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The Designer Myth

Chris Lose • LD at LargeOctober 2021 • October 8, 2021

Illustration by John Sauer – www.johnsauer.com

If you love to bake cakes, starting a bakery business is the worst thing you can do. The time available for mixing ingredients, pouring batter, and spreading frosting will be consumed by populating spreadsheets, organizing schedules, studying local food regulations and managing accounts payable. This transfer of inspiration can cause many people to forget why they got into the baking business in the first place. Initially, most business owners start a business so that they can profit from their passion and continue doing what they love. Soon, they realize that the requirements of owning and maintaining a business consume all their free time. The same is true for lighting designers. We become engrossed in the process of choosing vibrant colors to accentuate each perfect moment. We enjoy the process so much that we think it’s necessary to start a company in order to focus on the excitement and ignore the monotony. Unfortunately, this can be a trap for many professionals. Let’s explore some of the pitfalls of starting a lighting design firm.

Available Time

There are only so many hours in a day. As artists, we revel in spending several hours choosing the perfect angle, color, and intensity of each look. Sometimes, experimenting with different visual creations is the only way we can confirm that we made the perfect choice. These decisions take time, effort, and focus. The pressures of owning a business severely limit the time available for this long process. All too often, the necessity to submit a timely proposal for upcoming projects limits the amount of time available for the current project. The demands of future clients can often trump the immediate needs of current clients. This can often lead to inattentiveness and hasty decision making. This carelessness can be exposed by the final presentation. Some would even say that the true mark of a successful designer is the ability to work on the next project amidst the current project. Many times, I have sat in the programming chair while the designer lurked in a dark corner tapping away on Vectorworks, looking up only to critique certain color choices and offer inspiration.

Politics

Great designers require the ability to create without compromise. They must be able to manufacture an atmosphere to accentuate each moment of the performance. In fantasy, this can be accomplished by a single designer with a singular vision. In reality, art is a collaboration. Several producers, clients, and creatives will want to put their spoon in the bowl and stir the batter. Keeping these co-collaborators happy can be exhausting. Kneading out bad ideas from good ideas without offending fellow colleagues is a feat that requires years of refinement. Preventing too many chefs from spoiling the cake requires political prowess that many artistic types lack. Business-minded people have cultivated this ability through many periods of trial and error. I find that I am able to create much more meaningful looks when someone else deals with the political games and I am left to focus on the substance.

Logistics

Especially in the days of Covid-19, the time and logistics necessary to assemble a production crew safely have become an enormous undertaking. Pre-Covid, we could bring in available professionals from around the globe with relative ease. We could usher them immediately to show site and straight to work. More than ever before, the process of getting people off their couches and into a FOH booth requires a level of meticulousness only found in a dedicated professional. Delegating these responsibilities to others can be difficult for sensitive micromanagers. Too many times, I have seen designers forced to walk away from the design table to change flights, confirm time sheets, respond to an insurance company, or even call the hotel to wake up a technician who has not shown up for work. These types of distractions are not just icing on the cake. They are necessary ingredients. Many of the designers that I have worked with readily admit that, after they started their business, logistics have consumed 95 percent of their time and designing makes up the remaining five.

Staffing

The most crucial part of starting any business, especially one that requires a creative joint effort, is the people. A team can usually achieve more than an individual. According to Adam Bassett, founding partner at Woodroffe Bassett Design, “design can be a lonely, stressful and sometimes terrifying occupation. Having a close, supportive and non-judgmental team working alongside you is a priceless asset.” Creating a team of original individuals who can work together under intense pressure takes intuition and leadership. Keeping these people motivated is an art form in itself. Bassett continues by saying, “In its simplest, the team allows you to face challenging situations with greater confidence, rationale, creativity and resources.” However, each time a staff member is added to the team, they also bring their baggage with them. Being the owner of a company quickly puts the business owner in the place of authority for all these artisans. They can simultaneously respect, fear, despise and depend on their boss. In addition to the professional requirements of this role, mental and emotional awareness is essential. Bassett admits that “all this does come at a cost, and it is fair to say that it is not for everyone, but I can truly say that I have never once considered the pitfalls to outweigh the benefits.” Bassett prides himself on having painstakingly built a working family — a small, loyal, hardworking and motivated group of individuals who embellish ideas and allow them to transform into reality.

Accounting

I’m terrible with money. I don’t like negotiating. I despise checking up on clients who have not paid after 14 days. I can get uncomfortable asking for reimbursements, even when I know the expense is completely justifiable. There are people who have a much better relationship with money than me. As artists, we need to rely on these sorts of people to manage money for us. It can be scary to put your financial matters in the hands of someone else. When starting a business, accountants and financial advisors become necessary to keep us on track. The stresses of maintaining a profitable business in the entertainment industry have only been compounded by the current pandemic. As the team grows, so grows the people who are dependent upon a successful business model. I don’t envy those who have had to make the very difficult choices presented by lockdowns and cancellations.

The Art of Business

If you enjoy spending many hours deliberating over color and experimenting with beam angle choices, don’t start a lighting business. Stay freelance. Allow other people to battle the politics, manage the logistics and wrangle clients. They will gladly hire you to work long hours into the night designing lights in far off lands while they sleep in their bed. If a lifestyle of spreadsheets, bureaucratic requirements and submitting proposals still interests you, then go for it. But being a business owner requires a mindset that does not often lend itself to the artistic type. Art requires vulnerability and suffering while business requires expediency and efficiency. It’s best to leave those separate disciplines to separate people.

Reach Chris Lose at close@plsn.com

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