“for these ideas they will still pay pretty good money. It has actually taken me to a different level. It is more like being a consultant rather than a JAFA (Just Another Fucking Artist). There are a lot of JAFAs out there. So now I am an idea man, and I have played off that.” ~ Bill Greer
Sometime last week I was involved in what was increasingly looking like a Sisyphean task: drafting details of a building in which I had no input in the design. In the midst of my raging frustration, and at a point where putting a fist through my monitor was beginning to look more and more of a less painful option, I got to thinking just what the work we do is all about. Is mindless drudgery acceptable just as long as it affords us the opportunity to fuel our jalopies every once in a while and act like we finally made it? Is a job you hate better than a job you don’t have or haven’t made? Is a job the same thing as work?
Later on as I ploughed through red soil pegging out a building’s extents, and this only a few minutes after the subsiding of blinding rain and hail that I had had to drive through to get to the site, I kept asking myself if this is the definition of working hard – literally raking through near solid mud and pools of murky water for a near illiterate client who wears suits that are worth more than my car.
It was only later on while reading Thomas Friedman’s “The World is flat” that I had an epiphany. Friedman wrote of a friend who faced job challenges he had not foreseen thus:
“My childhood friend Bill Greer is a good example of a person who faced this challenge and came up with a personal strategy to meet it.
Greer is forty-eight years old and has made his living as a freelance artist and graphic designer for twenty-six years. From the late 1970s until right around 2000, the way Bill did his job and served his clients was pretty much the same.
“Clients, like The New York Times, would want a finished piece of artwork,” Bill explained to me. So if he was doing an illustration for a newspaper or a magazine, or proposing a new logo for a product, he would actually create a piece of art-sketch it, color it, mount it on an illustration board, cover it with tissue, put it in a package that was opened with two flaps, and have it delivered by messenger or FedEx. He called it “flap art.” In the industry it was known as “camera-ready art,”
because it needed to be shot, printed on four different layers of color film, or “separations,” and prepared for publication. “It was a finished product, and it had a certain preciousness to it,” said Bill. “It was a real piece of art, and sometimes people would hang them on their walls. In fact, The New York Times would have shows of works that were created by illustrators for its publications.”
But in the last few years “that started to change,” Bill told me, as publications and ad agencies moved to digital preparation, relying on the new software-namely, Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator, which graphic artists refer to as “the trinity”-which made digital computer design so much easier. Everyone who went through art school got trained on these programs. Indeed, Bill explained, graphic design got so much easier that it became a commodity. It got turned into vanilla ice cream. “In terms of design, he said, “the technology gave everyone the same tools, so everyone could do straight lines and everyone could do work that was halfway decent. You used to need an eye to see if something was in balance and had the right typeface, but all of a sudden anyone could hammer out something that was acceptable.”
So Greer pushed himself up the knowledge ladder. As publications demanded that all final products be presented as digital files that could be uploaded, and there was no longer any more demand for that precious flap art, he transformed himself into an ideas consultant.
“Ideation” was what his clients, including McDonald’s and Unilever, wanted. He stopped using pens and ink and would just do pencil sketches, scan them into his computer, color them by using the computer’s mouse, and then e-mail them to the client, which would have some less skilled artists finish them.
“It was unconscious,” said Greer. “I had to look for work that not everyone else could do, and that young artists couldn’t do with technology for a fraction of what I was being paid. So I started getting offers where people would say to me, ‘Can you do this and just give us the big idea?’ They would give me a concept, and they would just want sketches, ideas, and not a finished piece of art. I still use the basic skill of drawing, but just to convey an idea-quick sketches, not finished artwork.
And for these ideas they will still pay pretty good money. It has actually taken me to a different level. It is more like being a consultant rather than a JAFA (Just Another Fucking Artist). There are a lot of JAFAs out there. So now I am an idea man, and I have played off that. My clients just buy concepts.” The JAFAs then do the art in-house or it gets outsourced. “They can take my raw sketches and finish them and illustrate them using computer programs, and it is not like I would do it, but it is good enough,” Greer said.
So right there and then I had a moment of clarity, I understood what the real problem was, I felt the compulsion Sculley felt when Steve Jobs asked him, as a last ditch effort to get him to leave Pepsi and take over as Apple Computer’s CEO “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”
So my question is, are you a JAFA? I know I am a JAFA and I intend to change that starting now.