The core skills you’ll need if you want to move up.
I spent most of my design education focused on perfecting the craft. Understanding composition, typography, grids, and colors. Which is why I attended school in the first place. Give me the knowledge I need so I can plug that right into a good paying job.
For the first few years of working, those skills paid off well. I jumped into the freelance pool, taking those skills from job to job. Working on production (design and animation).
But I wanted to do more. I wanted to move up, and become more than just a maker of things. So I could have a greater impact on to the people, the projects, and the clients I worked with.
Luckily, someone was willing to take a chance on me. I was fortunate to be offered a creative director position, and to be trained on the job. I had to learn a whole new set of skills that I didn’t get in my design education nor my first few years of working. To fulfill the role of a creative director, I had to have more than great taste and a deep understanding of design. I needed to become a negotiator, a manager, a teacher, and a leader.
What I needed to learn were soft skills.
My design school was great at teaching me hard skills — the design process, craftsmanship, and technical execution. But to become an effective creative director, what I needed to have were soft skills — management, communication, negotiation, and facilitation.
- Management. How to delegate, track, and measure tasks.
- Communication & Facilitation. Acting as a guide through the process. Extracting what’s in the clients head and translating that into actionable tasks for your team to execute.
- Direction. Getting your team to create what you need for the project.
- Leadership. Creating an environment where your team can perform their best, while giving them a safety net to fail and learn.
- Negotiation. Making sure your clients get what they need without sacrificing your process, profits, or your team.
These soft skills have been essential for me to fulfill my role as a creative director. They allow me to have productive client engagements while minimizing friction during the process.
I wasn’t great at first. Much like the hard skills I learned from college, these soft skills have taken me years of practice. In fact, I’m still developing them today.
So what can you do about it?
While I was fortunate to get training, there were still a lot of gaps I had to fill to become comfortable with certain skills. The following are some of my virtual mentors as well as some practical exercises you can do to begin developing these soft skills.
Do you want to practice your direction skills?
Trade your design work with someone else. Try and articulate what’s in your head, and at the end of the week, see what the other person came up with. Was it what you expected? Were you disappointed? If it doesn’t match what was in your head, then it’s probably one of two things. 1) You didn’t give clear parameters to work within. 2) The person you’re working with didn’t ask enough clarifying questions on the assignment. There’s a lot to learn on both sides.
Want to learn how to ask better questions and gain clarity? Check out this previous article I wrote.
Becoming a better leader.
I recommend reading Simon Sinek’s book, “Leaders Eat Last.” In it, he captures all the social and biological reasons why teams flourish or fail in different working environments. I have been heavily influenced by his talks and books. Definitely catch one of his talks if he comes to your town.
Mastering the art of facilitation.
Your goal as a facilitator is not to dictate the answer. Your goal is to guide others to their own conclusions. If you want to practice, try and figure out what you’re girlfriend or wife wants to eat when they’re hungry. Or ask your boyfriend or husband about their feelings. Often you’ll find that if you project an answer in either of these situations, you’ll be met with a sharp defensive answer. But if you spend time to ask the right questions, usually the answer will come out on it’s own.
If you can get to a conclusion to either of those, you can become a master facilitator for you clients. With clients, spend as much time as possible diagnosing their problem. In doing so, you’ll help the client come up with their own solution. This will minimize the friction that usually comes when you try to prescribe a solution (without fully understanding the problem).
There are some great tips on how to run client engagements in Blair Enns’ book, “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto.”
In this podcast, “How Creatives Should Negotiate,” Ramit Sethi gives you great everyday situations to practice the art of negotiation. Start by lowering your cable bill, it’s easier than you think. These are baby steps to practice for those critical moments when you have a lot more on the line.
I also recommend “Sell or Be Sold,” by Grant Cardone. Love or hate his style, he has a lot of great advice on negotiation. In every situation, you’re either selling to someone, or being sold to. Whether it’s where to eat, what candidate to vote for, or what car to buy.
This is not for everyone.
Not all senior designers make for great leaders. And not all directors make for great designers. There are very different qualities you must have and enjoy to be successful in these roles.
A designer can take many paths in their career, and not all of them lead to becoming a creative director. Some people just love making, or authoring content, and that’s perfectly ok. This article is a reflection of my need to personally grow beyond the merit of my craftsmanship. I hope the advice here is helpful for those looking to do the same.
Have questions? Comment below or reach me on twitter @matthewencina
I have the books mentioned in this article, and more recommendations on my resource page here.
If you found this piece valuable, can you do me a favor by recommending it below? Have thoughts? Leave a comment. I’d love to discuss further. Thanks!
About the Author
Follow him everywhere @matthewencina
For those of you who have to pitch creative ideas to win business, but are struggling to land these opportunities, check out The Pitch Kit. I created this for those seeking clarity and structure in their design and pitch process.