You rely on the work of creatives—designers, writers, videographers to name a few—to sell products and services, to get your message out, to make you look good. But the intersection of business and art can be tricky. Just as you expect artists working for you to be mindful of profits and efficiencies, you need to remember that creative work is far different from number crunching, sales, or coding. Here are a few insights to help you manage your artistic talents.
1. Avoid Burnout
Over lunch, a former colleague told me that his new agency was keeping him busy. Perhaps too busy. Since starting, he had gone straight from one writing assignment to another to another to another. Which stands to reason, right? They hired him as a writer. They liked his copy. And so they kept running him and running him like a champion racehorse. And now he was run out and asking his boss, Do you have anything I can work on that’s not writing?
Of course, it’s possible for all types of workers to suffer burnout, but creatives are especially susceptible. Creativity is like a reservoir. If you draw upon it continually, you can drain it dry. And this is a tack some companies employ with their creatives: they hire them, drain them, and then replace them. It’s not a good look, and it can backfire; once that reputation circulates, it will cause potential hires to steer clear of your job postings. Two ways you can avoid burning out your creatives are task variance and replenishment.
My friend wasn’t asking for time off; he was asking for work that wouldn’t drain his reservoir. Even if that meant doing something relatively “mindless” like clerical work. It made me realize that my team had a built-in balancing mechanism. Our writers were also responsible for interfacing with client representatives and for website programming, and some also edited, which is its own peculiar mix of technical expertise and creativity. These other tasks gave the writers a break from the creative process (writing) and let them stretch other muscles (diplomacy and technical application respectively). Ideally, they had a mix of these responsibilities every week. Some creatives may sniff at job duties that fall outside their artistic sphere, so you may need to point out how it’s to their benefit, or you can rotate those tasks among your workers, depending on who needs the break.
Another tactic, one that’s a harder sell for managers because it doesn’t look like work, is replenishment. Task variance avoids completely emptying the reservoir, but from time to time, you need a little rain to replenish what’s already been withdrawn. Writers need a chance to read, videographers to watch, and artists to look, observe, and doodle. Creatives need to take in outside inspiration to refill their proverbial gas tank, to spark their imaginations, and to keep their output from becoming stale and recycled.
Provide access to professional development materials, whether in-house or online, and understand that looking at other people’s work is part of the creative process. At one of my former offices, the design department took occasional field trips to the local art museum. Good for inspiration and good for morale, even if it made the other departments a little jealous.
2. Expect Greater Ownership
Often, managers struggle with getting employees to take ownership of their work. When it comes to creatives, you’ll likely experience the opposite. I once worked at a company where upper management actively tried to decrease a department’s sense of ownership—which department, you ask? The writing department. Controversy ensued. Management pointed out that the content was write-for-hire; thus, it didn’t really belong to the authors; the authors countered that their names appeared on the products and thus they had a greater responsibility (i.e., investment) than management was making out. The point is the writers weren’t prepared to relinquish ownership just because management told them to.
In this case, that reluctance may seem natural, but it may strike some as strange to encounter the same sense of ownership when the creative’s name is not attached, as in many work-for-hire cases. The designer’s name isn’t going on the mailer, the writer isn’t getting a company-blog byline, so why are they still so attached to their images, their design, their words?
Because it’s something they created. It wasn’t easy (usually), and it has a piece of them in it. There’s a reason artists equate the creative process with giving birth. They won’t be as attached to the corporate pieces as their personal projects, but those pieces are still their babies. It sometimes defies logic. As a writer, I’ve had occasion to remind myself that no one (outside the office at least) will know that I wrote a given piece, that I have no personal stake in the given enterprise, that I really do not (or should not) care that much—but I have to remind myself because those are my words.
Your creatives may need the same gentle reminders. You can also help orient your creatives’ mindset by stressing the collaborative aspect of the work (it’s team-owned). When assigning something new, you can imply that collaboration by asking your creative for a “first draft” or something to use as a “starting point.” Knowing from the beginning that someone else is going to leave fingerprints on the work can temper that sense of ownership.
3. Evaluate with Sensitivity and Specificity
Whereas technical work is more likely to fall under a binary of incorrect/correct, it’s more apt to say creative work falls onto a scale of bad-to-good. Where it falls on that scale can be subjective. And if your workers have a greater sense of ownership (and they probably do), that’s something for stakeholders to bear in mind during feedback sessions. Creatives are prone to take criticism, especially that of the sweeping variety, personally and to internalize it. Telling a designer that the layout stinks won’t win you any friends, and it also won’t help the designer get the product where you want it to be.
Specific criticisms and direction go a lot further (e.g., “the flow of information needs to be easier to follow” or “the muted colors don’t foster the sense of excitement we want”). And, though it should go without saying, be diplomatic and respectful. Having a good, open rapport with your workers will help you know how to communicate with them individually, but don’t mistake familiarity as a license to be harsh or tactless.
If you’re managing a team of creatives along with more analytical roles, think of it like gardening. Different plants require different care. And using these tips can help your creatives thrive alongside their counterparts.