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Reflections on Creative Process & Culture - Ben's #Fieldtrip Part 2
“Paradoxically, we have found that an appropriate balance of process constraints can have a positive impact on creative outcomes.”
In my research journey across North and South America I have been lucky enough to be exposed to a range of digital studios, all with very different thinking around creative process and culture. The creative process is something we hold dear to our hearts at Indietech, because we know that it can mean the difference between launching a winning project and giving birth to a failure.
Paradoxically, we have found that an appropriate balance of process constraints can have a positive impact on creative outcomes. These constraints can be both internal and external, as our work is often bound by client requirements such as existing brand voice, business strategy and budget.
As it turns out, there is scientific support for this phenomena. In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (2013), Leigh Thompson discusses an experiment where two creative teams are exposed to a problem that requires a creative solution. One group is given clear parameters whilst the other group is given no direction. The results consistently showed that the best outcomes came from the briefed creatives - the ones with clear parameters.
Culture vs. Process
As an agency with a technical department, we naturally hear a lot about agile process methodology. We have implemented some of these methodologies, but none of these textbook methods have given us the flexibility to entirely integrate our visual design and communications departments. As it turns out, we're not alone in thinking that such prescriptive frameworks are not necessarily a good fit for all development outfits.
After having visited six studios and agencies across the American continent it has became abundantly clear to me that processes must be built around the soul and culture of a business, with only one eye on best practice.
When interviewing the award-winning Creative Director from a small, global agency, I was told that they prefer to work with loose processes to ensure maximum creativity. However, he was quick to mention that this approach can also be a limitation, where the design and development of digital mediums is iterative. It comes to show that even award-winning heroes of the design industry meet challenges when it comes to processes.
A leading studio in Buenos Aires told me how they had gone through an expansion from being a small outfit to becoming a medium-sized business, only to reduce the team again when they realised that their growth had given them a huge array of technical skills but no focus. Luckily, the two Directors were strategic enough to avoid a tailspin by niching down and sticking to one specific process. This newly found focus allowed them to produce better work and be known as experts in a specific type of development.
One digital agency that I visited in New York has chosen a strategy of only taking on projects where there is an opportunity to create an amazingly 'fun' experience for users and clients alike - in turn, matching their fun and vivacious studio culture. They represent an outstanding example of how a pin point focus on the strengths of a firm's business culture can create business growth and success. The outcome for their clients is, again, award-winning design and creative campaigns that effectively engage and excite the market.
The common thread: Research
Each of the agencies I've visited agree that the most critical component of the creative process is research. The more time spent on researching the audience's desires and needs, the better the strategic, visual, and functional outcome. Over a dinner with Dan Formosa, one of the designers behind the first IBM PC and a world leading design thinker, I learned that his view on the creative process is that it must begin with effective research, including statistical analysis, asking the right questions and producing as many ideas as possible in a collaborative atmosphere. Only when this is done can a crystallised concept begin to form.
IDEO's Human Centred Design approach provides such a framework, whilst also fostering a collaborative culture during the design process. This is a must read not only for creative teams but also for business leaders looking to innovate and be competitive. In our experience, the more leaders can be effectively involved in the creative process, the more likely the project will hit its strategic targets. Understanding creative processes is a powerful skill for all decision makers to have.
At Indietech, we have worked hard on our processes over the last two years. This work has resulted in the Indietech Playbook, a process map that guides our team through the projects from start to finish, whilst giving our clients a chance to read and quickly understand the digital project process.
A series of workshops over the past 12 months have resulted in a visual presentation of our typical digital process that now sits on our wall as a 3-metre long banner. Using the banner, we can easily plan the approach to each project as a team.
All our staff have been involved in developing these processes to ensure that they're tightly integrated across our strategic, creative and technical departments. To this end, this Playbook is a part of our DNA - our culture.
Overall, these experiences have sparked many ideas and established (or re-established) the following understandings: our processes stack up with the best (although improvement must be continuous); finding great client partnerships where ideas can be fostered and visions shared is critical to producing a successful outcome for both parties; and each process must fit the cultural balance of an organisation.
As Jurgen Salenbacher puts it in his book Creative Personal Branding:
"The key is to combine knowledge, imagination, business, intelligence, and pleasure with creativity."
This is what a creative process culture should be like.