When architect Michael Nicolson lost his job at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at the height of the recession, he faced the usual flood of emotions. The future looked bleak, of course, and questions swirled about what to do next. That’s when Nicholson, who was 46 at the time, discovered Cards of Change, a website launched last year that is aimed at creative types who have hit the unemployment lines.
The idea is simple: upload your old business card with an added message about yourself that is upbeat or inspiring or insightful, to you or others. “Michael will be creative again,” Nicholson printed in big red letters that overshadowed the card's small typeface. That didn’t lead directly to a job, “but it was therapeutic,” he explains. “It made a statement, not about what to do next but that whatever comes next will be better than what I was doing before.”
With unemployment stuck at stubbornly high levels and the number of long-term jobless reaching new heights, posting quirkily redesigned business cards might not seem the quickest route to a paycheck. But if nothing else, design can provide an outlet for creative expression or just plain ranting. The website’s creator, Tom Van Daele, a former creative director at ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day (he was laid off) says it’s a way to put out a message. ”They grab the card and turn it into almost an artwork or write deep thoughts and share it with a community.” The idea for the website originated with a campaign Van Daele's new studio, Unknownlab, created for Artemide, the Italian lighting company, which offered discounts on lamps to home-office workers and entrepreneurs “to encourage creativity during grim times.” Cards of Change was pitched as a second phase of the campaign but the client stepped back, allowing Unknownlab to launch the site on its own.
About 200 cards are currently on the list, with messages like “I am going to law school!” and “Design what we need, not what we want.” While some cards announce immediate plans like taking a vacation (“Gone for a long holiday”) others are Oprah-esque take-charge-of-your-life chants, ranging from “Time to start my own company” to “I’m moving forward with my dream.” Many of the cards feature handwritten exhortations executed in a dramatic scrawl with the company name obscured or obliterated, adding a note of defiance.
For Erik Proulx, who was laid off from his job as a senior copywriter at a Boston ad agency, posting a card coincided with his post-employment project of making an inspirational film about laid-off people who now have the time — and presumably the financial resources — to reinvent themselves. His card, which now urges “please feed the animals,” and the film, called Lemonade, “were inspired by each other,” Proulx says. The film was a hit on Hulu and picked up by Sundance Channel for global distribution, and a second documentary focusing on Detroit is in the works. Proulx’s Feed the Animals website has become a blog for “aspiring entrepreneurs and the recently unemployed.” He is pursuing a new career as a director. “Nobody really responded to my card,” Proulx acknowledges. “But if nothing else it raised awareness about retooling your skills, and seeing other people change reinforces my own path.”