Archive for category: Creativity

IGDA Recap | Meeting, Hearing, Learning, Talking, Confirming

It took me a moment, but I’ve finally caught up after the IGDA’s Leadership shindig. The conference was amazing! It drew people from across the globe and I walked away with new perspectives and renewed enthusiasm. My personal highlights were:

  • Meeting lots of interesting, friendly people who made me feel very welcome. My lack of video game knowledge meant I talked to anyone and everyone, ignorant of any cool kid status.
  • Hearing from firm and team leaders that are experimenting with how they structure work, manage teams and train their leaders.
  • Learning about video game design and comparing their creative processes with other design industries.
  • Talking with people that place such a high value on developing their ability to manage people. Clearly this industry has found the value in developing leadership skills, in part because project teams are so large and complex.
  • Confirming that creative management ideas translate across creative industries by participating in conversations about team and firm management.

The most valuable part of the conference was certainly how much it expanded my network of creatives. I’m excited about the people I met and am looking forward to bringing their perspective  into this conversation about managing creative work .


Fear and the Art of Creation

I’ve talked before about the importance of failure in our creative processes. But knowing that failure can be good is one thing; practicing it is something else entirely. Taking big risks promises uncertainty, judgement (of ourselves and from others) and the possibility that we might just look stupid. Anyone involved with creativity or innovation deals with these fears, myself included.

Today I came across this illustration from a talk that Chris Guillebeau and Jonathan Fields did on fear in the midst of creation:

Fear and the Art of Creation: SXSW 2011

It points at all the voices in our heads that keep us from taking risks; they can be paralyzing. But life without creativity is boring. Sitting still, waiting for things to happen, being certain — boring.

So in response, today I gave myself permission to leap. I decided to apply to two conferences, speaking about managing creativity in your company. (p.s. public speaking scares me to no end.) In the process, one of my mentors invited me to speak with him about working in teams at another conference in October. Ack! (Let’s say that’s an excited ‘ack’.) And so I have taken some baby step towards expanding this conversation about managing creativity.

What is your fear keeping you from doing? What could you do to ‘act in the face of uncertainty’? Give yourself permission, take your first baby step…

Creative Exodus: A Call to Action

In the last couple of weeks I’ve talked with three designers who already have or are planning to leave their respective design industry. In the last year? Dozens. In fact, this exodus of young designers has been part of my motivation for researching management in creative industries.

Some people just switch creative industries, others leave to become bartenders, Apple Geniuses, sculptors, musicians. But nearly all of these truly talented designers had the same reason for leaving (hint: it’s not the economy) – how they were being managed made them hate their work. It makes me sad, and worries me.

Creative industry leaders, take note!!

The future of design and your firms is quietly fleeing. Their flight may be hard to see in the midst of a recession, but in the long haul it will impact design quality and access to talented designers. Now is the time to take action, to  rethink how your firm is managing design and its people.

I…um, I mean we

This week’s episode of Project Runway (a guilty pleasure, don’t judge) was an amazing example of  “this is what you should do in a team” vs “this is what you should NOT do in a team”.

The designers were divided into two teams of five and charged with creating three fabric prints and then incorporating them into a five piece clothing collection. What ensued was a clear demonstration of the effect of team dynamics on design quality.

Team Chaos (oddly enough) benefited from having five of the more pleasant personalities and similar design aesthetics. Their inspiration — the Rorschach ink blot — was apparent in their final designs. While each person was ultimately responsible for one piece, they said that there was a bit of everyone in every piece because they worked so collaboratively. Their tasteful, cohesive collection made them the clear winners of the challenge. Yay team!

Team Nuts and Bolts suffered from two bullies while the other team members got railroaded, played peacemaker or just divested themselves completely. No one was happy with the theme they chose, and without direction the result was a hot mess. Five designers (all watching out for number one) made five individual designs, not a collection. These talented designers (four of whom have won previous challenges) became worse together. It was painful to watch.

Evidence Against ‘Suits vs. Creatives’

My recent chat with Schell Games peaked my curiosity about the video game design industry and led me to some interesting research. Dr. Ethan Mollick, from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that while a game’s designer certainly impacts its success (defined as revenues and critical acclaim), it is the producer who really shines.

His research eludes to the producer’s essential role in facilitating creative teams – providing motivation, helping guide design direction and making sure that great ideas are executed in a meaningful way. It’s not the producer who is the super-star, but rather that they  help the team become a collective super star. The team becomes more than a sum of its parts, it is an entity that exceeds the abilities of any one individual.

How many of you have labored under an amazing designer who is a horrible project manager or creative director? How can a team be better together when their team leader is a poor communicator, creates divisions or demotivates them? Project management should be seen is a responsibility that requires amazing people and team management skills, not a reward for being a great designer.

I believe strongly in changing how we think about and do creative work. Despite the reservations (and adamant arguments) of some, there is now a bit more proof of the benefits of creating truly integrated design experiences.

Creative Firms of the Future | Part 3: Where We’re Heading

In the midst of these changes, the structure and hierarchy of the old organizational models struggle. Our firms and leaders have to evolve, because it will be the organizations that are comfortable with ambiguity and disruption that will survive and thrive. To be competitive creative firms will need to look like this:

Organizations like this, dubbed a network structure, address both the challenge of fewer managers and a less structured work environment. Collaboration is high and people regularly work cross-functionally, integrated across departments, design disciplines or firms with little hierarchy. Some of these grey dots will be employees, others may be flex-time contractors or firms that you partner with regularly.

Leaders in these organizations need a different skill set than those in the more clearly defined functional or matrixed firms. They are masterful orchestrators and communicators, rather than just senior designers and project managers. They will have to maximize their bandwidth and resources by:

  • sharing decision making across the organization
  • integrating the creative and business functions of their firms
  • embracing disruption to drive innovation
  • maximizing and integrating the diverse skills of their staff

As  current or future leaders in creative firms, these ‘soft skills’ will be your biggest asset. If you want to be ready, don’t focus on building just your technical skills; focus too on shaping the way you (and your team will) work, lead and manage.

Creative Firms of the Future | Part 2: Change Is Gonna Come

As much as we dream about change and ‘making things better’, most people avoid it like the plague. We choose comfort over progress, especially when it comes to how we run our businesses because change = risk. But the reality is that our economy, workforce, clients and technology are all hurrying us toward having to change our business models. Here’s how…

Org Structure 101

For you non-business majors out there, some business foundation for you.

Historically, many organizations have looked like this – what an MBA might call a functional structure. Many of your firms may look like this, with the Partners at the top, and senior designers heading up silos that may be defined by project type or location.

Or this – a matrix structure. These are more commonly found in larger corporations and may blend project types and geographical silos.

Both of these structures have clear hierarchy and chain of command. They have silos of professional expertise and norms for how information and resources are distributed. While these structures have served us well in the past, external forces are putting pressure on these models, especially for project-based design firms.

The Forces of Change


As the Baby Boomer generation looks to retirement in the next decade, a demographic shift looms. Gen X, at 40 million, is half the size of the Baby Boomers’ 80 million. This disparity means there are half as many experienced professionals to fill the ranks. With fewer managers available, the role of a manager and the skills required to do the job will have to evolve. In addition to being half the size, the leadership and work styles of Gen X are markedly different from their predecessors.


As I’m sure you’re aware, technology’s rapid development and integration into our work means continuously altering the way we design and manage project teams. Communication and knowledge have become faster, more frequent, and more inclusive. Tech tools are blurring the lines between our professional and personal lives and dismantling the idea of the traditional office environment. For example, firms are increasingly using contract workers to provide flexibility in their services or capabilities. Studio Verde Creative, the firm I mentioned in my last post, is a perfect example.

Where We’re Heading

In my next post I’ll discuss some of the impacts these changes will have on organizations and leaders.

Creative Firms of the Future | Part 1: It’s Only Just Begun

I spent last week in Montana working on branding and web design for my dad’s consulting business. While I was there I met Amy Coseo, owner of a marketing and communications design firm called Studio Verde Creative. After years spent as an account manager in design firms, Amy decided to venture out on her own. She now marries the roles of ‘creative’ and ‘suit’, acting both as account manager and creative director for her projects and then bringing in contracted designers for each project. This approach allows her the flexibility to match designers’ skills with projects and gives her complete control over schedules and budgets. Sounds pretty fantastic for both Amy and her clients!

Amy’s business model is reflective of some research I did in grad school around the structure of creative organizations and how they might shift to address our changing economy and workforce.  In some upcoming posts I’ll talk a bit about those ideas, their impact on future creative leaders and the skills they’ll need to succeed.


The Value of Design | Architecture in Britain

The value of design is a subject long argued — an ongoing push-pull between designers and those that pay the bills. Today’s Monocolumn (a favorite daily of mine) discusses just that, the value of architectural design in schools being built under the British government’s Building Schools for the Future program.

Having spent years working in architecture, I understand the implicit benefits of well-designed buildings, whether that is worker productivity, students’ attention span or the long-run cost of utilities and upkeep. However, translating that to clients who must answer to today’s budget restrictions is often difficult. Many architects believe that design has been devalued, and thus is ‘value-engineered’ out of many projects. My fear is the long-term cost of that devaluation to our society and/or industries.

I’m sure architecture is not the only creative industry facing this obstacle. What does this challenge look like in your industry? What ideas do you have for conveying the benefits of good design to clients?

Are You Messing With the Secret Sauce?

A friend of mine recently attended the 99% Conference in NYC; after a presentation by Scott Belsky there was a Q&A about the challenges faced in managing creative teams. A few audience members posed questions like:

“I’ve got these wildly creative 20-year-olds, and I’m not sure how to get them to focus or meet deadlines! I want them to be free to do what they want, as not to stifle them, but how do I get them to deliver?”

“When I tell my team they can go crazy with an idea, nothing gets done, but when I ask them to deliver, they get frustrated, and push back! Help!”

She said “the room became divided between the ‘let them go nuts and hope for the best’ camp and the ‘give them structure, tell them NO, give them boundaries’ school of thought.” This is a familiar argument – whether or not we should mess with the ‘secret sauce’ of creativity.

Creative theory says that the freedom and challenge provided to an individual and good team dynamics drive good creative process. These ideas don’t have to be at odds with each other. It is possible to give people freedom, adhere to schedules and budgets AND discourage bad behavior; though it requires good communication and may buck some traditional tenets of project management. Here’s what I mean:

Freedom + Direction
Give people control over their own process, but make sure you provide them with a clear vision for where they’re heading. Without that vision, people can flounder inside the great expanse of available possibilities; thus burning through budgets and becoming frustrated (read: mouthy).

Challenges > Constraints
Budgets and schedules can stretch people’s capabilities and force them to problem solve, if they’re reasonable. If you’re getting a TON of pushback from your team:

a) evaluate whether you’re putting together reasonable goals
b) pose budgets/schedules to your team as challenges rather than constraints

Budget Management Reality Check
Know that sometimes blowing the budget is just a creative enjoying their art. While not meeting deadlines is bad and impacts client relationships, a salaried employee is a fixed cost and additional hours worked probably don’t impact the firm’s profitability. If they want to work extra hours and it isn’t negatively impacting the schedule or other projects, just write those extra hours off as an investment in your employee’s happiness (read: productivity, company loyalty, attendance) and move on.

Setting Boundaries: Uncomfortable But Worth It
Someone who is acting out reduces your credibility as a manager, severely impacts the team’s cohesiveness and hinders their own success. My psychologist father says that ignoring bad behavior doesn’t help anyone, especially the misbehaver. Child Psych 101: imagine a spoiled child that no one wants around, he/she probably isn’t a bad kid they just haven’t had anyone say no or teach them how to behave. You do everyone a favor by addressing your creative’s bad behavior directly and coaching them on what is expected of a good team member and design professional.

As for the Secret Sauce? I like gently shaken with a dash of something extra.