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The care and feeding of artists is a tricky
by Kate (September, 2003)
(Note: Kate is a mid-level manager at a major craft
Ah, the excitement of seeing a new product emerge from the
development process! What started as an idea in someone's mind is
now, finally, complete. But just how was that initial idea born?
Millions of words have been written trying to explain exactly how
the creative process works, but the answer remains elusive.
Still, we do know one thing: Whether this piece of creativity is a
product, an ad, a sell sheet, a presentation, or whatever, the
creator worked in an atmosphere that fostered the creative process.
As a manager, it's your job to provide that atmosphere and
understand how creative people create.
Understanding the process.
First, realize that creativity is personal. Unlike accountants,
creative people put a part of themselves "on the line"
with each job they complete. They express themselves in color,
fiber, technique, and design -- or words and graphics -- in areas
where there are no clear-cut, right-or-wrong answers. The result is
not black or white; there is no one correct answer or solution.
Second, realize that since creativity comes from within, there are
days when it is nowhere to be found. At those times, it is nothing
short of torture for the creator. Circles end up as ovals, country
blues look gray, everything has typos, and nothing is pleasing. If a
simple hangtag takes hours to finish, what can be expected of a
Yet when a creative person is in "the zone" and the
creative juices are flowing, the difficult can be done in less than
an hour and the impossible in less than four. Recognizing this, and
trying to work with rather than against that flow, makes the process
easier for all involved.
Unfortunately for the creative person, creativity is not visible.
There are times when 15 minutes spent staring out a window can
result in a wonderful design that is then completed quickly. Thirty
minutes of magazine flipping or 20 minutes spent surfing art-filled
websites look like slacking off. In fact, the subconscious is busy
during this time, fine-tuning thousands of graphic tidbits of
information into hundreds of different possibilities, with tangible
Fostering creativity starts with communication. The minute you start
describing a project to creative people, images are forming in their
brains. The more precise the information you pass on, the clearer
those mental pictures become. What exactly is the assignment? What
exactly is the purpose -- what should the viewer feel or do after
seeing the creator's final result?
Though the computer age may have reduced the time needed to transfer
the idea from the brain to the printed page, the process needed for
creating that the initial mental image is just as involved as in the
pre-computer age. Any information omission can lead to delays and
frustration which impede the creative process.
When talking with a creative person, do you use positive or negative
words? For example, once an ad includes the necessary information,
everything else is subjective. Font, color, background design,
wording placement, etc., are personal preferences. Maybe there's
nothing "wrong" with the first draft, but you just don't
like it. How you communicate your thoughts can have a huge impact on
the final result.
I have heard feedback such as "This is awful", "Is
this the best you can do?", and "My two-year-old could do
a better job." No matter how thick their skin, creators can't
help but take offense at these comments.
Because artists put themselves in their work, they may take negative
comments personally. Though your initial intent was to express
dissatisfaction with a printed piece of paper, the artist hears,
instead, that you're dissatisfied with him.
The most productive way to handle the above situation is to
acknowledge the efforts made, but offer suggestions. "That's an
interesting approach! What about ...?" Or, "Gee, I'm
sorry, I guess I didn't make myself clear. We really need the ad to
...." In both situations you have acknowledged the effort in a
positive way, while pointing out that there is more than one way to
handle the ad.
Equipment and Tools.
The clearest communication, positive
feedback, and a thorough understanding of the creative process are
all for naught if the equipment and tools to be used are outdated or
Do your computers have a habit of crashing because they don't have
sufficient memory to do what is asked of them? Do you purchase
single-use versions of programs rather than multi-terminal ones
because they're cheaper, yet load them onto everyone's computer? Do
you not authorize the purchase of necessary items because you don't
understand why they're needed?
Though all employees are key participants in the success of a
company, some special handling is needed to create an environment
which truly fosters creativity. The guiding hand that supplies
assignments and sets deadlines should hold a very long leash, one
which allows freedom to roam...experiment...create.
(Note: Kate's previous columns are archived. To access any of
them, click on the titles at the top of the right-hand column. Have
any comments about stolen designs or products? Email Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.)