Managing Creative People and Projects 101

Team X(pedite): every team needs to have fun


The unconventional mind of a designer makes them so capable of solving problems. They have highly individual opinions and their thought process can go in many different directions. In this highly subjective post I look at my very own thoughts on how to manage a creative team made up of these unique individuals and how to channel all that mental energy into creative projects.


In common with many jobs these days creatives need an environment conducive to lateral thinking and problem solving. A lot of this boils down to the mental headspace that a creative has to work within. Here are some of the things I think are key for a manager to create that headspace:

– get other problems out of their way so they can focus
– offer support as creatives face criticism of their concepts all the time
– keep an agile mind to jump around from different problems and people
– be approachable so time isn’t wasted on the wrong idea
– treat everyone as an individual
– use humor to get through

It goes without saying that creative leads are good at the design/concepting/writing parts of their job. I also feel that creative leads, like all managers, need to be impressive, not just with their work but as a person. After all you are asking people to be happy following your directions for months or years. A happy team also has a low turnover of designers and retains all the experience that forms its greatest asset – intellectual capital.

By contrast, a few years ago a friend worked in a well known boutique design agency. The management rigorously enforced a policy where no spare time was allowed to be wasted on anything but work and then went beyond the norm: 9am-6pm was for billable jobs, 6-9pm was for pitches and the time after 9pm was for working on a printed design book (there was always one in the works). My friend did a doodle while sketching which he was later given out to as this was considered to be wasting time. Most designers sucked it up long enough to produce a few portfolio pieces and left. My friend lasted 6 months before leaving.

The Client Whisperer: Divining the client’s intentions


Whether you are an Art Director, Associate Creative Director or Creative Director you have ‘director’ somewhere in your title. This means having to grasp of whatever the current problem is and steering others towards a resolution you are happy with as you are the gatekeeper of creative standards. Thus the creative lead needs the quasi supernatural powers of divining what the client wants.

During kick-off meetings I help define the problem and give key creative suggestions on how to approach the problem. Some creatives need the barest of pushes while others need more clear cut suggestions. Frequently I advise that if the designer can think of a better idea than mine to feel free to work it up too. If I only weighed in with clear direction close to the deadline it would waste a lot of the team’s time and effort.

In an average day I expect a lot of interruptions and to jump back-and-forth on projects to keep the creatives happily creating and projects happily flowing. Frequent check-ins use up my time in the short run but save a lot more time in the long run. Projects move to completion quickly without stress and with few sudden shifts in direction.

In a previous position as the Associate Creative Director for Dell’s monthly consumer catalogs I directed the creative efforts of 4-8 people. Turnaround times were tight as multiple printing presses spat out 30-40 million copies of the catalog every month. A team briefing and brainstorming session kicked off each catalog followed by a divvying up of individual projects. From there I would ‘desk hop’ across the team on a daily basis providing feedback. Team check-ins every two days made sure everyone stayed on the same page. By the time we received one catalog’s feedback the next catalog would have already started so we were under pressure to get it right the first time.

The Round Killer: getting it right the first time


At CBS Interactive our creative services are not charged by billable hours so having endless rounds of changes is very inefficient for us. As a result I spend more time getting it right (or as close to right as possible) in the first round which keeps clients happy and avoids last minute crises.

In order to get it right while making so many decisions on the fly I have to trust my gut instincts. Luckily these have been developed over the years from designing thousands of online units and art directing thousands more. Without even sketching anything I often visualize the final layout and animation a bit like mental Tetras.

This is fine for client driven campaigns with existing assets but how do I come up with concepts for the more creative projects like RFPs? Luckily ideas usually pop into my head once I’ve read the brief and talked to the account people. I love solving problems so my mental hard wiring helps me. If I get stuck there is usually another problem that comes along. By the time I get back to the first project the block is usually cleared.

Once we have a concept or layout we need to get it to the account/client approvers. This is where the sanctity of the deadline is crucial. A team’s attitude towards hitting deadlines is not just key to making sure individual deliverables get done on time but also to make sure the whole process doesn’t fall apart.

In a previous position as the Senior Art Director for Coca-Cola’s in-store material I inherited a team which often had to cram three days worth of design/production into a single day with unpredictable late nights. This was followed by one or two days of doing very little while awaiting for client feedback. One designer developed eczema from the stress. To address all this I started proactively checking in with the various account pods at 9am to see if they had anything due that day or the next day rather than waiting for them to come to me. Quick sketches got the team started on projects by about 10 or 10.30am. I aimed to get deliverables back to the account pods by 4pm for feedback by 4.30 or 5. The days of doing nothing disappeared as did the late nights, the stress and the eczema.

Keep Calm (hangs at my desk)


I regard the managing process as being able to repeatedly get the projects finished by the deadline while retaining the team members who have built up these core competencies. So just how do I do that?

Firstly hiring good people and mentoring them establishes good habits and allows them to grow to a point where they no longer need me to manage them. Luckily I’ve only ever managed one difficult person and they moved on before things came to a head.

I listen to each individual’s pain points as these often are the cause of a team member to leaving. To understand their individual issues that aren’t deadline driven I make sure I have an ongoing relationship through a biweekly one-on-one. The dialogue is kept going on a daily basis with 5-10 minutes chats, whether about the work or not.

This process helps convey my thinking on creative issues in particular but also fosters independent thought by the individual designer. Where possible I also try to get creatives assigned the kind of work they like in particular e.g. I once got a creative to use his prior theatrical training in a presentation. I always remember birthdays. It means a lot.

Fast Track: The Few


In mid 2010 I identified certain types of projects that kept recurring with very short lifespans such as RFPs and emergency ad placements. I floated the idea that these projects needed a separate team to deal with them as they derailed the regular projects.

In setting up the team I was looking for people who had a mindset capable of coping with these types of projects as specialists (in the same way that the military gives different roles to troops with similar training – a mental not physical distinction). Over time I could always train and mentor people to be better, faster or calmer etc.

Structure gets added by Project Managers who form the mental bridge between the lateral minds of creative teams and the linear minds of account teams. With four permanent staff and usually more freelance staff the volume produced by the team in any given week is huge.

In order to keep the projects moving along I have to provide feedback promptly and as mentioned before I have to anticipate being interrupted throughout my day. It’s part of the job. The consequences are happy clients, no missed deadlines, and few late nights – something unique in our industry.

Thanks Michelle, Rich, Tasha, Darius and the many freelancers who have been on the team.

Gary Klein’s two books on intuitive decision making


Where did I learn how to manage? Unlike most designers I spent time in the military. In fact for the last 18 months of my time in the military I trained recruits from being straight-off-the-street civilians to full soldiers so I like the whole training and mentoring process. Not surprisingly I also applied some principles from the military to my design career. However the principles expounded in this post are all just common sense applied well.

One of the key aspects of leading a team is taking the managing aspect of my job seriously and holding myself to high standards. After all I was trained to lead others and take command of ambiguous situations. So with that in mind let’s look at what goes on in my head while I manage the 80-90 projects I am usually creative lead on.

Firstly I can’t look into all of those projects in depth and this is where hiring and training good people really pays off as I can trust them to do the well without my help. I can then have quick check-ins throughout the day to keep everything moving forward. I get more involved with the trickier projects sitting in on kick-off meetings and having more frequent check-ins. I have to keep focusing on new problems quickly in order to make so many judgement calls throughout the day.

A similar process is covered in Gary Klein’s ominously titled book ‘Sources of Power’ – a psychological study of the decision making process in the minds of emergency room doctors, fire chiefs and other high pressure jobs. The author explains that traditional decision making models involve gathering all available information, comparing options and usually having input from other people. ER doctors and fire chiefs are more likely to come up with one course of action and then run through it mentally looking for flaws. If they don’t find any flaws in their model, they act on it. If they do find flaws, they come up with another possible course of action. What they don’t have is time to compare multiple options, weighing the pros and cons of each.

The process means my average working day is very busy and our efforts are focused in a highly efficient way. We get through a lot of work without sacrificing quality and deadlines are never missed.

My former life


If I had to distill my creative management philosophy down to one main principle that I picked up from the military it would be putting the team’s needs first. If you look after the designers and they will look after you. In the creative world that means providing feedback promptly and taking the time to listen to any concerns even if it means you have less time to do your own workload. Time saved early on makes a huge difference to stress levels.

Applying these ideals effectively across many different individuals and teams is the true test of any creative lead’s abilities. With this kind of mental effort on a leader’s part any team can become a well oiled machine where people know what is expected of them, can have fun and stay on the team long enough to grow.

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