What If Designers Went on Strike?

Posted inDesign Thinking

Back in 2007, when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike for 100 days, it was a major disruption to the entertainment industry and led to the cancellation of many television shows and movies. Now, the WGA is striking again alongside the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), something not seen simultaneously since 1960. Alongside traditional disputes aiming to reach pay parity, benefits, and mini-room writing teams, writers and actors are worried about being replaced by AI.

I was recently talking about the strike with my best friend, a very smart and successful businessman. As the wine flowed, our chat started heating up as my friend supported the idea that the writers and actors are exaggerating their concerns. By his logic, the production companies are the ones risking the most by investing their money into projects like movies and series that could fail.

Immediately, my head started to get hot, as this is the kind of argument I have heard since the beginning of my career: No, we don’t need that. We already have the artwork and don’t want to spend more on design. If you can do that for us, great. Do a good job, make it look nice, and hopefully your package and price are what we pick. Wait, what?

I took a deep breath, along with several other sips of wine, and tried to apply the framing of the strike to our own field. I explained the value of creative labor, more specifically how agencies are responsible for developing the visual elements of everything from corporate identities, to websites to packaging to advertising. Without our work, businesses would be unable to communicate their messages effectively.

I translated that into his organization’s hierarchical structure and compared his role as the CEO to the head of a Production Studio or Creative Agency. Of course, I went down into the different roles in his company, like Marketing, Sales, HR, and Finance, and compared them to writers, illustrators, animators, designers, strategists, etc. I think he got the idea, but in the end, I ended up feeling that he wasn’t fully convinced—he counter-attacked by saying, “Well, they’re getting paid, aren’t they?” That’s the whole point, man— they’re not getting paid enough! Since when did creative thinking become a commodity?

So that got me thinking: what would happen if all creatives united to ask for better working environments, or fair and level pitching grounds? One potential result could be that creative agencies would get invited to participate or compete only in projects where their credentials, expertise, and costs are in line with what the client is looking for— in other words, projects they can actually win. Creatives could also demand accountability from agencies to offer fair pay, benefits, and an inspiring, inclusive working environment— you know, to walk the walk.

Imagining a world without creatives makes me think of the movie A Day Without a Mexican, which shows the effects an inexplicable sudden disappearance of cooks, gardeners, maids, construction workers, policemen, teachers, etc. would have on the state of California. Just to name a few of the many consequences, businesses without Latin manpower become desolated with messy kitchens, parking lots without valets to store a large number of cars, or black markets with escalated prices in fruits and vegetables due to a lack of field laborers to maintain entire crops.

Now, translate that to the loss of creatives and we could paint a clear picture of the massive value they bring to the table. Our world would be a much less visually appealing place. We would have no logos, no packaging, no websites, no advertisements, and no illustrations. Our streets would be dull and boring, our clothes would be uninspiring, and our products would be indistinguishable from one another. Imagine living in a world with no iconic Coke bottle, no iMac, no VW Beetle, no Nike swoosh, no Tiffany blue or Ferrari red, no FedEx hidden arrow or even Crocs! Without creative work we might end up with only brown boxes and white supermarkets— in other words, our environments would be less colorful, fun, and engaging.

There is so much at stake for creative professionals, as delivering solutions to specific objectives or problems a project is trying to solve is not at all easy. It requires time, research, rejection, refinements, long nights, etc. Let’s not forget that creatives have rents, mortgages, families, health bills, pets, school tuition, depression, travel plans, etc.— you know, like regular people, because they are.

Don’t get me wrong— I love working with our clients and their challenging projects, but I have been lucky to grow and learn from the kind of clients we want to work with (most of the time). But it wasn’t like that all the time, and sometimes I still experience firsthand how difficult it is to be noticed in a sea of creative options, to fight to get a seat at the table and get a fair chance to win that coveted project.

So that’s why I strongly believe that creatives should be recognized by agencies and clients as change agents and most of all, partners. None of us is as smart as all of us.

Ricardo Saca is the US and Mexico Managing Partner for Cato Brand Partners, a Global Design and Branding Consultancy. He is a Master in Branding from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has 20+ years of experience working with a wide range of companies, from startups to airlines. He is an animal lover and a plant-based cyclist.

Photo by Raj Rana.