Do's and Don'ts of Working With Creatives
Updated: Jan 5
As someone who has worked in a creative capacity for most of my career, I can confidently say that while there is a huge demand for my skill set, it is not always perceived as "high value". Value, of course, is not just about compensation (although that is a huge part of it), but it's also about respect: respect for my work and the labor it entails to produce something.
In this post, I'll cover a few recurring negative experiences I've witnessed in my career as a creative, and how to avoid them when working with creatives. "Creatives" in this piece are defined as writers (creators of content, regardless of their titles) and designers (specifically graphic/visual designers, but can extend to illustrators, animators, filmmakers, videographers, etc.). You might also find that many of the challenges presented in this post are not exclusive to those working in creative roles.
Whether you work for a company with an in-house team or outsource your creative needs to consultants, these are a few tips that'll help you improve your relationship with your creative colleagues and help you get closer to seeing better results with their output.
Every now and again, a writer might get an email like this from a colleague:
"Hey Mariana! I'm so and so, and I was told by so and so that you could help with writing and editing! We want to rewrite all of the transactional emails we send to our customers preferably by early next week (see attached). Can you help? Thanks!"
And it turns out the attachment contains 20 pages worth of copy. Heavy sigh.
An in-house designer, on the other hand, might find this sitting in their inbox an hour or so before they leave for the day:
"Hey Carina—I was wondering if you could jazz up a deck for a presentation I need to give on Friday? It'll be to prospective clients. I've attached the deck which has all of the content. Let me know if you have any questions."
Attached is a 97-page slide deck with the content laid out in no discernible pattern and contains old logos and other visual assets. Oh goodness. The inconvenient truth for many creatives is that we deal with this on a daily basis: last minute asks, high priority tasks that, we're told, are of a higher priority than the highest priority task on our plate, more work on top of a heavy workload, or an ask that comes with no context to have you actually get started on the final deliverable. The dysfunction impacts negatively on both morale and on productivity, and creates tension with colleagues in other teams. As long as companies need assets produced by creatives, they will have to learn how to work with creatives to ensure the process and final deliverable(s) are satisfactory to everyone.
Here are some common problems I've experienced and workarounds:
DON'T ask your colleague to drop everything to work on this ASAP task. Instead, DO ask your colleague ahead of time how much notice they need to produce assets on time and plan accordingly.
In many cases, unfortunately, asset creation takes place at the tail end of a project cycle, which means that writers and designers are sometimes the last people to be brought on before a project wraps up. Even more unfortunately, they are brought on what feels like moments before launch, often leaving them feeling rushed, overwhelmed, and yes, without everything they need to get started. Every creative team has a different workflow, but finding out the process for getting work in the backlog is every bit as important as it is on the technical side. Before I was put on the design team, I found myself feeling like I was drinking water from a fire hose, and had to improvise my own process. At my company, the process for getting creative work in the backlog looks like this: 1. Designers work in one week sprints; tasks must be submitted before noon on Friday. 2. Creative briefs must accompany all tickets. (More on creative briefs below). 3. Turnaround time is approximately a week, but if things have been re-prioritized, it might take longer.
This means if someone creates a ticket for an ask on Wednesday, I don't actually assign it to my backlog until Friday, and won't start working on it until the following Monday or sometime thereafter. This has helped substantially with long-term planning, prioritizing work, and also ensuring that I'm not taking care of projects as soon as requests come in. If you know what the priority level is for a task, but aren't sure how much time the creative team will need to deliver, ask in advance. Don't leave it for the last minute if you don't have to. And if you have to leave it for last minute because you are waiting on other things first (it happens), reach out to the creative team and let them know. Communicating the why's, when's, and how's in advance does a lot for smooth cross-functional collaboration, and will give you a sense of what is going on.
DON'T submit a task with zero context. Instead, DO ask the team if they have a creative brief template you can fill out.
"Hey, I'm sorry to bother you, but can you edit this thing?", said the person, an hour before "the thing" was supposed to go live, without telling the editor what it was about, who the audience was, what medium it was going to be distributed through, or what kind of edits they were looking for. (Are you're looking for a thumbs up? A spell check? Or a substantive edit with comments?) "We're holding a mixer at bar X next week and are creating a flyer for it!", said another person, without telling you who was writing the copy, what level of detail needed, what the size of the flyer was, or if it was a digital flyer or print flyer. We get asked to write emails, blog posts, create logos, make cute illustrations, design websites, design business cards, write landing pages, etcetera, and almost always ASAP—but without context. Under these circumstances, creatives are not set up for success, and you've put yourself in a position where you'll end up frustrated if the work doesn't come out how you envisioned it. But think about it: if the creative doesn't know about the project you're working on as well as you do, and you have all of the information, how can they be expected to produce something without the information you possess? The answer: you front-load all of that information before they get started. A creative brief is one way to do just that. A brief is a memo that presents the information needed to complete a project. The brief asks very pointed questions, and you're expected to provide all of the relevant information. Briefs contain information such as (in no particular order):
Information about the intended audience
Medium or channel asset will be distributed (email? blog? an article? web page? social media?)
What kind of deliverable is expected (a logo, email copy, icons for a web page, web page copy, etc)
Content (additional resources and documentation, approved messaging, copy that's supposed to be included, etc)
And a lot more (You can find a sample brief with sample questions here. It's meant to be a starting point.)
Doing this saves everyone time and ensures that all your creative has everything they need to get started and deliver on schedule. You want to use the creative brief as a place to anticipate (seemingly basic) questions you might receive, and want to answer them beforehand. That way, the questions you yield from your colleague will be much more pointed and more relevant to asset production.
Your company might prefer face-to-face meetings to creative briefs, but you can still use these questions to help guide your conversations. (If your company doesn't use one, consider asking your brand or marketing departments to create one for use by other teams. Until then, improvise your own whenever your submit a ticket or an ask to your creative team. They will appreciate it.)
DON'T revise messaging, write something off-brand, resize your company's logo, or change the logo's color on your own. Instead, DO refer to your company's content style guide and brand guidelines.
When I was on the design team this was a peeve. In an effort to reign in rogue usage of our logo (including, using older versions of our logo that had been phased out), we created a brand guidelines doc and a content style guide. Ask your marketing, design, or creative departments if they have one, and if they don't, ask to run your idea by someone who usually makes those decisions. Controlling the way the brand is used is important to providing a unified brand experience wherever your logo or company name appears. (Similarly, if you're going to put another company's logo on your website—maybe they are sponsoring your conference, for example—ask them for their brand guidelines. Do not go against their guidelines even if you feel your website might not look the way you want it to.) Here are the brand guidelines the design team at my company created if you need some inspiration. (Full disclosure: I wrote the copy for those guidelines and am proud of my work, so there ya go!)
DON'T volunteer the creative department for a large project in an email thread, or worse, in a meeting they are not a part of. Instead, DO give them a seat at the table first.
This is an issue that is more persistent for in-house teams than for consultants and agencies, but not involving the creative team (vis a vis a creative director, brand manager, or other team lead) in a project in the early stages is problematic. If one anticipates creative needs early on, a representative from that team should be included in whatever cross-functional meetings occur. There is nothing more cringe worthy than being added to an ongoing email thread and volunteered for a project without having been consulted first (see "Don't ask your colleague to work on this ASAP task" above). If you find the creative team will be needed, offer to interface with someone on their team first to get everyone on the same page. Fill them in on the project, discuss timelines, ask them if they have the resources and capabilities to follow through, and let everyone else know what's going on. You might find that the person your colleague was about to cc in that long thread was not the right person for the job. These are important things to note!
(And do not forget to fill out a creative brief for them, too!)
DON'T ask your colleague on the creative team to do work for your side project on job time. Instead, DO ask them if they do this outside of work—and ask them to price it out for you.
This has happened to me, personally, on various occasions. I have had peers ask me to copy edit posts for their personal blogs, emails, or to whip up a tagline for their business ON JOB TIME. I was once invited to a Slack channel at work for people who wrote blog posts because I was known for my copy editing. Guess who said, "I'm flattered, but no thanks" and left that channel with the utmost quickness? You got it. While you might think your actions express admiration enough for your colleague's work, your colleague is employed by your company for one reason only: to do company-related work. Should you find yourself in need of the services they provide for your own endeavors, you are now asking them to look at you as a potential client, not as a colleague. Furthermore, your dollar-sign free ask further undermines creative work—look at how much people are willing to pay designers, artists, and writers on the regular—and it puts your colleague in an uncomfortable position. Don't ask your colleague to do non-work related work on job time, don't ask for free work, and give them the chance to say no.
(Additionally, some creatives don't have an hourly rate or a flat rate; they have a pricing structure that varies depending on the project. If they tell you they'll need time to get back to you with a quote, honor that. Refrain from the temptation to ask for a discount or a flat rate.)
Approach working with creatives the same way you would technical people: respectful of their time, giving them the information they need to work on a project, and finding out the process for getting work onto their plate. Find out what the best way of getting in touch with them is, and ask them about their workflow, how you're supposed to deliver tasks to them, and how much time they need to work on a project. Front-load as much information as you can, and refer to brand guidelines for proper brand usage. Finally, don't ask your creative colleagues for free work, especially on job time, and refrain from volunteering your creative team from projects without getting their buy in first!