At the start of 2022, I chatted with a host of different studios and agencies (amazing places such as AKQA, JKR, DesignStudio, Zag, DixonBaxi, Futurebrand, R/GA, BBH and W+K) about possible creative director positions. Many of the recurring themes in said interviews were around leadership principles, approach to process, and management styles.
It got me thinking more and more about how I define my approach and beliefs in these realms. There’s a bunch of styles and approaches that I’ve always favoured over others — but I’ve never gone as far as defining them into a framework that can act as a usable tool for leading teams. And, as I step into a new role as Head of Design at BBH London, there has never been a more apt time to put this system together.
I’ve also been following a few discussions on Twitter about how those in creative leadership positions frame themselves in terms of a portfolio… in contrast to a project where one has been so hands-on in terms of design, how does that switch present itself when the work is far less tangible? So, here’s my v1:
Principles on Leadership
#1 From the Front
For me, it’s about going first. Not taking the limelight, and putting others in the shadows. On the contrary, it’s being the one to put your own neck out by doing the difficult thing before anyone on the team has to. By testing the waters, and being prepared to get burned. I don’t shout orders from the back, and expect others to bear the brunt of what might be coming for us. I’m there with them; right there in the trenches. I’ll take the brunt of it, so the team can flourish.
Sometimes, your people need defending. They need protecting from politics, pettiness and other bullshit that inevitably comes our way. Their time needs protecting, from the pesky requesters within organisations. Their confidence needs protecting, from the not-so-diplomatic-higher-ups. So, be a shield — just not a shelter. Be the filter in which bad / annoying / no news comes through, and is better articulated.
#3 By Example
As a leader, know they’re looking at you not only for guidance, but for inspiration, for clarity, for confidence, for safety, for knowledge, for honesty, for answers (and so on). You have to be the best version of yourself in every aspect of what you do. You have to set the standard, then live that standard. As soon as the bar is lowered, the team have every right to fall with it. So, be the one that’s constantly raising it.
#4 Be There
Listen. Switch to being on receive over transmit. But really; listen. Unravel what people really want, and need. Let them provide all the information. Then simply, show up. Actually follow through with the things you said you would do for them. Give credit where it’s due. Acknowledging your people shows them you see them, and value them. Nothing builds trust as much as simply being there.
#5 Loosen Up
I like to remind people that there is no such thing as a design emergency. We’re not, in reality, changing the world with what we’re doing here. As Saul Bass put it ”while it can occasionally provide an insight about ourselves and our culture, it doesn't make a profound contribution to humanity.” Focus instead on humour. On happiness, and on lightness. Have a laugh with it. We should be enjoying this, and making joy a priority. Great work will spill out of that.
Principles on Process
#1 Input < > Output
We only get out what we put in. If the inputs are from the same places everyone else is going, then our outputs will be the same, too. We must feed our creative minds from diverse and rich sources. We mustn’t be afraid to suggest the new, the scary, the unconventional.
Things rarely go according to plan. Timelines, resourcing, scope and budget are as volatile as the stock market. Account for that, and accept going off course along the way. Process is seldom linear, and as long as nobody expects it to be at the start, it won’t come as a shock when the inevitable detour comes along. Instead, we’ll be more prepared for it.
Is it good? Keep going. We’re aiming for great. Once it’s great, let’s make it even better. Zoom out. Turn it around. Zoom back in. Leave it alone. Turn it back. Obsess over the details. Craft it. Test it. Love it. Hate it. Start again, if necessary. Only settle when it’s as good as it can possibly be. The vast majority of the time, it’s not on the first pass.
#4 It Takes a Village
Great work is rarely done in a silo. At the time you think it is, but in the long run it isn’t. It takes many people to get good work not only done, but out in the world, making a real impact. It’s not about getting many opinions on the work (as that’s a recipe for disaster), but to have many people on the journey with you. Make everybody feel a part of it, and there’s a higher chance of success. Everybody has shared ownership and responsibility this way.
Enquiry remains severely underrated. Ego restricts us from accepting that we don’t know everything, so we don’t end up asking. We’re afraid to look stupid in front of others who know more. The fact that we don’t know, is very much okay. We shouldn’t what to know everything. Nobody likes a know-it-all. We should instead strive to be constantly open, and to be delighted with every new thing we learned today. So go ahead, ask all the questions. Forget what you think you know.
Principles on Work
#1 Get Weird
Weirdos get a bad rep. But everyone is weird to someone. We’ve all got our weird things that we do. We’ve got weird things that we like, and we get weird doing these weird things with other weirdos, too. While this paragraph is starting to get a bit weird, it’s true that we buy into brands because we align with their weirdness. We see others buying into them as our weird kith and kin. The best brands are the ones that amplify this weirdness, as it acts as a call to arms to their clan. Celebrate the weirdness.
#2 The Work Comes Second
Before everything, but the team. This is because the work is only as good as the team making it, and if they’re not in the right place mentally, physically, spiritually or culturally, then the work will suffer. When the team flourishes, so does the work. The client wins, the agency wins, because the work wins.
#3 Emotion over Utility
Ensure there’s emotion in the work. Will it make people feel something? Will it make someone cry with laughter, or sob with sorrow? Then it’s hitting the right notes. This is not about form over function. This about creating work that connects. Legibility is important, but not as the expense of expression.
#4 Be Proud
Is the project shaping up to be something you can stand behind? Something you can defend? Something that you, and your Mum, can be proud of? Does it meet the proud test now, and will it in 10 years? Pride shouldn’t blind you to mediocre work. Instead, it should drive you to make it best it can be.
#5 Put it Down
Know when to leave something alone. Don’t overthink it, don’t overwork it. Don’t stress if it’s not coming together right away. Or even after a while. It takes time to make great work. Often, that means stepping away, and giving ourselves a break from it. It lets the mind wonder, and wander.