Encouraging creativity while remaining the “boss”
How does one balance the business side of running a design firm with creating an atmosphere that encourages creativity? Well, for starters I believe very strongly that creativity starts with the designers.
If you have a passionate and creative group of talented designers like we do here at Go Media, it’s not too hard to get creative design solutions for our clients. I think you could put this crew into horrible circumstances and they would still find creative solutions.
The natural creative nature of the designers aside, I think the number one way to encourage creativity is empowerment. A designer is always going to put their best effort in when they know they have full control, not an art director, or me, or even their client.
This ideal scenario is not too realistic for a working designer. There is always a boss, (usually) an art director, and almost always a client. At Go Media we have always tried to strip away as many of these restricting forces as possible.
Get Out Of The Way
The vast majority of our design projects involve the lead designer dealing directly with the lead contact on the customer’s end. As much as possible, my job as the boss is to get the heck out of the way. The staff is talented and intelligent – I let them do their job.
On larger projects where there is a need for an art director, we still usually start the project with a phase of mock-ups. In this early phase each designer gets to explore their own particular vision. But once a design is selected, then, unfortunately the rest of the design team needs to get in step and tow the line.
Our efforts must be unified in carrying out the art director’s vision. I think at this point it’s a matter of maturity and respect amongst peers. The “production” designers must have the maturity to understand their role is no longer creative and they need to have respect for whoever is in control of the design.
The “Golden” Rule
Unfortunately, even when there is only one designer working directly with their client, the client invariably has the power. It’s the golden rule: The guy with the gold makes the rule. In this case, the client has the gold so he gets to decide in the end how something is going to look/function.
We try to empower our designers in two ways when it comes to this relationship. First, we need to shift the client’s perspective early on in the sales process. The sales staff “pitches” the skills of our staff and begins to break down the client’s preconceived notions about what their design will be. It’s a process getting a client to trust you, but it’s a necessary part of the process if you want the best results.
We encourage the designers to also make a strong pitch and educate the customer. My staff knows that they’re allowed to go over budget on a project to spend the extra time to design everything twice: one version as the customer has requested it and one version how they want it. This way they can show the customer both options and explain why one is superior to the other.
These efforts don’t always work, and you obviously can’t do this on every project – but the option is there if the designer feels passionate.
Budgets are also a real creativity buster. We all deal with it. Go Media also has a policy called “The Portfolio Piece.” Simply put – if a designer is working on a project and they feel it’s a portfolio quality design but they’re running out of time – they can break the budget to finish it and we will eat the extra hours.
So, with all this empowering going on, how do you stay the ‘boss’? Well, I believe in removing myself (as much as possible) from the power struggle.
The truth is – it’s not the boss vs. the employees. The boss’ best interest is to grow and strengthen the company. This is in the best interest of BOTH the boss and the employees. The things that I, as a boss, need to remain in control of have little to do with creativity.
I need my staff to act professionally. I need to them to take responsibility for their actions, communicate clearly, meet their deadlines, and understand the forces that drive a business.
Go Media is very transparent with our staff about our finances. They understand that if they go over budget on every project it will hurt the company – which will invariably hurt them. So, I think it’s easier to remain in ‘control’ when the staff knows you respect them and they respect your motives when you get upset with them.
When the issue of creative freedom and business dynamics comes up, we talk a lot about balance. There needs to be a balance. We need to get enough boring, well paying work through the door to give us the freedom to do some of the lesser paying, more creative work.