Originally published on the Kicker Studio blog.
Design is an applied art, where creativity is married to business. Creativity and business are not always particularly compatible. One stays up all night, bingeing on brownies, exhaling the stars, while the other wakes with the birds every morning and captures the flag. True creativity is reckless and manic. Good business is steady and secure. When Creativity meets Business, she shudders with loathing. When Business meets Creativity, she stifles an eye roll. How on earth are these guys ever going to get along?
At Kicker we realize how important it is to combine our creative ideals with a functional business model. Let’s talk about the nature of both creativity and business, as we see it, and then discuss the Kicker methodology for combining the two for optimal success.
Creativity is enchanting. We humans are drawn to it the way we’re attracted to fire or to kittens. For those of us with a penchant for making things, the process of creating often feels like folding fragile origami creatures whilst flailing around inside a brooding summer hurricane. It’s a dynamic process that takes hold of us, and if we’re lucky, trounces us over a wave of transcendence, eventually. The process entails much beautiful struggle and ultimately, surrender, as we crawl out from the melee, drenched and grateful, like a newborn dragon. As you can imagine, this whole inspired and torturous affair is not something one can perform on cue. That’s just not how the muse works. The Muse of Creativity is effervescent, temperamental and sly. You have to take her out on dates. Spend hours connecting with her, listening to her stories. You have to present her with gifts. Take her on drives. Dream with her.
So then there’s the business of Business, the contracts, meetings, piles of documents, emails, spreadsheets and power calls that are inevitably necessary if you want to run a company. It’s all pretty standard stuff, with well-established protocols for success, that is, if you’re running a bank. The trouble comes when you try to ruin a creative company as if it was a bank. Sorry, I meant to say “run” a creative company, not “ruin” but well, anyway… Banks are linear places, where 1+1 = 2 or you’ve got a problem. In a creative company where 1+1 = 2, you end up churning out cookie cutter “creativity” that relies on the same solutions every time (read: bad design). Many design companies fall into this trap: we work with business, we need to adapt creativity to the business process. These companies have very set document templates for expressing design to clients. The problem is that this reduces ideas down to a formula of filling in the blanks. Following the same formula every time gets you similar results every time. While that may be familiar and safe, it’s certainly not tantamount to innovation.
Or maybe you fall prey to the work harder, work faster illusion, where you think that if you force yourself to just do it, the end result will be better. Any creative person knows that this mindset of forcing it fails. If you push too hard toward getting things done, the whole thing seizes up. That combination of creativity, deadlines and formulaic pressure unique to design, attracts adrenaline junkies who, ironically, waste time spinning their wheels in the rut of an uninspired process whose outcome, like Project Runway, is quickly reduced to mind-numbing noise. In that set-up, there is no time for exploration and designers instead rely on instinct and a toolbox of tricks to push something out the door.
Unfortunately, you can’t just wield creativity. It’s a relationship, and like most significant, worthwhile relationships, it ends up being a marathon, not a sprint. The amazing thing about creativity is that 1+1 > 2, meaning creativity is bigger than we are, and doesn’t care about linear confines. This is why artists live the way we do: wandering, exploring, making, and then sharing our art with anyone who cares to listen. The Creative Muse can’t always be scheduled to show up for business meetings when you need her, or relied upon to take lunch with the rest of the team. You have to yield to her, the way a flower bends toward the sun. If you can run your company so there’s time and space to bask in the sunshine of The Creative Muse, she’ll shine her magic on your work. At a creative company, this magic is at the center of everything. Without this creative magic happening, the company has no reason to exist, so all the contracts and emails and production meetings may as well leap into a black (and white) hole.
So like we were saying, it seems that creativity and the standard business model just don’t mix very well, but here’s the thing… they must find a way. Flying to Neverland is amazing, but no company can run on fairy dust alone. Design is a business, after all. Clients are ultimately paying for ideas they can use, not just pretty daydreams, but concepts and products of utility. Employees need to be paid, deadlines need to be met, the outside world demands attention. All successful designers must find a way to collaborate with the gods of 9-5. Without some of the imposed structure these business gods provide, your company will eventually end up crashing down around you, like that house in the Buster Keaton movie.
Creative teams want very much to do creative work, the question is how do we build a good, strong house that will support our creative collaboration without it falling down around us? At Kicker we’ve tried various strategies and over time we’ve learned how to keep our creative team bobbing and weaving, smiling and producing, with integrity while giving clients exactly what they ask for: great, innovative design that will grab attention in the marketplace.
Support with Sea Legs
At Kicker, our main goal is innovation. We don’t walk backwards, which is what happens when you design based on precedent. This forward-thinking approach requires a business model that puts creativity at the heart of it all. As designers, artists and thinkers, we don’t need a support team that’s constantly shutting us down. We need support that fosters and protects creativity. This is where the sea legs come in. Instead of a business model where the spreadsheet spreader’s fundamental function is to tow the line, and tell the crazy artists “no”, we have a team that takes the journey together. It’s crucial to have business support that gives the team the ability to meet challenge head on, with new eyes and a fearless, optimistic mind. Our support team, like our design team, thrives on real-time problem solving. They are the translators between business and creativity.
Time is Fluid, So Pay Attention
We have an artisan approach to design and that’s evident in our process. We make time to experiment and stare off into space because that is what creativity requires. Sometimes you have to go away from the work and foster new stories to share. Then, suddenly a brilliant idea seizes you, and you have to make it right now! The time-is-fluid concept runs completely contrary to the work-faster-work-harder idea. When you allow your team the time (and space) to ruminate, fertilize and germinate, you end up with many more great ideas to work with. Once you’ve got a bunch of inspired ideas, you can iterate on them pretty quickly. There are phases in the design process: the dream phase, the build phase, the refinement phase, and time behaves differently in each of these phases. If you trust and pay attention to how time works distinctly in each phase, you can nurture each specific part of the process properly.
Reasonable and Consistent Backdrop to the Chaos
We compliment our artisan approach with a reasonable and consistent support system. We build production schedules so that Tuesday, Thursday and the weekends are focused on getting stuff done – the actual making. This time is not spent in justification or meetings, it’s spent lost in the dream of the creative process. it’s messy, and chaotic, sometimes ugly. This is the absolutely necessary aspect of the work that’s often perceived of as scary by business types. We know we’re not the first to honor the creative process by taking this approach. Google Prototyping X, for example, has inspired us by developing great tech in this exact way. But, we’re not trying to scare anybody, so we have focus-days also, which creates a balance. Monday, and Wednesday and sometimes on Friday we focus on meetings, logistics and all that’s necessary to run a company. We distill our work’s progress down into understandable and actionable documents, presentations, and meetings, because that’s what business requires.
Allow for Solutions to Evolve
Finally, we’re brave in our communication with each other. No need to cling to a potentially out-moded piece of the puzzle. If something feels off, we speak up and work through it. We allow for our practices to evolve, both over time and sometimes in relationship to a particular project. It’s important not to get too bogged down in notions of how things typically work, and instead to stay open to each new project as it unfolds. Some of the best business and design is the result of having the brains and the chutzpah to wildly improvise, so we’re mindful about creating a culture that fosters new ideas and laughs at fear.
Written by: Jody Medich & Wendy Rolon