Are All Creatives Liars?

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By David Lesue, Creative Director at Workfront

Seth Godin wrote a book in which he proclaimed all marketers are liars. Are all creatives liars, too? Based on a recent survey about the work processes of creatives, conducted by Workfront at HOW Design Live 2015, they just might be—if only unintentionally, to avoid the stark truths staring them in the face.


When asked how they handle interruptions, prioritization and approvals, a good number of the 300 respondents chose the generally accepted “right” answers instead of those that reflect the reality of their work life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if you want to convert those idealistic responses into real-world practices that will increase productivity and creative energy over the long term, you’ve got to face three unfortunate—but not insurmountable—truths.

3 Unfortunate Truths About Creative Processes and How to Overcome Them

Truth #1: Creatives Struggle with Prioritizing

When asked how they deal with last-minute requests, a strong majority (63%) of creatives answered that they “determine the priority level of the interruption and then work it into their queue.” While this is undoubtedly the best answer to the question, the 15 years I’ve spent in the creative-team trenches tells me that somebody’s not telling the truth. The default mode for most designers is to jump from whatever is on fire to whoever is loudest to whatever project is most creatively energizing.

Don’t believe me? Check out the responses to another question about how creatives balance and prioritize incoming design work requests:

  • 23% refer to an internal project management tool
  • 22% hold a meeting to assess bandwidth
  • 22% email the team to assess bandwidth
  • 10% ask the manager
  • 19% do something “other” than the above

Clearly, prioritization is still not happening in a standardized way, despite the availability of solid work management solutions. The vast majority of these digitally literate, tech-savvy teams are still relying on in-person meetings, email chains, or good old-fashioned “asking the boss.” Why? Because designers would rather do just about anything else than think about process.

The solution that has worked for my current team is a popular work methodology called Agile. We hold a weekly “sprint planning meeting” where we review our backlog of work, estimate the time required for each job, prioritize everything based on the team’s shared knowledge of deadlines and dependencies, and then bite off a realistic week’s worth of work—and we track it all in a comprehensive work-management tool.

If you’re a designer, you probably just tuned out completely. Just know this: the fact that we do this every Monday as a team means that we don’t have to mention the words “process” or “prioritization” for the rest of the week. And when questions arise, everyone on my team knows how to answer them.

Truth #2: Creatives Don’t Want to Talk About Process

As a rule, designers would rather spend their time creating than organizing and maintaining creative processes. But your team’s operational structure must come from somewhere. You can either own it yourself, or it will be cooked up and dished out by someone unfamiliar with the realities of your work and your team, making it unhelpful at best and an active barrier at worst.

When asked what feeds or inspires creativity the most, the number one answer (42%) was “freeing up my mind, like taking a walk outside.” Isn’t it crazy that so many creatives must physically remove themselves from their workspace in order to feel more creative? While a walk may unleash your design mojo for the afternoon, if you want to nourish your creativity over the long term, it’s essential to own your own processes and strip away all the stuff that’s bogging you down.

Another revealing (but not surprising) statistic is that 76% of respondents consider approvals and reviews painful. Ease the pain by completing all rounds of proofing the same way, using the same tool, every time—and making the record accessible so slow responders can be held accountable and less time is wasted hunting down missing details.

Truth #3: Creatives Think Everything Should Be Amazing

Most designers struggle to decide what should get an A-level effort and what should get a C-level effort. The idea that every deliverable should break all known design records is noble but naïve—it ignores both business objectives and reality itself. Having a clearly designated list of priorities makes it easier to tell yourself, “I only have an hour to work on this, and an hour is all this HR form needs anyway.”

When you put in the time to prioritize and talk about processes (see truths #1 and #2), last-minute requests are less likely to derail you. Imagine being able to glance at your current position in the work queue and immediately understand the precise cost of that one quick favor. You’ll be empowered to say ‘no’ or perhaps, “Yes, but not until next week.”

The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt

A day in the life of a creative often reflects one of two extremes: creative teams are either stifled by too much externally imposed structure or crippled by the chaos that ensues when there are no meaningful processes in place. The truth that will set you free is this: if you proactively take the time to prioritize and design a process that truly suits the way you work, rather than avoiding process work at all costs, you’ll be able to spend more of your day doing what you do best.

T9942The process of creating graphic design varies from artist to artist, so it can be a difficult idea to define. In Graphic Design Process by Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell, discover a range of design methods through a series of in-depth case studies. Explore various creative strategies as illustrated by the work of 23 graphic designers from around the world, including Ed Fella, Philippe Apeloig, Michael Bierut, Anette Lenz, Johnson Banks, James Goggin, Graphic Thought Facility, Me Company, Ahn Sang-Soo and Ralph Schraivogel.