Defining creative direction

By James Reeve @jamesreeve

There comes a time in your career when you start doing less of the doing and more of the helping others to do the doing better. Often, it’s hard to accept.

Now, I am not suggesting that you stop doing completely and just sit in an ivory tower and become a prophetic art director. But the time comes when you need focus to help develop and direct those around you to be the best they can be. This helps to champion and showcase your team's skills and the outputs they create.

For me helping to support others as they develop on their design journey is incredibly rewarding and seeing raw talent turn into top-draw designers is equally as fulfilling as doing self-initiated creative work.

Learnings from an experienced designer

I have been lucky to work with an array of talented people in my career and this has helped me to improve my own craft. But, the approach to design rather than the executional skills is the hardest thing to acquire and experience plays a pivotal role in this. With experience, comes learnings and with those learnings comes confidence.

Our role as experienced designers - with a few grey hairs - is to help guide those we work with to ensure they are driving at and working to create the best outcome. Junior designers can struggle to gather thoughts and make confident decisions. The diagrams below represents the different ways in which junior and experienced designers approach a problem.

Graphic illustration how Junior Designer and how an Experienced Designer approach a design problem.
How a Junior Designer and how an Experienced Designer approach a problem.

Here are a few tips that have held me in good stead over the years that are useful to anyone looking to advance their thinking as a designer.

1) Obsess over, interrogate and reframe the brief

Spend time at the outset of a project really understanding the brief. Read, digest, discuss, ponder and day dream to let it settle and for the ideas and options to flourish. You will not get anywhere until you deeply understand the problem space you are operating within. Once you are there, ideas will bloom. You should embrace this opportunity at the beginning of any project but, you will need to work hard to gain familiarity and to get you in the right problem space.

Ask yourself these kinds of questions to get you in the right creative frame:

  • Why do they need this product or service?
  • What is the real human problem we are trying to solve?
  • What evidence do we have to help understand and shape the outcome?

Divergent thinking right at the very beginning (the good old double diamond) is crucial, you must free your mind and immerse yourself. Do this before you bring your thinking back in to consider any constraints that might exist such as timelines, cost, technical feasibility etc.

2) Get your ideas down and show your working

Do not worry about nailing the perfect solution from the outset. Get your ideas out of your head and onto paper - start to map out what needs to happen. In the example below if we think about web page design. You first need to define the page architecture (what needs to be on it, why it’s there, and what does it do). Secondly, you need to arrange such needs into a hierarchy and layout that is clear and logical for the user. Thirdly, you need to arrange these elements into an initial design. 

Once you have the first draft of a coherent design you can then start to experiment with all of the core design components such as colour, shape, typography, imagery, and iconography to develop a visual language that aligns to user needs and the brand’s identity.

Illustration detailing site IA, hierarchy and overall design
Architecture, Hierarchy/Layout and Design examples.

As part of the defining of the design it is important to show our thought process and to give a narrative around why the solution we’ve iterated works best. Keep hold of the ideas which didn’t make the cut – they help to show that all points have been considered and to highlight why the preferred design solves the business and user problem best. 

3) Utilise your skills to do the job

Designers are multifaceted individuals who possess and continue to develop skills and techniques throughout their career (if you are a designer and you are not doing this, you could risk being left behind). This means that irrespective of the problem you are trying to solve you should use those skills to understand, develop, and design the solution.

If sketching is your bag then use this to visualise early, or if design and build is your speciality then use this to help showcase how things work. If you are able to help convey an idea by using what you have in your box of tricks then you should go for it.

4) Keep one in your back pocket

You are designing a solution and it meets every customer and business need and you are confident in delivering it. But you have a niggling voice in your head that says, “I think we can do better than this” but you are conscious of delivering what’s been agreed.

Yes, first you should do what has been agreed and actioned.

But, I would implore you to always go one stage further. To coin a phrase of Walt Disney and his imagineers, consider how we can “Plus it”? What can you add to make the design even better? what little moment of delight can we work-in? Do not let your need to produce (and make sure you do produce) hinder your ability to show further thinking – this can wow stakeholders and even help secure extensions to programmes of work. But more importantly create something memorable for the people your product is designed for. 

5) Ask for help, share with others, and don’t fear critique

Share and involve others in anything you do, take this article for example, I have shared it with my peers, marketing team and friends to help me to convey the right message (and to rid it of typos!). Do not be afraid of seeking feedback as it’s one of the most liberating things that we do as UX designers. We involve customers in the design process to ensure what we create will work with real people, for real people.

In this case it’s odd that we are comfortable with strangers reviewing our design work whilst yet still fearing the opinions of our peers.

The way that I like to present this to any designer who is worried about doing so is: “If you get input on your work and that person makes it better then great! They have helped to make your creation better and everyone’s a winner.”

The best designs come through sharing – share anything you do both with your peers and the world. Humanise the experiences you design, facilitate cultural change, and let people see that they deserve products and services that work for them.

Conclusion

Hopefully these tips will help you to develop as a designer or, help you to support those designers that you manage or mentor. Experienced and successful designers are able to put their ego aside and work with their teams to create, develop, and refine their work to make it the best it can be. Be open, stay humble and exceed expectations.

If you would like to get in touch I would love to hear about the techniques you use to help stimulate the creative processes you manage. You can contact me at james.reeve@foolproof.co.uk

James Reeve

As Creative Director I’m responsible for shaping how Foolproof generates and delivers creative ideas. This means I’m always looking to evolve and challenge working methodologies and practices to drive the studio’s creative thinking, idea generation, reports and experience design recommendations.

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