting with their examples. We were emulating Picasso, Matisse, Rochemburg, de Kooning, and Warhol. Unfortunately we were several generations away from studying the skilled artisan traditions that had launched our artistic heroes. We were no longer building upon artisan skill and discipline, we were riffing off of those who had already set themselves loose. And, of course–as all artists are inclined to do–we wanted to take it further and make our mark by being even more creative.

A Different Path
Early on in my artistic career I decided not to go down that path. Instead I found myself drawn to the early Arts and Crafts movement, to artisans like William Morris and Eric Gill. Not surprisingly my degree project was in letterpress printing, wood engraving and fine-press, hand-made book making. These are disciplines which required a great deal of focus, practice, and cultivation of hard learned skills–you’d be surprised what goes into effectively sharpening an engraving burin.

A designer firm owner who wants to adopt a narrow positioning can overcome the bohemian artistic identity of never settling and constant exploration by redirecting their artistic ambitions toward the artisan ethic. There is a deep and rich artisan tradition that has a much longer history than the explorations of the last century. We can return to our roots and find a form of artistic expression that comes to life through doing the same thing again and again until we’ve become masters of our craft. You might want to watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi for inspiration.

Personally, I find that the artisan ethic scratches the artistic itch more effectively than the artsy approach. And as a business owner it leads to a more valuable expertise as well, therefore a more profitable firm. When you apply the disciplines of learning a craft to the art of running a business you will see much better returns on your efforts.

But if you still want to pursue the artsy approach to design firm branding and positioning you’re welcome to do so–just remember the adjective that is universally applied to that artistic lifestyle–starving.

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