Put your biggest perceived weakness front and center.

Put your biggest perceived weakness front and center.

Barneys New York filed for bankruptcy protection. The once iconic fashion retail epicenter has not necessarily collapsed into itself, but times are not what they were. Under the relevant statute, Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code, the debtor usually proposes a reorganization plan to keep its business alive and pay creditors over time. Barneys may yet emerge stronger and better able to cope with an enormously changed marketplace. But whatever happens, the story behind the retailer’s recent window graphics creates an important business teachable moment.

As reported by AIGA’s Eye on Design, designer and now Wieden + Kennedy New York global creative director Richard Turley’s project brief called for tackling “the perception that the stores have shuttered. Our job was to make sure people know that those stores are still very much open for business.” Turley met the challenge directly, dominating the windowscape with typography exclaiming that Barneys was most definitely NOT CLOSED. A creative solution injecting wit and transparency into an otherwise rather bleak brand situation.

But is the appropriate use of humor and boldness the only lesson creatives can take from Barneys (even if the brand has it at hopefully a deep discount?) Perhaps not. The above article also quoted Turley on how denying the Barneys situation would be “silly” and much less interesting than putting their “biggest perceived weakness”—the consumer perception that the windows could as likely have shouted about a going-out-of-business sale–“front and center.” The lesson from his (correct) assessment is not that creatives should somehow flaunt business weaknesses they may have. It’s that they should not be afraid to confront aspects of their businesses that may be weak. Creative business problems will not just go away, and it’s just as silly to pretend they will, or to fear that they can’t be solved.

What kinds of business problems? In Barneys case, it was largely stratospheric rents that overwhelmed a flagship retail brand struggling against online competition. In your case, it might be an inability to enforce your right to be paid for completed work. Or to monetize the value of your intellectual property rights. Maybe even, like Barneys, to be up against a commercial landlord with a lease that you should not have accepted.

You can face those and other legal and business issues directly without fear by not doing so alone. We are happy to work with small creative boutiques and freelance creative professionals to bring regular access to experienced attorney guidance down to Earth. Turley’s window designs provided a somewhat circuitous path to that point. Yet that’s just the kind of path one stumbles down by failing to tackle business problems. Bankruptcy may seem a long way off, but a designer or other creative professional who understands the business and legal side of the creative industry is much less likely to get anywhere close. If handling such issues is a weakness in your creative practice—and you perceive that you need to do something about it—you’ve taken a giant leap in the right direction.

Dane Johnson
djohnson@inspirationspaceship.com