Creativity as Commodity—The Virtuous Cycle

Read Time: 9 minutes

Ted Leonhardt sits down with SEGD for part two 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:

“The deck really is stacked against creatives no matter how well-developed our expertise, comprehensive our training, or how impressive our portfolios look. What I’m urging creatives to do is to create organizations that offer new ways to use creative power.

The problem is that creativity has become commoditized by the marketplace and those who dominate it. The solution is to do what creatives have always done: create a new way. Here’s my three-step roadmap for avoiding the ‘Commoditized Creativity’ trap:

1. Form a group around a creative offer that has not been commoditized—one that’s good for people and the planet
2. Launch a revenue-producing ‘virtuous cycle’ of outbound insights and information that helps people get in balance with a healthy planet
3. Negotiate consulting contracts from the position of power that the appeal of your insights provide.

Of course, make sure your offer is of real value. And, remember: they can’t get what you do, the way you do it, from anybody else but you.

One must first build a group around an un-commoditized offer that’s good for people and the planet—and increases the value of the work we do in combination with others. Then, finally, create and maintain a continuous flow of communications that provides increasing revenue opportunities. I call that process a virtuous cycle.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Building a group around an un-commoditized offer that’s good for people and  the planet and increases the value of the work we do really sounds like a win-win, but can you break it down for us?

TL: Yes, I can…

  • Groups provide feelings of safety that result in cooperation, which enables our best work
  • The un-commoditized offer is work coming from a group, that is (at least somewhat) unique and results in something society needs
  • Good for people and the planet means that doing the work must contribute in a positive manner for the results to be recognized both within the group and society at large
  • “In combination with others” reminds us that we are at our best when our skills plus those of others produce great results, and each of us is recognized for our individual contributions in combination with others


What exactly constitutes an un-commoditized offer?

TL: The un-commoditized offer engages a sufficient number of clients based on factors not related to fees. The challenge then becomes creating or discovering those valuable factors. They must be sufficient enough to create a profitable volume and sturdy enough to ward off lower-price competitors.


“Good for people and the planet” could be a lot of things—is there a scale or hierarchy? Does it even matter how “good” the offer is as long as it’s positive?

TL: We rally around things we believe in, causes small and large. We live in a time where people everywhere are beginning to realize that the life we’re living in the “first world” is not sustainable. Most creatives I work with want to help create better a future. And, they need to make a living while they’re doing it.

I guess there could be a “hierarchy of good.” We could create more creative industry contests and awards dinners around good for people and planet design contests. Maybe SEGD can do that.

What matters is that we’re able to do something that utilizes our skills that contributes to making things better. Most of us don’t have Bill Gates’ resources, or his skills. Nor do we have the ability to capture the world’s attention like Greta Thunberg. But, we can learn from leaders like Bill and Greta.


What’s the role of collaboration in this equation and why is it so important?

TL: We do our best work in groups. I’ve spent my professional life managing creative groups and I’ve found that a combination of cooperation, friendly competition and being in an emotionally safe environment resulted in better work and a better work experience. Clients were happier with the results and stayed clients longer. Staff loved their jobs and stayed with employers longer.

Once I began reading, thinking and writing about design, creativity and business I began to learn that cooperation was core to our success as a species. As a design manager I’d stumbled into what I’ve come to believe is core to the good aspects of being human.

Today, I think about it like this: Homo Sapiens spent 200,000 to 300,000 years existing in small groups wandering around the planet searching for things to eat and safe places to live. So, it’s no surprise that anthropologists say that our advantage was—but actually, our survival depended on—our ability to collaborate.

Loneliness is a common problem amongst my freelance clients. I’ve struggled with loneliness myself from time to time; I get it. When you’re in a group that you feel good about, a place where you can contribute and enjoy the contributions of others, you’re not lonely. So it’s no surprise to me that modern medicine has discovered how important support groups are for healing.


Could you explain how the value of design work we do in combination with others is increased?

TL: The hourly fees of top creative consultancies are two or three, sometimes four times that of freelancers. (I know this from my consulting work.) In my experience, groups with a reputation for quality can always charge more.


What are some real-world examples of this overall concept in action?

TL: There are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of un-commoditized creative endeavors to use as guides. Here are two of my favorites from the past and a couple that could shape our future:

Raymond Loewy (1893-1986). Loewy emigrated to the U.S. in 1919 at the end of WWI escaping war torn Europe. He worked as a window designer and illustrator for ten years before he got his first product design assignment. In the early 1930s, he led the team that re-designed the Sears Coldspot refrigerator. Launched in 1934, sales tripled in its first year on the market. That success put him on the cover of Time and resulted in Loewy Associates becoming a highly sought-after design consultancy with an un-commoditized offer. 

Loewy was a design activist, a tireless promoter and dedicated to making things better. He employed hundreds of creatives and showed thousands of others how to create a professional life as a designer. Design firms have been following methods created by Loewy and his team ever since and commoditizing the practice of design in the process.

Vera Neumann (1907-1993). In the darkest days of WWII amid shortages of fabric, Neumann began printing surplus parachute silk with her bright, floral designs. My mother was the proud owner of one such silk scarf. For my mother, this cheerful scarf felt like rediscovering hope during the dark days of the war. Thousands of others felt the same uplifting emotional impact of these lovely little bits of silk. 

Neumann built a substantial un-commoditized enterprise and launched hundreds of products that carried her colorful uplifting designs. Not only did she bring joy to thousands, she also laid down the process for designers to launch products under their own signature and create their own un-commoditized offers marketing directly to consumers. Her designs are still sold through Crate & Barrel and Target. Neumann was a subversive design activist. A woman in a “man’s world” who created her own unique product empire and an un-commoditized offer by spreading joy through the manufacturing of her engaging designs.

The biggest issues of our time are where the opportunity to build un-commoditized offers lie…

Michael Pawlyn is the founder of Exploration Architecture. His is an un-commoditized offer the goal of which is to become a mainstream practice. Michael wants biomimicry to become a commodity practice used throughout the world of architecture. Now that I think about it, that was Raymond Loewy’s goal too.

Another example is Christopher Raeburn, who is recycling surplus military clothing into high fashion and building an un-commoditized offer in the process. An article in The Guardian reads: “…36-year-old Raeburn has been driving fashion in a responsible direction since he was discovered by the industry expert Susanne Tide-Frater in 2009. Asked by the British Fashion Council to mentor a new ecological brand, she chose Raeburn, having identified his ‘radically different vision from what was then considered recycled.”


How could this work in Environmental Graphic Design, specifically? 

TL: Design has always followed developments in technology. Books came along before book designers. The Mac professionalized and broadened graphic design, and so on.

Today we’re seeing new materials, new software and applications of all kinds that will offer designers opportunities. The world is dealing with big changes in climate, politics and more. This is all good for us creatives; change is where we thrive.

The digital worlds of AI, VR and AR are all opportunities for creative groups to form and build un-commodifiable offers. AI applied to the exhibit experience in various ways could completely change how we anticipate experiences. We’re already seeing VR used in product demonstrations and gaming. AR offers designers the opportunity to design without the constraints of the rectangle created by the displays of our current devices. This is already happening quite a bit in healthcare.

Sustainability is driving product and material development in every area of design, engineering and manufacturing. Packaging that we can eat could replace plastic in the grocery supply chain. Toilets that turn waste into fertilizer. Buildings that cool themselves with no use of power, you get the idea. Every one of these changes is an opportunity for creative groups to form un-commodifiable offers and build sustainable businesses around.

I can imagine a group of exhibit designers forming around the use of sustainable materials alone. Or a group of experience designers creating events that show all of us how the sustainable practices of first peoples fit the modern world.


What are the steps to assemble the group and get to the offer?


  • Form your group around a shared concept by writing and speaking about it. (I wrote two articles about a creative co-op and 35 people showed up for the first meeting.)
  • Decide on the most important goal to fill by looking at how your experiences and resources align with what future clients will need. (Our small group is now inventing our offer by meeting weekly and writing about our life experiences, hopes and dreams.)
  • Create of an outbound messaging effort that informs and entices potential clients and recruits future group members. (Our website is being built as I type this. Next will be a social media and traditional outreach effort.)
  • Bootstrap your efforts by winning clients who need what you offer at start up. (We’re close to winning our first client.)


We’ve all been told not to go into business with friends, but what other advice can you offer when bringing a group together?

TL: Hold regularly scheduled meetings and have lots of conversations. Create and revise documents that outline and reflect the offer and the manner in which work will be done. Carefully watch who contributes and who doesn’t, be sure to note who attends and who doesn’t: Full commitment is critical to success.


Tell us about your creative collective.

TL: We haven’t launched yet. Overture Creative Cooperative is our name. Our backgrounds include story creation, naming, branding, architecture, interiors, corporate management, advertising, writing and design.

We believe better experiences lead to deeper relationships and more transactions. These deep relationships result from the pleasure they provide.

We help people and the organizations they are a part of create better experiences for the groups and individuals they serve. We help align the story, environment and communications with people’s needs. We help envision a better future for individuals and organizations because we’re deeply aware of the kinds of transitions that cause organizations to fail and to thrive.


The conversation continues in part three. Stay tuned!