creativity and commerciality – the original love/hate relationship

Today’s post is a guest post written by none other than Samantha Hardman – the head designer behind the clothing label Bento. Like me, she too gave up a lucrative career to pursue her dream (her background is in marketing). Via her blog, Backstage At Bento ( she blogs about the journey of going from working in senior management for a major bank to making her way in the fashion industry with next to no experience. Oh… and in case you’re wondering, yes – there is a relation – she’s my wife!

For many creative people, it’s a dream to be able to make something from their passion. Whether it’s film, fashion, acting, painting, illustrating, modeling, music or something else entirely the goal is often the same – to be able to sustain yourself so that you can be immersed in what you love on a full time basis. The real bummer of course is that all these industries are notoriously hard to break into and in many cases excellence is subjective. For instance, what some people consider art worthy of a six figure price tag and the most prominent position in a prestigious gallery, many of us know we would have been failed for turning in as a work in art school.

In every category of creative pursuits, there is an example of someone who does things their own way and is ridiculously (commercially and critically) successful for it. For the majority though, success in a commercial sense comes down to just knowing what your market wants. Sometimes what you want and what your customer wants will be the same thing. Sometimes they’ll be worlds apart. Often, it’s just necessary to look for an overlap.

I’ve met many creative people over the years that seem to consider commerciality (and reality) to be the enemy of creativity. Conversely, I find them to be the source of creativity. For example in fashion terms, to me anyone can dream up something that has no consideration for sizing, climate, cost, durability, care, fabric availability, hanger appeal and wearability. Where’s the challenge in that? It takes vision, skill and a certain type of person to be able to create something beautiful that takes into account the multitude of factors at play when a customer is not only selecting a garment, but then also becomes an ongoing advocate of your work.

The same can be said for the visual arts. When visiting Italy mid last year, our little travelling posse stumbled into an exhibition featuring photos, paintings, drawings and film around a central theme of contradiction. Noises of people being tortured dubbed over cutesy cartoons and images of pigs being slaughtered to sing-song lyrics were played in dark basement rooms not unlike something you’d expect to see in Guantanamo bay. The pieces in the exhibition were all for sale. Now if I put my uber trendy artsy type hat on, I might review this as an interesting juxtaposition of the best and worst parts of the world or some interesting social commentary about the disparity between positive and negative influences on the youngest generation in society.

But really, if I consider that exhibition as your average consumer (and a marketer) it was actually just very creepy and slightly weird self-indulgent rubbish.

I’m not for an instant suggesting that this sort of work doesn’t have a place in the world. It absolutely does. But in terms of that artist enjoying a financially successful career? Not so great.

This does not mean that you become a sellout. Commercial success, I’d suggest, comes from an artist (designer, illustrator, film maker, etc.) considering who their audience is and then attempting to create work that meet their needs in the artist’s unique way.  

So go forth and capture the world in your own particular way… just think about how (and by who) it will be used. If you want to make any money from it, that is.