What is next for design?

8 mins

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How might we unlock the power of community to push the boundaries of creativity?

(Cover art and in-text visuals by: Neda Mamo via famhub.co)

Throughout my career, I've been fixated on a single question: what's next for design?

I believe that design, and creativity more broadly, must continually evolve as our human condition evolves. Sometimes that evolution is about the work itself—the innovative solutions and ideas propelling society forward. Sometimes it is about the questions we ask—the new directions that design and creativity take. Sometimes it is about how we organize—the ways in which creativity happens and who gets to participate.

The last of these topics, how creativity is organized, gets relatively less attention and yet there has never been a greater need for more creative capacity, more equitable access to opportunities, more flexibility in how to take on challenges, and more choices for how the top creative talent wants to work.

I feel privileged that through my work with the kyu Collective I get to participate in new experiments in how creativity is organized. One that I am diving into with great enthusiasm is the community-powered Neol

For the last half century there have only been three choices for any business leader who wants to access creativity to boost, grow or transform their business. Build an in-house creative team, work with an established agency or work with freelance individuals. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and each can be ideal in a given situation, but none of them offers the full spectrum of possibility for how to bring rare creative talent to specific business challenges. 

Neol is an alternative to these existing approaches. A worldwide community of talented creative leaders who come together in a network, making use of platform technologies to facilitate communication, collaboration, operational processes and governance.

In other words, Neol is a community-powered creative platform. It is founded on the principle that a community can be both practical in how it supports the coming together of creative leaders with organizations that have projects to do while also providing a space for creative leaders to pursue their most meaningful work.

A quick sidebar on creative leaders: These are the folks that have the creative skills, imagination and experience to lead creative teams and projects. A movie director is a creative leader. So is a creative director in an ad agency or a design director in a corporation or government. They are leaders and doers and are critical to the successful outcome of any creative endeavor.

So back to Neol and why it is different; the key is making the most of the benefits of being a community powered platform which I think show up in the following ways:

Diversity and quality of talent: This community does not have to keep everyone busy in the way that an agency does and so there can be members of the network who have more diverse skills, experience and expertise that can be tapped into when needed. The potential scale and diversity is only limited by the tools available for communication and collaboration. For example, our community comprises leaders like the former Chief Executive Creative Officer for Puma; a Chief Sustainability Officer based in the UAE; a studio of artists and filmmakers based in Bogota, Colombia; and a Chief Marketing Officer focused on bringing luxury brands to the metaverse in the US. All of them lead projects, serve as advisors and are avid curious leaders who take on different kinds of projects.

Commitment and purpose: The removal of decision-making hierarchy creates a level playing field. Talented individuals join because the network enables them to focus on purposeful work rather than expecting them to sign up for whatever work is available. Greater commitment leads to greater benefits flowing from participation.

Trust and collaboration: Creative teams are more effective the greater the level of trust that exists between team members. Modern decentralized platforms have ways of enhancing trust. Greater transactional trust that comes from fair record keeping and payment systems. Greater trust from transparency that comes from every member having visibility into the activities and contributions of other members. For example, Creative Leaders in the Neol network are sharing insights on market demand, clients, rates, and are collaborating on new offers they had not imagined before by bringing their superpowers together. Greater social trust that comes from working with others with shared purpose. Greater trust leads to better creative collaboration. It creates an environment for “safer”' risk-taking, comfort with ambiguity, and faster progress.

Flexibility: Creative individuals never restrict themselves to one creative outlet at a time. In the past, this might mean working for an employer full time but having other, non-paid, creative activities or hobbies. More recently, many more creative individuals have multiple paying activities such as side hustles, startups, or freelance gigs. A decentralized community is a place that simultaneously enables, without constraining, multiple creative activities—making it highly appealing to top creative talent.

Resilience and Adaptability: A network can adapt faster than an institution or other formal structure. It is less fettered by policies, business models, and management structures. It can be vastly larger with more diverse interests and expertise. A community-powered creative platform is more likely to be able to respond to a big shift or disruption. Think of the next pandemic or the proliferation of generative AI. In fact, brand-focused creative leaders in the network are building offers that create out-of-the-box brands for ventures using AI. This way, they provide affordable offers that scale and meet the needs of the market.

The simultaneous benefits of large and small: Organizations looking to engage with creative leaders and teams might want the scope and reliability that a large-scale agency brings. On the other hand, they might also want the ability to turn that capacity on and off, to engage individuals or teams for quite small or quite large projects, to consistently work with the same individuals or teams. Conventional agencies often struggle to fulfill these needs, but relatively easier for a decentralized network where the relationships are held with the individual creative leaders. The power of the platform is that it can still bring certain benefits of scale such as access to new and varied creative leaders, systems for handling payments and legal agreements, and access to shared knowledge. Many creative leaders in the network are serving as fractional C-level and/or senior team members and will pull in specific talent when needed.

Neol offers a new way for creative talent to find the most interesting projects to work on and offers a new way for organizations, whether they be large or small, to access world-class and committed creative leaders. It is one of the most significant innovations in how creativity is organized in a half-century, and I fully expect remarkable work to emerge from this development.

As I continue to seek answers to the question "what's next for design?" I am very excited to be part of the Neol community. I hope it will be a place where I can do some of my best work in my own next chapter as a creative leader; and perhaps you will too.

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