By Matthew Ward
Forget returning to the before times. Who really wants to go back there? Frenzied travel. Discontinuity. Half baked ideas. Bad coffee. Never seeing the spring at home. Why do we want any of that back? Not only were parts of it pretty dreadful but how much of it was filler driven by inertia?
Normal will come back no matter what we do. Like memory foam it will refill the void that we now spend so much time discussing or staring into. Some parts will come back slowly. Some parts will be a bit damaged. There will be missing things that misguided fiscal austerity has sucked completely dry. We will remember how vibrant and alive they were in 2019. And there will be new things that we did not know we needed but that are now somehow essential. Things that were pulled into the void and are now taking up space that used to be something else. A chain store that replaced a small mom & pop shop that had been in the neighborhood forever. Strangers at the table at some future design kickoff.
At some level we all know that it will be a simulacrum of what we had before but with a twist. Like someone went back in time and changed something and everything is the same except the most popular soda is Fanta.
Do we want that?
Can we add some structure to the void? Places the memory foam cannot reclaim. Can we just move a few lines and buy ourselves a little more time? Can we stand still a little longer? Listen to the birds. Maybe not have to wake up at 3:00 to go to the airport.
The fashion industry is sitting down to make sense of their calendar. Can we do the same thing in the events industry?
We will miss dinners with friends. Being “a regular” at the local cafe because you have showed up the same two weeks for the last decade (or two). Collaboration on site. Seeing it all come together live (mostly) . The dinners really are good and occasionally there is a bit of drinking and there are some great conversations once you have gotten past the basics and you take a few deep dives into whatever edge case is catalyzing our rapidly depleting supply of teen fandom. But couldn’t we do that in some other way? Some of us live a few miles away from people we only ever see in other random cities.
How many of us have looked back at our notes from three years ago or five years ago and realized that we were still trying to do the same things and never quite getting there. In an industry where there is a sense that we can do everything and see everything by bouncing around the world with endless resources at our backs there are times when it feels like we are going nowhere. Does anyone really remember 2019? The very large companies had pretty much succeeded in shifting most of the profits to themselves. The rental & staging companies were being asked to go net 60 or net 90. A lot of crew positions were being commodified. Manufacturers are expected to refresh largely undifferentiated products every six months. The tech is mostly good enough that a lot of things just work. I don’t mean to say that some of us were not making money. Some of us were doing really well but our industry as a whole was maybe trending toward a community of haves and have nots. Do we really want to just scrub back to where things fell off a cliff and hit the GO button again?
Alternately, think about where we are now? How is it possible that all the travel and the time zone shredding flights manages to be more tranquil than this? Hurtling though a day with Chime, Zoom, Meet, Gotomeeting, Webex, WeChat, BlueJeans, and even the occasional phone call. We can take the frantic sometimes inexplicable all-nighters but now it is days that fade into days that overwrite weekends. The manic search for normalcy is starting to fade and with it maybe 30% of the calls will go away. If we could remove the uncertainty from this it wouldn’t be that bad. People are starting to understand that this is going to be the slog every epidemiologist said it would be. Meanwhile there are less cars, more cooking, less pollution, cleaner water … maybe this has forced us to make some changes we really need to make and being home doesn’t really suck. Did I mention the spring? Be serious for a moment. If we could do this for six months a year predictably and still make a living most of us would go for it, right?
If you said yes it is worth pausing for a moment. Me, I design hardware. If I do my job right I create new capabilities for designers and artists. I have no job at all without travel and events and spaces and people in the spaces — together — at the same time. Right now I am fucked. There is no future where I have an Etsy page and I design cool low res LED fixture plugins for Unreal Engine. But I am a hard yes for that proposition above. In fact I was already moving towards bundling my travel into fewer longer trips each year.
But I also know the moment it is possible that I will be on a plane to China. I think that my desire to scrub back to where this all fell off a cliff and hit the big green go button might be the thing that disturbs me most.