My dad’s family comes from a small community (pop 350) in Finland, called Yppari. Since 1832, Karjaluotos have lived in the area, and while many have moved abroad, a handful remain. I’ve visited a few times—not as many as I’d like—over the years, and was able to meet my grandparents and a number of their siblings before they passed.
Amongst the most interesting of the lot was my dad’s aunt Raakkeli. She was already old when I met her—likely well into her 70s—but she still seemed to be a firecracker. One of the hobbies she and her husband shared was collecting antiques. Their home contained many ornate and beautifully crafted objects dating back significantly. I don’t remember all the items clearly (my last visit to their home goes back over 25 years) but one object remains in mind.
It was a beautiful glass form, almost like a vase, comprised of a top section and a wide bottom piece. The narrow top had a small opening, with a inwardly curved lip. Neither my parents, nor I, knew what the object was. Raakkeli explained that by filling the bottom with a sugar and water, flies would be attracted through the top opening. Once inside, they’d attempt to fly out, and the overhanging lip would keep them contained.
I’ve never forgotten about that object. For all the innovations we’ve made over the years, current bug capture/elimination devices are crude by comparison. This quiet, sturdy, electricity-free, piece of glass helped Finns in the 1800s gain a small respite from those pesky little suckers, which are rather plentiful in Northern Finland. I considered the device a smart piece of design.
What also struck me about that object, was how cruel it seemed. Freedom was very close for those ensnared in the trap. All they needed to do was move slightly to the middle, instead of clinging to the edge. However, they couldn’t change their behavior enough to identify this opportunity; and, therefore, met their demise. The whole while, they were forced to peer through the 5 millimeters of glass that contained them, and imagine (should insects think in such a way) a life of freedom.
Yesterday, I received “that” call. I get a similar one every six months, or so. This call was from a high-level creative person working in a very large agency (you know the name—it’s one of the old, big ones). He was sick of it: the petty office politics, the inefficiencies of working in a company of hundreds, and the toiling over campaigns for consumer products that amounted to little of anything. He dreaded that for all the aspirations he started with, the design he produced was largely meaningless.
And, for him, smashLAB was the answer to this problem. He was so excited about the interesting work we do for meaningful clients. He loved that we take time to build out our own projects—he even had ideas of his own for such pursuits. He also liked the notion of working in a setting that allowed him to work directly with clients, instead of having his thoughts filtered through an account manager. He characterized the one he primarily dealt with as the spawn of some horned, tailed, aberration.
We talked for some time, and finally, I broke the sad news to him: he would never work with us. I always feel badly when I do this, almost like I’m taking away a kid’s toy train on Christmas morning and stomping his prized possession to bits, but I had little choice. Stephen (not his real name) would never escape his trap. You see, while he might not like coming up with ideas for fast-food chains, all those soul-sucking Happy Meal ads go a long way in paying his $125k+ salary. Ad agency media buys help cover a lot of wages, but outside these agencies, such funds are just not as plentiful.
Certainly, a good design studio can earn a reasonable sum. That said, not-for-profits rarely pay out at the same rate as consumer brands. Similarly, those “neat” side-projects don’t pay for themselves. The director-level creative person working within an advertising agency is the victim of one of the most insidious traps. Once, on an otherwise ordinary day, his younger self caught a whiff of something sweet. He pursued this scent to find an open door. On the other side is unprecedented opportunity: exceptional pay, big name clients, good benefits, casual Fridays, and an office that looks exactly like a creative space should. Who wouldn’t jump in?
As the days pass, the positives tend to fade. The paycheck is spent as quickly as it comes. The projects are less interesting than they looked on the website. Even the space starts to look much like any other cubicle farm. And instead of getting to build anything, his days are filled with long, draining meetings that seem unnecessary. And outside—just a few millimeters away—are a whole other group of quite similar folks, who work in a way that seems far more interesting.
That layer of glass between him and freedom, while seemingly small, is actually a million miles deep. In the years he’s spent in his trap, he has been changed. His lifestyle requires a certain base-income. He’s grown unaccustomed to doing all the tedious work found in a small studio, and is more used to assigning such tasks to juniors. And the risk of instability is too great when compared to the safety his employer ensures. So, he’ll work out the remainder of his days witnessing the acts of free people, fantasizing about another life, but trapped nevertheless.
What I didn’t tell Stephen (I didn’t feel it was my place) is that there is a way out—even if he wasn’t quite ready for it. All it takes to escape, is to walk out that door. Sure, the allure of comfort will keep most obedient, but you might be different. Perhaps, today, you’ll decide that your life is too precious to spend your days selling deep-fried animal products, saccharine liquids, and high-interest credit cards.
You’ll turn in your notice, and run—not walk—to kickstart your life. You’ll open a design studio that works with clients you actually like. Or, you’ll bootstrap your own startup. Or, you’ll write that graphic novel you always intended to. You’ll have less: less money; fewer benefits; and limited luxuries. You’ll also have less: less office politics; fewer meetings; limited grin-fucking. Because escape is always there for you—just as it is for all of us—to say “enough,” to walk away, to start something new.