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The industry as seen by top designers.

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What Happened to Creativity?

An experienced designer doesn't like what she sees in stores.

by Margot Potter, The Impatient Crafterô (September 15, 2008)

I'm writing from the perspective of a professional 

(Note: This is an edited version of an entry in Margot's blog, http://margotpotter.blogspot.com.)

Iím working on two projects for a manufacturer. This weekend I went to three large craft stores in search of specific materials to use for the projects. Imagine my dismay to find that these basic craft items are no longer available at two of the major craft retailers, and one local very large craft warehouse. I was further dismayed to find an array of new products that had me scratching my head in utter confusion.

If Iím going to alter a t-shirt, do I really need a kit? There was an entire aisle of altered t-shirt kits and accessories. Then the most important aspect of this concept was ignored. You should have seen the horrid t-shirts being offered, not a single cap-sleeve or fitted style in the bunch. Besides the lack of attention to style, I had to wonder, isnít the entire impetus behind the DIY movement that we can do it ourselves and do it our way? We donít need no stinking kits. Why not instead offer an array of products we can entirely personalize and then provide t-shirts we might actually wear in public.

I had a video producer once swear to me that he was going to help me make a fabulous demo reel. He said, "We've got your creative." Then he proceeded to hand me off to a paid-by-the-hour intern and I never saw him again. Needless to say my reel wasn't fabulous. I'm starting to wonder if the manufacturers and the big box retailers aren't pulling the same switch? What happened to the creativity in crafting?

As I walked aisle after aisle in search of what I needed, I began to notice the proliferation of skulls and the tattoo flash art. The sparkly skulls, the scary skulls, the cute skulls, the girly skulls, plus the nautical stars, the rose, the stylized swallows, and the hearts Ė is it just me or has the entire Indie aesthetic been boiled down to skulls and flash art?

Of course, the ever present pin-up girl hasnít made it to the main stream because that wouldnít fly at the more conservatively focused craft chains, but in every aisle were the most stereotypical emblems of punk rock being transformed into mainstream icons. It was simultaneously funny and sad.

The biggest problem with the craft industry is the entire disconnect between the customer and the product lines. Do they really think slapping a skull on it makes it cool?! Now, I like a skull as much as the next gal, heck I wear skulls and I craft skull-ly projects, but skulls are not the only thing I craft. Why donít these companies go to Etsy or wander the blogosphere or head to YouTube and see what folks are actually creating? Who does the market research for them?!

The elephant in the room.

Then there was the other rather large and ever imposing elephant in the room. The one no one is talking about. The one that is slowly, stealthily taking over the craft aisles at your local big box retailers. I went to Walmart in my last ditch attempt to find what I was seeking and, lo and behold, almost the entire craft section was transformed into a pretty, perfect, Stepford-wife crafts world courtesy of Martha Stewart.

Now please donít get me wrong. I love Martha. I respect Martha. I think Martha is a marketing genius. But have you seen these craft kits? Theyíre oddly uninspired. Whatís with the felt jewelry kits where you donít even make the felt? Whatís with the 70s era felt animal puppets? Why is it all so ... lacking in personality? Is it just me, or donít you feel that itís all so perfectly perfect you donít want to take anything off of the shelf? Whereís the creative? Whereís the soul? Itís all so planned out for you, thereís no room for your input. Is this really where crafting is headed? If so, I may have to jump off of the train.

Yes, Iíve just effectively blown my chance of ever appearing on the Martha Stewart show. But someone had to point out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. Martha my friend, we love you, but do you really need to take over the craft industry? Canít we share? I mean, we all saw this coming with the keynote speech at CHA, but did we think it was going to be like this? Isnít there room for you and the rest of us? Could you at least spice it up a skootch? It's so ... vanilla frosting on vanilla cake with dragees, frosting swags, and white roses.

The issue of project sheets.

When we got home my husband and I asked each other what happened to the project sheets? How do folks even figure out how to use anything? Why arenít there simple, easy-to-follow how-to sheets, videos, or recordings in every aisle for every discipline showing the Average Jane the basics so she can inject that with her creativity? How can you expect to sell anything if folks donít know how to use it?

The folks who work at these big-box chains donít even know what they stock or how it works. Why arenít the big-box craft retailers approaching it like a big-box hardware store. Shouldnít the employees be empowered to help your customers know what to buy? Shouldnít there be written materials that help to sell your product? Youíd at least think Martha would have project sheets. What happened there?

If the craft industry wants to survive the current economy, thereís going to have to be more outreach and more awareness. Weíre going to have to get the folks who arenít crafting excited about it. Weíre going to have to educate, empower, and inspire. Weíre going to have to work both harder and smarter. We canít do that if we get lazy and complacent. We canít do that by slapping a skull on it and walking away. We need to show the customer how to reuse, renew, and recycle. We have to help them see that crafting is an inexpensive, enjoyable way to pass the time when youíre stuck at home Ė and itís a great way to bring the family together. We have to show them that they can make gorgeous gifts, refresh their wardrobe, and redecorate their homes Ė and itís simple, fun, and affordable.

We have to show them exactly what to use, how to use it, and make it enjoyable for them. Thatís no easy feat, but in my mind there is no better time for crafting than this. This is our time.

So whatís it going to be? Are we going to see more aisles bursting with tired clichťs and bland "no room for creativity" kits, or are we going to start injecting the aisles with innovative, fresh, exciting new approaches? One is going to lead to the Martha-ization of our industry and the other leads to a place where thereís room for all of us to prosper.

It is my entire career focus to inspire you to color outside of the lines, make glorious mistakes, and "create without filtersô." Itís going to get harder if the materials at hand keep getting less interesting.

(Note: Any thoughts on what our stores are Ė or are not Ė doing to educate consumers and foster creativity? Email your thoughts to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)





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