Being a design leader is more than simply being inspirational in the studio – it’s about pushing boundaries in design.
We talked to some top design bosses to gain an insight into the process of running a successful design group, and to drop in some tips to guide the next generation of design leaders.
A key message for a successful design team is to not adopt an autocratic style - if this is your work ethic, you'd be better off going it on your own and only hiring freelancers to complete set tasks with no creative input.
This is certainly the view of Malcolm Garrett, design director at I-mmersion in Toronto (see interview panel). “If you want to build an effective contemporary team, decide whether you are really looking for a team or a delegation of assembly line workers,” he says.
“Personally I love working in a team,” says Tom Evans, creative director of Mook. “I like it when people have ideas I would have never thought of, and I like spotting talent and nurturing it. Managing a design team is easy if, like at Mook, all the individuals are talented. The difficulty is working with people that are out of their depth - then you just end up doing it yourself!”
Andy Cameron, creative director in interaction design at Fabrica, the Benetton research centre, is of a similar mind. Cameron also feels that working in a group is always more productive than working solo.
“The internal editing process within a group - sometimes competitive, even antagonistic - can be very valuable in maintaining the clarity and the quality of a work,” he says. “It might not be an easier way to work but I think it's better.”
This is a view echoed by Daniel Birch, creative director at JKD. “The dynamic of the digital design team is changing as the range of necessary skills is growing,” says Birch. “Add to this the growing understanding of user requirements and you have some interesting tensions and a springboard for truly creative and effective work.”
Does size matter?
“The question here is for whom we are optimizing,” says Mok who most recently was the chief creative officer of Sapient, the head of Visual Symbols Library and the president of AIGA.
“I've been in situations where one person is plenty and also where a 150-person firm is still not large enough. Just look at Apple. Its in-house creative department is well over 150. Pixar has over 500 people. It's all a matter of balance between the impact of the work and personal satisfaction derived from it.”
This is not everyone's point of view. “Truly innovative and creative companies have a size of less than 10,” says Piero Frescobaldi, director of Unit9. “Over that size, companies start to feel the pressure of the economic forces and the people management forces, and organization and standardization. So a smaller percentage of time is spent on creativity and research.”
The big business scenario can also lead to another problem, according to Centre for Creative Business Organizational Behaviour expert Brian Willman. He says it becomes more challenging to maintain a sense of identity as the business grows in size. “The answer is to segment, which is what the big companies do, but also to ensure good leadership to avoid bureaucracy.”
In the visual effects world big creative teams are the norm, especially on feature film contracts. Double Negative started out with about 35 people built around an original core of 10-15. “Each year we say, 'OK this is as big as we get,' but year on year we've kept growing until we're now at around 200 people,” says visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin.
“At that point it is essential that you do things to promote communication throughout the company. Another way to deal with that is to recruit people who are good communicators in the first place and then to encourage them to interact. I'd say that the maximum workable size is around 250 people, after which it probably needs to start devolving into autonomous teams that share some common infrastructure and working ethic.”
Up close and personnel
The same goes for more traditional design companies. “Open plan encourages communication among people,” says JKD's Daniel Birch. “However, you always need lots of separate meeting spaces to pull people together.”
Chris Brown of NetInfo promotes an environment where everyone can see and hear the work and conversations of others. “It's really important to have a creative, friendly environment,” he says. “I personally insist on a pleasing environment, plants, attractive lighting, and visual stimuli on the walls.”
Keeping your designers creative and keeping ideas fresh is vital to pushing your team ahead of the game. “You need to ensure that they don't sit at their desks doing the same thing,” says Dan Birch. “Eventually any pattern leads to boredom and lack of innovation. I ensure that I am enthusiastic about new things, and I'm not negative about my team's attempts to push themselves.”
Brian Willman advises that designers shouldn't be driven too hard. “There's an appropriate amount of slack which will enable creativity to flow,” he says. “Not too much, mind, or the challenge will lessen. Conversely, there's an optimum amount of pressure that you can put on people, beyond which they will lose the ability to perform well. Energize them with interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.
Unit9's management shares this view. “One thing that we are very proud of is that we have created partnerships with creative agencies in other parts of the world,” says Piero Frescobaldi. “This helps share ideas, culture, and creativity. We have a team swap program where creatives and developers from each company come here for three months and we send people to them. This has just started and is working well. We also allow everybody to take time off to see exhibitions that they are interested in.”
CEOs and directors are also advised to give creatives the time and opportunity to do research and discovery at the beginning of every project. “It releases their minds to evaluate other styles and trends and allows them to come up with competitive concepts,” says Marc Peter, creative director and co-founder of on-IDLE. “Making it easy for creatives to attend film festivals and exhibitions broadens their network contacts and minds.”
Of course, it's not all reading magazines and going on trips. Design teams have to work and a key role of the team leader is to disseminate information and manage projects. Clement Mok stresses the need for explaining the context or the drivers. “If they are not clear, get the team to articulate the problem they are solving,” he says. “This is the only way to engage and get them to take ownership of the project.”
“A good brief should always be the starting point for any creative team,” agrees Peter Young. “It gives a context for creative development and helps focus on the desired outcome. A single point of contact with the client avoids misinterpretation of the brief and means creative teams are updated on developments. Regular team status meetings and a reliable production process keeps projects on track and to budget.”
Keep in touch
Double Negative keeps creatives in touch through internal newsgroups and Web pages on the company intranet, and through regular meetings with the project team.
“We have staff to keep the material on the intranet up to date, while technical information about the cut is supplied by our editorial team to go straight into a company wide database,” says Paul Franklin. “The database is hooked into the intranet as well as a number of our digital production tools. The digital production tools also talk to the intranet and generate messages as the work progresses.
“All members of the team involved with a shot will attend dailies no matter how senior or junior - it is important that everybody appreciates their importance to the process.”
Brian Willman, the creative business expert, says it's important to create an environment in which people are supported and encouraged. “But there's a fine line between energizing your colleagues and getting in their hair and interfering,” he says. “The trick is to be sensitive to situations that will help them grow, but to be mindful of those that will inhibit them - for example, politics, which kills creativity. If, as a design leader, you can be creative, intelligent, and sensitive, then you're onto a winning combination.”
Malcolm Garrett: Leading the way
Malcolm Garrett’s design career came about almost by means of a quick fix. “Quite simply, it was a more direct, instantly gratifying alternative to pursuing architecture,” he says. “Which, although it had been always my first desire, seemed an elusive proposition when I was sixteen and ready to make further education choices.”
A pioneer of interactive design, Prof Malcolm Garrett RDI was the first interactive designer to be bestowed the honour of Royal Designer for Industry in 2000.
He founded Assorted Images in 1978 and, following his collaboration with Kasper de Graaf on the magazine New Sounds New Styles, co-directed the company until 1994, producing, among other things, seminal artwork for artists such as the Buzzcocks, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel. His work is widely regarded as a key influence on the development of contemporary UK graphic design.
From 1994 to 2002 Garrett led the interactive communications company AMX, the only new media company to be included in BT’s Vision 100 list of innovation pioneers.
Under Garrett’s leadership, AMX won awards for creativity, business effectiveness, and technical excellence, working with international blue-chip clients (such as Barclays, Hewlett Packard, BT, Channel 4, The Woolwich, and The Science Museum) across a range of disciplines from Internet to interactive TV to handheld computing.
Garrett is currently design director at I-mmersion in Toronto, working with his team on developing interactive cinema, collaborative learning software and environmental media systems. Garrett and I-mmersion are about to deliver Virtual Canada, an interactive, online 3D network linking museums across Canada with the Canadian pavilion at EXPO 2005 in Aichi, Japan.
“Managing a design team is fine,” says Garrett. “Managing a design company is a different matter altogether. I always think that the needs of the project effectively manage the team. By looking at the problems and who needs to do what, in a non-competitive atmosphere of creative ideas exchange, management issues always seem to have obvious solutions.”
However both are preferable to going it alone. “I have found that going solo is seldom the best way to achieve those unpredictably inventive, yet well thought through results,” says Garrett. “The meeting of one or more creative minds often allows what I recently heard described as the ‘otherwise discarded half idea’ to flourish in remarkable ways.”
Discussing how he interacts with his team, Garrett is certainly not of the mind of just passing on the brief and letting them do their own thing. “Ongoing dialogue with creatives is essential,” he says. “You need proper briefings, direct involvement in ideas development, space to breathe, ongoing review, and creative accountability.”
Most design teams typically face more then one project at a time so what’s Garrett’s advice on how to focus everyone on the job at hand?
“I’m always working on several things at once, even when relaxing,” he says. “The fact that I take mental leaps of focus from one place to another as a natural course of events usually facilitates this need to keep several strands running simultaneously reasonably well. I keep lots of lists, and diligently check and recheck them throughout the day. I prefer the team to be working on one thing at once, though, and my experience tells me that so do they.
To keep designers fresh, Garrett suggests that team leaders don’t let them get bored, or feel they’re not involved. He doesn’t go out of his way to inspire the work ethic in others, however.
“Hopefully people working with me feel that a one-to-one exchange rather than just a group dynamic is something that offers that inspiration,” he explains. “A team is still only a collection of individuals.”
Garrett says he doesn’t think of people in terms of design leaders, but suggests some fundamental qualities for the role: “I guess I’d consider a certain confidence, an ability to embrace all the views of all contributors, and a tendency towards leftfield thinking are prerequisites for a design leader.”