I originally published this post on the Portsmouth and Southsea Consortium‘s Website in April 2017 as part of the PortsConsort Postcard series.
We like to think that our creative communities – of whichever ones we become a part – are diverse; and that these celebrate and encourage this diversity… But, if they are, and they do, then shouldn’t this encompass diversity in all its forms? We don’t just mean, for example, diversity of gender identity, nationality and race, but also diversity of idea and emotion, of creative process and creative practice.
Chances are, if you have a creative practice and make to sell, you’ll have specialised in a particular discipline, or perfected a specific range of products; well, what happens if you want to try your hand at something else? What happens if you want to diversify your creative skills and outputs?
Most creative types who make to sell will have discovered their niche – it becomes a comfort zone in which we’re expected to stay and from which we’re not expected to stray. Think about, for a minute, singers who launch perfume ranges; actors who become fashion designers, or reality TV ‘stars’ who become novelists…
A lot of the time, their ‘secondary’ endeavours and enterprises are met with cynicism or dismissal – they’re attention-seeking, money-grabbing and stealing opportunity from others who would make a better go of whatever it is they’re having a go at now. They might be seen as insecure in what they make and how they make it, or desperate to increase their appeal and customer base in another demographic.
Well, it’s a big ol’ shame that this happens at all – and it’s heartbreaking to see this kind of behaviour amongst individual, independent, small creative businesses out there. When a creative business suddenly starts to diversify what they produce, rather than celebrating an attempt to diversify a creative portfolio and engage in all sorts of exploration of their potential both as, say, an artist or craftsperson as well as a business, people end up feeling ‘less safe’ with them. They don’t know what to expect, and they can move away from who they are and what they do. And this, for some reason, is more true of a business’ contemporaries and peers than it is of their potential customers and clients.
We spoke in March’s PortsConsort Postcard about how our creative communities are becoming increasingly competitive – nowhere is this more visible than in instances where someone, well established in a particular field or with a particular product, starts to do ‘more’. Suddenly, they’re direct competition: people talk about whether or not they’re copying someone else’s idea; whether or not they’ll make a particular item ‘better’ than another seller; whether or not they’ll sell a similar item cheaper than another seller, and whether or not they’ll end up being preferred over someone else and steal all their customers and reputation in a particular skill or product area.
In these small creative business communities, there’s great value in encouraging one another to both ‘think’ and ‘do’ beyond one product or a limited product range, or even beyond one particular skill or creative discipline. Imagine what communities the World over would be like if everyone therein pushed one another to try something different – or even gave away one of their own ideas to someone else because they knew they wouldn’t have the time, skills or resources to do it themselves (there’s real value in that, but it’s something best discussed another time).
If every individual or business does one thing – one discipline, one skill, one item or small range – we run the risk of stagnating. We run the risk of being typecast – you know, like that one actor who does all those TV sci-fi shows despite being a trained ballet dancer and classically trained in the works of Shakespeare and speaks 90 languages but will only ever do sci-fi TV shows because that’s what everyone expects of them and won’t do anything else because it might scare off potential audiences. If we do only one thing, we’ll never evolve. We’ll never innovate. And we can only accomplish these with mutual pushing and pulling in any and all directions.
And this, in turn, becomes a healthier type of competition. We encourage others to do better by allowing them the benefit of our own experience and expertise; and this, in turn, forces us to think more about what we do, and do more than what we did. It introduces collaboration and co-operation into the process, and creates a supportive and transparent dialogue between all kinds of people doing all kinds of things.
If you’ve never done anything beyond your ‘original’ creative discipline, then perhaps now is the time to give it a go. It doesn’t have to be anything major to start with, you know. If you typically work using a computer, move to a notepad and pen for a while. If you work with yarn, work with thread. Then, take bigger steps. If you’re a graphic designer, try something such as pottery. If you work with wood, try rendering one of your designs in glass. Take the risks and the chances. You don’t have to shout about it if and when you do – and, if it doesn’t work out as planned, you always have something to go back to. Don’t they call that a win-win situation?
You never know – you might be able to use the benefit of that experience to help someone else. In diversifying what you do, how you do it and why you do it, you become a more important part of your creative community – the diversity you seek out and bring into it weaves its way through everything you do for your fellow artisanal, artistic and creative colleagues and strengthens everyone. That’s why it’s necessary.
And, the next time you see someone stepping outside their comfort zone or niche (and you will), try to not be cynical or critical, or view them immediately as direct competition. View them as a colleague from the creative community who has issued themselves a challenge and then responded to it – to be more than they have been, and to do more than they have done. To experiment and explore. To test the limits of their creativity. To learn new and exciting things. To produce the unexpected – the original and unique by virtue of their own individuality. And then issue yourself the same challenge. And then answer it.