Five thoughts for managing the in-house creative process

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By Aaron Templer

The in-house creative environment is a unique one. Unlike an ad agency, client-side creative teams are typically surrounded by more left-brain directed thinkers than right-brainers. There’s not a lot of refuge for the creative mind in a non-agency business. They’ve always reminded me of Hank Morgan in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Strangers indeed, operating with a sort of disorientation: The rest of the joint is kind of a sad lot… quaint, and wrapped up in all the wrong stuff.

It isn’t unusual for the people managing the creative process on the client side to come from non-creative backgrounds. This magnifies the challenges for the creative mind in these environments.

Managing the creative process on the client side is different. Different from what I imagine it to be on the agency side, and different from managing other departments in a business.

There are no templates for effective management, clearly. People are people, wired differently, motivated differently. Maybe you’ve heard this notion: If the golden rule is do unto others as you would be done unto, then the platinum rule is do unto others as they would be done unto. In my experience, nothing could be truer for the unique personalities on creative teams.

Still, there are some general principles that I’ve seen result in better work, better teams, and better engagement. (Not that I’ve been perfect by any means in executing with these principles. See my standing footnote on this subject.)

What are your key principles? And how does this differ in an agency environment?

1. Before offering your opinion, ask why.

Creatives don't pull rabbits out of hats.
Creatives do not pull rabbits out of hats.

It’s easy to get excited about an idea and rush to react without taking a moment to remember that there’s a someone behind the work. Or worse yet, make an assumption that they intuited their way to what you’re reacting to.

The creative mind is every bit as thoughtful as the analytical mind (I could argue more so… but that’s another post). Never assume a creative decision was intuitive, as if designers and writers just plop stuff in there. The time creatives spend before presenting work isn’t some kind of mysterious period of waiting for intangible and mystical inspiration. They’re working through a process.

Ask them about this process. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn, and you’ll probably get better work.

Think about this in the context of the other disciplines in your business. The financial analyst in the cube down the hall? She just invents those models on the fly, right? She’s working on intuition. The plans you present to the boss? No process there. You invent it every single time, I’m sure.

2. As much as we wish to be, we aren’t designers (unless we’re a designer).

Nor should a manager of the creative process.
...nor should a manager of the creative process.

I still remember that day when it dawned on me as a junior marketing coordinator (of sorts): I don’t do creative. I can have an idea or two, but I just don’t do it. Kind of like turning 40 and realizing that there are just certain things you can’t do (or wear) anymore.

Happy birthday. Sucks to be you.

Design might be the fun stuff in your day-to-day duties. But you’re gonna have to let it go. You can be a designer in your next life. It’s disappointing that you can’t participate in the design of the project to the degree you want. But believe me: trusting your designer’s sense of things like balance, negative space, optical center, depth, color, space, and size will result in better work than if you try to add your intuitive design sense to the project. If it doesn’t, then you need a new designer.

Just because the good folks at Microsoft (lodestars of good design, certainly) have trusted us with what we think are design tools does not mean we’re designers. Nor have the everyday opportunities to react to and form opinions about the designs around us given us the required training.

Again, try thinking about this across the other areas of your business. Just because you interact with people everyday does not mean you understand HR. You can prove this by strolling down to your legal department and telling them why the sexual harassment policy is unnecessary (give specific examples of your own behavior and how it gave everyone a good laugh).

3. Business objectives matter.

Without business data, how can you expect creative that aligns to business objectives?
Without business data, how can you expect creative that aligns to business objectives?

Maybe it’s my music background that has always surrounded me with artists who are really good at math (note: I said surrounded… I am exceptionally not a part of that circle myself). But I’ve always had a hard time understanding it when business-minded, analytical-driven professionals assume that the creative people won’t get the business stuff.

Don’t avoid talking to a writer or designer about objectives and purpose. It’s not in your best interest to assume the creative mind won’t understand all the linear, left-brain business data. It’s insulting, you’re stereotyping, and you’re missing an opportunity for insight. It’s a horrible trap to believe that the creative mind will do just fine without knowing what it is you’re trying to achieve.

You know that frustrated, demeaned feeling you get when your boss suppresses your ideas at meetings as if you can’t contribute beyond your job description? As if you won’t understand anything outside of your immediate domain? Don’t think for a minute that the creative mind doesn’t feel any of that. If you think that they’re just artists with day jobs, that the business stuff distracts them, then you’ll get the kind of creative that isn’t aligned with business results.

4. Literal won’t sell it When trying to sell, a literal approach is often the least effective.

Effective. But not terribly inspiring.
Accurate. But not terribly inspiring.

Agency professionals have servers and servers of blog posts and cartoons about the stuffy client. The client that won’t let the creativity (and presumably the effective advertising) flow. Many of these rants and jokes miss the point. It isn’t about a client’s inability to see creativity. It’s about the client-side’s lack and fear of empathy.

The most powerful asset that the creative mind brings to your organization is empathy. Trust it and use it. Whenever you can, but especially when trying to reach the emotions of your customers.

Let your creative team stray away from the literal. Be open to ideas. If a line of copy isn’t making rational sense or is grammatically incorrect, refer back to thought #1 and ask them about their thinking behind it.

Here’s a nice post about the business of eBay vs. the emotions that result from it. Let the creative minds on your team lead you away from talking about the fulfillment center in your business and toward the emotions: the bits of stories that matter to people.

Again: observe other areas in your business. Is a good CEO most effective in inspiring a vision when literal? Metaphors and colorful language tell stories, engage us, and get us to act. Trust the creative minds in your organization to help you with that.

5. There’s crying in creative.

It's hard and pretty scary to let the emotions run.
Dealing with emotions can be scary.

I remember a boss many years ago tell me that I should not get emotional with the creative team. I’m paraphrasing, but she essentially said “They’re an emotional lot anyway, and if you show even the slightest sign of being human it will only escalate.”

I’m not a very emotional guy in the workplace and this last principle is something I really have to work at. That bit of advice could have served as the excuse I needed to not deal with emotions and I think that’s exactly what happens in some in-house environments.

What helps me is keeping in mind the platinum rule. If you can’t connect with people how they need to be connected with, the results will be disconnected. Said another way, treat the creative minds on your team like everybody else and the output will be like everybody else’s.

Not respecting the emotions on a creative team might force out the creative minds who can’t tolerate your style, and they’ll go put all that “irrational” behavior to use with your competition. There’s no reason to believe that the costs of turnover don’t apply to creative departments.

6 Comments

  • Interesting post, but I would like to ask you whether you think that items 2 and 3 contradict each other?

    Disclaimer: I’m a software engineer by profession. But to label me as someone who should avoid design because that’s “not what programmers should do” is limiting. Especially as the third point says not to assume that designers don’t understand business. Perhaps what you mean is that a programmer might want to be open to a designer’s vision and understand their own limitations in design skill. Or simply that User Interfaces built by someone without design experience can be less effective. But to suggest that a programmer should steer clear simply because they can program is incorrect. If that were true then the independent games market would be non-existent.

    A better tip for programmers and designers hoping to better support the creative process is to for them to read up on the other discipline. Get a bit of knowledge, then understand and get to know the people you’re working with. Knowing them as people and knowing their profession makes it a lot easier to translate between the disciplines when communicating. It can give much greater understanding and enhance collaboration when the designer understands why they can’t have reflections and the developer understands why a lot of tabs is not an accessible feature.

  • Aaron Templer

    Thanks for the comment Si. And for pointing out that the graphic I chose totally contradicts what it is I’m trying to say. For some reason I didn’t make that connection. I’m glad you pointed it out.

    I don’t necessarily think numbers 2 and 3 contradict each other, although I see your point. As I hear it: how can I say that a manager needs to be open to the idea that a designer can have the ability to understand things beyond design while at the same time suggesting that a manager can’t understand design? That’s fair.

    The post is directed at managers. I wanted to make it clear that they shouldn’t meddle in design and they need to trust the talents of the people they hire. Micro-managing design is like micro-managing anything else, a point lost on many managers in my experience.

    Thanks for offering your programmer’s perspective. And for the tip to help “translate” between the disciplines.

  • You’re welcome. Micro management is a problem in a lot of areas. We are currently working with the Kanban process and trying to define a few things that will enable us to avoid micro management. By creating a process that negates the need for constant management, but allows for constant feedback we hope to try and prevent instances where disciplines clash. A holy grail perhaps, but experience in agile methodologies over the past 5 years are leading us to forever better processes.

    For example, we have strict 2 week cycles, and must demonstrate our progress at these points to stakeholders. Feedback from these go towards our “what’s next?” meeting where we assess the previous 2 weeks, the feedback and the current state of play on the project as a whole and decide what to spend the next two weeks doing. IT might be new tangents, new prototypes or concepts, refining existing stuff, throwing stuff away, etc.

    This should allow the talents to shine through – the regular check up should inspire trust and hopefully lead the manager way from a daily meddle and allow the team to flourish.

    We’ll see how it works out!

  • urban cowgrrrl

    Can you please forward this to every possible client, agency, and company that might use a designer? Maybe drive around the block on a loud speaker. That would be super, thanks.

    There are so many great points here, and to have it come from “the other side” instead of a designer’s rant is really affirming.

    I am wondering what you think (as someone from the “other side”) a designer should do when the micro-management beast rears its ugly head. Of course, you should talk to someone about it productively. But, it is particularly difficult when there are very few creatives, let alone maybe one, to get the trust you need to make great design.

    Don’t they know that it is also in the designer’s interest to have business be a great success?

    Thank you!

    • Aaron Templer

      Well hello urban cowgrrl. Thanks for swinging by.

      If you have the truck with the speaker (and can be a designated driver) I’ll gladly preach.

      I think the key here is to remember that bridging these gaps is two ways. You have to understand how the left-brain mind works just like you expect them to understand how the right-brain mind operates. Which is challenging as hell.

      My first thought is to not wait for the beast to rear its head. Develop a relationship upstream. Before the stressful moment even happens. You’re a creative mind, so use your empathetic skills to appreciate where the beast is coming from. What keeps them up at night? What are the pressures they’re dealing with? What kinds of bullshit is dumped on them by *their* boss?

      Dealing with it in the heat of the moment will likely prove fruitless. Work on it upstream. They’ll best understand that it’s in the business’ best interest to leverage their designer’s talent when they aren’t under pressure.

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