The Creativity Subscription

Subscription models are changing the way we think about products, services, and the creativity and tools that shape them.

Two articles that might seem unrelated appeared in my feed one morning: one on creativity and the other on subscription-based business models.

Writing for Vox, Terry Nguyen looks at how the business and arts sectors have come to a shared place through subscriptions during the pandemic. With many people at home with time on their hands, the subscription-boom began. Subscriptions provide creators with a simple way to market-test ideas using a pay-per-use model. Subscriptions for content have exploded far beyond traditional avenues like news and video streaming to almost anything.

While these business models were accelerated by the pandemic, will they last? Nguyen thinks so.

What’s more interesting is: will the creativity that fueled these models last?

Business Models & Systems

Subscription models are attractive because they provide convenience and capitalize on our lack of attention to small details. They also are predicated on cognitive distortions about price. For example, if you were to purchase access to a single article on a website for $10 you might find it high relative to an annual fee of $25 for an unlimited number of articles. Rather than engage in multiple transactions over the course of a year a subscription means a single transaction. If you choose to auto-renew, this means effectively zero transactions per year.

In the arts, subscription models provide a means of modern-day patronage. The content-sponsorship service Patreon draws its name from the term patron. Many people feel a sense of obligation, respect, and pleasure in supporting artists and early entrepreneurs. Subscriptions provide a means to give back.

For corporate products, this is different – especially for digital products. My subscription to services like Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, or Surveymonkey are requirements because they are tools of my trade and nearly unavailable for purchase as a stand-alone product. Here, the subscription is a means of tethering people to ongoing fees. It’s also a way to keep you using the product for fear of losing what you’ve invested in. For example, failure to continue the subscription on a product loses access to much of what was developed from that product.

This limits our ability to create or to use the tools we have become used to in shaping our creation.

Creative Lock-in

‘Lock-in’ is a way of creating a path-dependence toward a specific set of processes and outcomes. It’s what comes from a process called dominant design, where one model of doing things becomes the norm above other options.

Creativity thrives on having variety, consistency, and persistence in our practice. Access to tools provide this. A dominant design can create standards of practice and the means to communicate and share things easily. Remember when Macs and PC’s didn’t speak to each other? Now think of how easy it is to work across platforms with tools like Chrome and with open standards. Chrome is one type of dominant design.

But these kinds of dominant designs come at a creative cost, too. With a dominant design alternatives become very difficult to choose and use. When our tools for creation are held under a subscription model how does that shape what we create? If we have sunk costs into a product subscription like Miro will it change what we visualize over time? Will it limit the kind of things we create together? (I can argue we might have the same limits if we purchased software, too).

Awareness of what we create and how our tools shape that creation is what matters.

As the subscription business model evolves the challenge for creators will be reconciling with the benefits of business and the limits of creation. Will we lock-in or lock-out our innovations as a result?

Photo by XPS on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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