Creative Inquiry | Blog

My thoughts (and others’) on managing people, strategy and design

Website Makeover

I am in the process of redesigning this site for my consulting business – Creative Inquiry.  I’m very excited about the chance to broaden this conversation and have a more direct impact on creative firms and people.

In the interim, please forgive the mess. Also, this blog is moving to I’ll update my RSS and Twitter feeds, but please be sure to update your bookmarks.


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.

Chuck Hoover | Schell Games

Earlier this week I chatted with Chuck Hoover, Studio Production Director at Schell Games. Schell is truly a experience creator – building interactive worlds in games, theme parks and toys. Doesn’t sound like a bad gig, huh? A friend of mine who works there has raved about the reasonable hours, great project management and supportive culture — I wanted to see for myself.

Enter Chuck

Chuck studied architecture at Virginia Tech, before being lured into game design and receiving a graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). There he discovered his natural proclivity for organizing people, a perfect fit for a producer. In game design, producers are more than just logistical pros, they are also responsible for managing the dynamics and culture of their team — an insanely diverse group made up of artists, designers, engineers and programmers all working under one roof. In other words, they deserve a medal.

I was struck immediately by how reflective and thoughtful Chuck (in his own work) and the management of Schell have been in creating and reinforcing their culture. They have established the hierarchy needed to run a mid-sized firm, while also tearing down hierarchy in day-to-day studio life. They are aware of how their actions affect their staff, even down to what time they decide to leave for the day. It was inspiring to see the elements of creative management I advocate for being put to work so well.

Thoughts: game design vs. other creative industries

While I want to certainly give huge kudos to Jesse Schell (CEO) and his management staff for the culture they’ve created, I wonder if the industry itself doesn’t play a part. According to Chuck the team management role of the producer is typical across the industry. Their job is make sure cross-disciplinary work is happening smoothly, that people are working together effectively. Here lies a stark difference between game design and other creative industries, whose factions of workers (creatives/suits, designers/account managers, architects/ engineers) work relatively independently and often with somewhat contentious relationships.

Does game design have a leg up because it is a relatively young industry where older management models don’t define how people think about work? With no one telling them how it ‘should’ be done, have they figured out how to work in ways that other design industries say is impossible?

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?

Question Your Elders

The world is moving fast, as we all know. How we work is changing; how our organizations will be structured is going to have to change too – how is another post for another day. Many business leaders plan based on past successes, but our uncertain world does not promise future success based on the past. New ideas about how we run our businesses are uncomfortable, I know.

Courtesy of

When I talk with Gen X and Gen Y about future changes to management style and firm structure, people start nodding their heads and smiling. Talking with many of  ‘my elders’ in creative industries, I get blank stares, brush offs or a nice pat on the head. Part of this reaction is that change is hard and without a proper sense of urgency few people want to tackle it. But I think it’s also that I look younger than I am, so they think I’m just an eager youngster that doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

I recently read this article on 99% about the age-old debate between youth and wisdom. I think it weighs a little heavily in the other direction (i.e. devaluing age and experience), but it does a nice job of pointing out the need for balance.

Considering we’re supposed to be the drivers of new ideas, how can creatives of the future meld best-practices and unorthodox thinking in business (not just design)?

Please Fasten Your Seatbelts

I’m very pleased to announce that I am officially a consultant. Wow!

Going out on my own definitely promises to be more challenging, but also SO much more exciting. My work focuses on helping creatives and their companies build better work environments. I’ve got three projects going already: evaluating and redefining career development for a national marketing team, creating more collaborative space for a product development department, and a branding project. Each project is really different and I’m thoroughly enjoying the people I’m collaborating with and the work itself.

I am also working on branding myself and redeveloping this website. Please stay tuned for future updates, and in the meantime, please disregard the mess.

Give Them What They Want: Ices!

I spent this weekend visiting a friend in New York. While walking around Brooklyn on a hot Thursday afternoon we happened across a couple of guys pushing an ice cream cart. Much to our delight they offered us free ices. It turns out they worked in the local Prudential office, but there was no big sales push in exchange for our tasty treats – just an offer of a business card.

After spending over 10 years in marketing, I’m a big believer in connecting with your client/customer in authentic, not pushy, ways. I thought this was a really creative way to get in front of people, smile, chat it up and then send them on their way feeling good about you. Hopefully they’ll get some follow-ups in exchange for their effort!