Overcoming Creative Roadblocks as a Designer

Creative roadblocks are all around us. Some of us may be creating them (knowingly or unknowingly), while others are desperately findings ways to overcome them. Why is that? Are we doomed to suffer from frustration or can we do something tangible about it?

Because, often times, diagnosing the problem is half the answer, Marcus Hewitt, chief creative officer and Eric Zeitoun, president at international brand consultancy Dragon Rouge, recently embarked on a journey to diagnose who is most likely to create these creative roadblocks and why these roadblocks appear. Through a workshop with a broad group of marketing and design professionals at the HOW Design Conference in Austin, TX, Hewitt and Zeitoun helped uncover the four key functions that were most likely to create these creative roadblocks. Below are reasons why these functions can get in the way of creative delivery, as well as tips to overcome them:

1. Reassure Your CEO That Change is not Going to Cost Him
OK.  Most of us think that CEOs view design as a cost item and that in their minds, their wives are the real creative director. But here are a couple of things you can do to fight this prejudice.

  • Design and creativity are one of many ways to convey change. Although your CEO may have conservative views about design, it does not necessarily mean that he/she is risk-averse or opposes change. Actually, most CEOs know perfectly well that in an ever-changing world, they constantly need to adapt their organization to a shifting reality. If they seem to dismiss the power of creativity, it may simply be because design is beyond their comfort zone. So educate them about the power of design and creativity to portray and convey change.
  • Be objective when you present your design and link it back to a strategic objective. Convince your CEO that design is not a wild activity. Showcase that it is driven by a rational process, rooted in clear hypothesis, and informed by rational consumer insights.
  • Put a value behind your creative ideas. One of the most effective ways to convince the big boss that design isn’t a bottomless pit, is to showcase that design can open doors to new markets and opportunities either by creating distinctiveness in a commoditized business, by driving innovation, or by helping bring to life a marketing strategy. So try and model how much money your idea is worth (even a ballpark figure will show him that you are aware of financial stakes).

2. Your VP of Marketing May Secretly Want to be a Creative Director (but will never admit to it)
Many VPs of marketing may unwillingly be creating creative roadblocks by trying to get in the driver’s seat on all things creative. Why? Either because they see it as an opportunity to portray their own creativity, put their mark on their brands, or drive their reputation (if not their career). How many of us have had to deal with bosses or marketing colleagues who could easily have picked up the pen themselves to help re-design their brand? Well, it doesn’t have to be that way:

  • Bring it back to the brief. If you want to avoid creative reviews that involve the ‘I like it’ or ‘I think we should include a dog in the background,’ keep your VP of marketing true to the creative brief.
  • Make them feel that the creative ideas came from them. The best way to sell you creative ideas is to make people think that they authored them. Take the time to understand your VP of Marketing’s hot buttons. Not to say that you should limit your creativity to their ideas, but find ways to make them feel that they co-authored your output.
  • Support your creative recommendation with facts and data points. If you speak your audience’s language, they will buy into what you tell them. So remember that you didn’t use Frutiger because it looks elegant. You used it because it speaks to a consumer insight.
  • Put on a well-orchestrated show. VPs of marketing are used to putting on a show to convince their constituencies (either internal or external). So do the same. Make sure to rehearse your presentation, ensure that each of your team members has a clear role, and come up with a clear, cohesive and consistent point of view.

3. A Creative Director Can Be The Team’s Worst Enemy
One would think that creative directors would be the first ones to help tame the tension that surrounds a creative process, but they can can actually add to the drama themselves. If they view creative output as a catalyst of their own star power, they may end up getting in the way of the process itself.

  • Don’t take it personally. No matter what kind of feedback a creative director may give you don’t take it personally. Don’t be defensive about your creation and stay open to constructive criticism. There may be good reasons why your design guru is pushing back on a direction. Don’t fight it. Try and understand what it means and how you can integrate his/her feedback into your work.
  • Be passionate and don’t limit your creativity. What keeps us excited about design is the realm of possibilities, the freedom of expression and the open mindedness that it gives permission to explore. So never feel sorry for trying, and dare to show a wide spectrum of creative options. Nobody will ever blame you for trying and experimenting.
  • Stay on brief. Don’t experiment just for the sake of it. Design without any strategy is not going anywhere so make sure that you can speak to your design and always bring it back to the brief.

4. Product/Marketing Managers May Feel Squeezed Between Conflicting Agendas, but They Can be Your Best Ally
Product /marketing managers are often used as relays for personal agendas. They end up being squeezed between their hierarchy and a design team whose role they don’t always completely embrace. So oftentimes, they become the point of friction between ‘marketing’ and ‘design’ and can unwillingly foster the ‘we’ vs. ‘them’ kind of mentality. But if you put them on your side, they can help undo many of the creative roadblocks.

  • Engage them in the creative process. There is no better way to get a creative output embraced by senior management than when you work along the marketing team. Don’t hesitate to conduct joint reviews of your work and engage the product/marketing managers to help build your case by providing the appropriate data points and insights.
  • Learn each other’s language. Product managers may not all have had experience dealing with creative output, let alone processes. So it’s your role to help educate each other to your own respective language. Don’t dismiss their brief and don’t let them criticize your creative output without clear logic. You will go much further if you manage to understand each other.
  • Conduct joint presentation of your work. Joint creative presentations between marketing and creative teams is the benchmark for a successful creative process. It means that both teams have bought into the entire process and outcome and shows shared passion and energy. It can only make you look good to your senior management, and convince them about the quality of your recommendation. And by the way, it also can make your life much easier and more enjoyable.

So next time you are faced with a creative roadblock, put yourself in the shoes of the roadblock perpetrator. Diagnosing what drives their attitude and adapting your language to their perspective will help you go further than trying to spin your creation in different directions, hoping that one of them will stick. That way, you will push creative ideas you may have thought would never have made it through.

Eric Zeitoun is the president and Marcus Hewitt is the chief creative officer of
Dragon Rouge, the largest independent brand and design consulting firm with offices in New York, Bangkok, Dubai, Hamburg, London, Paris and Warsaw. The consultancy offers a portfolio of services spanning the whole brand life cycle: Innovation and strategy (new product development, naming and positioning), expression (packaging design, corporate identity, messaging and retail environment), implementation (brand tools, training and processes), and evolution (brand architecture, portfolio management, re-positioning).