Jessica Knapp, PhD
Miriam Walsh Lisco
Five creatives looking for a better way
Collaboration not competition. Sometimes that’s been hard for us over the last year. Yep, it’s been just over a year that the five of us have been meeting and talking about what Overture could become. Below are personal narratives from each of us.
Jessica Knapp, PhD
I didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur. It was never a goal of mine to run my own business.
When I was younger, I watched my dad run his own company, and it just plain looked stressful. He worked long hours. There was no security. No guaranteed paycheck every two weeks. He was the economic engine behind everything he did. My dad was good at his work, and he loved it—still does even into his late 60s. But even his passion for the work didn’t make pulling into the driveway at 7pm, filling out spreadsheets every weekend, finding investors, and working years to pull together a big deal only to have it fall apart at the last minute seem desirable.
But here I am… an entrepreneur, like my father before me. You might wonder, as I sometimes do, how exactly did this happen?
Somewhere along my career path, I found myself fully entrenched in academia. At one point, I was a full-time tenure track professor working 70 hours a week, and I wasn’t making enough money to pay my bills. In fact, I was making 4 thousand less than I had as a proofreader before I got my PhD. And I was miserable.
When I had been offered the professorship, I cried for a week straight. But, I was so burnt out from years of intense graduate school—and a bad relationship—it didn’t occur to me that was a sign I shouldn’t take the job. The job was competitive, and it was what I was supposed to do now that I had my PhD. So I packed up my belongings and moved across the country three days after defending my dissertation and reported to my new job two days after that.
Things did not work out at that job.
I went back to treading water as an adjunct and part-time employee in academic administration. I was driving all over town every weekday. Running late was what I did. No employer was ever 100 percent happy with me. And I could now pay my bills, but I was far from comfortably getting by.
Throughout this time, I applied over and over again for standard, full-time jobs, but I couldn’t find anything. I think employers don’t know what to do with a PhD on your resume unless you’re applying for academic or research work.
In the middle of this career transition, I left the bad relationship and moved home to Seattle. I picked up a couple of small freelance clients through long-time business colleagues. And I kept applying for traditional, full-time roles, with no success.
At the same time, I was pitching to bigger and bigger clients, and that was working. As a freelance writer and communication consultant, my health communication PhD made sense. Plus, once I get in the room with clients, I could have a conversation. I was a person. Not a collection of credentials on paper that didn’t quite fit.
I have found unexpected joy in being an entrepreneur. It’s satisfying in a way I never imagined to create your own role and find the money to pay yourself. And I’m good at negotiation. Learning I have this skill has been one of the biggest surprises of my life. And no one tells me which clients to take and which to say no to.
But that doesn’t mean the system isn’t broken in a major way.
I am one of the many creatives who is freelancing and making my way on my own because the traditional job market is not sustaining me. The specifics of my situation—that I have a PhD—may be unusual, but the difficulties I faced are far from rare. The job market is not working for writers, designers, illustrators. Yet we still use the work they do to propel innovation. I have been lucky in that I’ve found a demand for the work I do. But I work pretty damn hard to afford my living wage.
Countless creatives are freelancing or taking contract positions because they have to. Companies are paying less and less for creative work in the name of increasing profits. But they still want logos and writing on their websites and social media campaigns. This work helps them make money.
But the creatives get squeezed out of the money because they often don’t understand the business side or they don’t do sales.
The real upside of me being forced into entrepreneurism is that, with Overture, I can now take these skills and put them to work to help other creatives make a living wage. Creative workers shouldn’t have to leave the traditional marketplace to survive.
Miriam Walsh Lisco
In so many ways my career is a testimony to the influence of my father. He was a renowned designer and lettering artist who practiced when graphic design was new.
As the oldest daughter in a family of 7 children, my life was an open book full of responsibilities, best friends, and school activities. I had no thoughts about my future – in spite of the fact that my father’s visual skills surrounded every waking moment.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I fell in love with acting – a verbal, visual, and emotional method of communication and storytelling. Drama was my passion. But, as I neared graduation, and looked at my future, I was concerned about my ability to earn a living in theatre.
Years later, when selling design concepts to a client, I realized I was still onstage, and design was also an exercise in storytelling.
My next step was to head to the University of Washington with no idea of what my degree would be or what direction I would take.
It was after I registered for a design class – what a surprise! I loved it! Passions ignited – I threw myself into it. When given class assignments, just as I’d seen my father do, I looked beyond what was requested and realized that design set me free. Free to follow what had been a part of me from the beginning. With design came energy, pride, and a sense of accomplishment. It was problem solving and storytelling at its finest. I was born to it. I was in love.
After leaving the University I studied, for 17 years, under the direction of my father, a passionate, talented designer who followed no rules and raised the bar on the caliber of design every day of his career.
He taught me to use my brain and thought processes well before lifting a finger and putting any designs, colors, or fonts into action.
When designing, I explored every concept, every design strategy, and my client’s competition, before rendering any concepts. My goal and my passion have always been my client’s success.
Most of my client’s have been companies struggling for one reason or another. And soon, the word on the street about my work was that I had a skill for visually re-messaging existing enterprises for successful transitions: a reputation I’m proud to share with my father before me.
Now I’m proudly a founder of Overture. And, my father, who was a collaborative creative just as I am would, I know, be proud of me for carrying on his creative tradition.
No Logo. “That’s interesting,” I thought as I wandered through the airport bookshop. It was Naomi Klein’s, No Logo. I was on my way to London to be the “Chief Creative Officer, Global” (love that title) in charge of something like 500 brand design creatives. Logos were our stock and trade.
Suddenly everything is wrong with my sense of who I am and what I do.
My professional life had gone from being an eager young illustrator to leading a successful brand design practice. Thanks to No Logo I was beginning to see that we were a part of a machine that was mass-producing feelings at scale. And that there were effects from our clever manipulations that were not good for people and planet.
I was adopted at five months and grew up on the side of Seattle’s Beacon Hill across the street from a Catholic elementary school. A neighborhood that has always been the city’s transitional community. Our neighbors were mostly retired Italians. People who had immigrated at the turn of the century, worked blue-collar jobs, and raised their children in a supportive community.
The neighborhood was full of large well-tended vegetable gardens, chicken coups, and immaculately kept homes. Everyone saved their newspapers and recycled them. All food waste was composted to enrich the garden soil.
We were one of only a few non-Italian families, but my parents fit right in with a large garden, recycling, and a frugal lifestyle.
On Sundays our Italian neighbors’ grown children would come for an after-church visit and early dinner. They were doctors, lawyers, and business executives. They arrived well-dressed driving Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Buicks, looking like a dream to me. As though they’d just stepped out of the pages of the glossy magazines with the cars, the clothes, and the beautiful families, they were living the American dream.
I now know how the contrast between the desire to flee my adoptive family, with their frugal roots, and the desire to live like the upwardly mobile children of our immigrant neighbors shaped my career. Their success became my vision.
Finding No Logo took me right back to my deeply personal conflict between manufacturing the feelings that sell goods, services, and ideas with designed images, branding and a belief in the fundamental rightness of the frugal sustainability of my childhood.
I have always drawn and always told stories. Drawing was my way of capturing the beautiful things that otherwise were beyond my reach. Stories were a way of making connections with others through the emotions that the telling evoked. Those skill are the base of my professional life. They took me to the life that I was drawn to so long ago.
After a long career in design and branding I began consulting with creative firms and individuals. With the growing realization that, like me, most of the creatives that I’ve met struggle with asking for the money I wrote a book on negotiations specifically for designers and other creatives. Through the book, my work with clients and coming to realize how creatives are struggling to survive in this changed landscape I discovered worker owned cooperatives. And I realized that a creative worker owned cooperative offered a structure where the full energy of the creative personality could be harnessed to the benefit of the creatives themselves.
Here I am a proud founding member of Overture. Resolving the conflict between my skills in branding, story, and illustration with my need for sustainability, cooperation, and a better way forward for creatives.
I spent most of my youth drawing.
I usually drew what I didn’t know, or what didn’t yet exist. The gesture was as much about the need to discover as it was about the pure joy of putting color on paper. I drew our father in bright quilted patchwork leisure suits—he who wore only a black uniform or blue jeans and cowboy boots. I drew our modest brunette mother with pointy boobs and a curly blonde ‘do. (I was five; I’ll never forget my ten-year-old sister’s horror at this lurid sully.) In dappled summer light under a gnarly Gravenstein, I drew symbols and mazes, the turrets and bell towers of spooky Victorian stories, ancient cities from my imagination, and floor plans of dream houses.
Drawing is always more interesting when it comes with a problem to solve. Graphing equations in Math, diagramming sentences in English, fashioning patterns in Home Ec … as a young student, these visual exercises were met with equal ease and intrigue. When it came time for college, I sought no advisor but naively signed up for the stuff that sounded like fun: art history, calculus, music theory, geo-physics … . Such a happenstance approach to a bachelor’s degree turned out to be surprisingly proto-architectural. I loved going to school and didn’t want to leave. The UW finally showed me the door when 420 credits piled up on my record. Without wasting a heartbeat, I scoured grad-school catalogs late at night, mind still abuzz from my lowly job in the caffeine trade. It took that long to get a “goal.” I finally found it: within MIT’s architecture school was something called the Center for Advanced Visual Studies founded by Georgy Kepes. It was love at first swooning sight, the pounding-heart kind, and sure enough, the object of my desire didn’t want me.
MIT’s Advanced Visual Studies may have been inside their architecture school, but it did not belong there. Nevertheless, it was where I wanted to be. Art school gave me skills to make art but not the skills to “see” it: to have a critical eye, to know what I was seeing really, or how to understand a visual idea, challenge, or defend it. I thought that architecture school might. I applied to other architecture programs as well, because, well, Plan B.
I didn’t want what I thought architecture school would be—with drafting skills and that sort of stuff—and I didn’t get it. I was hooked on architecture—the big Gothic Cathedral kind—but I had no intention of becoming an architect, not that kind of architect at any rate. I wanted a really good design education, and I got it. Yale gave us the opportunity to experiment, to work side by side—and be critiqued side by side—with designers of completely different approaches. If there were a polytheistic design studio anywhere, it was there. Style was second to strategy, to having a strong design idea, to expression of hard questions.
As we all learn in retrospect, you do what you do and then you are what you are. When architecture is your aspiration, you immerse yourself in three optimistic exhilarating years of graduate school; you receive your degree; deep in debt, you intern for little or no wages at tedious tasks; by night and weekend, you enter the equally exploitive design-competition system to keep your dream alive; you take the right-of-passage exams—at that time they were four or five consecutive days, the last one a twelve-hour building-design exam, surely authored by Roald Dahl’s Agatha Trunchbull; and voila! You go back to work on Monday.
You became that kind of architect.
Perched at a desk, drafting construction details in ink on Mylar and scrubbing them out when the scheme or budget or boss’s mind changed … the synthetic thinker, my inner conceptualizer, began to die. I had to get back to design, and I wanted to teach.
The universe delivers.
I hung out ‘my shingle’ and was offered a teaching position in nearly the same week. Somehow, the inquisitive mind silenced by years in production came back to life. The synthetic thinker, the conceptualizer, it was still there after all: posing futuristic design challenges in the studio; presenting problems we envisioned might soon arise; building models of the unknown; inviting each other to dig into ideas, to draw what we didn’t know and what didn’t yet exist; to ask, “What if … ?”
As an architect, I spend a lot of time communicating assemblies of materials and encountering at-this-moment challenges on sites. It’s not academic or fantastic, and it’s not always dull. The real tools of our trade are not CAD programs; they are planting ideas, sketching concepts, researching precedents, challenging precedents, visualizing solutions. They traverse multiple disciplines. To understand the relationship of environment and craft to human experience is a very grounded asset. To inspire and inform, to reveal craft within the rich context of place—they are part of the job.
But it is still those invented “what-if’s” that create bigger opportunities.
“What if we try it another way?” is always a good one.
Overture resulted from that very question.
Overture offers the chance to conceptualize again. It is an opportunity to collaborate with creative people from completely different beginnings. It is a way forward with unexpected insights and challenges.
Bringing Overture together has grown from many “what-if” sessions. Many more will follow. We have shared stories; we have built trust. We have shared ideas that span culture, innovation, and human experience. We have built community.
We welcome you to be a part of it.
I’m one of the lucky ones, well mostly lucky. As a colleague said on many occasions, “I never went to work. I went to fun.”
And while it’s true I’ve been lucky and mostly went to fun too, I’ve had more than my share of going to a job. Which to me translates to being Just-Over-Broke. Never fully satisfying and always beholding to the job provider and daily bills.
Increasingly I’ve seen this trend grow for my colleagues in the creative arenas. Going to jobs, never fully satisfied, frequently not empowered and always beholding to someone or something else.
To my mind this is not sustainable, and I believe creative people are as essential to the full human experience as any of the other present-day roles we seem preoccupied with. Thankfully we are not all engineers, MBAs, programmers, or data scientists.
The planet still needs artists, musicians, writers, illustrators, poets, painters, photographers; those that communicate via their passions and emotions. It requires people who have a unique capacity for risk and courage at-once. However, the starving artist is not a sustainable path.
I’ve been on the corporate, the client, the consultant, the freelance, an indy artist, and the entrepreneurial side of the table. Sometimes all at the same time. I’ve been hired, fired, laid off and right-sized too many times to count.
For more than four decades I’ve been on the creative side of crafting something from nothing, and I’d have it no other way. I’m still here, striving and thriving.
It’s my goal to help others find a sustainable way to do the same in a world that’s become preoccupied with transactions at the expense of connections.
As a founding member of Overture, I believe we’re taking a positive step in a better direction for all creatives. I invite you to join us.