I never thought I’d be one of those people (and, certainly, no offense to those people) but I’m at the point in my career that I find myself identifying with a non-traditional job title. I’m falling in with the Thought Leaders, Visual Engineers, the Creative Strategists.
I used to feel like a graphic designer, but now I’m a World Builder.
My job, with whatever title I happen to hold at the time, is to make “content”– a word created to explain the mandatory stream of publishable, attention-grabbing stuff for the internet to consume. Even when designing a magazine, the photos, sharable quotes, and sneak peeks of said publication are an understood component. The trick with content, of course, is that it has to look like it’s saying something New and Unique in a way that is proven to appear edgy while refusing to offend any portion of the desired viewer.
So, ok, I just explained what you already know about the content carousel (™) every person in advertising or communications is chained to. Who cares?
Why building content is important is, perhaps, not even important to talk about. We all know the deal– folks are too smart for ads now, so we need to be “storytellers” and find a common truth that explains why our company is More than other companies. You build a following, you speak whatever strategic truth, and if it lands well you’re making the stuff that masses can share to explain to their audience. Because you see, every follower of yours has 500+ followers of their own, and they can create their own More-ness by strategically “curating” content that proves that, oh yeah, they’re woke as hell and, while they didn’t make this video about whale rights, they’re sharing it because they probably could have. Probably.
It seems so mechanical, so corporate. But it’s not. It’s totally natural.
The millennials were told, for better or worse, that they could be whoever or whatever they wanted to be. When the post-college economic realities of the 2010s hit, the generation made like dandelions on a sidewalk. They started paying the bills with bartending and in their off-hours founded a 21st century Manifest Destiny through Instagram, where they can be whoever or whatever they want to be. Just as promised.
You know exactly what I mean. An endless scroll of pop-colored images of a 25-year old showing off her vintage dresses at any number of old-school ice cream counters– how can it be her everyday life such a rainbow? How is even her local coffeeshop a bubble-gum purple tile with crispy little typefaces everywhere, when yours is the standard hippie olive and caffeine brown combo? Or what about, in the same neighborhood, the minimalist movement-artist poet whose life seems to combine itself in a soft series of beige and off-white vignettes, stoic plants resting next to unassuming hand-tossed coffee mugs. How is it that their book on a table is graceful? Their apple cut in half is romantic, a dutch painting set in millennial pink?
Is their content authentic to who they are every day? Or does it reflect who they truly are, in some internal or alter-real place?
World building. You find a vibe, you figure out what it looks like, you write in it’s voice, you play it’s music, you smell it’s smells, you edit the crap out of your photos, you create the dreamworld where you live and graciously share so others may visit your world. Life, every life!, becomes art– even the Starbucks girls taking the same photos over and over of their dogs in their Target-furnished living rooms with all the required parts (fur rug, quirky mug, tropical plants, fluffy blanket) are Warhol-esque in their mimicry of each other. Live, Laugh, Like.
I might be sounding cynical, and I’m not. I take this job very seriously because I understand the potentially negative impact it can have– as a teenager in the first wave of fashion bloggers, I’ve seen the harm. I consciously explore the ethics of personal branding, especially of “aspirational branding”– and in fact I think it’s important for me to be asking myself if what I produce is ethically responsible, and if not, how it can be. Aspirational branding is a physiological mobius strip twisting between being harmful and admirable. After all, isn’t it a universally agreed Good Thing to have art all around us? To live our lives as poems, to have the freedom of expression to design our lives? To see everyday on endless scroll the gorgeous, tidy lives teenaged artists who split their time between in Brooklyn and Tokyo have assembled that are picture-perfect and without flaw? Oh, wait…
We’ve found away to challenge the integrity of a word that would seemingly be unflappable: authenticity. And that sounds like a bad thing, but it isn’t. Everyone knows viewers today can smell bullshit from a mile away. Ads don’t work anymore– stories do. Politics seem identity-based, and in many fields your likelihood to be hired depends on your Instagram’s ability to reinforce your resume when, without doubt, your name is googled. In fact, here I am, writing a post about how I understand building aesthetic worlds is the future of design, because I want Need Supply Co. to read this and hire me to, yep, build content for them in an ethical, self-aware way.
The truth is, we’ve been building branded content long enough to learn that there’s a dark side. And, there’s a much brighter side than what we’ve even explored so far. We’ve explored picture-perfection, so what’s next? If you look at brands like Thinx, Aerie, Dove, you can see a glimpse of social responsibility and reality blending with creating desire. When we craft these worlds, when we build aspirational brands that help solve the Everywoman’s daily problems of cellulite and bras that don’t fit, I believe we can do that mindfully. And I intend to.