Welcome to episode 242 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost, Dirk Knemeyer.
Our special guest on the show today is Dan Harvey. Dan is head of product design and brand at The Dots, which is a professional network for no-collar professionals. Dan, welcome to the show.
For our podcast this week, we’re going to dig into one of our favorite topics, which is the future of work. Dan is somewhat of a specialist on the future of work, because he’s helping to create it over at The Dots. We’ve brought Dan in today to lend us some insight into that topic. We’re going to start off, Dan, with a question about, what are the values and behaviors that are changing among job seekers, and how is that in response or anticipation of the future of work as you see it?
Yeah, I think that’s a terrific question and really gets to, I think, the heart of the audience that we’re trying to address at The Dots. When we talk about no-collar professionals, what we’re really talking about is that sort of almost generational difference between job seeking behaviors in the marketplace. If in the past you had white-collar professionals that were being served very well by a platform like LinkedIn, that was very much about your CV or your resume and the connections that you can derive from that, I think all those behaviors that we typically think of as being part of that sort of white-collar pattern, climbing a corporate job ladder, being sort of managerial as a pathway to success, super-niche skills specialization, constantly chasing promotions and paychecks, what we’re seeing with no-collar professionals is that there really isn’t a good home for their professional needs and their networking needs, and that’s what we’re trying to create at The Dots.
I think the behaviors that we see there is a preference for job hopping rather than climbing a job ladder, moving around from company to company, an increased emphasis on freelancing over sort of staffed gigs, a real shift towards an emphasis on creative-led skills rather than sort of more administrative ones, this constantly evolving skill set, and valuing purpose over paycheck. I think those are all the sorts of behaviors that we’re seeing in the audiences that we serve here, which are largely people within and around the creative industry, so creators of all stripes, freelancers, entrepreneurs, those sorts of people, and generally skewing younger, so millennial audiences partially.
Dan, you talked about the job hopping. Of course, you mentioned freelance, but with companies, there is, I think, still the desire to have innies, to have employees. That is sort of in direct contradiction to the ethos of the millennials and the younger workers of wanting more variety and moving around. How do you see those things sort of interacting with each other?
Yeah. I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. I think what we see with … Silicon Valley is actually home to the job hop phenomenon. If you look at any of the data around companies like Apple or Facebook or Google, some of whom are our clients on the platform, their retention numbers are just terrible. You keep high-paid, super in-demand talent at your company for about a year, 18 months, and then they move to the next company. It’s that sort of shell game that’s happening with talent as they go from a place like Google to Uber to Twitter to wherever. They’re not going from freelance positions to freelance positions necessarily, but they’re going from staff position to staff position. I think sometimes people too easily conflate freelance with job hop or freelance with gig economy and contract worker. I think those things all have a different nuance and can sometimes overlap, but they’re often different things.
That makes a lot of sense, because Silicon Valley is so progressive, but how do you see that translating into the Midwest and in places that aren’t organizations that are super progressive and on the cutting edge, that are actually more conservative? Are they coming around to that as well? Is that going to be a harder process? How does that translate into the broader market?
Yeah, I think that’s a terrific question. I think one thing that we’re seeing already is that … I think based on the last survey I saw, about 20% of all roles in the US were freelance, and I think that number is expected to go up to about 50% by 2020. I think it’s a pattern that we’re seeing in other places and in sort of coastal environments and in the creative industries that could potentially start to seep into the center and across other industries, but time will tell. I come from an agency background by and large, and I know in that context, and in consultancies and stuff, account managers and people responsible for margins and bottom lines and stuff always hated using freelancers because they were a bigger hit to their margins and would always want to have staff talent. But sometimes, frankly, some roles are just … People don’t want to live in them forever, so you have to sort of turn to freelancers to deal with that. That gets into an interesting segue about potentially automation and how some roles might change and things like that. It’s definitely a heady topic.
Yeah. Since you sort of raised the specter of automation, Dan, maybe we should talk about that a little bit, just as this sort of, I don’t know, scary monster, right? Could be for creatives and the idea that automation is coming for a lot of different kinds of jobs. I think creatives, and excuse the use of the word creatives, creative people in a variety of different industries, I think we think our skill sets are unique and such that they can’t be replicated by machines, by AI, by computer software. We’ve seen over the past couple years, we’ve seen initial evidence that, “Hey, you know, that’s perhaps not the case, and creative class folks, get ready.” Dan, what’s your take on that, and how does that fit into your vision of how the future of work progresses?
Yeah, I think that’s a terrific question, and a complicated and compacted one. I think in general at The Dots, we believe that creative skills are the sort of best protection against automation. I think even if you do look at some of those scarier trends that you were hinting at, I think we’re still seeing most automation or most early-stage automation or current-stage automation actually tackling mid-level managerial things. It’s interesting, but in the last 50 years or whatever, parents were telling their kids to, “Don’t go off and do that art education, or be a fine artist, or be a designer, or whatever. You need to be an accountant. You need to be a lawyer.” Those are the jobs that are getting hit by automation a bit more significantly right now, particularly as AI progresses.
I don’t think we should be classist when we talk about the risk of automation. I think obviously factory work and things like that have been hit far more than what we’ll see with other professions, but I think it’s also … Even things like automated self-driving cars and what that’s going to potentially do to truck driving gigs and things like that, I think automation is definitely a sort of classist weapon. I just think that sometimes the people that think they’re protected because of their class or because of their seniority, or because they did what mom and dad told them they should do, I think they’ll be surprised a bit more than even people like myself in the creative industries will be. Can you automate creativity? Will people accept the output from technology as creative? That’s a huge question. I think in the creative industries, we’ve already seen some examples that sort of ask that question. JWT did their last Rembrandt-
… stunt a little while back.
Stunts, I love that you just said stunt. I can’t wait to hear your take on it now.
Well, it’s a stunt, right? It was done to sort of get attention and drive a conversation, and that certainly did. That in and of itself was fantastic, but I don’t think anyone was going to necessarily confuse it with a … I don’t think that was going to upend Damien Hirst’s career as an artist or anything like that. Likewise, McCann in Japan have a AI creative director. It’s got a physical form, so it’s a little robot with a little robotic arm that holds a calligraphy pen and dictates briefs. The output when McCann was doing their stunt around that, it was for Mondelez company and some mint, some breath mint kind of thing.
What they were doing is they publicly went out to market with two ads, one that was created by a human creative director and one that was created by the AI creative director and his raft of human minions. Interestingly, when consumers were polled, the human’s creative ad won out by a slim margin, but in the room at conferences for big ad bigwigs and stuff like that, they actually preferred the bot’s creative. That’s where the sort of tensions are going to be, I think, in that space. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to remove the need for human creativity or obviate it, but I do think that, as with any technology, it’s going to disrupt it. It’s going to change it, and it’s going to further put a premium on the creatives that can be flexible and can be adaptive, and who aren’t trapped in sort of hyper-niche specializations.
There’s this great quote from Heinlein about that specialization is for insects. I always love referencing that, but I think curiosity is such a huge component to human creativity. I think that that kind of thing is just hard to automate. When we think about automation in higher-class careers, the big drawback isn’t that it’s going to steal all the work. It’s that, and you can see this with doctors and surgeons actually, robotic surgeons right now are actually having a negative impact on younger doctors learning their profession, learning their craft. That’s the thing. Anything that’s training data for a machine is training data for a human, right? It’s a real life experience, a real opportunity, that you have to go through. It’s doing the grunt work. It’s earning your stripes. If we continue to automate those tedious things that we don’t like doing, what’s tedious for a senior designer is what’s a necessary learning experience for a junior designer. We’ve got to make sure that we’re not robbing people, we’re not pulling up the ladder behind us and robbing opportunities from younger talent.
Yeah. My feeling is that these types of tasks that you’re describing are largely going to get automated, especially for … Whether you’re talking about laying out a book or an ad, or even on the music side of things, there are services now that have AI-driven mastering, right, of your-
… of your tracks. Now that mastering is eh. It’s okay. It’s not nearly as good as a human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to get better.
I wonder if our conception of what it means to be the so-called junior creative is actually … That’s obviously just going to change outright. I think the flexibility, the ability also to work with this technology and to integrate it into some other conception of what it means to be a creative person in name your industry, I think that shift is already underway.
Absolutely. I think it will change, and that’s why I think curiosity is sort of the cornerstone talent that people still have to major on. That’s why I think, when we think about education and how we have to change education to better prepare future generations for automated workplaces and the like, that’s why I think it’s increasingly important to put an emphasis on STEAM rather than STEM. I think having arts education, having traditional liberal arts education, in place and not demolishing that in a rush to make more and more engineers to feed the AI beast is going to be super critical.
Yeah, I like that statement. At the same time, I think there’s that idea of engendering curiosity. What are the ways in which we can encourage that in students? What are the ways that we can enable them to be more curious about the world? Obviously, there’s things that you can do in the classroom, but then there’s also just the entirety of when you’re outside of the classroom and you have to sort of drive your own career. How do we encourage curiosity in our careers and in the way we’re functioning? That is not something that I think is on the top of the list right now, encouraging curiosity. What’s your take on that, Dan?
Well, I think that dovetails into another question. That’s about, how do we design roles within organizations to really make the most out of the people that are in them? I think that means that we just have to be … If the future is going to demand that we have strong generalists or hybrids, we sometimes call them slashies here at The Dots, if we need people who can go from one task to another, then we have to be as fluid and as adaptive as they are when it comes to creating roles and opportunities within our organizations to better take advantage of that. I think emerging professions and emerging skill sets are something that every organization is going to have to get much better at recognizing and not sort of lazily assuming that, “Oh, that’s just some weird title that means the same thing as what I’ve always called the thing that I’m thinking of.”
We went through a period of time where people were genuinely calling themselves stupid things, design ninja or AI unicorn or whatever the fuck, but there are new roles that are changing because design is changing. My friend David Malouf spends a lot of time talking about design operations or design ops now. To one of your earlier points about how opportunities are changing and the roles of creativity and design is going to have to change accordingly, that’s one vector for it. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do as a platform as well, is to be a tool where those sort of emerging skill sets and emerging professions can … that we can be a sort of early warning system or early detection system for those sorts of changes.
For our listeners who are sort of resonating with your perspective and wanting to engage this future more directly, how can The Dots help them? How could they interact with The Dots to their benefit?
Sure. It starts with making a profile and then going from there. One of the big things that we’re trying to do is to create a platform where everyone that has contributed to great work gets the credit they deserve for it. I think in the creative industries, all too long we’ve let award shows and egos dictate who actually gets to publicly take credit for things. We’re trying to upend that. Further, what we’re trying to do is actually create something where our clients who are recruiting talent on the platform can actually hire whole teams to work for them, rather than just hire individuals.
It’s about using the work that people and teams do to create real trusted networks and meaningful connections, and not just sort of weird, “I want to meet you for a coffee,” kind of connections that happen on platforms like LinkedIn. Yeah, we’ve got a website, the-dots.com. We’ve also in European markets just launched our first iOS app. Anyone that’s interested in the kinds of things I’ve been talking about can use either of those to create a profile and look at the roles that we have available and the great projects, and take inspiration from them, and all that good stuff.
Dan, are there companies or specific instances where you see this model sort of successfully being taken up? What I mean by that is we’re talking about more of a project-driven, but highly networked, environment in which people are fluid and can go from project to project or from role to role, and have that fluidity combined with some sense that I’m going to have ongoing work. Are there any sort of leaders in this space, obviously besides yourselves who are trying to build this up?
Yeah. We definitely look at things in the marketplace, and we see a lot of companies that are doing parts of what we’re doing. In the States, Working Not Working is definitely trying to speak to the needs of that freelancer audience that is part of our overall audience. Here in the UK, YunoJuno was doing something similar, although doing more of a kind of service-style thing than we would do, so helping you with invoices and things like that. If you sort of broaden it out to creative inspiration, then you could look to products like Behance, Tumblr, even ostensibly Pinterest and the like.
Yeah. I could for sure see the applicability of this model in other industries. In particular, at our studio we do a lot in the healthcare industry. One area that is hugely lacking in ability to coordinate is around care planning and caregiving. Whether you’re looking for folks to help you take care of your aging parents, or you’ve got someone who needs a certain amount of rehabilitation and care at home and then getting out to the physical therapist or what have you, there’s a team that coalesces around that project, that piece of work, for a time. It’s very modular in that way. Then once the project is completed, the person is back on their feet or whatever, that’s done, and the caregiver or the nurse or what have you could move on to the next thing. But this fluidity that we’re describing as work’s future I think does have the ability to be applied in at least sections of other industries that I’m familiar with.
Yeah, I absolutely think so. I think one of the things that’s sort of also interesting and related to that is I don’t think as a platform we would ever go after that audience, because I think what’s interesting is there are obviously patterns at a high level that could sort of manifest across a lot of different industries. But I think the sort of specific needs and the depth of knowledge that you would need to fine-tune those things for audiences is what would be the hard graft and the hard work.
I think that’s one of the other things that we’re starting to see a bit of a backlash against is that sort of one size fits all social platform. I think the sort of bigger tech conversation right now around time well spent is potentially going to be a boon for niche social networks, niche professional networks, niche networks in general, to sort of take a place and really serve particular audiences. I think that can happen as long as the products that speak to those audiences and materialize around those needs don’t get stuck in a sort of ad revenue model where you’re forced to chase daily active users or monthly active users or whatever. Our own business model doesn’t rely on that, and that’s why we’re able to really serve the particular needs of our audience and the niche community that we’re dedicated to.
I wanted to wind up our discussion today, Dan, with what your recommendations were for designers who are just starting in the industry. We’ve sort of laid out that the environment’s changing rapidly. They’ve got lots of things to think about. What’s the one or two things that, if you were mentoring a young designer who’s looking at this landscape and saying, “What do I do next?” what would you say to him or her?
Yeah. I actually do mentor young designers, so this should be an easy answer for me. I really think that it comes down to making sure that your skills are always fresh. As a designer, one of the things that has been sort of eye-opening in the last couple of years is that there’s just been this sort of almost Cambrian explosion of prototyping tools. That’s meant that prototyping as a skill is something that designers had to get really good at. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg thing, but I think it used to be that a designer was someone that made a … John Maeda sort of talks about the sort of transition from almost design as object, design as a thing, to what he calls computational design. I think it’s just about keeping your skills fresh and not getting sort of hung up on, or conflating tools with skills. I think it’s about maintaining your curiosity and constantly finding new ways of seeing, so that you’re not always trying to solve the same problems in the same way, because that’s obviously the definition of insanity, but yeah.
Very cool. Well, Dan, thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate having you on the show.
Likewise. Thanks for having me.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter. I’m @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening. Dan, how about you?
I am dancharvey on Twitter, so D-A-N-C-H-A-R-V-E-Y. You can see all the great work that my team and I have been doing at the-dots.com, or if you’re in Europe, you can type The Dots into your App Store and download our new shiny app that we’ve just launched today. Cheers.
That’s it for episode 242 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.