Creativity as Commodity—Co-op Culture

Read Time: 10 minutes

Ted Leonhardt sits down with SEGD for part three of a three-part series to discuss how creativity has been commoditized, how it affects designers and how to succeed in the current climate.

Design Leadership Consultant and Strategist Ted Leonhardtis dedicated to helping creatives thrive in the modern world—so much so, that after years of working in brand design leadership in 2005, he began a consulting practice focused primarily on helping designers and design firms develop more effective negotiation skills. Since then, his client base has broadened to all creative fields, and he employs training films, comics and in-person sessions to further his goal of helping all creatives receive full value for their work.

Right now, he’s writing a book on commoditized creativity. Leonhardt writes:

What I’m advocating for are businesses with a creative purpose. Creative enterprises that employ creative people and are organized as worker/self-directed cooperatives. The purpose could be providing a new product or a service, and the product could be anything from athletic wear to creating the next quantum computer—or, the business could be providing some kind of creative service.

Being organized as a worker/self-directed cooperative means that the people who do the work receive the full returns on their efforts. Clients and customers of the business benefit from a quality of work that only an emotionally engaged workforce can achieve. Worker-owned enterprises routinely out preform their peers—another advantage for both the worker-owners, their clients and customers.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


This all sounds great, but where does one start?

TL: Start with a concept for your venture and a plan for how it will make money. Recruit a small group. A group of people that believe in the venture and the principals of a worker self-directed cooperative. Spend time together planning your venture, and—perhaps more importantly—spend the time to get to know each other. Do a test project together; expect people to drop out.

Next, find a client with enough of a financial commitment to support your group, for say, six months. Find a space where you can work together so that you can begin to develop the connections and group dynamics that are critical to building a successful working community.

Once you have that first client have the team do the work while you go to work getting that all-important second client. Remember, leadership’s role is to “work on the business not in the business.”


How does one convince a group of people to take a leap into the unknown?

TL: Begin by understanding their feelings, concerns, hopes and dreams. Take their objections seriously. In my experience, it’s in dealing with the obstacles that the insights leading to success reveal themselves.

Success comes when the people involved feel good about their role in the group. They need to feel seen and heard. They want the creative autonomy to work on their own and the connection to others that supports their efforts. In other words: we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and have a sense of control over our own lives at the same time.

Show them how the organization helps them achieve their goals. Describe the need that you fill and what skills your venture requires to fill that need. Be as clear as you can about the benefits and the risks. When people hear a proposal that is in sync with what they already believe, they are more likely to join the group.

Worker-directed cooperative organizations are hugely appealing. And, why wouldn’t they be? The purpose of the organization is the member’s well-being,  not profits for absent owners.

Yes, profits are necessary. More cash has to flow into the organization than out for the venture to be financially viable, but when every worker is a director—equally responsible for directing the group—and all of the finances are transparent, there is a compelling sense of personal commitment present. Keeping the difference between the lowest paid and the highest small, five-to-one or six-to-one helps. Sharing equally in the profits is enticing, as are having a vote on major issues and an elected leadership.

“The cultural result of this shared responsibility is a feeling of fairness, personal ownership and responsibility. It’s a culture of cooperation, not competition.”


In the abstract, any new venture certainly is the “unknown” and anyone will certainly be concerned with the risks. But in my experience, people are drawn to like-minded groups and to the promise of shared experience. 


How does Overture work?

TL: Overture is a worker-owned, self-directed creative cooperative; each worker owns one share and has one vote. The buy in fee is $1000—these fees from members give us our initial capital. Work on client projects is paid at market rates and the co-op will keep a small portion of client project fees to cover overhead. 


How do you know when the “good for people and planet” offer/product is right?

TL: The most important consideration is how people feel about each other, working together for a common good and feeling like they are valued and have an opportunity to make a positive difference. Without ideals there is no point. Ideal number one, is to democratize the workplace; number two, is to think deeply about how to be good for others. People and planet sure feels right to me. 


What would you tell those concerned about financial stability?

TL: Everyone should be concerned about financial stability. So, have a rock solid financial plan. Make sure everyone understands the fundamentals of how the money is made, what the expenses are and how the cash flow will work.


What’s the difference between a successful designer and a successful design firm or collective/cooperative owner?

TL: Successful designers work project to project drawing work from a community of individuals and organizations that know and admire their work. The upside is the freedom that comes from complete independence. The downside—and I’ve seen this a lot—is without the kind of sustainable new business effort that attracts clients from outside their circle, individual designers run out of work.

Successful firms have diverse skillsets that support and complement each other so that the firm can sustain itself over the long term. Most design firms are owned by individuals, a couple of partners or in the case of larger firms a small group. Groups are able to command higher fees than individuals are.


For whom is a design cooperative a poor choice? 

TL: Anyone who is uncomfortable with the consensus building that is required is probably not a good fit. We had a promising member drop out early on, citing “too much democracy for me,” as the reason.


What would be a reasonable investment needed to land the first client?

TL: The first clients will all come from the members. So, day one of operations begins with clients. The goal is to gain clients that will provide work for more than individual members by cross-selling services to existing clients and gaining new clients.


Now what?

TL: Start with clarity on costs, deliverables and schedule, then, move forward with a mutually agreed-upon work plan. And, I’d never say, “land them.” The goal is a plan that benefits all parties. We don’t land them, we develop a relationship.


That makes sense, we aren’t exactly deep-sea fishing for clients. How does one quickly scale this type of co-op venture?

TL: Being able to grow in response to opportunities is essential. The answer is in the network of people that are aware of what you’re doing. People following you that are interested in considering becoming a part of the venture that haven’t joined yet. So, when the opportunity for more workers arises, the answer is in one’s network, social media followers etc.


Some brilliant designers hate doing sales. How can this work for them?

TL: The co-op will have salespeople, marketing people, people who recruit new members, account people, all the skills and disciplines required to find and do the work of the co-op.


What are the inherent pitfalls and advantages in starting a business like this?

TL: The pitfalls are the same as any enterprise: unrealistic expectations, not enough work and resulting cashflow. The advantage? Creatives are desperate for a better way forward.


When do you throw in the towel? At what point does a self-aware person back away from a project that isn’t succeeding?

TL: I think people should walk away if isn’t working for them.


Is design thinking a commodity? 

TL: New ideas and challenges to the status quo are a normal part of human life. Some of us are identified as creative or as “he’s so talented” as I was often was at an early age. (The “talented” remark was intended to put me in my place and keep me there. Not an unusual story.) Sometimes later in life we “creatives” are called entrepreneurs if we start something.

Over my career, I’ve been inspired by teachers who challenged me—who inspired through their work and shaped thousands of peoples’ lives. They didn’t use “design thinking” to inspire me. They simply paid attention and introduced me to their own creative passion. In a similar way creative directors and clients inspired my work and helped me see and understand the world in new ways. I’ve hired, consulted with and lead hundreds of creatives to do help them their very best work, as others had helped me. I’ve coached and challenged and critiqued work to get the best results possible.

The only formula that I believe in for nurturing creativity is kindness, inclusion, challenge, support and the recognition that the best ideas start with individuals in a supportive group. I learned the hard way that creatives need to feel safe to exercise their creativity. And, that once the idea is recognized, it is taken forward and refined by the group. That’s not “design thinking,” it’s the golden rule that guides the best ideas from concept to actuality, in my view.

“Maybe creativity can be taught. I’m not so sure about that. Some people just spin off ideas and new ways to look at things with an ease that others don’t.”


Maybe design thinking helps people that haven’t developed their native creativity by giving them a system for thinking about design, nothing wrong with that. But, I haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that to be the case.

I’ve been included in two massive corporate design thinking processes. In both cases I saw what I’ve seen working with creatives my whole career. A few of those who participated spun off ideas and concepts with the usual fluidity that I associate with native creativity, while others spun their wheels. Sadly, no great innovation occurred for either of these organizations once the dust settled, the consultants departed and the workers went back to their cubicles. I was happy to be included in both efforts. I got to see the struggle that defines life inside a major corporation—the struggle to please, to survive, to make your way when searching for how to make the right political choices is clearly key to staying there.

For me, design thinking is an opportunity for consultants to sell their services. An opportunity for a “C” suite facing a crisis they don’t know how to solve to show that they are doing something. To do something cool or “with it” to show that you’re in “the loop.” The phrase “design thinking” along with “innovation” has become something of a fad. A method that we must believe in because “leading thinkers” and famous “B” schools back it.

“Fads often enter organizations from outside in moments of crisis. They lessen leaders worries and uncertainties because the new process promises to solve their problems.”


The fad can legitimize management because it shows that the organization is keeping up with the new, cool stuff. Jumping on a fad enables leaders to show that they are doing something.

Worse, individuals get to champion this or that fad and, thus, build and advance their careers and win acclaim for being “cutting-edge.” Worse still, salesmen of design thinking courses have managed to trick industries that the act of thinking is something brand new.

Meanwhile, happily, creatives go on creating things and experiences that we all fall in love with, because they touch us in that special way that creativity always has.

+++ launched on January 15, 2020 and Ted Leonhardt’s book on commoditized creativity is forthcoming.