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Fostering Creativity

The care and feeding of artists is a tricky business.

by Kate (September, 2003)

(Note: Kate is a mid-level manager at a major craft company.)

Ah, the excitement of seeing a new product emerge from the development process! What started as an idea in someone's mind is now, finally, complete. But just how was that initial idea born? Millions of words have been written trying to explain exactly how the creative process works, but the answer remains elusive.

Still, we do know one thing: Whether this piece of creativity is a product, an ad, a sell sheet, a presentation, or whatever, the creator worked in an atmosphere that fostered the creative process.

As a manager, it's your job to provide that atmosphere and understand how creative people create.

Understanding the process.

First, realize that creativity is personal. Unlike accountants, creative people put a part of themselves "on the line" with each job they complete. They express themselves in color, fiber, technique, and design -- or words and graphics -- in areas where there are no clear-cut, right-or-wrong answers. The result is not black or white; there is no one correct answer or solution.

Second, realize that since creativity comes from within, there are days when it is nowhere to be found. At those times, it is nothing short of torture for the creator. Circles end up as ovals, country blues look gray, everything has typos, and nothing is pleasing. If a simple hangtag takes hours to finish, what can be expected of a quarter-page ad?

Yet when a creative person is in "the zone" and the creative juices are flowing, the difficult can be done in less than an hour and the impossible in less than four. Recognizing this, and trying to work with rather than against that flow, makes the process easier for all involved.

Unfortunately for the creative person, creativity is not visible. There are times when 15 minutes spent staring out a window can result in a wonderful design that is then completed quickly. Thirty minutes of magazine flipping or 20 minutes spent surfing art-filled websites look like slacking off. In fact, the subconscious is busy during this time, fine-tuning thousands of graphic tidbits of information into hundreds of different possibilities, with tangible end results.


Fostering creativity starts with communication. The minute you start describing a project to creative people, images are forming in their brains. The more precise the information you pass on, the clearer those mental pictures become. What exactly is the assignment? What exactly is the purpose -- what should the viewer feel or do after seeing the creator's final result?

Though the computer age may have reduced the time needed to transfer the idea from the brain to the printed page, the process needed for creating that the initial mental image is just as involved as in the pre-computer age. Any information omission can lead to delays and frustration which impede the creative process.

Positive Words.

When talking with a creative person, do you use positive or negative words? For example, once an ad includes the necessary information, everything else is subjective. Font, color, background design, wording placement, etc., are personal preferences. Maybe there's nothing "wrong" with the first draft, but you just don't like it. How you communicate your thoughts can have a huge impact on the final result.

I have heard feedback such as "This is awful", "Is this the best you can do?", and "My two-year-old could do a better job." No matter how thick their skin, creators can't help but take offense at these comments.

Because artists put themselves in their work, they may take negative comments personally. Though your initial intent was to express dissatisfaction with a printed piece of paper, the artist hears, instead, that you're dissatisfied with him.

The most productive way to handle the above situation is to acknowledge the efforts made, but offer suggestions. "That's an interesting approach! What about ...?" Or, "Gee, I'm sorry, I guess I didn't make myself clear. We really need the ad to ...." In both situations you have acknowledged the effort in a positive way, while pointing out that there is more than one way to handle the ad.

Equipment and Tools.

The clearest communication, positive feedback, and a thorough understanding of the creative process are all for naught if the equipment and tools to be used are outdated or inefficient.

Do your computers have a habit of crashing because they don't have sufficient memory to do what is asked of them? Do you purchase single-use versions of programs rather than multi-terminal ones because they're cheaper, yet load them onto everyone's computer? Do you not authorize the purchase of necessary items because you don't understand why they're needed?

Though all employees are key participants in the success of a company, some special handling is needed to create an environment which truly fosters creativity. The guiding hand that supplies assignments and sets deadlines should hold a very long leash, one which allows freedom to roam...experiment...create.

(Note: Kate's previous columns are archived. To access any of them, click on the titles at the top of the right-hand column. Have any comments about stolen designs or products? Email Kate at katescollagecln@aol.com.)



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