The graveyard account

The graveyard account

“The Graveyard Account.” That’s what we called it. Every marketing agency has a one. It’s the client that no one wants to work for. Which was a problem for me as creative director, because I was responsible deciding who worked on which accounts. Persuading someone to work on the graveyard account involved pleading, cajoling and bribery in equal measure. But there was one graveyard account that bucked this trend, and taught me a valuable and humbling lesson about being a creative director in the process. This particular client sold office phone systems. The product was boring. The sales channel was complicated. And their budgets were always tight. Whenever we presented new creative ideas, these clients would make so many changes that in the end our designs looked exactly like what we’d done before. They would say they preferred to stick with “what worked”. The entire agency was demotivated as a result. And as it turns out, the clients were not happy either. They felt they were not getting our best work, and were considering putting their account out to pitch. It was at this point, through luck rather than judgement, that I made a decision which changed everything. Within six months, the graveyard account was to become the agency’s most profitable and award winning client. It all started with a simple “please take one” leaflet. I needed someone to design it, and the team that usually worked on the graveyard account were already booked. So I asked a new recruit, Julie, to take it on instead. Julie hadn’t yet heard all the stories about “the graveyard”. And I wasn’t...
Great Creatives Don’t Fight Feedback

Great Creatives Don’t Fight Feedback

Most creatives are not good at receiving feedback. Quite the opposite in fact. They’ve learned to resist feedback, believing that it’s a part of their job to be “misunderstood” and to fight the “suits”. They dig in their heals to defend their ideas. And there’s something to be said for this approach. We have to be ready to fight for new ideas because there are so many people who will challenge anything new. Take Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, for example. He mocked the iPhone when it was first launched because it didn’t have a tiny plastic keyboard like all the other smartphones of the time. His lack of vision cost his company the smartphone market, and ultimately cost him his job. If Apple had listened to people like Ballmer, there would be no iPhone. So resisting feedback is an important part of every creative’s job. But the very best creatives don’t always resist feedback. Great creatives actively seek out feedback, but the difference is that they’ve learned how to do it effectively, so that it helps them to nurture their ideas, rather than knock them down. There are five key stages to generating this kind of constructive feedback. 1. Who to ask Great feedback scrutinises our ideas from an entirely new angle, and reveals strengths and weaknesses that we were not previously aware of. In other words, it addresses our “blind spots”: the aspects of our work that we are unaware of and can’t see for ourselves. While we all have our own unique perspective on the world, those closest to us like friends and colleagues...
Momentum versus direction – why some organisations don’t innovate

Momentum versus direction – why some organisations don’t innovate

When we’re moving forward with a project, it provides us with reassurance. It feels like we’re heading somewhere, and from this we tend to infer that we’re heading in the right direction. But this confuses momentum with direction. In his book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, argues that it’s essential for their movie directors to have a direction, even if it’s not necessarily the right one. A director must maintain the confidence of his crew, and in this sense, going somewhere is better than going nowhere. It’s a matter of leadership. But what if that confidence is misplaced? What if your project is moving rapidly in the wrong direction? All the team moral in the world is not going to save a project if you’re building the wrong thing. The risks are compounded in a business context, where a team left idle is a waste of money. As their manager, the business demands that you give them something to occupy them. Fast. So should you begin a project before you know exactly where you’re going, or should you wait for inspiration and risk wasting time and money? At Pixar, Catmull explains that they solve this dilemma by encouraging their directors to “fail early”. The argument is that you can always adjust your direction once you have set off, as you learn. And of course this is true, to a point. To be creative, you need the freedom to experiment and evolve your ideas as a project progresses. But innovation is about more than creativity. These kinds of course corrections are great for incremental refinement...
How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

Have you ever noticed how the words you use to describe an experience eventually replace your actual memories of that experience? For example, I ran the New York Marathon last year. When I got back home, people asked me how it was, so I described it to them. After I told the story a few times, it became fine-tuned, and I settled on the most interesting bits to tell people, and the best words to use to describe those bits. Eventually, this description became so well rehearsed that whenever I think of the New York Marathon, I think of my edited description, rather than the actual experience. In other words, the words I used to describe the experience became a shorthand for that experience. Rather than digging out loads of memories, my brain is somehow taking a shortcut and playing the edited highlights instead. The trouble is that these edited highlights are not just a shortened version of events – they are skewed in the particular way that I had chosen to relate the experience to my friends. For example, I left out the boring bits. I downplayed some of the agony. I focussed more on the fun and excitement. So the words we use to describe our experience not only become a shorthand for that experience, but they can start to define and shape the experience as well. This happens not only to our memories of the past, but to our experience of the present as well. And that is why the language we use when talking about our experience, behaviour and goals is so important. Take these...
Using “Save As…” to navigate the creative maze

Using “Save As…” to navigate the creative maze

Developing creative ideas is not a steady linear progression of refining ideas to make something gradually better and better. Quite the opposite, in fact. The creative process is something more akin to a navigating a maze. If you mentally prepare yourself for a few wrong turns at the start, you’re more likely to reach the end. The creative process is an emotional journey, because you’re looking for what “feels” right. There are no absolute rights and wrongs – you’re ultimately drawing on your own personal aesthetic judgement to determine the right approach. And this is why being creative can be so emotionally draining. In his recent book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios, explains how important it is to remember that you are not your ideas. Creatives should not take criticism of their work personally. But this is easier said than done, because in a sense, your ideas are you, or at least, an extension of you. Parents often take criticism of their children very personally because they know they share the same DNA. It is much the same with our creative ideas. We pour our personality, our humour, our sense of identity into our ideas. Their quirks are our quirks. Their shortcoming are our shortcomings. But of course, Ed Catmull is right. As personal as our ideas may be, If we identify too closely with them, we may become blind to their shortcomings, and they can lead us down a blind alley as a result. And that brings us back to our maze. As you navigate a maze, you have a sense of where the...
What’s going on inside your helmet? – Quarterbacks, coaches and patterns of success

What’s going on inside your helmet? – Quarterbacks, coaches and patterns of success

The pressure on a quarterback in an American football game is hard to imagine. They alone are responsible for passing the ball by throwing it long distances across the field. And the longer they wait before making a pass, the greater the chance they’ll be tackled to the ground. But they don’t face this responsibility alone. Inside every NFL quarterback’s helmet is an earpiece so they can receive instructions from their coach. It’s the coach’s responsibility to call the plays, deciding what the quarterback and offensive team will do on each down. The coach may call for some some long and difficult passes, and if the quarterback fails to complete a few, he might start to panic. Perhaps the negative self-talk sets in, as the defence starts to undermine his self confidence. Typically in this situation, a coach will give his quarterback a couple of easy passes to calm him down. If you’re not a quarterback, you probably don’t wear an earpiece for your coach to whisper instructions to you as you work. But perhaps you should. A good creative professional needs to be both the quarterback and the coach. Throwing a beautiful pass is a bit like coming up with a great new idea, or solving a particularly difficult creative problem. The more challenging the task, the higher the risk of failure. If you’ve spent a lot of time on a creative problem, and you haven’t come up with any great solutions what would your coach tell you to do? He’d give you a couple of easy tasks to do, so you can get your confidence back. In...
Leaky and ambiguous icons

Leaky and ambiguous icons

I’ve created many icons over the years. So I know from personal experience just how difficult they can be to design. The objective of icon design is usually to produce the simplest possible image that unambiguously communicates a concept. Sometimes that concept is a thing: like a folder or a trash can; sometimes it’s an action: like swiping a card or summoning a nurse. There are two reasons why icons should be as simple as possible: they are less cluttered and work in small sizes; they are less likely it is to “leak” unintended messages. The first reason is self explanatory. The second is worth exploring in more detail. As an example, take a look at this icon I found in a hospital. The purpose of the button is to summon a nurse. The icon doesn’t attempt to convey the action of summoning. Instead, it shows a picture of a nurse. But is that all the icon is communicating? I see several other messages in this icon: Nurses are women Nurses are slim and totter around on pin-like legs Nurses wear figure hugging clothes with short skirts Nurses carry items like drinks Nurses wear old-fashioned clothes, or it is appropriate to be nostalgic about when they did. …and there are doubtless many more. The presuppositions and cultural context of the designer are leaking out of the icon. In this case, the ideas leaked are so far from today’s social norms that I believe the hospital should consider changing the buttons. A cost that would have been entirely unnecessary if the icon had been a bell, for example. But while...