What Parenting Has Taught Me about Working with Clients

How to Be Authoritative Without Being Authoritarian in the Creative Process

As a parent, one of my favourite experts on raising children is Barbara Coloroso. While I haven’t checked in on her material lately, I do remember one of her major themes: the three types of parent (or styles of parenting): the brick wall, the jellyfish, and the backbone. In the brick wall style of parenting, rules are enforced rigidly. Parents who parent in this way are hard and inflexible, just as the name implies. The answer is always no. It’s always their way or the highway. The child gets no say; they have no negotiating power. The jellyfish, way on the other side, is too flexible. The child has all the power, and the parent has none. The answer is always yes, no matter what. As a spineless creature, the jellyfish has no clear form, no set way of doing things, and therefore, chaos rules. The answer to these two extremes is the backbone parent. As this name implies, the backbone parent is empowered and empowers her child. There is structure and order, but there is also dialogue. The parent is clearly in authority, but she is not authoritarian. The child gets to have some influence and agency, and the parent is not afraid to bend to the child’s needs and wants when possible.

Now, I am not a daddy blogger, and I don’t view my clients as children. At the same time, this model of authority translates to anyone in a leadership position. The difference of course is that, in the work world, leaders are not in charge of people, they are in charge of roles and processes.

As a parent and a human, I tend toward the brick wall style of leadership. I have a strong will and often feel I know best. That’s why Coloroso’s backbone parent model is helpful for me. It shows me that I can still be in charge without being a tyrant. It also assuages my concern that if I don’t wield an iron fist, I lose all my power. It acknowledges that there is such thing as being too flexible, as the jellyfish analogy shows us. The backbone is strong and supportive while also being flexible.

Those who know about my creative process, especially as I begin to write about it, might see only what is inflexible about it. I tend to be very protective of certain aspects of my process by not opening them up to dialogue or negotiation with my clients. But these are only inflexible in the same way that certain parts of my personality are inflexible. I have to know who I am deep down in order to truly know myself, and it is from this deeply rooted self-knowledge that I can operate with confidence in the world. This is the same with my creative product. It’s something I’ve developed over time, and it’s worth protecting from too much tampering.

There are parts of my process, however, that not only permit client influence, but require it. The most obvious is the first part—where the client chooses me to help them with their creative problem. Other parts include helping define the creative problem more specifically around my creative abilities and weighing in on the sketches and finished artwork I present to them along the way. These points of contact with the client are the moments when they have agency over the process. These are when they have the most influence over the artwork. These are the flexion points, or joints, in my process.

For many illustrators (and designers), the tendency is to have too many joints in their process. (No, I am not talking about excessive marijuana cigarette smoking.) The tendency is to open up the process to the client at too many points, each one weakening the overall structure, and ultimately removing authority from the artist. In this scenario nobody has the power advantage. The creative process is ultimately for the client’s advantage, and if the artist loses control, the art will fail—and the client has wasted their time and money. The problem many creatives have is not being too much like the brick wall, but too much like the jellyfish.

The process I use in my own work, the one that I want to write about for others to adopt, is meant to give creatives a backbone. Both you and your client need you to have a backbone in the process, because that is what will make you strong and supportive. There are defined parts of “bone”, the parts that must be rigid and unyielding. They must support the weight of the creative task at hand. And there are defined joints, parts of the process where the client can and must weigh in to influence decisions and the ultimate success of the project.

The creative process is all about showing where these flexion points are, and where they should and should not be. Being firm in your process does not mean you have to be an absolute tyrant. Being generous in your process does not mean you have to be a total pushover. That is what all of this writing about process is about. It is in this way that I believe all professional creatives can be empowered in their work. It is in this way that they will be able to make better art, and earn the trust and respect of an ever growing base of clients.

Creativity needs both strength and flexibility. Without strength it cannot stand up, and without flexibility, it cannot move forward.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare. www.tomfroese.com/links