Since leaving the Comfortable Tyranny of Full Employment©, I’ve worked with a lot of local entrepreneurs; clients not all that dissimilar to myself. I enjoy working with sole propreitors quite a bit. They tend to be more connected to their work; they tend to be engaged and generally passionate about what they do. Our design outcomes are based on one-on-one decisions made between two rational adults rather than some unending chain of committee and stakeholder meetings that never really settle anything other than to have another meeting later. Working relationships feel more compatible when both client and designer exercise the agency and diplomacy that comes with shared responsibility. This holds true for the local creatives I’ve hired or shown with as well. There’s a general sense of ease and hometown comraderie that comes from working with your neighbors and peers.
As much as I value my co-conspirators, many of them seem to experience real anxiety surrounding exceptionalism. Sacramento is not a small city in many ways, but it has also been qute obnoxiously stunted by its relative adjacency to San Francisco.1 The Smallness that keeps greatness at Bay drove life off and out of K Street much of 16th and is working on J Street. It flushed out or bent into submission all but a handful of venues and independent retailers. It’s hard to believe The City of Trees could have ever hosted anything so fundamentally groundbreaking as the original Tower Records or Emigre magazine just a decade or so ago. Smallness always corrodes possibility and vibrancy at the fringes first, seeps into the groundwater over time, then finally attacks the day-to-day of mainstream business culture and education. It becomes harder to hold true to aspiration when the collective, civic apathy of Smallness entirely validates not trying very hard.
The Small can argue that they are not in competition with those outside their microcosm. But positioning is largely mental, and related to a zeitgeist beholden to an internet-borne expectation of More. To argue against the cosmopolitan out of some bizarre concession to Function is to deny greater public awareness while insulting taste and intelligence on both sides of the aisle. Small culture matches the poverty of those in its line of sight, failing to elevate itself while penalizing the collected universe of potential.
This is not a call for or in defense of style or trends. As a designer, I always want to imbue identity with experience, and experience with the visual. It’s Form and Function, not an either/or. A redesign may just mean adjusting web page architecture or editing out the redundant. It may mean writing copy.
But here, even this may require a change in thought processes the Small shudders to afford. Only once mindsets are renovated can it make sense to approach and interpret a visually fresh statement. In fact, “redesigning” the visual without first addressing the obstinate prejudice cemented into every Small Mission Statement hobbles any chance of finding meaningful change. The Small’s fears cling to the anchor of style, of trend; albeit many generations removed. If you’re not prepared to change your mind, you aren’t prepared for design. To specifically not misrepresent myself: this applies to both consumers and makers of design. Scared children rarely star in the show, and they can’t step into the spotlight unless they choose to come out of the safety of the shell of Small.
As a neurotic, sensitive overthinker and an especially opinionated designer, straddling art and commerce in a place like this can be nothing short of agonizing. Smallness exchanges the value of custom and craft for commodity. Smallness sets the bar at 5, ignoring that the scale goes to 10. Smallness marginalizes and ridicules those that try for higher. Smallness celebrates the snakeoil of sales figures over excellence and meaning, rewarding the empty achievement of capitalized investment over the generative beauty of creation.
And it matters, at least to me. The tightness in my chest and throat whenever I hear and see it tells me so. As much as I love it here for other reasons, the mental environment for creatives is undeniably toxic. I reconsider just about everything, almost every day.
Let’s stop living down to expectations. Let’s work to stop rejecting the work that needs done. Let’s value things that don’t have a line-item attached to them. Take shit personally.