The User is Out
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Concepting: Why You Should Foster a Collaborative Practice

From Point A to Point B

The new design project just kicked off -- maybe a logo, say, or a fancy brochure for an upcoming event -- and you're just itching to take a copy of the creative brief, run off to a quiet place, and start sketching out some ideas. Since the deadline is weeks and weeks away, and there's nothing else on your plate, this gives you uninterrupted time to meditate on the design problem, luxuriating in the process for days on end...

I can't remember the last time that happened, even for something like a show poster for a friend's band. They still needed it yesterday.

Besides, those "let's concept forever" situations seem like a pipe dream when you're working in a big, busy company. Your boss wants you to bill productively. That means sitting at your desk, or at least within close reach, and carrying at least four to five various projects that keep you at least 85% utilized (a.k.a. profitable). It also means working in close collaboration with other designers, copywriters, your creative director, the account managers and project managers, and last, but not least, your clients.

This is one of the reasons why it's always difficult to concept in the midst of a large company, where everyone needs to keep reminding you of what needs to be done, when, and how. I know that my best ideas come in the shower, or right after doing yoga, but that doesn't scale at work. I'm usually asked to come up with great ideas in a conference room, under a very tight deadline, and sometimes even in front of clients. Many designers react to the business-end of corporate life by enclosing their creative process in a black box and running it in secret, shutting out others. When I started working with large teams, about six years ago, this was intensely difficult. Today it isn't even a possibility. This has totally spun my head about what makes concepting possible.

Part of what makes a designer "professional" is not only their ability to produce superlative work under time constraint, but also to do it in a way that is inclusive. You need to foster a lack of attachment to your ideas if you're going to grow as a designer.

Why would you want to let go of your ideas and let the team own them? Here are a few reasons why.

1. Great ideas, with proper nurturing, attract the support of others. This holds true for creative organizations that strip personal politics out of the design process. People want to help your work succeed (if you're generally nice to them).

2. Collaborative making is a sign of maturity in your portfolio. I respect nothing more than seeing a designer's portfolio stuffed with killer creative work, chased by a presentation where the designer talks about how they brought the unique strengths of each team member to bear on the work. The designer carries the vision, while the team supports it. Such a designer can become a leader.

3. Great teams know how to play jujitsu with client feedback and sell work through. A real red flag that comes up in interviews with designers is when they show their original concepts instead of what ended up being printed or went live. It's not just on you to sell an idea. Your team will help you. And anyways, even an edited idea is "yours" when it contains the spirit of your intent for a concept.

4. You don't own it anyways. Your company owns your ideas. Then, after the client pays you for them, they usually own it (or a license to it) forever. So once those ideas come out of your mouth, they're no longer yours.

Now, with this said: Great ideas still need to be on brief. And you need to be on a team where you're all on equal footing. Here's a few situations regarding team dynamics that you should look out for.

Voice your intent before starting a team engagement. Before you start working a project as a team, say out loud exactly how you want it to play out. "First, I'd love for us to share our ideas with no editing for an hour or two. Let's have fun! Then, we'll take a walk, come back, and relate the ideas we've brainstormed back to the brief... and maybe see if one or two of them can be merged into something even better." You'd be surprised how voicing your intent, along with an attitude of real humility, can blow the roof off a brainstorm.

Great ideas come from the bottom up, not top-down. If your creative director keeps on handing your team ideas and tells you to execute them as is, you should consider going somewhere a little more democratic. You'll learn by example, but not by doing the work. Great designers know how to follow the thread of a glimmer of an idea through into the full-blown work, molding feedback into it.

If you keep failing to land an idea, there is likely a clear reason. But it may hurt when you figure it out. If you brainstorm in teams, and you come up with a ton of ideas that end up getting discarded at the end of the process, then you need to consider why your work isn't getting support. It may have been because you were off-brief or just didn't connect with the audience on an emotional level. Or, most likely, you didn't describe your ideas clearly. Lack of articulation is the number one killer of great ideas.

Don't fluff yourself for being a "creative type." The number two killer of great ideas? Preening yourself regarding creating the idea after you present it. I've worked at places where there was a note in the employee handbook that said, "No divas." Those rules are enforced with an iron hand, and for good reason. Such behavior keeps people from sharing the most valuable commodity in any creative agency: themselves.


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