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An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Working With Creatives

Few relationships are as fraught as those between creatives and clients.

Few relationships are as fraught as those between creatives and clients. Popular culture is full of unflattering tropes for both, from lazy, weird designers to indecisive, demanding clients who want top-notch work–even if they don’t know what that looks like.

But the reality is much more complicated, and can’t be attributed to a handful of widespread (and inaccurate) stereotypes. In fact, the root of the disconnect between clients and creatives is communication: think of it as humans talking to cats–with all the attendant missteps and misunderstandings attached. Cats purr, flip tails, and finally, claw or bite humans who fail to understand their subtle, furry communication; humans coo at them, pet these fluffy creatures excessively, and finally, recoil in shock from a sharp claw or glistening fang.

It’s an imperfect analogy, but like creatives and accounts, both sides are on separate pages and different wavelengths. The end result? Needless suffering and miscommunication.

But life doesn’t have to resemble the confusing, tense relationship between humans and cats. Just as cats and humans can live in harmony once they understand each other–so too is there hope for creatives and clients. Here’s a handy little guide for entrepreneurs, chief marketing officers, and other businesspeople to improve their relationship with their creative teams.

Criticize fairly and accurately

This advice is stunningly simple, rarely followed, and generally, the one cause from which all other problems arise. In order to avoid any confusion, clients need to be as explicit as possible about their needs.This includes:

Be clear with the brief–and stick to it! When setting the parameters of a project, clients must be clear about exactly what they want. For example, if this means that a company wants a thirty-second ad on TV, then create a brief for that ad–and only that ad. Don’t ask for an ad specifically for television, only to opt instead for a streaming ad on a mobile app.

Criticize the product, not your team. Yes, diva designers exist, and you should not put up with their temper tantrums. But plenty of nightmare clients–those who scream, fly into rages, and badger creative teams at all hours of the weekday (and weekend)–also exist. Both archetypes seem to forget one thing: creatives and clients are on the same side–and are not enemies.

Keep it professional, not personal. Don’t degrade their education, experience, or overall chops. Whatever you do, please do not insist that you can come up with a better design. If that were the case, then you would have done so already, and you would not require the services of a specialist, who had to go through countless hours of schooling and create a top-notch portfolio–before they were considered for even junior creative positions.

Rather, keep the focus on the product at hand, and…

…Be straightforward about what you do (and do not) like. It’s never easy to give constructive criticism–as creatives, we get that. But criticism is part and parcel of the design (or writing) process, and very rarely do things work out on the first round. As such, your creatives (if they are real creatives, and not just drama queens with more flair than skill) are expecting feedback from you.

However, it’s incredibly unhelpful if you dismiss a design without going into the specifics. Is it the color? The shape? The layout? The more feedback on the table, the better your creative team can match their products to your vision. Even better, relate why you don’t like it back to the original brief.

Here are two examples of unhelpful criticism.

  1. It doesn’t pop. It’s just missing that… extra something. I want to be blown away, and it’s not doing it for me.
  2. The colors on this design are washed out. I want something brighter, with more vibrant, richer shades. Maybe try pastels.

Granted, no one will actually use the word “vibrant” in everyday conversation. But guess which one is frustrating for your designer to hear–namely because (s)he has no idea what you’re talking about?

Even worse, #1 isn’t original; to tell a designer that something doesn’t “pop” is not only cliched, but also meaningless. What does pop mean? Can you even explain that to your confused, frustrated designers? When critiquing designs, stay away from vague, all-encompassing descriptors, especially if a) the meaning of the word varies from one person to the next, or b) you’re not quite sure what the word means to you.

Even if you have used the word “pop”, it’s not necessarily your fault. After all, if you’re not experienced at dispensing constructive criticism, it’s easy to revert back to familiar frameworks. But it’s never too late to start practicing.

For example, hone in on one aspect of the design: it can be color, format, typeface, shape, or any number of visual elements. Perhaps, like Pepsi, your new logo has a thin, weak typeface, a lack of motion and equilibrium in the design itself, and closely resembles Korean Airlines’ own emblem. Or, as in the case of the 2010 redesign of the Gap logo, perhaps the new symbol is too bland and uneventful, featuring generic Helvetica script and a tiny, misplaced square of color over one letter.

Of course, not everyone will be able to critique so specifically on the first try. Which is why you should…

…Give your creatives examples

If you find it difficult to explain what you do (or do not) want in a design, then provide examples. This way, your creatives will know what to stay away from and what they should focus on.

Look at Casper’s cute, pastel-colored ads. Personally, I love it because it introduces an unseen side to sleep–making an everyday routine into a world of whimsy, fantasy, and adorable fun. From this ad campaign, it’s easy to find additional examples: you can point your creative team to Tomi Um, the New York-based illustrator who created all the designs for Casper’s ad campaign, or Red Antler, the studio behind the campaign.

Or take the Instagram redesign, a minimalist sketch of a camera drawn out in white lines against a pink and orange background. Love it or hate it, Instagram’s redesign conveyed their vision very clearly, thanks largely to the details. Notice how the gradients blend into one another, shifting shades and hues seamlessly. Better yet, the 2016 Instagram logo is a digital update on their original logo–a beautifully drawn, richly-colored and detailed camera that recalled classic Polaroid models.

Whatever your tastes and vision may be, a few examples will go a long way. Bear in mind that you’re not asking designers to copy the ideas of others; instead, you’re simply pointing them to such examples for visual cues and aesthetic hints.

Haste makes waste

If it were possible to do something in three days, then your creative team would have done so already. Contrary to popular belief, even creatives don’t like to drag out projects more than necessary; after all, they likely have more clients to work on.

As a result, listen when your creatives explain how much time an assignment will require. Granted, projects sometimes do involve time (and cost) overruns, but very rarely will they be finished ahead of schedule.

Further, who knows best? Your creative team does, because it’s not their first rodeo. They have a thick portfolio of both conceptual work and case studies under their belts. It’s one thing to get on the case of a team that constantly misses their deliverables–and quite another to demand a totally new, revised, and rushed deadline from a team that has yet to fudge a due date.

At the very least, pay a late fee for rush work.

In the end, creatives and their clients may never completely see eye-to-eye. Yet both parties are working towards the same goal, be it more click-throughs, more eyeballs on a company website, or a stronger brand, to name a few. A conflict between two groups that should be on the same side will help no one–except your competitors.

After all, who wins when cats and humans dislike each other? Dogs.

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