Communicating with creatives

Communicating with creatives

Whether you need a new logo, a great marketing design, or want eye catching imagery to support your written work, chances are good that you’ll work with “creatives”. In my early life as a marketing communications professional, I was often in the position of liaising between business people and creative people. Here, I share my tips and best practices for communicating effectively with creatives.

We are all creative. For the sake of this article, I use the word “creative” as a noun to refer to people who are professional designers – those who spend the better part of their lives thinking visually and producing visual products.

The challenge

Words fail us. Many business folks fumble to express in words what they envision as their business’s visual identity. Or, they envision nothing at all, have no more than a vague feeling, and our crude system of symbols called language can’t to it justice.

Creatives have a language of their own, a unique system of symbols that can seem like magic. We try to understand but often realize we are not meaning the same things despite using the same words. We say “bold”, they hear “bright”. We say “pop”, they hear “drama”. We say “neutral”, they hear “blah”.

To connect meaningfully with people who think differently, and to help those who think differently understand us, requires curiosity, questioning, and listening.

Don’t do this (and why)

These are sure-fire ways to have unsuccessful conversations with creatives:

DO NOT: Ask a designer to solve a differentiation problem.
Of course, you want the creative to stand out – but it’s got to stand out because it reflects a unique identity. Don’t expect design to fill in for undefined or unconvincing differentiation. Only a good strategy can do that.

DO NOT: Be vague.
“Make it pop”, “It needs to attract eyeballs”, “Do your magic” – these and other similar statements give no useful direction. More importantly, they do not educate a creative about the company’s essence – they don’t provide fuel to the creative fire.

DO NOT: Show or tell a Creative exactly what you want.
If you knew that – if you were the best person for that job – you wouldn’t need to hire a creative.

DO NOT: Send a bunch of examples of things you like.
Examples can be useful, and many creatives will ask for these. But, they are useful only as conversation starters. What do you like about them? What do you see in them? What does the creative see in them? The important thing is to have a conversation around them.

DO NOT: Take a creative’s initial designs and redraw them.
Remember the feeling when you were in school and you got back a writing or art assignment with a teacher’s comments and red ink all over it? Yeah…that. Don’t do that to another human. (See “Do this” below.)

DO NOT: Tell them you “showed it to your wife/cousin/boyfriend/daughter who is a designer/design student/web developer/interior designer/really good with colour”.
You might as well say, “I don’t really need you, I have a ton of amateurs at my disposal.” Likewise, don’t say, “I showed it to my other graphic designer friend…”, because, well – you didn’t hire your friend. Outside input isn’t wrong, but it’s often unhelpful and demoralizing. (See “Do this” below.)

DO NOT: Use words and lingo you don’t understand.
Rather than trying to sound like you’re a designer, do your best with the language and experience YOU have and allow the creatives to clarify, probe, and engage in conversation. Let the creative expert help you learn their world by listening to understand. You can also study up a bit on design language.

DO NOT: Bring people to the feedback meeting who weren’t in the initial briefing/exploratory meeting.
No one can manage what they can’t see. Secret influencers and late-to-the party guests are disruptive. It’s unfair to the latecomer, too, because they haven’t had the benefit of the process and conversations leading up to the initial designs.

DO NOT: Hire creative before developing your corporate story – that’s what our Essential Story process is all about.

Do this (and how)

These are tried-and-true best practices for facilitating great work from creatives:

DO: Give a great creative brief.
You know the saying, “crap in, crap out”? If you give a creative diamonds, they’ll create gorgeous jewelry. A great brief provides information and inspiration about the company or the project – the goals, the values, the big picture. Spend time crafting and polishing a strong corporate (or project) story that the whole leadership team is on board with, and learn to share and communicate that story and what it means. This is where an Essential Story is invaluable.

DO: Get all the decision-makers and influencers at the table from the beginning.
These folks will end up at the table eventually, so trust the creative team to have the experience and tools to manage a variety of inputs and personalities. This ensures rich and complete conversations and a smoother creative process. Sometimes, a company avoids inviting a particular person to the table because they’re seen as a potential problem or disruptive.

DO: Provide examples as conversation starters.
Then, engage in a conversation about them with the creative team.

DO: Begin your feedback with what’s working well.
Bring the corporate story into this conversation. For example, “You’ve definitely captured the sense of openness and accessibility that is important to our identity.” This will be as valuable an exercise for you as it will be for the creative.

DO: Ask questions before and during giving feedback.
Be genuinely curious about how a creative thinks, because you can learn a lot from it – and so will they, through the process of articulation. “Tell me about your choice of geometric shapes here – what inspired that?”

DO: Frame all feedback within the corporate story and the essential voice of the business, rather than personal preferences.
“I don’t like blue” teaches the creative nothing about what your brand is or what the business needs. A statement like: “I’m questioning the blue because we are a very grounded brand, not ‘pie in the sky’” will be more helpful and can lead to rich conversation and new ideas.

DO: Trust that the creative team will be able to take your best feedback and translate it into their language.
Micromanaging a creative kills creativity!

DO: Respect the process.
There should be no expectation that a creative will get it perfect in the first round. Every creative has his or her own process, too – allow them to tell you what they need, how they work best, and what you can do to facilitate that process.

At Phrase Strategy, we manage this process by providing creative direction curing the roll-out phase for many clients who have gone through our Essential Story process.

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