Professional creatives are a different breed. We tend to be doggedly passionate and full of wanderlust, so building strong working relationships with us can take a lot of effort. Because our work is so unique to our perspective– whether it’s a design, a webpage, or even a written document– it’s inherently personal. The best creatives are able to detach themselves from their work and receive objective and constructive criticism, but killing your darlings is a learned skill that doesn’t come naturally to most.
So with all that in mind, I’d like to share a few key tips to help you get the most out of all the makers in your life. Whether they’re on your team or part of an external agency, following this advice will help you get the best quality work out of your designers/writers/developers (etc.), while also making them hungry to do more.
Make Your Creatives Feel Safe
As in all relationships, empathy is everything. If you can establish that you understand where your creatives are coming from, the constraints they’re facing, and provide feedback in a thoughtful, productive way, your creatives are going to become extremely comfortable. When people are comfortable, they allow themselves to be vulnerable and uninhibited, which leads to better quality work and a willingness to take risks.
That’s pretty basic insight into the human experience, but most people don’t realize how much time creative work takes. Whether it’s writing a few paragraphs about a new product/solution or designing something small, like an email or a slide deck, unhinging your creative’s inhibitions will make work happen faster. Often our best ideas tend to align with our intuition, so if we spend less time agonizing over which approach is best, then the time we actually spend doing is much more productive and on-target.
Provide the Right Kind of Feedback
Along with empathy, throw in a healthy dose of compassion with your feedback. I’ve seen this go awry way too often– especially with agencies. You’ll have to gauge how sensitive your creatives are, but I’ve witnessed too many occasions where someone’s feedback was, at best, flippant, or worse, venomous. I’d say this is common sense if not for my own eyewitness account, but you should probably avoid saying anything looks or sounds dumb, or imply that it isn’t important. Nothing takes the wind out of a creative person’s sails like hearing someone deride their work. Remember, even if it doesn’t move the needle, what we do is an extension of ourselves.
Listen, creatives aren’t usually hyper-sensitive– we can deal with candor. But coarse feedback is the number one killer of comfort, and can really set you back. I’ve seen really talented designers submit lackluster work after being beat down by repeated occasions of harsh feedback.
The best method for providing feedback is to make it constructive. Lead with the things you like, then point out what you’d like to change. If you want to go the extra step, ask the creative what they think about the changes. Engaging them at this point makes the whole exchange much more collaborative, and ensures the creative juices keep pumping.
Understand Your Brand
In my own personal experience, it’s shocking how often I’ve received direction that specifically conflicts with our brand guidelines. For designers, this can be anything from logo usage to colors, and for writers, this can be tone of voice or just overall message. A lot of people trust their creatives to be the keepers of the brand and sound the alarm when things start to go off the rails, but it eliminates a lot of wasted time (and revisions) if you have at least a basic familiarity with your brand guidelines. Which makes a nice segue to the next point…
Avoid Revision Hell
Revisions are completely okay, and even an expected part of the process. But when you review someone’s work, give it your full consideration.
Early on in my career, I once designed an postcard to invite our customers to visit our booth at a tradeshow. The design itself was done in 4 revisions. The next 23 (not exaggerating) either involved the logo size/placement, or the font choice. Unless you want to take the time to sit over your designer’s shoulder and cycle through the hundreds of options they have for “cursive” fonts (FYI– we call that script), this amount of revisioning isn’t necessary or productive. Further to the point, it makes your designers feel increasingly inhibited– you don’t want their ideas, you want yours.
Excessive amounts of revisions can also lead to another danger zone:
Discourage Burn Out
Have you ever blown a fuse in your house? This happens when you have too much electricity flowing through it, and it can’t handle the throughput. It literally blows up, and you have to replace it with a new one.
Creatives are like that.
If you have talent in-house, odds are that you only have one or two people outfitted with creative software. When there’s such a narrow bottleneck of creative bandwidth, it can be easy to overwhelm them with minutiae. Design some slides, write a press release, lay out a new brochure… All these things take time, and the average creative is going to treat each one with the utmost attention to detail. Everyone’s breaking point is different, but at some point we all hit our limits. And as any manager knows, replacing good talent is tough and expensive.
So how do you avoid burning out your creatives?
The first thing you need to do is help your creatives prioritize their workload. Sometimes this will be obvious, but other times it can feel like they have 10 equally important business-critical projects with converging deadlines and no latitude for an extension. Clearly communicating the priorities will help focus your creatives, and keep them focused.
Along with prioritization, flexibility is key. Sometimes, those 10 equally important business-critical projects do need to happen at the same time… But most of the time, there is a little leeway. It’s far more important to help your creatives tread water than to allow them to drown under one or two big waves. Making sure they know where there is a little flexibility in their workloads goes a long way towards preserving their effectiveness and productivity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, creatives need to have predictable time off. When we’re on, we’re on. Our brains don’t slow down or stop, which means that we often don’t get the mental rest we need. When things start to get crazy, maintaining a regular routine and sending your team home on time will do a lot more for your team’s efficiency than spending an extra hour at the office or working through the weekend.
Burn out is practically a fatal affliction for the creative marketer. Avoid it at all costs!