In the creative business, moving ‘up the ranks’ from the role of designer to creative director is a common aspiration. But, it’s not always as easy as some might think. Moving from doing the work to leading the work requires even the most experienced designer to have a shift in attitude and perspective, not to mention develop some new skills, which doesn’t always come naturally or easy.
Throughout my career as a web designer, UX designer, adjunct professor, and now as a creative director, I can tell you that nothing can fully prepare you for taking on the new role. However, I hope that sharing these lessons, some of which I learned the hard way, will help smooth your transition to CD and lay the groundwork for success.
1. Let go of being a designer
Many of us probably approach the Creative Director role as an opportunity to have more control over the creative output. Finally, the style and aesthetic of what comes out of your shop will reflect what you’ve thought it should be all along. The problem is, as a Creative Director your job is no longer to produce the work, but to manage the machine that produces it. You’ll quickly find that you can’t do or control everything, otherwise you will become the biggest obstacle to getting work done. As a CD, it’s possible you will do absolutely no design work. If you find that leaves a giant void in your life, I highly recommend taking on a side gig to help scratch that design itch.
The problem is, as a Creative Director your job is no longer to produce the work, but to manage the machine that produces it. You’ll quickly find that you can’t do or control everything
2. Hiring well is your #1 priority
As the manager of that machine, it’s your responsibility to build an excellent one, and that means hiring the absolute best talent you can afford. Too often, CDs feel threatened or intimidated by talent which they recognise as being better than their own. But remember, an outstanding designer won’t make you look bad; they’ll actually make you look great because your company benefits from their skills, instead of your competition. When sourcing new talent, I recommend hiring ‘T-shaped’ people: those with a broad set of skills, but with one particularly deep specialty, which gives you both depth and breadth of capacity.
3. Sometimes you have to unclog the machine
As a leader, your job is to remove any barriers standing in the way of your team’s outstanding work. That could mean intervening with demanding stakeholders who threaten to throw a wrench into the works. Or, it could mean reprimanding or firing people who were once your peers. There’s no doubt this can be uncomfortable, awkward and stressful, but it’s an absolute necessity for maintaining a healthy culture and environment for your team to do their best work.
4. Embrace autonomy
Being ‘in charge’ does not mean you have to be ‘in control.’ As a designer, you already know that creative talent craves autonomy. Why hire extremely talented staff if you’re going to stand over their shoulders? Micromanagement is most often a response to fear, so figure out what you’re afraid of, address it, and give your team the freedom they need to do their jobs. If something’s still not working out, see #3 above.
5. Process is your frenemy
Most creatives would agree that a regimented structure can kill creativity, and brilliance doesn’t always happen on demand. But, at the same time, chaos and confusion wastes everyone’s time and creates frustration. As a leader, it’s important to develop good organisational habits, automate busy work wherever you can and standardise processes – for example, developing workflows for work requests, creative briefs and task assignments – so the team can focus on what really matters. Implementing some structure also enables you to be transparent with stakeholders and your team, so everyone can see where projects stand and what’s needed to move forward to the next step.
Being ‘in charge’ does not mean you have to be ‘in control.’ As a designer, you already know that creative talent craves autonomy.
6. Pick your battles in the war over quality vs. quantity
I think it’s safe to assume most designers want to be viewed as craftsmen and have others recognise that you can’t rush great creativity. But, in the real world, the business needs your team to churn out the work. There will always be more work than time, so it’s important to recognise that not all work is created equal. If you treat every project as though it deserves 100 per cent of your team’s best work, time and attention, they’ll quickly become overwhelmed and burned out. Prevent that by implementing a system for ranking work: Tier 1 projects demand maximum attention and most effort, Tier 2 requires some attention and effort, and Tier 3 projects deserve only minimal time and ‘good enough’ effort. And, for everything else, don’t be afraid to just say no. Your team – and their performance – will thank you for it.
7. Focus on understanding the business problem.
As designers, we’re typically focused on creating solutions. But, when you’re invited to the management table as CD, you must learn to speak the language of your peers. Take time to truly understand the business problem first – what is the challenge, the strategy, the goal – and then go about solving it with great design. This approach will not only make you more successful as a manager, but also demonstrate your value and earn you tremendous respect among the management team.
As you step into a leadership position, it’s important to keep in mind that being a great designer doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll be a great CD. Taking on the management role requires letting go of some of your personal attitudes and perceptions, while embracing the responsibility you have to your team. But, understanding what to expect, and actively preparing for it, can ensure a smoother transition for both you and your team.