Throughout my career, I’ve found myself in every type of creative configuration imaginable: freelancer, client, consumer, critic, broke-ass intern, staff writer, editor, analyst. I’ve worked with hundreds of teams creating thousands of stories, and there is one constant factor I see tied to the success or failure of a project: The quality of communication between everyone involved.
An idea is only as good as your ability to communicate it to the people who will actually bring it to life. You can have a crystal-clear picture of a project in your head, but it needs to then be translated through your own style of communicating ideas, navigating feedback, and building on the contributions of others.
I’ll use myself as an example. Years of surviving inattentive or actively hostile managers (and also a shit-ton of layoffs) has made me acutely aware of how damaging (and unproductive) certain types of negative/vague feedback can be. So, I tend to lean into positivity; my emails are like a retirement home for exclamation points, and my direct criticism is sandwiched between genuine compliments and supportive advice. At best, I can deliver feedback in a way that never impacts morale or makes anyone feel devalued. At worst, you end up searching for my needle of criticism in a giant haystack of positivity.
I’ve found myself in every type of creative configuration imaginable: freelancer, client, consumer, critic, broke-ass intern, staff writer, editor, analyst.
If you’re confident in your creative mind, that’s great; but are you equally confident in your ability to communicate those thoughts? Do you know the pros and cons of your communication style? Do you know what kind of creative collaborator you are?
Statistically speaking, most people aren’t as self-aware as they think they are. (I know. Irony at its finest.) A Harvard Business Review article from 2018 found that only 10-15% of people who believed they were self-aware actually fit the bill.
The sooner you can recognize your preferred way of creating and offering creative feedback, the sooner you can communicate what you actually want, and get the picture in your head (or lack thereof, if your creative style is more collaborative) out into the world. Creativity is a conversation, and we all deserve to speak the same language. As an Elder Millennial primarily raised by pop culture, my language is “Still Images From The Simpsons.” You have been warned.
I believe that there are (at least) three creative collaboration styles:Builders, Renovators, and Redecorators. These three styles didn’t just address my need to create overly-tidy metaphors in my daily life; they also helped me become a better creative partner in everything I do.
These labels have helped me identify my own creative habits and shortcomings, and—more importantly—they keep me from assuming everyone else works the same way I do. My projects and partnerships are all the more exciting, because I can see what everyone else is bringing to the table as well.
Everyone benefits when we speak the same creative language. And that’s all I want to offer here: Tools to help good people do good work.
So, let’s do some soul-searching, shall we?
True to their name, Builders come with a fully-formed creative blueprint in mind; sometimes literally, in the form of an extensive outline, deck, or wireframe for the project at hand. They love it when a plan comes together, and don’t love unexpected twists or turns.
If you’re a builder, you know what you want, and you need skilled hands to make it happen.
The good stuff
They often come prepared with all of the documents, resources, and examples their creative partners could ever ask for. Builders don’t just have a clear picture of their end goal in mind; they have all the tools and blueprints required to make it happen.
No room for changing the plan means that things often move smoothly and efficiently; a well-oiled machine, making cool stuff.
This level of guidance and clarity usually (but not always) comes from experience, so this isn’t their first rodeo, and they’re used to all the little curveballs that come with creative collaboration.
Builders have the highest likelihood of getting the project they were envisioning early on in the process.
An adherence to a set-in-stone plan can leave little room to chase new ideas or adapt to unforeseen setbacks.
If they view creative partners solely as a means to execute their vision, Builders may be missing out on all the expertise and insight those partners could be adding to their original plan. They may also question the value they’re getting from those partners as a whole.
By adhering to the same ideas and approaches they have traditionally used, they may struggle to create something truly new (if that’s what they’re going for).
They can often mistake an error for a preference—burning up a lot of feedback time tweaking the project because it’s not written/drawn/edited the exact way they had imagined in their head.
How to be the best Builder
Know exactly how flexible or rigid this project is going to be, and communicate that ahead of time. It’s easier to move forward when everyone involved understands how much creative ownership you want them to display.
Make sure that your Brand Guide and Style Guide are available and up-to-date—then make sure everyone involved (including you!) sticks to them.
Budget time for pre-production. Once this project is in motion, everyone will be following your direction. Making sure everyone has the tools to succeed is worth a slower start.
Get a second and a third opinion from within your team to ensure you’re communicating a vision you all feel good about, and make sure all parties have signed off beforehand. We don’t want a Homer situation on our hands.
For Renovators, the first draft is when their work begins. Sometimes, they have a fully-formed outline at the start of a project; other times, they’re happy to let their creative partners take the lead when moving from the outline to the first draft phase. But once they have words in front of them or freshly-designed images swimming across their screen, they can pinpoint what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be overhauled.
If you’re a renovator, you’re not afraid to rip a project down to the studs to get the end result you’re looking for.
The good stuff
Because they enjoy diving into a project with the rest of the creative team, they have many opportunities to learn how their partners work and think in real-time.
They’re active and present for every step of the project, so there’s minimal chance of them being surprised by the end result.
Renovators tend to really care about the project and its direction, and can be an invaluable guiding star and source of motivation for everyone involved.
They can be open to feedback and discussion about creative direction, and aren’t going to be held back by a single rigid idea of the project’s final form.
A lack of definitive overall direction at the beginning of the project can lead to projects that take the long way to their ultimate destination—and potentially, a lot of missed deadlines.
Without agreed-upon limits when it comes to rounds of feedback, the editing and revision process can become drawn-out and repetitive.
Their passion can also drive them to put on too many creative hats at once, turning the Renovator into a Roadblock for the rest of the team.
They can often chase exciting new creative directions until the project balloons out of its original scope.
How to be the best Renovator
Be clear about your creative style, and budget time into every round of feedback to make sure the entire team can brainstorm around your notes and find the best way forward. The learning and teaching opportunities are right there, if you make space for them.
Be prepared to explain the rationale behind your feedback, and give yourself enough time to think those reasons through. Creative direction is good. Hunches are less good.
Know the limits of your team and the project as a whole. An exciting new idea isn’t helpful if it ends up taking twice as long and being thrice as expensive as the old one.
If you’re struggling to articulate your creative direction, try a visual reference. By showing examples of what you’re looking for, no one has to be a mind reader.
If Renovators go deep and narrow, Redecorators go broad and tall. They stick to the general outline from the start of the project, and see the editing process as a way of tweaking and adding to an already strong foundation.
Go big or go home; scope be damned. If you have ever sent a first draft back to your creative team with hundreds of tiny tweaks to grammar, punctuation, and the exact angle of your company’s logo (but with a final note saying “Great first draft, I loved it!”), you may be a Redecorator.
The good stuff
They tend to be detail-oriented, with a strong understanding of their brand’s style and overall tone of voice, allowing them to make creative decisions for their team as a whole.
If they want to change or increase the scope of the project, their willingness to stay within the confines of the original outline means they’ll have realistic expectations about what can (and can’t) be done.
Redecorators are always going to keep an eye on the details, making them a valuable source of feedback for the entire team.
Their flexibility when it comes to adding to the scope of the project can allow their teams to explore unexpected new directions with clear goals in mind.
If the small details they’re looking for are not adequately explained elsewhere (in a Style/Brand Guide, for example), it can be hard for the rest of the team to learn from their feedback and do better in the next round.
If a change in scope isn’t followed by a clear, detailed outline, the additions they ask for can quickly become messy and disorganized.
For some projects, dozens of small edits can end up being more time-intensive than a handful of full-section revisions. Redecorators can sometimes get lost in the weeds.
Because they lack the clear vision of a Builder at the start of a project, Redecorators may be more likely to invite additional collaborators and stakeholders to the project, to the point that it becomes confusing and detrimental for the original members involved.
How to be the best Redecorator
Be prepared to share what guidelines you follow when providing feedback, so each round of revisions doesn’t become a guessing game. If your brand doesn’t have a Style Guide (or if it exists mostly in your head), this is an opportunity to create one.
As soon as possible, let people know that you’re a Redecorator, and what to expect from your style of feedback. Once your team knows to expect dozens/hundreds of tiny changes, they’ll be less likely to assume they’ve made dozens/hundreds of unforgivable errors.
If scope changes are on the table, communicate them loudly and early. If you don’t have experience in a certain type of scope change, communicate that as well. It’s totally fine to do something new, but time should be set aside while everyone learns the ropes.
Try to exercise a reverse-pyramid approach to feedback; large changes to scope and big revisions should be fully handled before focusing on small tweaks and changes. Otherwise, you’ll be essentially providing multiple extra rounds of feedback—and backwards, to boot.
What makes you tick?
No system of lumping human beings into groups is perfect. That’s especially true for anything that was formed in the conspiracy-theory-pegboard-with-string that is my brain. So that’s why I’m sharing these ideas here: Do you see yourself in one of them? More than one? None? Have I missed an obvious group? Let me know.
Our inability to see creativity as a conversational style has robbed us of a larger, better discussion about how people think and create together. We all deserve a richer narrative and more accurate terms. I’m really excited to see what we come up with. As a Redecorator, I’ll be right there, looking to add new ideas to the pile and/or annoyingly correct improper Oxford Comma usage.
Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, and creative director living in the Greater Toronto Area. He has written for HuffPost, Daily Hive, Kotaku, Polygon, VICE, and many others. He fell face-first into content marketing, and has been helping other recovering journalists do the same ever since. He is weirdly passionate about basically everything.
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