Producing standout work requires imagination.
I happened to stumble on a great laboratory for learning how to cultivate it: a time-pressed team that’s rarely, if ever, rewarded for being imaginative.
Two years ago, a key client decided to take an ongoing banner ad project to a cut-rate outsource. These are often staffed by young, less experienced artists who are treading the dangerous waters between design as their passion and the need to make a living. They are under pressure to produce consistent work as quickly as possible, and they must create ads for a market they have no time to research. There’s often an intermediary who is making sure things stay cool and businesslike, and revisions are kept to a minimum.
Over time, we found a way to make the most of this less-than-ideal situation.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Find the spark:
Of course, start with someone who can, at the very least, deliver clean, consistent work. But you must believe that everyone has something to bring to the table, or you probably won’t get very far.
Then, look for that spark. With most people, if you dig enough, you’ll spot a glimmer of imagination. If you don’t see it in their work, dig deeper: Learn more about them. Ask questions to help you connect, even a little bit, on a personal level. Unless they are a walking zombie (there aren’t as many of those as you may think), you’ll find it.
2. Fan it:
Depending on the professional situation, you don’t necessarily want to ignite a wildfire. Save those for brainstorming sessions and emergencies. What we’re talking about here is a sustained flow of increasingly better work and the willingness to take a few risks.
All feedback should begin with a genuine and positive statement. “Good start,” is OK. “Good start: I like how you composed the photo,” is much, much better. Acknowledge every spark, even in a low week, when they seemed to just miss things entirely. Did they choose an interesting text color? button position? By letting them know you see the effort they put in, they’ll feel far more confident about trying something new the next time.
3. Tend it:
You’ve built some relationship, now be trustworthy: Be clear about errors, don’t ever mock their work and (again) begin with a genuine acknowledgement.
Also, exercise—and express—trust: Everything I’ve covered so far could be said about creativity as well as imagination. One important difference is in the degree of risk being taken. Acknowledge more than just aesthetic achievement. When an artist—when anyone—sticks their neck out, they’re often seeing something you don’t. If there’s any time and space to do so, ask. If there isn’t, throw the question, even a guess about where they were aiming, into the closing note. You don’t have to agree with it, but you need to acknowledge it. They’ll remember that you saw and trusted their abilities, and they’ll bring that to the next project.
By following these steps, we saw more and more delightful ideas that made sites look good and got us the click-through results we were after. By being imaginative about how to connect across cultural and business boundaries, we managed to create an environment where imagination could flourish.
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