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12 tips on how to manage a creative

A good friend of mine has joined a small but exciting business and has found himself in the position of managing a new, fresh-faced and enthusiastic designer. He wanted a few pointers to be a good mentor and keep them inspired in a company that doesn’t have an established creative department or design culture as such. The below was my reply.

I should point out that it’s not exhaustive, I was a ‘off the top of my head’ thing and I’m not teaching them to suck eggs and explain the basics of how to be creative.

Please do feel free to comment if you have any suggestions to add. I’m more than happy to make this a useful guide that others can benefit from.

So, Dino’s tips for managing creatives, in no particular order…

1) Logic beats hunch
First of all… “Logic beats hunch” is always my mantra. If you have actual reasons to back up a design element or strategy, you’ll win most times. Getting into a “But I like red!” debate with someone senior and having to give way to authority / stronger will is always the road to ruin (or mild grumbling) for a designer. If you perfer blue, then “Blue is well known as a signifier of trust or safety, that’s why banks and blue chip companies use it… Red means fast, frenetic, passionate… That’s why McDonalds use it. We shouldn’t use red for a product that aims to make sure people drive slowly to get money off their insurance”. “Oh, ok. Fair point. Carry on…” So my first piece of advice is always challenge them to make sure they have the logic to back their concepts up. It’s why planners are so (rightfully) smug when they know their strategy is watertight. It’s a great feeling when you have. You’re unbeatable… or at least, you’re impervious to attack. So encourage an understanding with your designer that you’ll always do a friendly bit of challenging, then ask awkward questions in a sort of “I’m training you to defend yourself, like Mr Miyagi” way. Sure, they may have to stay up the night before a pitch to make sure they have the ammunition, but that’s called preparation. All the successful people do it.

2) Vive la différence
Then, make sure they’re allowed to use a Mac if they want. Even if a PC is better. Use a mac. It’s makes creatives feel like they aren’t part of the business world. Most developers I know use Macs too, so it’s a big club now. Oh, and never wear a suit. Send her home if she does. You rely on her to portray the boundless rule-breaking and thinking-different that other corporates don’t do. You want her to be in a meeting and look smart. But edgy. Knowing this is how you need to behave and you have permission… And the role to be ‘the creative one’ is empowering.

3) Act on stats
Small point but big implications… Try to foster a culture of looking at results and feeding them back into the cycle. Don’t launch and forget. Launch and learn.

4) Take them to meetings
Take them to meetings. They will hear the same things as you but hear different things to you (well, not YOU, but you know what I mean). By the time a suit or account person has ‘relayed what they said’, a creative in the meeting would have already started to form ideas and use the rest of the meeting to shape it and ask questions. Even if the meeting doesn’t seem immediately relevant, seeing what makes a client tick, where they get animated and how their role sits in the politics of their organisation (and the industry) is invaluable in making sure your creative solution ‘ticks their boxes’.

5) Let creative present their ideas
And on the meetings thing, always try and take her to present THEIR work if that’s what you guys do. My not be relevant but a creative is ALWAYS best to present creative. Can even be an internal show and tell format each month, so their contribution and ideas is publicly recognised. If they come across as shy, then give them some confidence training. Even if they are shy, a designer will often come alive when describing their vision. Sure, a bullish new biz person may come across as more eloquent or confident, but the rawness of a passionate creative will win every time.

6) Encourage their other passions
Find out what makes them tick too. It’s always an important part of an interview for a new designer. What else are they into? Why? I’ll even reject some interviewees as their outside passions come across so strongly, it seems wrong to offer them a job that doesn’t indulge their real passion. Designing should be a passion, not just a job. Of course, if they have complimentary passions, fantastic. Get to know them. They may have some useful or left-field interests that can be incorporated into the daily routine. If they’re into baking, instigate a Monday Cake rota. If they’re into fine art, get them to make something once a month and put it in reception. If they’re into music, get them to make the music for a promotional animation or similar. Often ‘design’ is only a minor part of why people become designers.

7) Give them a roadmap to progress
If possible, create a roadmap for progression. Design is a vague beast at the best of time so it’s easy to get ‘lost’ in the journey, with no hard boundaries for reference or peer approval. Training is an easy thing. Define what skills you may require for a new project element, or whether you will need an assistant in 12 months, or basic proficiency in certain areas need to be attained to get the next pay increase. Putting a structure and goals in a creative environment can be great totem pole to work around and gives ‘business types’ a tangible reason to reward behaviours they want to see encouraged. Normally they have no idea how to quantify how good a creative is. Most creatives don’t either.

8) Don’t get stuck in a rut
Monotony is your key enemy. If a good designer is good at media creative, after 20 banners, they’ll hate it. Be wary of assigning designers to client teams or content types too. This is a hang-up from tradition ad agencies. Creatives don’t sign up to be factory workers so variety is critical. The added benefit being that the more variety and experience they get, the better and more enthusiastic their output will be, even if it’s an ad one day. If you do get into a rut of producing the same stuff or prodding the same design in ever more granular ways, get a cheap freelancer to take it on and free up the designer you actually care about to do the inspiring things. Never get a freelancer in to take on that exciting project because your in-house designer is maxed out doing dull work. You’ll start seeing CVs ‘accidentally’ left on the printer before long.

9) Pay well
Make sure you’re paying the going rate, if not above for the fact they are not in a creative cauldron. Designers are usually willing to take a pay hit to be around creative and inspiring mentors. Unfortunately, creatives also go for beers with their creatives and inevitably talk about their respective deals. The grass is always #00FF00 on the other side of the fence, so make the fence as tall as you can, and put cakes on your side.

10) Allow them the space to fail
If you are their line manager, a big part of it is upward management – how they manages you. Crucial to this is how much room you give them to explore and maneuver your position too. The worst scenario is micro-managing a design (especially bad if the manager isn’t a trained, and practicing creative). The best scenario is one where you give them room to try and fail… and learn from it. As they say, “if you don’t crash, you ain’t riding hard enough”. Rarely is a design business critical, or at least can’t be finessed later. It may affect effectiveness, but as long as you are looking at tracking and results, they will learn next time and it WILL be better in the long run. So give them some slack. Bite your lip occasionally but do challenge when you have to. Nobody likes a yes man.

11) Stay curious
Visit some inspirational sites or follow people on Twitter. No-brainer but it’s sometimes hard to remember to do this in a busy day. What’s on the FWA? What’s headlining on the Apple App Store? What’s the latest Google Chrome Experiment? What’s Mr Doob up to now? What won the Creative Review award or the yellow pencil? What’s the latest LOLcat/planking/batmanning/whatever meme? For instance, if you’re targeting the youth insurance sector, you need to communicate on THEIR terms, not an insurance / tech company’s terms. I’m not saying you go all “We Buy Any Car Dot Com”, but be aware of you’re audience’s visual language expectations, not the insurance industry’s. We witty, be funny, be serious when you have to. Maybe use a cat.

12) They will leave one day. Have no regrets.
I know it’s not what you want to tell them, but they won’t (and shouldn’t) be there for ever. You should make this clear you know how this workd. You’d LOVE them to be there of course, but change and variety is more important. It also gives them the explicit knowledge that hiring people around them to do their job frees them up to do more important things and achieve higher goals. Again, may not be relevant but the point is an important one, you are responsible for delivering them to their next job full of creativity and passion, thinking you were the best place for them to have been. I know I think that of my first company. Make sure you enjoy the time you have together. Work hard to make it enjoyable. Being honest, supportive and make sure your company is the BEST place for them to be. The circle of life will continue… may as well enjoy the ride.

I’m sure there are other things I’ve missed but it’ll hopefully point you in the right direction.

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