Congratulations! After years of “making things pop” for clients, you’ve been rewarded with your very own creative team. That’s right—you’re driving the bus.
You’re used to creating visuals, making revisions, and securing approvals. But proving productivity to stakeholders, coaching team members, and fighting for headcount is uncharted territory. You’re not alone.
“One of my biggest challenges in making the transition from a designer to a creative leader is not always having an immediate answer,” says Jessica Phan, former Founding Designer and Head of Design at Zugata. “It’s more important for me to ask the team what they think and why, because my job now is to empower them and develop their thinking.”
Gigya Creative Director Marina Luderer says her biggest challenge has been striking the right balance between providing designers creative freedom and guidance. “You have to leave enough freedom to designers to come up with their own creative solution, but still guide their design to be on target,” she says.
There is a great need for strong creative leaders in our digital, on-demand economy. That’s because today’s multitude of screens and mediums calls for visual consistency. Simplicity and ease of use are now synonymous with consumer trust.
Design is now closely tied to business outcomes. Great design plays a crucial role in customer satisfaction and makes all the difference in defeating the competition. So much so the new millennium has seen the creation of the Chief Design Officer role (CDO) at major companies like Pepsi and Johnson & Johnson.
Opportunity and excitement aside, making the transition from individual contributor to creative leader is tough. Here’s some helpful advice to measure team progress, overcome bottlenecks, design for business outcomes, and so much more—all from those who have done it before.
When you own a project, you’re engrossed in every detail. You live for this color palette or breathe that iconography style. But when you’re a manager, maintaining this level of insight into each and every project your team tackles is impossible.
“The most difficult moment as a creative leader is when you want to do everything by yourself,” says David Mekerishvili, Wrike’s own Design Team Lead. “You have a big picture of all the projects and campaigns, and you need so much time to transfer all this information to your team. Sometimes you want to grab all these tasks, run out of the office to your cozy loft apartment and design, design, design. But that’s bad. Really bad.”
You can’t be in every trench, but you do need to measure progress and hold your entire team accountable. You don’t have time to chase individual project details across emails and spreadsheets. Choosing a designated workspace for all project information is the first step to adopting this bird’s eye view.
Pro Tip: Your workspace should be flexible enough to allow each person on the team to work however they feel most comfortable. This limits the chances of individual team members slipping back into old habits and recording project details in notebooks and inboxes.
“It has the simplicity for people who just need to get sh*t done, but I can still see what the entire team is working on in great detail,” says Chelsea Scholz, Unbounce’s Marketing Manager of Brand Promotion. “I no longer have to search for project details across notebooks, Google docs, spreadsheets—everything is in Wrike.”
It’s true: To whom much is given, much is required. But sometimes in business the opposite is more accurate: From whom much is required, much is given. You just have to make the business case for it. Having a clear view of your team’s progress makes this process much easier.
“When asking management for additional headcount, I create a table, list out the various areas we support, and note the skills needed,” shares Phan. “I then fill this out by listing who is currently responsible for what. The chart helps me and the team visualize the gaps and/or realize where our designers are spread too thin. Once the additional headcount is approved, I also share this with our recruiter so he/she knows exactly the type of designer we need.”
Another tactic: Determine exactly how much time your team spends on work. Measure how long different types of projects (i.e. digital ad vs.print) take your team to complete, as well as the time spent on requests from specific clients or departments.
You’ll be able to more accurately estimate delivery time and define the complexity of particular kinds of requests. This leads to improved capacity planning and load balancing, and empowers you to make the case for additional headcount when necessary.
Mekerishvili has clearly defined the length and complexity of specific project types, which helps him know exactly how much work one designer can handle.
“We have weekly planning every Monday,” he says. “The senior designers of each department and I distribute new tasks and projects to the team. When we are obliged to decline or reschedule 15-20% of new tasks, that’s the sign to ask for more headcount.”
Your team slaved away creating assets for that big conference. But when the deals start rolling in, event marketing and sales get all the glory. How do you make sure your team gets the recognition they deserve?
A 2013 survey of 1,200 US employees found that 70% of respondents reported the most meaningful types of recognition have “no dollar value.” A simple pat on the back for a job well done goes a lot further than you might expect.
“There is nothing better than telling a team member that he/she is doing a great job,” says Luderer. “And it’s even better when it happens in front of the entire team.”
Phan suggests calling attention to creatives’ accomplishments via company-wide Slack channels or all-hands meetings.
“Public recognition may seem like little to nothing, but it really does make team members feel recognized, valued, and appreciated,” she says. “And in return, they are even more motivated and productive.”
Proving the value of a creative team is trickier in data-driven organizations.
“It’s hard to say when specifically design influences project success,” admits Mekerishvili, “but we work closely with the larger marketing team to understand which design approaches work better. If a designer has a hypothesis that his web page design will increase conversions, for example, we test it. The results of the test show the outcome.”
Pro Tip: Keep regular track of the number of projects your team completes, how many hours they take, and where the requests are coming from. Provide key stakeholders with a report highlighting these details, like the marketing team at Premier Sotheby’s International Realty.
“When you’re working with 900 individual personalities and independent contractors, being able to prove your value is crucial,” says Christina Anstett, Sotheby’s Direct Marketing Specialist. “Pulling a report and showing them how many jobs were completed on their behalf during a certain time frame is very, very powerful for us.”
Creative directors must ensure their teams do well. More than that, they must coach them to do better. If you use a workspace that effectively captures all the metadata around your projects and processes, you should be able to run a report for projects with missed deadlines or unmet objectives.
Next, look for any commonalities between these initiatives. Did they involve a particular asset type or creative brief? Are projects getting stuck in the same process step? Are certain team members always involved?
Answering these questions allows you to spot and address any bottlenecks negatively impacting performance. Identifying issues related to specific team members also presents the opportunity for valuable coaching around skills like time management, organization, and communication.
This raises another key question for new creative leaders: What is the best way to approach these coaching opportunities?
“When I notice an opportunity to provide coaching for someone on my team, I approach the topic with the employee by providing them written and verbal feedback during our one-on-ones,” shares Phan.
Phan also takes advantage of her team’s 30-minute design scrum meetings to help designers develop certain skills.
“For example, I noticed one of my team members was not comfortable with presenting, and another didn’t start their ideas on paper enough, so l created an activity out of it,” she says.
“The activity was to think of different ways to lay out an ad by creating as many thumbnail sketches as possible in the next three minutes,” she explains. “After, they had to present their ideas and communicate their favorite and why it was better than the existing ad. At the end the activity, I communicated why we did this and how it applied to them so they knew what they could continue to work on.”
Achieving Business Outcomes
Individual designers are mostly concerned with the quality of their work. Does it convey the right message? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Does it follow design best practices? Creative leaders on the other hand must also worry about whether their team’s work is hitting business goals and helping to move the needle.
Building project intake or request forms with a space for requesters to provide desired outcomes and success metrics can help with this. Establishing and recording goals at the outset of projects helps your team design with objectives in mind, while giving them a measure of success for their efforts. Were these goals achieved? To what extent? What can you do better next time?
Phan agrees, “To make sure the design team consistently meets business goals, it's just as simple as communicating what needs to be done, why we need to do it, and how we will measure success when assigning tasks. I also always tell my designers during our one-on-ones that ‘done is better than perfect,’ because at the end of the day, being pixel-perfect isn't going to make a business impact.”
Brand guidelines are another helpful tool to keep designers focused on business outcomes and avoid getting lost in design details.
“Brand guidelines are a designer’s friend,” says Luderer. “They alleviate the need to reinvent the wheel every day and help to focus on the content.”
Mekerishvili has a simple, straight-forward philosophy to ensure his team’s designs hit the mark: “Design is not an art. Design solves problems. So create 80% outcome-driven design, and polish it with 20% art.”
Driving the Bus Doesn't Have to be Scary
Becoming an effective creative leader takes time and experience. But as American television host and journalist Sam Levenson once said, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.”
To start your journey as a creative leader ahead of the curve, follow the advice and learnings offered throughout this blog post:
- You can’t be in every trench with your team. Don’t chase project details across platforms. Choose a single workspace for all project information to easily monitor progress.
- To make a convincing case for more headcount, document how long team members are spending on particular types of requests, and which skills are in high demand.
- A public pat on the back goes far when giving your team the recognition they crave. Tracking the volume of projects they manage can do the trick for more data-driven orgs.
- Look into projects with missed deadlines or objectives. Spot the commonalities and address them with your team to start breaking down performance barriers.
- To ensure business outcomes are met, define project goals and objectives before design starts. And don’t forget to keep those brand guidelines handy!
To learn more about these and other key creative management strategies, download our free ebook, Execution is Everything: How to Transform your Creative Team into a Real Powerhouse.