Hide the Ride
The Creative Process is Hard, but That Shouldn’t Come Through in the Creative Product.
Creativity is hard. The process is a rocky ride, with its ups and downs. There are many forks in the road, and many decisions to make. There’s lots of floundering. Is this the right thing, or is that? Should I place this element here, or over there? We often come up with many ideas but no confidence in any of them—but we should limit the client’s exposure to the creative process, because our job is to lead the process, and to come in with strong, sure-footed recommendations. While there are stages of the creative process that are more collaborative, where it comes to making our art, we should never defer to our client for decisions that are yours alone to make.
I am very hermit-like in my process. I like to create in a quiet, private place, and give my ideas a chance to form, on their own. It is only once I have some fully-formed ideas that I feel ready to present something to my clients. It’s not that I think my ideas are bullet-proof, but they are fully-thought-through. I can confidently bring them to the table and talk about them. I know my reasons. I have understood the brief and this is how it has played out. If a client then wants to pick apart my ideas, frustrating as it might seem in the moment, I can accept their critique. What I haven’t done is simply guessed about what might be the right thing to present. If, at any time leading up to the presentation of any kind of creative work, I have had doubts, I would go back to the client and ask for clarification on their objectives and expectations. Always, my job is to use my creative toolkit to respond to the given problem. In this sense, I am a true artist, an individual with a unique perspective being asked to interpret an idea in my own way. I fully embrace this role. In determining the needs of the client, in setting up the goal posts for the project, in defining the problem to be solved, I am fully collaborative. In how I address these needs and approach solving the problem, I am utterly un-collaborative.
In much of design, there is a lot of emphasis on team work and collaboration. There is a lot of poo-pooing of “rockstar” designers, who seem to be driven only by their own egos. “That’s not design. It might be art, but it’s not design. Design is always about the client”, they say. But I have always admired designers who embrace the artist mentality. I think it’s more honest, and frankly, more creative. In so much of my experience as a designer, I have seen creative driven more by fear and consensus (by both actually). Nobody has the guts to step up with an individual idea they will take full responsibility for.
In determining the needs of the client … I am fully collaborative. In how I address these needs … I am utterly un-collaborative.
Granted, this might be the nature of the advertising and marketing world. Mass culture is always about compromise. It has rarely generated a richness of art. Even still, the most respectable designers are creative leaders. They have a vision that not only has abstract qualities; it has a tangible, visual expression. While all creatives must listen to their clients and understand their needs, we must at some point be given permission to think for ourselves and come back to the table with fully formed ideas. There is nothing more frustrating than having an idea in mid-process being critiqued or shot down. When I worked in a group environment, with our 27" iMac screens just hanging out there in the open, I would often receive unsolicited commentary on whatever it was I was working on. This only happens to visual creatives. Could you imagine if you were writing an essay and someone came up and started reading it over your shoulder? How could you possibly keep writing? How could you possibly form any arguments? How could you concentrate on putting thoughts into words? This is what it is like when I have to share or discuss work mid-process. I have not formed my arguments enough to talk about them. I am at this stage non-verbal. To speak through what is for a time unspeakable is often fruitless.
“Ideas need space” was the name of a campaign to add a new building to the Ontario College of Art & Design in the early 2000s. Ideas need physical space, but they also need inner space. Quiet. A chance to germinate and be envisioned from a single point perspective. There will be a time to evaluate an idea from other perspectives, yes, but the individual’s perspective must be honoured first.
I think a lot of creatives think that design or illustration has to be collaborative all the way through. Nobody wants to be a prima donna. Nobody likes the colleague or student who always goes off and does their own thing, separate from the group, and comes back only to have stronger, better ideas. It goes against the popularly upheld virtue of “team-playership”. We are suspicious of people who think for themselves. We then extend this sentiment to our own work, when working with clients as designers and illustrators. We feel that unless we are including our clients in our every decision, we are being “uncollaborative”. We are not being a team player.
In case it seems as though I am arguing for being an asshole, let me be clear: When it comes to our profession as designers or illustrators, we are servants. We are being hired to help our clients. We are not being patronized by a wealthy supporter. It would be unbelievably presumptuous to behave as though we are being “supported as an artist” rather than to solve creative problems.
What I am arguing for is creative leadership. I’ve written about this before (it’s kind of a pet topic, I suppose). Leadership means being experts in our own field, as distinct from those who hire us. That’s why they are paying us. They are deferring to us for our unique creative perspective. Leadership means trusting in our own judgment. It also means making sure we have the basic, raw information we need to have proper judgment at all. That means we guide the client to have ready for us everything we should know to help them. We are not mind-readers, and we don’t just come up with ideas out of thin air! Leadership also means being experts in our own process and able to discern our best ideas. We should never present ideas we are uncertain about and “see what the client thinks”. That’s a sure way to lose their trust. Moments of uncertainty are occasion for questions, not answers. Ask, listen, reflect, ideate, curate, present.
Interestingly, we see this “artist” approach in many non-artistic trades and services, and we hardly blink. We go to a restaurant and order from a set menu. Dishes are based on the chef’s taste and discernment, not yours. You choose a restaurant for the chef’s taste. You go there because your taste aligns with theirs. (If you want it done “your way”, you could always go to Burger King, I suppose). Right now we are having some pretty major renovations in our home. We of course have preferences for how we want things to look, but we are not well versed in every skill and trade involved. We hired a contractor whose demonstrated experience and work aligns with our expectations and taste. We went through an comprehensive briefing and intake process to establish everything we want and need done. Once we signed off on the budget and project schedule, we expect our contractor to lead the process. They take care of the trades. They solve all the little snafu’s that invariably come up. If we were involved in every decision they had to make, it would not only drive us crazy, it would cast much doubt on their competence. Competence is demonstrated in leadership. Leadership, in the sense I am talking about, ensures that clients have as smooth a ride toward the final result as possible. It’s like a suspension system that absorbs as much of the bumpy ride as possible. That is part of our service—to keep things moving along smoothly so the client can get on with whatever else they need to get done.
I am talking about design and illustration, but of course, most of my work is illustration. Most of my writing is for illustrators. But I do find that designers and illustrators alike have this tendency to overshare in the process. I know we all go through periods of doubt in each project. I know we often feel alone, that if somehow we could get others to weigh in on our work mid-process, we could better solve our problems. And this is true. Even mid-process, there are times when we do need to talk out our work. Talking about our work with others, having to explain what we are trying to get at can ultimately help us to the next breakthrough. Some sharing and collaboration is necessary. That’s why you need someone you trust to talk through these more delicate parts of the process. Ideas in utero are fragile. Whether it’s a spouse, partner, close colleague, or a critique group, carefully choose your inner circle and then allow you and your ideas to be vulnerable to them. In these situations, you momentarily trade your leader’s hat for a student’s hat. But ultimately (hopefully) you are being hired for your unique vision. That’s something only you can call out from the depths. That’s your unique area of expertise. Your job is to endure the bumpy ride to find your best ideas and deliver them safely to your client. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll have no idea what you’ve been through.