A bigger toolbox than ever

From self-flying drone cameras to 3-D printing, technology continues to open up incredible avenues for creativity. Today’s artists, writers, marketers and storytellers have access to unbelievably powerful tools. With every invention, we see people creating things that wouldn’t have been possible only five years before. It’s exciting. Exhilarating. And a little scary.

While new technologies initially open new doors, they also change what it means to do great work. Technology democratizes craft. It reduces opportunities to get paid for what we’ve always done, and it lowers quality as people decide that do-it-yourself results are good enough.

Skilled trades turned table stakes

Take the lost art of typesetting. My father owned a design firm in Chicago. For him, typography was an art form. He worked with only three typesetters in the entire city, none of whom were near his office. He believed their expertise and skills were so valuable that he paid me to drive work back and forth, despite the added inconvenience and expense.

Thanks to desktop publishing and an infinite font library, the entire trade was obsolete within a few short years. Opportunities to do great typesetting no longer exist, and the bar for what good type looks like has been reset. Fewer and fewer people understand the nuances of kerning and ligatures, or notice when the typography in an ad is tortured.

Ultimately, the same technology that accelerates and enhances our creative abilities makes it harder to do exceptional things. Today’s reporters, photographers, video editors and illustrators are vying for fewer opportunities to do work that’s less exciting—and less valued. There’s little market for photographers to capture the world when anyone with a digital camera can upload safari pictures to Facebook. If you want to get into the breaking-news business, all you need is a Twitter account.

As unfathomable as it seems now, website developers, app developers, game designers and 3-D modelers will be in the same position in the near future.

democratization of technology

How to ride the wave

So what’s a creative to do? How do you succeed and do work that matters when the landscape is shifting under your feet? You start by figuring out where you are—so you can see where you need to go.

Every industry moves in waves. As a creative, your job is to surf them. If what you’re doing is truly unique and you’re tapping into cutting-edge technology, you’re likely dropping in on the first swell. This is the best place to be. You have the freedom to explore and test new ideas—and people willing to compensate you for taking risks.

If technology is helping you accomplish more with fewer skills, and you’re feeling a little anxious that quality is declining, you’re probably riding a wave that is losing energy. Competition is higher, and it’s challenging to get the support to do truly innovative work. In short, this is a good time to look for the next wave.

Finally, if technology has made it so that most anyone can do what you do, you’re about to wipe out. Every surfer knows that at some point, you have to jump off the board and swim back to catch the next swell. The longer you hang on, the longer you have to swim. Find the next wave before it breaks, and your opportunities will multiply.

Technology demands that you constantly re-evaluate the skills you have to offer. Which do people value and which have gone the way of the typesetter? Illustrators can become animators; food photographers can become videographers; video production houses can relaunch as social content creators. Rather than being a threat, technology is ultimately a catalyst that pushes you to explore different industries, grow your capabilities and do things you never dreamed of.

Today’s creatives will have multiple careers in their lifetimes. If you take chances and try new skills, you’ll always be in a place where great work is possible. And that’s a thrilling place to be.