Change is inevitable. Change occurs with the presence of a catalyst. In 2019, a catalyst of change was the COVID-19 pandemic which triggered worldwide distress. According to the World Health Organization (2020), there were 34,804,348 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported globally as of the 4th of October 2020. However, whether the severe loss of lives kickstarted something good or bad very much depends on individuals to decide.
The success of a business endeavour highly depends on its leadership. The decisions made during the pandemic will dictate the outcome and condition of the business post-pandemic. In the realm of art and design, businesses related to this field are no different than others in terms of producing and selling services or goods. In the end, some may survive the crisis, some may not.
Creative director of Studiobehind90 design agency, Lai Thing Sheng, and Beatrice Ho of Ohbeatricee’s watercolour illustrations, are two of the many business owners who had to deal with the consequences of this pandemic. Lai is the sole owner of his design agency and has employees to help him deliver illustration-based design services, whereas Beatrice specialises in personalised watercolour illustrations as a freelancer. Both Lai and Beatrice began their creative businesses to achieve creative freedom and lifestyle liberation. Unfortunately, these ideals were tested by the pandemic.
During any crisis, creative leaders and entrepreneurs must question the purpose of their businesses. Can the creatives tick all of the boxes needed to be successful or are the boxes themselves irrelevant in the new normal? Many art and design business leaders faced a drastic decline in engagement and sales that then affected mental health and loss of manpower. The severity of the situation brought about the need to ask existential questions — Is this a good time to adapt and evolve a business amidst a pandemic? Instead of staying stuck in a rut or whacked against a brick wall, they each decided to climb out and break through to keep moving forward.
The pandemic labelled the art and design industry as ‘nonessential’.
The pandemic labelled the art and design industry as ‘nonessential’. A harsh truth realised by design business owners such as Lai and Beatrice. With every shortcoming comes the opportunity to adapt for the future of art and design. Beatrice faced an issue in interacting with customers during the various phases of the Movement Control Orders (MCO). Due to the lack of physical engagement, she turned to digital marketing as she could no longer depend on bazaars and events. “I pivoted in terms of my business model by learning more about marketing so that I am using social media differently now. I look at my digital space and question its effectiveness, content engagement, or potential to serve as conversation starters,” said Beatrice. The pandemic has forced us to think beyond the traditional cardboard box to overcome challenges.
One of the key changes encountered by artists and design business owners is the will to be more disciplined and productive instead of just waiting for things to happen. Lai advises that businesses should consider the opportunity to pivot to something new during a crisis. “My biggest pivot is that I became a creative director for two other companies besides my own. It helped me pivot my business to a consultation basis instead of just illustration and design.” However, he reminiscences on the missed opportunities to conduct more online workshops. Fortunately, the level of panic had not caused designs to be cheaper or for him to work in other jobs, or to have to abandon the business specialization. “If I had not panicked, I would have done more,” Lai adds.
“When a business owner panics, he/she may become insecure, and make unwise decisions that will affect the future of the business,”
The stability of a business owner’s mental state plays a role in aiding rational decision making and maintaining a healthy work environment. In the beginning of the pandemic, many artists and design business owners suffered artists’ blocks and demotivation that brought about panic, anxiety and negativity. Some are unable to resist the urge to indulge in feeling bad about the pandemic, but there is only so long to wallow in self-pity and the unknown. As an employer, Lai is familiar with making difficult decisions. “When a business owner panics, he/she may become insecure, and make unwise decisions that will affect the future of the business,” explained Lai.
During the pandemic, many employers made the difficult choice to let go of their staff due to poor business. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), as of 28th May 2020, 3.3 billion workers worldwide have faced loss of jobs and reduced working hours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2020). Loyalty is tested between the employer and employees. There are so-called better instances whereby employees would face pay cuts and be encouraged to work from home. In worse cases, employees face instant retrenchments. “There is no perfect solution in this case”, says Lai. By maintaining his employees, Lai gained more in the long run. “I held on to my employees but as a result, I burned a lot of cash throughout the half of the year. I had to cut salaries eventually just to stop the losses. If I fired employees, I would have had to rehire new employees and retrain them which would amount to more time and money eventually.” Depending on the scale of the business, some decisions fetch more value than others.
To make mistakes is to be human. We can learn from the wrong decisions made today, and make better decisions tomorrow. Young and upcoming designers or artists can learn from the current crisis. Beatrice advises to “not wait for headhunters to find you. Learn to pick and decide for yourself on what you want to become and who you want to be.” Lai advises design business owners to ensure that their business model grows. “You should take things into your own hands and be brave to pivot your business.” The future can be bright—if you will it to be.
Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Malaysia Economic Statistics Review (Vol. 1). Department of Statistics Malaysia. Retrieved from: https://www.dosm.gov.my/v1/uploads/files/1_Articles_By_Themes/External_Sector/MESR/Malaysia_Economic_Statistics_Review-Vol-1-2020.pdf
World Health Organization. (2020). Global situation of confirmed cases. WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. Retrieved from: https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=CjwKCAjwiOv7BRBREiwAXHbv3BNklKYSEvQFly5WopgRs3VLihwz-Jxmpi-WjftfYEwrCzS4ClyovRoCkRYQAvD_BwE
Studiobehind90 (2018). Figure 1.0 [Experience Malaysia mural art]. Source: https://studiobehind90.com/bookoflai/
Ho, B. (2018). Figure 2.0 [Watercolour illustration workshop]. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BzNjFvEHaN3/