Creative lessons in non-creative careers

The list of agencies I’ve worked at is few (read: one). In an industry where we value lists of everything, I can sometimes question the legitimacy of my ideas or validity of my talents because of my lack of agency experience.

Instead of dwelling on this as a limitation, I recently shifted my approach to thinking how my unorthodox journey (and subsequent jobs) to becoming an agency designer and art director has taught me less predictable lessons.

Here are the five lessons I’ve learned from non-creative careers that have made me stronger for and more empathetic toward our internal team, the clients we work with, and myself.

Stuff your brain with knowledge as often as possible.

1. Ask why incessantly (or at least until you really understand).

My journalism advisor drove me crazy because his notes for nearly every story I ever wrote was to “dig deeper.” He told me that there’s always a more interesting story beneath the surface. And that my boring story was my fault. It’s up to me to ask the right questions to find it.

In the creative industry, it’s important that we ask our clients why they do things the way they do. In branding, particularly today when we’re looking to garner more human connections, it’s critical to understand the reason a business was created (beyond generating revenue) or chooses to operate in the way that it does. In our work, we need to advocate for our users and ask why they should care about a campaign or a product.

Internally, it’s important that when we’re provided feedback (creative feedback especially), that we understand why the critic feels that way about the design. All too often, we’ll jump on deciding if we agree or disagree before we take the time to understand (I’m guilty too).

Why helps guide us to understand more fully, make space for richer stories, which in turn makes for better work.

Implement a clear hierarchy for what you want to communicate.

2. There’s no ‘no’ in negotiation (okay, there is).

I worked at a retail job where we weren’t allowed to say ‘no.’1 It’s easy to dismiss this rule as one of those annoying quarterly initiatives that a detached C-level corporate writes into the handbook without understanding the ramifications of the day-to-day operations. How my manager at the time explained it to me was that there’s a way to do literally anything. Anything is possible. Saying ‘no’ puts your counterpart on the defensive. It immediately closes the path to possibilities, maybe ones superior to those they requested. Is someone asking us for a petite size of something not offered? Well, if I can’t say ‘no’, then I’ll instead offer her the number to our tailor and how we might tailor the suit she’d like to buy. The customer isn’t told no, and she learns about our alterations connection and our desire to sell fitted clothing.

Not being allowed to say ‘no’ forces you to think instead of what you can do.

I use this technique when negotiating nearly any exchange with another department. “We have to have this by EOD.” “Okay, if the EOD deadline is set, here is what we can do by EOD.” Client asks if you can revise a strategy—sure, here’s how it will influence the remaining campaigns. We’d recommend X. I appreciate when we designers answer questions that might be more easily and succinctly answered with ‘no’ instead with a longer answer of what we can do.

It’s important to make sure that you are then explicit about subsequent recommendations and boundaries so you’re not just laying down like a doormat.

Plain text is underrated. Use it.

3. You are never too busy to communicate. EVER. The busier you get, the more you need to communicate.

I spent years managing the back office of a large, busy restaurant. If there is one thing I learned at that job, it is that the busier you get, the more important it is to tell everyone around you what you intend to do and what you actually did. And if you don’t know what someone else intends to do or did, you ask.

In restaurants, this tends to involve physical communication (“behind you”, “corner”, “hot pan”). For agencies, it’s important to communicate where you are in relation to one another too, just in a less physical sense2—running late on designs for your dev? Tell them why it was late and when it’ll be done. Unclear about direction from a client? Schedule a quick call to get clarity.

It’s so easy to say we’re too busy to communicate; flag an issue for a coworker, properly document a meeting, or capture and align our goals in a brief. I guarantee that if our current busy selves took moments to clearly communicate, we’d save our future busy selves from hours of confusion and misdirected work.

The Office

4. Leaders should guide towards ends and entrust in their teams to work through the means.

I’ve had jobs where I’ve had to do really menial, random tasks. Ask any office manager what their daily tasks are: innumerable tasks that are seemingly unrelated to their actual core job. (PSA: be nice to your office manager)

The biggest challenge I had in that type of role is that I felt I had tremendous responsibilities without authority to execute upon them. Once, a manager asked me to pick up breakfast for a meeting—he provided minimal direction. I assembled what I thought made sense.

When it arrived, he chastised me for picking the company I did, and why were there so many croissants?

For the next breakfast order, I made sure to ask if he wanted to request items from a specific place. He was irritated that I was troubling him with such innocuous things. Instead of Office Space raging on him, I promised myself that when I was someone else’s manager, I would do the following thing:

Be clear about what outcome I wanted, but then entrust in the adult that I hired to find the way there. And, be open if their journey there led to a different outcome (so long as they justify it).

For creatives, it’s very important not to try to dissect or solve the problem in the moment with the group (that’s dwelling in the means and group thinking, intersecting two extremely painful exercises). Instead, be clear about what needs to happen in the end (i.e., when something is drop-dead due or the limitation of a technology).

It’s so easy to want people to do things the way that you do them, but a bit of openness about the approach (means) might lead us to new places (ends).

Buttons should be coded. Don't use images as buttons.

5. Work smarter, THEN work harder.

In every job I’ve held, there has been a line drawn between smart workers and hard workers. Working smart is synonymous with working efficiently. Efficiency is kind of a farce for creative work if you ask me. When you work in a world where things don’t yet exist, where literally every single thing you make has a thousand dependencies, compound that with a bunch of egos, limited budgets and timelines, and seamless flow of alcohol…where am I supposed to find efficiencies?

It’s not to say that I don’t believe in streamlining processes within the work that we do—I absolutely do. But, sometimes we value being clever or efficient over just putting in some f-ing sweat.

It doesn’t need to be one or the other. They are not mutually exclusive. We can be smart about how we work but we can also just put in the actual work. Sometimes you just have to put in a solid 16-hour day and it’s not going to be pretty or efficient. Sometimes, you can find a way to streamline how you’ve been doing something for years and it’s a beautiful thing.

If you do both, you will have the BOBW3.

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