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The dilemma of the creative professional


I am incredibly lucky!

No, not at the roulette table.  Or lotto.  Or even at picking the Melbourne Cup winner.

I’m lucky because I love what I do.

My professional role, as it’s evolved from architect to business leader to consultant and facilitator, has given, and still gives me enormous satisfaction.

And the opportunity to help create great outcomes for others has constantly refuelled my professional passion.

But that’s what we professionals do, isn’t it?  We help others.

We offer all our professional knowledge, skills and experience to help people without those capabilities to achieve their goals or dreams.

And if you’re a lawyer or medical practitioner or accountant, you can often create a very profitable business in the process.  But if your job is writing, architecture, graphic design or one of many other so-called ‘creative’ professional roles, profit commonly seems to be a more evasive ambition.

(I say so-called because all professions actually require a degree of creative thinking, innovation and experimentation, although possibly not quite as overtly as some.)

So, why the difference?  Why do creative professionals so often generate lower profits than their colleagues in more ‘functional’ professions?  And what, if anything, can they do about it?

The answer to these core questions is both simpler and more complex than it might at first appear.  And at its heart lie four fundamental precursors of business success – mindset, innovation, planning and external support.


Other professionals readily adopt a simple mindset that says: “I’m using skills, which I’ve worked hard to acquire, to solve someone’s problem.  That produces a benefit, for which they will pay me a fair amount, and we will both be satisfied.”

The creative professional, on the other hand, has a more complex mindset, along the lines: “I’m solving a problem, for which I should be fairly paid, but in the process I’m creating art!  And any solution that isn’t art is inherently unfulfilling for me.  So, I may need the client to indulge my creative passion, which alters the benefit/payment equation if we are both to be satisfied.”

And this mindset isn’t just personal, it can extend across a whole creative profession, bringing a range of challenging biases and preconceptions into play.  Solutions that aren’t considered by peers to be art are often pejoratively critiqued as ‘commercial,’ or the creator as ‘selling out.’  So any focus on profit can readily be dismissed as a betrayal of the professional’s deep creative responsibility.


Rather than art however, professions such as engineering, law, accounting and medicine rely heavily on precedent.  On rigorous compliance with long-established practices and principles.  Significant innovations occur relatively rarely.  The value of the product or outcome is largely measured by how effectively the rules have been followed.

For many creative professionals however, the intent is to create a bespoke outcome that looks and feels different or unique.  Innovation is a requirement.  The value of the product lies in how effectively its precedents are disguised and how far the rules have been bent, without actually breaking.

This of course requires considerable amounts of commitment, dedication and energy.  And the ‘high’ generated by creative passion can certainly be addictive, leaving the creator craving the next opportunity to experience it again.  But like any addictive activity, innovation addiction can overwhelm day-to-day details and practical needs.

Details like time management, cash flow, people management and business planning can be pushed way into the background.


The first three of these everyday business concerns can often be productively delegated.  But business planning really needs to be ‘owned’ by the practice’s leaders.  Yet frequently it disappears deep into to-do lists, or right off the table altogether.

Which is obviously unhelpful, but more significantly it makes little sense.  Especially for professionals such as architects and interior designers, whose very profession is founded on the idea of detailed conceptualisation and planning first, execution second.

Which makes you wonder: what would happen if design and other creative professionals applied their typical project design process to their own business activity?

  • Wouldn’t they consider it absolutely essential to first establish the owner’s most fundamental goals and desired outcomes (in other words, a strategic plan)?
  • Wouldn’t they seek to clearly define which problems they are most focused on solving, and for whom (ie their business model and value proposition)?
  • Wouldn’t they want to establish clear financial limits and ensure the funds needed by the owner will be available (ie a budget and pricing strategy)?
  • Wouldn’t they see it as imperative to clearly understand how they will persuade others to buy-in to their ideas (ie a marketing and communications plan)?
  • And perhaps most importantly, wouldn’t they want to ensure that future owners have some guarantee of effective long-term performance and sustainability (ie a succession plan)?

External support

But, I hear you say, “as a trained creative professional, I don’t really have the expertise for any of these business planning tasks.”

Ah, yes.  If you’re a graphic designer, you may not have high level IT skills.  Or if you’re an architect, you probably don’t have detailed engineering expertise.  And if you’re a composer, you’re probably not an orchestra!

But you already know how to deal with these problems – you simply look outside your business and outsource the expertise you need.  Getting some external support can be a really simple and effective way of beginning to turn your passion into a profit.


The reality is that if you’re a creative professional, you will always face the dilemma of pursuing your passion vs generating a profit.  But, just possibly, if you think about and treat the business of your professional practice in the same way as you deal with your creative projects, that dilemma might go a long way towards resolving itself.


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