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3 Quick Lessons in Creative Leadership

Lesson number 1 came in through my Twitter feed this week from Mr Brian Collins:

I am one of those likes and retweets.

Nothing more needs to be said.

Lesson number 2 comes from Nick Law’s interview this week on Design Matters. I won’t even begin to attempt to distill all the great nuggets of juicy goodness packed into this 50 minute interview —  there’s too much to take away. My advise is to listen once, then listen again and this time take notes. Then listen 3rd time to fully burn into your brain permanently.

Lesson 3 is my advice. After you’ve absorbed all of the above, put on John Coltrane’s Blue Train, close your eyes and grok on what an amazing leader you will be.

Having agency

There are a few sayings I find interesting. One such term is “having agency”.

We’ll start with a definition:

The sense of agency (SA), or sense of control, is the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts.

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.

 

A sense of control. Isn’t that what we all want in life, even the most meek and humble person. The capacity to make your own choices, actively making your own decisions that determine your own future.

Of late, I have had little agency. In my full-time job, decisions are made for me by people who feel perfectly at ease filling up my time. Needless to say, life has not be fulfilling in recent times.

I am tired of it.

Back on September 26, 2016 I started this site as a way for me to share things I find and think about. If you read through these pages, you’ll find I think about a variety of different things.

But I also started this site very much with the intention of morphing it into a business. My business. My agency. I ran a small one-man freelance business for about a year and half starting at the end of 2008 when I lost my job. It was hard having my own business and I worked incredibly long hours, but I loved it.

My business was called it Ratcliff Creative because I did not want to get pigeon-holed with the word “Design”. There’s nothing I relish more than being a Designer and practicing Design, but sometimes there is a stigma attached to being a designer. I chose to avoid any form of negativity.

I do not want to relaunch Ratcliff Creative, even I though I still own the name, the domain and have a bank account for it. Rather, I find the “Creative” part of it now limiting. Creativity is a tool. A verb, not a noun. With that in mind, I wanted to come up with a name that had no boundaries. Thus was born rat etc. A business, a blog, or both?

Will rat etc become a business? Maybe. Is it top of mind for me? Absolutely.

The man in the avocado colored jacket

In the summer term leading up to my senior year in college, I took a sociology course as prescribed by the Design Comm syllabus. Class was held in a small lecture hall seating less than a 100 students.

For the life of me, I cannot remember my professor’s name, but I do remember lots of things about him. He was in his early 60s and had been tenured more than a decade, maybe two. He wore a jacket and tie straight out of the 1970s every day, even though we were in the heat of the summer. And, he was completely out of touch with the times and his students.

One of my fellow students who sat near me on the front row was a big smart ass. He always had an inappropriate question for every topic, most of which the professor did his best to answer authoritatively, but often times missed the mark. The boy did served up constant jabs to get laughs out of the girls sitting around him.

One day we were discussing matters of a sexual nature that I will not delve into here out of respect for gentle readers. The boy on the front row posed some questions that were clearly out of line, but the professor trudged on. He tried to answer intelligently, maturely and with some dignity. But the boy pressed on him new levels of absurdity.

Truthfully, I did not learn much in that class. But I did learn one lesson that day that has stuck with me and I will try my best to relay it here.

On that day, I watched the professor closely as he was being grilled. I looked into his face, into his eyes. I saw fear. His confidence was gone. His authority had been undermined. I watched him being torn down and witnessed him fall apart. It was truly horrible.

I think about that professor when I publicly post these ramblings I scrawl together. I hope that I am not out of touch like him and that I have something of value to offer — a word of encouragement, a worthwhile opinion or a fresh idea.

Much like my sociology professor, I take great pleasure in sharing my knowledge, but in our society today, where it is so easy to instantly offer up a backhanded remark, it makes me nervous to step out on the limb for fear of being attacked or ridiculed. The lack of civil discourse today perhaps is a post for another time.

I also think about my professor when I am presenting — actually getting up in front of a group of people and sharing my knowledge or selling a new idea. For me, I’ve found it’s harder to get up in front of people I know rather than a group of strangers. If you know the audience, there is an inherent bias one way or another towards you. Everyone has this bias in them as we spend time with and get to know people. This makes presenting hard at times because I work with people who can resemble the boy from the front row of my sociology class. I really start thinking about the look I saw in my professor’s eyes and pray I do not have the same look of dread.

It’s hard to get in front of people – online or in person – and share yourself, but this is the single most important thing we can do. Not we as creative people, but we as humans. If we make like a clam and hide away in our shells, we will never make progress on pushing humanity forward. As designers, as writers, as producers or developers, isn’t that the crux of what we are here to do?

The lesson I learned that summer day all those years ago was about courage. The day after that horrific incident where the professor had been shredded in front of his class, he showed up again, dressed in one of his vintage 1970s avocado colored jackets with an equally ugly wide tie, and conducted class.

Confidence

In conversation the other day with one of the CDs who work for me, we concluded that designers fall into one of two camps:

 

On the left side of the spectrum, a designer might be quite talented, smart, know their trade up one side and down another, but still they lack confidence in themselves and the things they do.

On the opposite side are those who walk around like their you-know-what doesn’t stink, pontificate, berate, humiliate and go to great lengths to tell you how wonderful it is being God’s gift to humankind.

Why such a dichotomy?

For those on the left-hand side, I think some of it is personality. So many designers are quiet and introverted by nature.

Also, many designers are at their core frustrated artists, who did not feel that they could survive in the world solely by making their art, so they chose the more commercial and stable path in order be creative while sustaining themselves. While there’s nothing wrong with having chosen that route, in doing so you’ve already compromised yourself by admitting that you are not good enough.

Having a client – or some other authority/benefactor to answer to – can be damaging to the spirit as well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of really rotten people out there who will do and say things just to tear others down. Being an artist at heart, designers put a lot of themselves into their work, so when criticism comes their way it’s hard to not take it personally. You have to have a thick skin, or in other words, confidence.

Software has made producing the work much easier. Design is no longer as arcane as it used to be, where designers created magic on drawing boards with an X-acto, a Rapid-i-ograph and other obscure tools of the trade. When I first started out in the business, newsletters were still bread-and-butter for many design firms. But with the desktop publishing revolution in the late 80s and early 90s, that work dried up as it was brought in-house for an admin to handle rather than pay for a professional designer. Not that you’re exactly sad to see that kind of work go, but it certainly knocks you down a notch knowing you’re lumped in wth the secretary pool.

You have probably noticed we’re in the middle of another such revolution with designing digital properties.

There’s a lot to dive in here, but let’s wrap up this portion with one additional thought: When it comes to creative work, everyone thinks they have good taste and an good eye. Everyone has an opinion. If the boss’ eye isn’t that good and they happen to have no taste, this can make a designer’s life miserable. Working hard doing bad work is definitely a burden on the spirit. Unfortunately, at one time or another, just about every designer works for/with a very toxic person.

Now. let’s look at the other end of the spectrum.

In my experience, there are very, very, very few individuals I have worked with who had a huge attitude yet still produced great work. People who are mostly attitude are trying to make up for inadequacies in other areas, be they in the heads or in their pants.

I’ve always had a simple rule when it comes to handling these people: You are welcome to have a big attitude, but you’d better have the game to back it up. If the work is anything less than exception … well, we will have words.

My advice to the right side of the chart: If you are going to be a god, be a benevolent one. Use your mighty powers for good. Don’t show off, instead share your knowledge. Rather than being bossy, choose to a leader. If you cannot help yourself and still want to be an asshole, do something to create a positive impact on the world.

We need all types of designers. Strive to find balance between the wallflowers and the gods.