The Broken Business Model of Culture

I’ve been having this conversation about culture, in some form, quite a bit lately. I don’t want to sound like an anthropologist, since I have no formal training in the subject, but I have this feeling that society needs to determine a new system of producing, distributing, and consuming culture. It seems that with the advent of the “rockstar,” and all of the possible financial success that may come with that title, we’ve unintentionally slowed the growth of our collective culture as humans.

“Culture” is typically defined by anthropologists as both the capacity of a civilization to represent concepts and experiences using symbols, and the specific ways in which civilizations categorize and represent experiences. There is a tendency to put emphasis on intangibles like language, mores, norms, etc., rather than on tangible goods a society produces, but I think it all fits together since more than ever, they are codependent in their conception and continued mutual existence.

My beef with our current paradigm for making, interacting with, and consuming culture, is that there seems to be a pretty steep buy-in. Most would agree that music is a cultural phenomenon. But in our modern era, if you want to experience music, you typically have to pay for it in some way. You’ve got to buy tickets to shows, or purchase the album, or be advertised to, et. al. Using the internets to bootleg music has done a lot to offset the possible negative impact of imposing fees on cultural prizes, but this fact has obviously not been universally well-received. Almost everyone now has the ability to enjoy some piece of humanity’s artistic output, but the bootleg model for free culture is unsustainable since it only benefits the consumer and doesn’t cover the cost of production. Many artists, rightfully so, are upset at losing money that would have been derived from the legal sale of their product. If we don’t reward those contributing to culture, or at least cover their costs, we lose a big chunk of important storytelling, observation, dialog and redress.

Many culture-makers will continue to do their thing without reward, but it certainly makes things inefficient. Imagine if the Beatles had to record their best stuff while they were working shitty jobs, or if Michael Jackson was having to invent new-era pop while he was on his lunch breaks—just because some random a&r thought their stuff wasn’t the hot shit. Of course, there’s great art that has come out of those work environments. However, your favorite underground artist has probably stayed underground because of the lack of money around their endeavors, be it the lack of capital they have to actually produce their art, or the lack of funding to distribute it on a large scale. I expect there are playwrights putting words together right now that could change the world and give every person who heard them reason to pause and reflect and make the world a nicer place. Unfortunately, we’ll never hear them, because their production will never be big enough to reach the masses, no producer will ever spend the kind of money necessary to put it on a large stage, or the day-to-day trials of life leave little room for the playwright to sit down and pen the allegory that will educate us on whatever.

I think that’s kind of fucked up. It’s well documented that cultural products like stories, photographs, paintings, and songs have changed the feelings, policies, and in-turn, the fates of societies. No, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I have to wonder how many opportunities have been missed because we’ve been so hell-bent on cramming the phenomenon of human culture into a business scheme. We don’t even have to get into the “what’s art?” debate. Plenty of stuff that didn’t plan to be culturally important or symbolic of a cause became just that after society at large attached meaning.

What if Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was never published? That story enabled its immediate audience to empathize with the writer, and is still read by millions to this day. What if the photo of the little girl burned by a napalm bomb was subject to a dizzying array of licensing restrictions because we had to make sure every one involved in its distribution was getting a piece of the pie? How long would it have taken for people to get some sense of the violence and nature of war? Let’s say, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was never published. I have mixed feelings about the book myself, but it is widely accepted historical fact that the book itself was critical to the abolitionist movement at the time. It’s possible that publishers could have just decided to shelve the book because they didn’t expect it to be popular. Would it have taken longer for abolitionists to galvanize the skeptical supporters to act behind their cause? Admittedly, I’ve picked a couple examples that demonstrate the positive power of cultural products. Obviously, plenty of the shit being written, recorded, and published will never be of any sort of importance.

I think everyone should be rewarded for contributing to our shared culture. I’m not at all suggesting that artists should work for free, but I think the model needs to be updated. There are many instances where the public pays for the production and promotion of culture, as in the case of public radio/television, and city/state/federal-commissioned art, but it’s not like the Wu is ever going to get a government grant to do a record, not to mention the fact that public television and radio stations, museums, and all their similarly government-subsidized counterparts have to fight every day to maintain their funding.

But seriously though; what about Wu-Tang? I mean, that’s really what this is about. When are we going to step up as a people and ensure that these dudes are taken care of for the rest of their lives?

UX, UI, & Graphic Design — Titles are misleading, so do the fucking work.

I think most “user-experience designer” talk is bullshit. If you are a designer of any kind, you must design experiences. Whether you’re a graphic designer, industrial designer, interior designer, or whatever, you are failing if you aren’t designing with the principles of user-experience in mind.

Design is / Design is not

As far as graphic design is concerned, I’m thinking the need for people to differentiate themselves from your average person who calls herself a designer, is that many “designers” are not creating solution-oriented work. They use many of the same principles and practices of design, i.e. typography, photography, etc., and may be great at it, but they are creating images to communicate a single, or in some cases, a few ideas. I think graphic design is a broader practice than that.

For me, the practice of graphic design should be about logical solutions to problems whether simple or complex. If you have a definable, personal graphic design “style,” I think much of your work probably falls into the illustration category. I’m not at all knocking illustrators. I’m saying instead that illustration is a subset discipline of the graphic design practice, like typography, photography, etc. Plenty of the professionals in each of these subsets are graphic designers anyway, but how can you have a personal “style” if your work is chiefly for communication? It seems a contradiction in terms. As a designer, you work should be indicative of the need for communication, not of the times, or your favorite music or whatever. A graphic designer should be constantly studying when and how to use various communicatory disciplines and how to make them work together. Ideally, but maybe years down the road, a designer’s complete body of work should be “style” agnostic.

The practice of graphic design has now lost its scientific meaning when the term is heard by most people. They think, “Oh, this person makes things look pretty.” Is that what we do? Yeah, probably most of the time. It’s fine to make things pretty, as long as it serves a purpose. I think the work of real graphic design should not be dictated by trends or fashion. It should be dictated by problems, and as such, it only truly succeeds when it addresses those problems.

Apparently, when you say you’re a UX or UI designer, people think that’s a loftier discipline, and that you’re more of a critical thinker. So it goes, many graphic designers who are decent at what they do have changed titles to seem more knowledgable, but they haven’t changed their methodology, or added anything to their toolkit. If you’re like me, and you’ve been telling people you do graphic design, there’s a good chance they’ve been walking away with the assumption that you basically just put distress marks and drop shadows on things. Regardless of how often we’re able to do effective work, the goal of the designer should remain the same; we’re supposed to communicate, in whatever medium.

Who’s who? What’s what?

“User-experience design,” is the widely used catchphrase for agencies and firms promoting their services to prospects. The concept isn’t at all new, but it seems to have been made popular in certain circles because it clearly states the discipline. Just to be clear; everyone’s goal is to do good work, and every designer’s goal is to communicate effectively with an audience. The problem is that graphic designers, web developers, illustrators, and people who make visual data shiny-looking, are all calling themselves UX designers when they don’t really use the same method or science the traditional definition of UX design practice would suggest. It just throws salt in the game for everyone, because everyone ends up being confused about who is making choices and why choices are being made.

In my ideal world, the UX designer would direct a graphic designer on the requirements of a project. The graphic designer would be tasked with distilling the UX person’s brief into a logical, effective, and visually pleasing solution, using elements of illustration, typography, and photography where she saw fit. These folks would work together, hand-in-hand, testing and retesting solutions until they were optimal. Maybe the disciplines would be rolled into one amazing person. The world would function right and look great and everyone would be happy. It would rain chocolate and donuts and we would live in harmony. Tupac and Biggie would be there recording songs together, and no one would be using Internet Explorer.

At least, that’s how I feel about it right now. No big swig.

Further reading along these lines:

Techstars: Final Week


This thing is almost over and I’ve been mourning the end for about two weeks now. I really wish I had been able to write each week since my last post, but all that really needs to be said is that we were on that grind. That hustle. That game.

My involvement with Techstars has been probably the best work experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of work experiences. I’ve met and worked closely with some of the smartest people I’ve ever been around, many of whom I expect I’ll be friends with for quite some time. In the span of three months, I’ve learned tons about the business of startups, funding, and even more about the interpersonal dynamics of good teams. All of these teams have been forged in fire over the last three months. I’ve been witness to mad awkward and emotional meetings, heated arguments, moments of elation, ill-kept facial hair, and paintball bruises. It’s been a roller coaster, bruh.

Real talk? I have made very little money for my time. At the worst moments for me during this program, I thought about telling people to fuck off,  especially considering the amount of time and effort I was putting into helping some of the teams. Here’s the thing though, there were like three of those moments over three months and they were literally just moments—fleeting instances of thoughts like, “This is bullshit. I’ve spent more time on this single project for this one team than the whole three month commitment is worth.” That’s real, financially speaking. The big deal though, and why I didn’t tell anyone to fuck off, was that I loved almost every minute of it. Even while it was happening. I loved it.

Over the last few years, I’ve redefined for myself what success looks and feels like. Probably due to my longstanding outlook on life, my previous shitty work environments, and my penchant for dressing like I’m retired, I don’t go in for the bullshit anymore. I want to do good work for people who don’t suck. Techstars has enabled me to do that over the last three months. It was stressful a lot of the time. I lost sleep. I likely lost a little more hair. I smoked too many cigarettes and probably drank too much. I could’ve been doing all that working somewhere stupid though. Truth be told, I would do what I do for free. Getting money for my work is icing.

Being part of Techstars has been awesome. That’s my main point here. Given the amount of work and stress, would I do it again? I say hell yeah, fucking right. I consider some of these people core bros now. Many of the people I’ve been spending days with are painfully awkward, likely mildly autistic, potty-mouthed, argumentative, strangely-dressed, outright nerds, but core bros nonetheless. Birds of a feather and such.

We’ve got a few days left before demo-day, and then most of the teams go back to wherever. These folks from California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Israel, England, Washington D.C., and here in Texas, all have a place to stay with me if ever they need one. If I’m ever out their way, they should expect to put me up and take me out for dinner. As far as I can tell from seeing and talking to alumi of previous Techstars programs, this shit is for life. You meet super smart people with similar talents and goals, get to know them in a stressful environment, share trials, triumphs, donuts, air mattresses, and kegs, and then the program is over. Obviously, you’re going to stay in touch; shit got real for a while and friendships were forged. Techstars knows what it’s doing. Seats, the managing director here, knows how to pick smart people. I’m one of those people. No big swig.


Office Hours. Pits, Peaks, Rocks. 10:10 Liquids.