How Specificity Can Kick Your Creative Process into Gear

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by Ronald Voigt, President, X-Rite Pantone

You know what you want. You want a tall, extra-hot, chai latte with skim milk and no extra sugar in your own, reusable mug please. You aren’t afraid to specify the type of drink/size/temperature/additives you want, but when it comes to specifying creative work your team does, it might be a different story.

By being the first to sketch creative visions on paper—visually or verbally—creative leaders have the privilege of harnessing a powerful tool: specificity. By disciplining ourselves to be precise and clear early in the creative process, we can unlock our own creativity, define our vision for ourselves and others, and save considerable time and money.

But, being specific can be scary. To lead through specificity, we must confront fears about it head-on.

Fear #1: Getting specific is a commitment.

The creative process can be subject to many iterations during a project, and this can make us reluctant to be definitive early on. To save face, we may hold back on specifications until we’re absolutely certain they will be well received, accurate, or considered a best course of action. But let’s remember two things.

One: If we are specific about the right things, there’s less chance of having to backtrack. Be as specific as you can about the ultimate purpose and the basic mechanism of the deliverable. Regardless of how your team gets there, what does the finished product have to do, and are there mandatories on how it does this? This puts pressure on the creative brief; so ask: is your marketing team giving you the information you need to be specific with your team?

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Two: Being specific doesn’t mean that we can’t change our minds later in the creative process. Instead, early specificity optimizes the communication channels within our teams, and even between the design side and the production side of the development process. It’s because those channels aren’t cluttered with questions and confusion. This way we can avoid the dreaded communication loop.

Furthermore, when we’re specific, we can also reasonably demand specificity from our teams, and this can feed that open channel. When they give feedback, we’ll know what is possible, what the limitations are and what choices we have.

Fear #2: If I’m specific, people will think I’m a tyrant.

Likeability is now understood as an important trait in leadership, so it’s easy to feel demanding when we lay out specifications.

But specificity doesn’t appear overly demanding when its goal is clear and logical. Is the marketing purpose sensible and well-articulated? Is the mechanism logical? Are any additional mandatories clear and reasonable, not arbitrary or onerous? If so, specificity is the opposite of demanding: it can liberate the team to be creative in all the right places throughout the project. Collaborators and even direct reports will work more confidently; good teammates will know they are performing well and hitting targets.

Fear #3: It takes too much time to be specific.

Things happen quickly, and in a desire to keep up, we look for every place we can trim time out of our processes. Sadly, too much of this trimming takes place at the beginning of the process: rushing through researching, planning, and choosing resources in order to just start doing something.

But often this results in a “messy middle,” where there is a great deal of extra communication and production waste. When we haven’t made our vision clear, a thousand questions come up later. We know it’s better to “do it right the first time,” which in this case means articulating our vision once very well. However, we often procrastinate or miss opportunities to do so.

Fear #4: By being too specific, I will drive myself into a high-cost situation.

Details can easily be associated with cost. If I add lots of extra toppings to a hamburger, it will increase its cost, but let’s not confuse “extras” with “specifics.” For instance, I can specify how I’d like my burger cooked, what type of bun I’d like, which standard toppings and sides I prefer without adding cost. It is then easy for the server to make me a happy customer!

In reality, we have found that the fewer specifications we provide, the higher the cost. Why? If we don’t make decisions and give specific direction upfront, teams get trapped in those frustrating communication loops in attempts to clarify the target, with these attempts actually wasting money and precious time to market.

Sixty-five percent of designers go through two to three rounds with their supplier on color alone (and 18% said even four to five rounds). This back and forth is costly, increasing the cost of the project by up to 10%.

Specificity, on the other hand, leads to confidence, which then leads to speed. By telling our teams and our partners outright what we want, they can give it to us faster, saving everyone time and money.

How can we get more specific?

We can improve our ability to articulate the purpose and mechanisms of a creative piece, especially when we’re dealing in the world of color and appearance. One way to do this is not just to rely on physical brand equity tools, such as color chips and swatches, brand style guides, or even product prototypes, but to utilize newer online tools that drive specificity for appearance (including color, texture, movement, and patterning), such as:

  • Digital color standards and libraries that allow us to see how desired colors will appear in a final product, and how these colors will vary depending on the materials and production processes that are used
  • Brand microsites that provide permission-based access to digital assets and communicate effectively with all workflow participants to keep the work on-brand.
  • Virtualization tools that help obtain buy-in for the vision so work can get started faster.

The benefit of these mandatories is that they’re not arbitrary: they’re rock-solid and proven to help. Their very purpose is specificity that drives efficiency.

When done right, specificity is a commitment that your team appreciates because it unleashes their creativity in the right ways and gives them confidence in the result. It also saves time and money, which further enables their creativity while helping your bottom line.

So go forth. Get specific as a daily practice and be the leader your team needs.

Ronald Voigt has been President of X-Rite Pantone since 2013. Previously, Ron led Commercial and Services Operations at Tektronix and was President, Industrial Automation at Kollmorgen (both Danaher companies). Before Danaher, Ron held several leadership positions at Delphi including a European based assignment in Paris and an executive residency at NUMMI, where he immersed himself in the methodologies and practices of the Toyota Production System. Ron earned an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and a BS in Electrical Engineering from Kettering University. Ron and his wife Rebecca reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan with their 3 cats, 2 children and 1 dog.


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