What does a Creative Director do?

Six objects that describe my role

Roles can develop and change as quickly as companies and industries grow and evolve. Having been with FutureLearn from its early beginnings to now, two and half years on, I thought this maybe an opportune time to try and define what I do as ‘Creative Director’ at FutureLearn now.

In my experience there are two main types of Creative Directors; — There are those that have their own creative vision, and use their team to execute this vision. And there are those that provide an environment in which their team can collaboratively engage and create a vision together.

In many ways art schools gear you up to believe that you are the artist, the creative mind behind the ideas, and that the first definition is what it’s all about. During my years in New York running my own small studio, I would hire people to support my vision and ideas and help to build what I’d invented. Whilst I reaped the personal and professional benefits of this approach, I gradually started to experience the more lonely and limited perspective of this route, and began to wonder what I needed to change.

Many years on, and after having had the opportunity to manage two different design teams at the BBC and TSL Education, here I am at FutureLearn incredibly interested in creative collaboration amongst teams. I’ve learnt that in order to motivate a team of creative individuals and encourage them to produce their best work, people need to feel some ownership in what they create, and this usually only happens when they feel that their voice and ideas are being heard, and they can really affect the outcome of the work being produced. Equally, the effective output of a team of creative individuals is likely to be far richer and more rewarding for both the individuals involved and the company, than the output of one creative genius who rules all the creative decisions.

In trying to define my role in this process, I found myself thinking about different objects that seemed to represent something I do, or something I think I should be doing more of. I liked the idea of having a set of objects I identify with that I could put on my desk, and simply look at to remind me what I should focus on everyday in order to do my job better. So after much deliberation I arrived at the following 6 objects…

Key — Create a space to collaborate

‘It’s not about expecting others to follow your vision, it’s about creating the space for others to create the vision collaboratively.’

The key represents providing access to a creative space in which group collaboration can happen. This is both physical space, as well as mental space.

In reality, the key could symbolise simply stepping outside the office to get a fresh perspective or helping to clear people’s agendas to make space to think freely, and facilitating the discussions in this space.

Frame — See the big picture

‘Creative direction is about the forest and the trees. More specifically, it’s about helping those in the trees see the forest, and helping those who only see the forest remember the trees too.’ Daniel Mall

The picture frame reminds me to see the big picture, whilst ensuring all the details within the picture fit together perfectly. I can move the frame closer to see more of the picture, or further away to focus on a particular area.

In reality, the frame reminds me to make everyone else in the team aware of what’s happening in other areas of the picture. When different teams are working on different things, the Creative Director can play a key role as a visual connector, providing focus on the things one should pay attention to.

Baton — Find the harmony

Great conductors don’t write the music or play it or perform it. They listen for the harmony and use small gestures to guide the orchestra, bringing all the different sounds together. They encourage different instruments to shine at different times, and whilst the musicians are focused on the musical notes, the conductor is focused on how the entire piece of music sounds together.

In reality, the baton signifies guiding others to embed the brand and tone of voice into the experience in just the right way, suggesting things to dial up in intensity, and other things to push back and soften. It’s about adding an emotional layer and depth to what you create together.

Multi-plug adaptor — Speak different languages

‘I made the mistake of trying to fit people to a job, rather than define the jobs to people’s strengths and capabilities. All creative people are individuals.‘ — Edward Boches

Within an organisation we all speak different languages depending upon our area of expertise and the language that is most commonly used in that area. The ability to communicate, connect and ultimately trust all sorts of different types of people is essential in bringing everyone on board with a team’s creative ideas and making sure things run fluently and easily.

In reality, the multi-plug adaptor signifies building good relationships with people that think differently than yourself, for example the engineers, the sales team, the marketing folk, the editorial voice, the receptionist and the CEO.

It’s also the Creative Director’s job to be able to provide specific and constructive feedback directly to the creative team. This is not always a one-size-fits-all situation, there maybe many different dialects, or levels of confidence within the same discipline, so having sensitivity to how different individuals may respond is vital in supporting their growth and bringing the group together.

Garlic — Stink of creativity

I have pondered my title ‘Creative Director’ many times and wondered if it is appropriate. One could argue that we want to encourage everyone in the company to be ‘creative’, and therefore there should not be a director of a universal quality. However, I have realised over time that many people feel they are not creative, and just by saying they can be, does not mean they will be. Having someone champion creativity, makes a stance that it is important to the organisation. And if this is the case, that champion should literally stink of creativity, they should be like a garlic. Everyone knows when you’ve just eaten garlic for lunch because you can’t hide the smell.

I have recently noticed that I am often more creative out of work, and that even myself, the proclaimed ‘Creative Director’ at FutureLearn, sometimes ends up bowing to the constraints of the system, and holding back on some of my creative inputs.

In reality, the garlic reminds me to be bold, to continually explore different ways of doing things, to feed creativity into every conversation, even when people think you’re a bit mad. To live and breathe creativity so much that people just can’t miss it!

Beetle — Develop a taste for the future

‘Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?’ — Roselinde Torres

In the future, it is highly possible, that with our growing population we will face a food crisis. If this crisis happens, inventors are already exploring the idea of breeding insects as a nutritious source of food. This would require many of us in the west, to drop our preconceived notions of what is delicious and edible. Will we be able to?

In reality the beetle represents the job of the Creative Director to assist the company in developing a taste for the future. How can we take more risks and be more creative and innovative in our work? How can we be courageous enough to abandon the past, letting go of things that are successful, to try things that may not succeed, OR that maybe far more successful than we could ever have imagined? Do we really dare to be different?

So will I follow my own advice? Will I have a new set of objects in a few years time, that mean something different to me, as my role evolves and I learn new ways of engaging. I do hope so.