One designer’s path to becoming a Creative Director
How a self-taught designer worked his way through Apple & Square
If you’ve never come across the book “How to Become a Creative Director,” you’re not alone. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Try as you might, no one will ever be able to map out the blueprint to one of the most coveted creative positions, because the paths are infinite. Daniel Scrivner says for a long time, creative director wasn’t a role he understood or wanted. It took him more than a decade to move from designer to art director to creative director, and he “wouldn’t have it any other way.” Take a look at his LinkedIn and you’ll see what he was up to for those ten years. Working with brands like Disney and Nike at Tribal DDB; creating product launch web sites for iPhone 4, and OS X Snow Leopard at Apple; joining Square as the first dedicated web designer and quickly moving to head of creative, then creative director and principal designer; and now running his own design counsel and venture capital firm called Blackletter.
Daniel’s track is made even more interesting by the fact he’s a self-taught designer who credits his parents for encouraging him and his brothers to “devour anything we found interesting.” He says, “Our house was filled with books and I was trained early on to be extremely curious. I felt like I could learn anything if I read and studied enough books.”
Here he shares more about his “untraditional” path to creative director, and gives some advice to aspiring CDs.
Some little kids say, “When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter!” Did you say, “I want to grow up to be a creative director?”
Not for a damn second. Like a lot of the best things in life, I kind of stumbled into being a creative director. Way too often the role is treated like a mythical figurehead rather than the leader of an incredible team — and that’s part of the tragedy behind the position. I think the role is misunderstood. At its core, the job is to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, assemble an incredible team to tackle that challenge, and ensure they build on top of each other’s best ideas. If you can do those three things you can do great work. The role in the end is much more selfless and service oriented than it is crazy mastermind. And once I got that, I was hooked.
What’s your background and how did you find yourself starting down that path?
My path has been anything but typical. I grew up in a highly educated household. My mom started her career in the medical field before switching into teaching. My dad was a mathematician and computer scientist working for the Department of Defense. We went to art museums and I enjoyed art, but I was never interested in doing anything artistic. I sucked at art class. In fact I hated it so much, I refused to take it in high school. I wanted to solve real problems, hard problems, and use both sides of my brain to do it. And that didn’t seem like what art was.
One summer during high school, I took a web design class at our local community college. I discovered that the real power of design and engineering is that you can dream up an idea, build it, and share it with the world. Some professions let you just design or just build, but we got to be a part of the entire process and see something come to life. It’s not easy. It’s technical work, and there’s always endless forces working against you. But when you get to be a part of that process on an amazing team, there’s nothing like it.
What were some of the jobs/positions you held along the way?
I’ve held about every job there is up and down the totem pole. I don’t think you’re fully prepared or qualified to lead until you’ve had that experience. I’ve produced my own projects, sliced my own assets, hired and fired, negotiated contracts, pursued the best talent until they said yes, slaved away on my piece of the puzzle over long nights and weekends, and have always been ready to drop everything to help put out the inevitable fires. The longer you spend working alongside great designers and art directors, and the more you get to see how different creative directors lead, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
Was there a point in your career where you decided to pursue becoming a Creative Director?
No. I’ve always loved doing the work, helping build something with my own hands. That’s still my favorite part of every single project. For a long time creative director felt like giving that up or passive aggressively pursuing the goal through your team — which is the worst form of the role. I wanted a role that allowed me to be a central part of the process and lead the work at the highest level. That led me to becoming a creative director, but outside of practicality, I still hate the title. It has a lot of baggage and bad associations.
What are a few main experiences or skills you would say helped you get to where you are today?
I think soft skills are underrated. I’ve worked with so many talented people that have a ton of hard skills and no soft skills; and because of that they suck at their jobs. As it turns out, soft skills are also much harder to develop and hone. These are things like:
- Extreme curiosity. Reading, watching, listening, and learning voraciously. Getting inspired by others is a reminder of great work that’s happening. It’s also a reminder that you’ve still got a long ways to go to master your craft.
- Bringing out the best in people. This is a complicated mix of empathy, understanding, and creating an environment where people can do their best work. It also requires a minor in eliminating bullshit and difficult personalities.
- Speaking plainly. Creative professionals are some of the worst communicators and some of the most emotional people in the world. That’s ok, but we all need to learn and practice patience, focus, seeing things as they are, and speaking simply. These things make you a better person, a better lead, and a much better manager.
How would you explain your job to, say, your parents?
There’s no great analogy or secret here. What we do can feel like a medieval dark art. But I usually try to describe the main areas I focus on: finding great talent and pushing everyone to do their best work as a team. Also making sure we work in the spirit of something larger than ourselves — because the best projects have a spirit and purpose of their own.
Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?
Depending on the project, there are always different things to be proud of and different things to learn from. I try to keep both in mind. A lot of times I’ve been proud of what we accomplished in spite of the environment, time line, and forces at play. What we do is so multi-faceted and complex that it’s hard to be too headstrong or hard on yourself.
Some of the most fulfilling projects now are where I have the lightest touch. When I can take a talented team, point them in the right direction, push them in the right places, and elevate the work a bit, I feel great. I got the chance to do that recently with the team at Hello to launch Sense with Voice. In a few months, we reworked positioning and messaging, refreshed the website, and shot a campaign-length (and quality) video announcing the product. The praise goes to their team. My role was small, but significant, and often that’s perfect.
What does it mean to you to be a Creative Director?
A lot of it has to do with the bar you set and expectations you have for yourself. First, it means that you’re in charge, that you’re accountable, for the good and the bad.
For the good, it’s about keeping the focus on the team. All great work requires a great team.
For the bad, it’s about taking taking responsibility. Not pointing fingers or fretting over who did what, when, and where. But realizing that as the leader, it’s on you to move forward, course correct, and find a solution. You’ll always learn more, grow more, and be more respected, if you take ownership.
Are there any people/books/films/etc that have particularly influenced you?
A few years ago I started compiling a list of people, companies, and ideas that inspire me. But it’s endless. I think the most important part of influences is that they are far outside of your bubble; that their approach, ideas, and even the context of how they do their work, is different from your own. Because so much of great thinking is cross pollination, and so many of the best ideas are ancient ones.
Any advice to aspiring creative directors?
Slow down. Take your time. Focus on the team. Push yourself harder than anyone else.
Every designer has their unique path to getting to where they are today — and we want to hear about yours! If you have an interesting story to share or some helpful advice for new and aspiring designers, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.