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Outsourcing Creativity

Some day, people will look back to the early 21st century and think to themselves, “what an innovative and chaotic time of humanity to have lived in.” They will see our movies, commercials, music, blogs, papers, excitement, happiness, violence, wars, and suffering like no other generation which came before us. The digital age of world-wide communication came about – reporting events in foreign languages in near-instantaneous “real time.” They will see us as a generation of little patience – constantly wanting more with each passing second and not stopping to look around at what we have done to this world. They will look in amazement, but also remark at how awkward society’s growing pains came about.

The first decade was like no other. They could directly see the impact a few greedy people had on the entire world. It was a global economic depression that was caused primarily by an unregulated banking system – knowingly letting people who were at risk to buy the homes of their dreams. And when the bankers realized that they weren’t going to be paid back, they passed the risk to smaller banks who didn’t realize the severity of the entire problem. This was coupled with two wars, rising oil prices, and the outsourcing of jobs through faster telecommunications. The people at the end of the decade were living on the edge of  what the next day may or may not have brought. It was completely unsustainable to have continued in that direction.

What they had is a drain on the system. The money went to the top and never came back down. And if the paper trail did go anywhere, it often lead straight to the Middle East, China, and India. The baron tycoons and corporate monopolies took to their advantage the means to blindside governments and officials – none of the policy-makers cared so much as long as their own families weren’t suffering and they were forging ahead. But the almighty dollar mattered most – and these tycoons felt that if they could get their work done in foreign, disparate countries, then they could safely pad their bottom line at a substantial profit.

What they didn’t realize is that this was a house of cards waiting to fall down.

I just received word today that a colleague and major competitor known throughout the world had to shut its doors this week. On Friday, they had to let everyone go. While some might view a competitor having to close shop as an opportunity, I view it more with a bit of sadness and concern. The fact is that competition is healthy to a degree. This company helped inspire my own work and wanted me to better myself. They constantly pushed me in the right direction in order to get ahead.

It brings me little happiness to see these colleagues out of work. They are people within the 3D community that I’ve come to known over the years, almost like friends that I’ve had in real life. And it’s especially worrisome when they are considered to be one of the best teams of artists in the world.

In part, we can blame the housing market calamity for bringing us this mess. The truth is that this was only the tinder, and the catalyst was rising oil prices. People suddenly found themselves out of work, and uncertainty started to set in. The companies that were left over started to send their jobs overseas in mass because they could save money in order to stay afloat. The problem with outsourcing is that it is a temporary bandage on a much larger issue. If all of the money is traveling outward, then who is left on the inside to be buying what is produced?

Globalization is a funny thing. In some ways, it brings peace and order to those poorer countries. It opens up communication. It opens up freedom. However, as the financial balance starts to tip in their favor, the people left over on the inside have much less to work with. In the long-run, it brings about a more stabilized world. In the interim, it destabilizes it and causes panic. As to how long that destabilization lasts, it’s simply a guess for now until either the balance evens out which could last years, or Western governments step-in and put caps through tariffs or taxes on jobs flowing outward. Right now, we have a bathtub full of water, and someone just pulled the drain while we were still sitting in it.

This issue of outsourcing isn’t just limited to my field of architectural renderings. It’s happening to almost every creative field.

I’ve talked with several printers recently. Most of them were telling me that they were struggling through layoffs. Their main complaint was that their larger print jobs were suddenly getting shipped off to China to be printed. In order to stay competitive, let alone stay in business, these printers had to follow suit and lay off some of their staff in order to compete with the rock-bottom prices being offered by the Chinese.

As for publishing itself, I worked for Scholastic and Pearson Publishing as a freelancer for a number of years. Towards the end of my publishing career, we were packing books up into PDFs, and sending those books over to China to be printed out. As if the printers in this country didn’t have enough competition locally to worry about.

The same thing is happening to architects and engineers. They’re finding their plans and drawings being shipped off to other countries. People that spent 6+ years in school to learn a fairly sophisticated trade are suddenly finding the rug pulled out from underneath them. Sure, the quality may not be 100% of what would be produced here, but in some cases what is produced overseas might reach 85% of that quality. Most people also couldn’t argue with those prices being offered.

And if that isn’t enough, it’s happening to other creative fields as well as manufacturing.

Even other fields that were considered to be more secure are feeling the tightening of the belt/noose. Because finances have been so tight, instead of hiring a skilled electrician or a plumber, people are turning to people that are new to this country (some legal and some not) to get their jobs done instead. If a homeowner has to make a decision between spending $100/hour or $10/hour for someone that could probably do somewhat of a comparable job, who do you think most people will turn to? So this balance has been severely upset, and it has trickled down to other facets in life and even fields that on the outside, might appear unrelated.

This is a much different world than the 80s and 90s when people complained that the Japanese were taking over the automobile industry, and that the Detroit-based manufacturing jobs were being shipped to Mexico. Today is a time of instant communication. You can simply press a button and hit send and the job gets sent overseas. Jobs can be literally lost within a matter of seconds. We’re not talking about heavy equipment and parts being shipped (although they are), but more scientific and intellectual pursuits as well. Plus, you don’t “need” to have that insider source any longer to have that “secret” economic advantage. All it takes is a little bit of homework and research on any search engine to find out who could manufacture or create your product for less.

So, I feel it is very important for people and business owners to consider the ramifications of sending their jobs overseas. It may work as a temporary fix, but shortly thereafter, you will erode your base of support.

Outsourcing, while having some positive effects, also has some negative consequences. In my field of art, I am constantly seeing this. A few of the things I’ve encountered are:

  1. Miscommunication leading to inferior products.
  2. Miscommunication leading to longer than usual production times.
  3. Miscommunication leading to increased costs due to an increase in production times.
  4. Target dates and deadlines being missed.
  5. Target dates and deadlines being missed due to time-zone differences.
  6. Increased costs locally due to time-zone differences.
  7. Inferior products.
  8. Copyright infringement.
  9. Patent infringement.
  10. Product theft.
  11. Foreign companies using other people’s work illegally to pass off as their own.
  12. Stolen money which is nearly impossible to recover.
  13. Loss of local jobs.
  14. Loss of local, skilled-jobs.
  15. Loss of business as a result of business policies.
  16. Supporting “sweatshop” types of conditions.
  17. Supporting child labor conditions.
  18. Supporting corrupt government officials and ties.

It’s simple (and irresponsible) for most business owners to turn a blind eye to these problems. The policing isn’t there and our governments can’t step in to monitor every situation. It’s almost as if “you don’t see it, then there must not be a problem” mentality. Well, that is a very reckless position of fellow business owners to take when all you are doing is concerning yourself with the bottom dollar. As far as I’m concerned, taking that position makes you just as guilty enacting those injustices.

I had an architect write me the other day for a project. In his email, he wrote:

“I am trying to source a US firm that is competitive with the foreign rendering firms.”

I immediately picked up the phone and called him saying, “you have to be kidding me. There’s no way I can compete with a $300 rendering. This is very difficult work and if I have to spend an entire week or two working on this – how do you expect me to live on $300? I need to make at least $2,000 a week minimum as a business owner by the time you factor in business expenses and taxes. You have to give me a break…”

He started apologizing and said, “I’m sorry. But everyone seems to know that you can get renderings for those prices. The same thing is happening to architecture too. I don’t feel good about it one bit. But that’s what the developer asked me for.”

I replied, “well, I think you need to educate him.”

As for whether or not that happens, I think the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. Unfortunately, people are afraid to “bite the hand that feeds them.” If he really wanted to do us all a favor, he could send the developer this article – which I will gladly forward to him.

Ultimately, you have to weigh the positives and negatives of supporting the people closer to home – and if it keeps going down this path, then we won’t have much of a home to speak of. I know where my consciousness sits – but where does yours?