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ON: Being an Interactive Creative Director means you are a Design Strategist

June 23, 2007
10 min read

If you are a Creative Director who grew up digital and have now found yourself in a traditional or old school agency with Creative Directors who have little or no interactive / digital experience...I understand your pain and I want to introduce a way to look at the challenges you face...  When I have explained my role in the past I have equated the Interactive CD's as Hybrid inside of traditional agencies a "Design Strategist".  Which I feel rather confident that is what most firms with strong digital heartbeats or integrated approach expect from their CD's..but at traditional agencies there is a divide and you are on the other side of the divide. (or like many you are drowning in work in the river below)

A Design Strategist should bring the emotion to the big idea and weave it into a consumer experience that opens in converged screens.

Validating My Theory and Experience is not hard…The old Agency model is at the brink and there are lots of us out there!  The agencies who are winning big are the agencies who have embraced digital, funded it and grew clients relationships from an integrated marketing service set.

Recently I stumbled on to transcripts from the "So you Wanna be a Design Strategist?" event last April, Bryan Zmijewski, a panel of design leaders from Yahoo! discussed the skills that defined a design strategist or the Interactive Creative Director's role. Because there not many of us there are some skills related to working with people, numbers, and process. Here’s a recap of some key points from the discussion.

Some people won’t like you. Who cares?
Design strategists need to be able to read the people in a room and
understand each person’s perspective so they can focus a group on what
they have in common. Often times, bridging gaps between people’s
desires means confronting issues.

Yes, you will have to sell.
Designers typically want their work to speak for itself and are not
inclined to put in the effort needed to sell their visions. Though it’s
easy to hide behind your pixels, they won’t sell themselves.

You need to design in front of people…
…not just in front of your computer. Explaining ideas on the fly is crucial when working with groups of people.

Confrontation is a must. Gloves are optional.
People appreciate when you fight for something worthwhile. Get out of your comfort zone and don’t shy away from confrontation.

Design is a playing field. Designers need to win.
Think of a project as something you have to win at. Then bake in
milestones along the way that clearly show your progress. Success sells.

Make sure the research fits the size of the project.
You don’t need to validate every idea with research. Sometimes just jumping in is enough of a process to build on.

Spontaneous is OK.
Sometimes you have to be an artist. You have a talent for design –use it.

Just get it done.
There’s a blue-collar aspect to design –you learn by doing. Rolling up
your sleeves and getting things done sells people through momentum and

Get Your hands dirty.
Bottom-up strategy works for designers because they have communication
skills & empathy. This can influence and rally people.

Make sense of all the design options.
Everyone wants their idea heard. Design strategists need to funnel
suggestions in the right direction without shutting them down.

In the Traditional Agency The Interactive Creative Director is a Design Strategist
The Best Executive CD's in the business know that the Interactive CD has eleven qualities that make he or she unique.  More importantly there are eleven basic skills that make a great Design Strategist.

  1. Read people - What's the most important skill of business decision making? Knowing
    what drives people to make decisions. Getting groups of people excited
    about an idea requires understanding what motivates them. You might
    have the best ideas in the world, but if you fail to understand the
    dynamics of the room, you may never get past your first idea.  Reading people is a skill that can be learned, but getting really good
    at it comes as the result of years of practice. Every meeting, every
    conversation is an opportunity to hone your skills.
  2. Don't over research - By its very nature, a designer's job requires using both left and right
    brain functions. Sometimes over-thinking a solution makes it hard to
    get people excited about the emotional content of our work. You do need
    to present research that helps your point, but don't make the mistake
    of devaluing your gut instincts or hunches.  Designers have an innate ability to sense and feel out a problem based
    on experience. This is a characteristic that many people wish they had.
    Sometimes, you're just going to know something is 'right' and you won't
    have the luxury of time to do the research to back you up. Train your
    clients to be willing to take a chance on your hunches.
  3. Build in the metrics - No matter how right-brained and creative we are, in the business world,
    clients want quantifiable results. Building benchmarks and metrics into
    your projects will ensure that you get the chance to really show them
    what you've got, by giving them enough numbers during the process that
    they feel comfortable.  Remember, lots of people think that Excel spreadsheets and pie charts
    are the best way to justify budgets and map out next phases. Don't send
    your clients into metrics withdrawal--with a little work on your part,
    you can devise a numerical report card that helps the left-brained
    clients to feel more in control of and informed about the whole
    process, meaning that there's a better chance they'll sit back and let
    you work your magic uninterrupted.
  4. Real-time performance - The best business people are ones who can adjust their thinking
    quickly. Pressed with tough decisions, they must be able to rally a
    team around business and financial goals and plans. If a big deal is on
    the line, tough decisions have to be made quickly…and once decided,
    they’re done. You can't hit CTRL-Z to 'undo' a business deal.  Design should be no different. As a designer you must be able to use
    your unique skills of visual thinking to rally people in a room. While
    this may come more naturally to some over others, it is a skill that
    will improve with practice. You need to be comfortable presenting
    whiteboard sketches in front of a group--no matter how much you wish
    you could call a time out to whip up something on your laptop, you'll
    lose momentum. If you can’t think and draw at the same time you’re
    going to limit your ability to listen to other ideas in the room--so
    practice at your own internal meetings until you're ready for your
    public debut.
  5. Balance prep with w/ implementation - Everyone likes to see that you’ve done your homework--lists, research,
    interviews, overviews and competitive reviews. It’s an important part
    of the process of designing ‘stuff’. It validates that there is
    thinking involved.  Sometimes, however, it makes sense to just jump into a problem based on
    your hunch and your experience, and then go back and think through all
    the homework parts. There are times when simply taking action, creating
    movement and momentum are preferable to investing loads of time up
    front--in other words, sometimes any action, even a potentially 'wrong'
    one, is better than no action at all. It’s the blue-collar part of
    design that the rest of the business world lacks…that good ole roll up
    your sleeves and just get it done.
  6. Justify decisions with the right kind (and amount) of research - Contrary to point two, there comes a time when the emotional side of
    design needs a good helping of “reality.” Designers need to drive
    research- otherwise we’re stuck with the research of others (and some
    of those 'findings' may include an ever-unhelpful 50-page document of
    how many people liked the color blue.) Large focus groups and studies
    are nice, but they rarely help you create a marketable product. Why?
    Two reasons: One, they're really expensive--that money could be better
    spent in the actual production. Two, they're prohibitively
    time-consuming: By the time all the data is gathered, your competitors
    are already building the product.  Designers have the unique ability to notice trends…and the 'way things
    are'. Heuristic evaluation and small tests are often all that's needed
    to keep a product team focused on the ‘wow’.
  7. Everyone is a design expert - Everyone has their own favorite color or font. They can move elements
    on a whiteboard, write content to describe actions, photocopy a
    competitor’s website or talk about their great experience. Use this to
    your benefit and coach people through your decision making. Everyone
    wants to be an armchair design ‘quarterback’- let them play fantasy
    football by helping them make better decisions.  Involving team members in design decisions that are isolated from the
    ‘core’ design will help you gain more control of the final product.
    Being open to ideas that really don't impact your original vision shows
    that you're willing to hear others' input. Design is a team sport--be
    the best coach you can be, remembering that you're ultimately
    responsible for the end product.
  8. Bottom Up Strategy - Designers are in a unique position to control a company's vision
    through a visual--they're probably the only people who are consistently
    expected to show up with colorful items at staff meetings. Take
    advantage of your visual aids--use a ‘hands on approach’ to get people
    rallying behind ideas. Designers tend to be ‘doers’ rather than
    'dwellers', so use your vision to change the course of business
    planning by implementing ideas. Waiting on management to decide on a
    direction can have a negative impact on momentum of a project. Take
    some risks.  Now, if that doesn't sound good, you could always try to justify your
    ideas the same way the folks in accounting do--with reams of
    spreadsheets. But when is the last time you saw people get excited
    about a spreadsheet? For every 10 people, most organizations already
    have 9 workers doing paper jobs. Break up status quo.
  9. Know that you will fail, and how to do it - Good design stimulates emotion, inspires participation and gets people
    engaged. But not every design that you create will succeed--sometimes a
    design will do none of the above, and will fall absolutely, unequivocally flat on its face. And that's okay! Build failure into
    your design process- you shouldn't even try if you want to completely
    avoid failing, and nothing tried is always nothing gained. A great
    designer will push boundaries and learn from mistakes. Some of the
    stuff that you do will stink. Learn how to use that to your advantage
    to make your projects more successful.
  10. Be a salesman - Things happen for a reason. Oracle didn’t become a powerhouse because
    they had “great design”-- design just didn’t get in the way. If you
    want to influence people in the room you need sales skills. Half of
    getting your idea implemented has nothing to do with a computer,
    wireframes, research or sketches. It’s because people like you. And if
    they don’t like you, then they've at least got to respect you…you’ve
    got to have some proven ‘game’.  People want to support other successful people and ideas. It’s
    contagious. And while I’m not suggesting you throw yourself at business
    associates looking for a best friend, I am suggesting that you be
    confident in yourself and personality. There's no need to be fake. Just
    put genuine effort into solving problems for your customers, whether
    they're your internal colleagues or the ones who buy your services.
  11. Fight when you have to; know when you shouldn't settle for a watered down compromise - My final suggestion for the aspiring Interactive Creative Director is less about
    design or strategy- it’s about winning. You’ve got to want to influence
    people, make a difference and convince people to believe in you. You’ve
    got to throw yourself into the ring.  Business is brutal. Capitalism drives us to be more successful- and
    that’s a good thing. It pushes us to make decisions. Don’t let a
    conference room intimidate your business sensibilities. Design requires
    putting on boxing gloves. The beauty of design is that you can always
    use the emotional side to calm and inspire after a difficult
    interaction with your “financial” nemesis.

And that's it. Being a design strategist or an interactive CD in a traditional agency isn't the
easiest job. When you're sitting in your third meeting of the
day (you know, the one that begins at 4PM and promises to go right
through dinner?) trying to 'enlighten' the your peers as to why they
shouldn't use their favorite 'print ad' image on the home
page or in your rich media--those days of sitting in the cubicle, pushing pixels while your
iTunes is blaring in your ears--may seem really attractive.

But take
heart in this--the world is a more attractive place because you marry
business/marketing and design on a daily basis.

And people like me thank you for it!

ON: Being an Interactive Creative Director means you are a Design Strategist via @jpenabickley
Box this up and ship it out to the agencys that are lagging.
Nice insights, great post.
Box this up and ship it out to the agencys that are lagging.
Nice insights, great post.

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