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As a corporate designer for an in-house studio, I hear the following statement often: “You’re the creative one. You figure it out.”

This statement has the same effect as too much pepper in my soup. It causes my nose to twitch. I gasp. Sometimes I literally feel I’m going to blow (up that is).

It really bugs me that today’s society has such a narrow view of creativity. In a self-serving way I love being labeled the “creative,” the solution-finder, the magic-maker. It’s akin to being called God.

But when I get over my ego-mania, I feel terrified and mournful. If I’m the “creative” (and I use this term loosely) and my peers aren’t, it means A: that I’m alone in solving the problem and B: that this individual doesn’t have the talent or capacity to contribute to finding a solution. Worst of all, it means that somewhere along the line this poor person was led to believe that he or she is not creative.

ACHOOOO!

If I could, and not get arrested, I’d like to shake this notion out of my clients along with the insecurities and the fears. I’d like to nurture their inner child. I’d turn back the clock to the days when every drawing was worthy of hanging on the fridge door and when Play-Doh sculptures were considered high art.

I don’t mean to get touchy-feely, but I subscribe to the school of thought that everyone is creative. It just may not manifest itself in a conventional way. But hey, we’re designers, we pride ourselves on embracing the unconventional.

Case in point. My brothers are soccer players. While in college both brothers played for their alma mater, Wentworth Institute of Technology. I used to go to most of their games. I’d plunk myself down on the spongy sod and marvel at my little brothers. I’d watch them as they dribbled their way past the defense devising strategy at a lightning speed. I’d admire the contortions of their bodies in inconceivable ways to block a goal. And I’d glow with pride as geometry and art would collide to produce a score.

Some people would call what happened within the lines of the soccer field pure athleticism. I’d agree to a point. But I’d also call their strategies in motion creative. The soccer field was their canvas, their play the broad brush strokes.

Some of my in-house clients fail to see their lives and their interests as creative. They dismiss the activities in which they invest their souls. They don’t acknowledge that the root of creative is the word create. And in my view, to create is to produce—whether that be a mammoth mosaic or a reaction.

My definition, however, isn’t for everyone. Even the verb create is up for creative interpretation depending upon whom you ask.

If you ask Tim Hale, senior vice president image director of Fossil, he’ll tell you that to create is to “...take a pre-existing set of circumstances and innovate on it...It (creating) is really the idea of reinvention and invention. It’s evolutionary or revolutionary.”

Sam Harrison, author of Zing! Five Steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command, says, “Creativity involves surprise, value and energy. Something may be useful, but, without surprise and novelty, it’s ordinary. It’s Gossage’s analogy of seeing a hundred horses run by and saying ‘Hey, that one’s a zebra!’”

For Hillman Curtis, principal and chief creative officer of hillmancurtis.com, inc., the heart of the word create is the ability to come up with ideas. “It all comes down to being able to express yourself and transcend the everyday banalities.”

And the need to create for Curtis is basic. “It’s a need to communicate with other people in a way that’s intuitive and emotional...(To create is) to move people. It’s a wonderful part of being alive.” So if this is true and communication is our goal in design and in creation, why is it that we who use the word “creative” to define ourselves are so threatened by others wishing to do the same? In other words, why do we cringe at the thought of client participation?

“There’s a perception out there that a client will more than likely torpedo or ruin the great idea,” said Jane Zusi, senior vice president associate creative director of Klemtner Advertising, a division of Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare. “At one time or another we’ve all had clients ruin our ideas,” she added. “There’s also the fear of them Frankensteining things together.”

“It’s especially unappealing to invite clients into the creative sandbox when the client doesn’t respect the place from where ideas are born,” Curtis commented. “Being creative can often be very personal...To hear a client say, ‘Yeah, I don’t like that gray.’ That is very painful. It’s discouraging, demoralizing. But we have to punch through it.”

Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram, adds that perhaps it has something to do with “creatives” not always wanting to work the process—our desire to sometimes dig right into idea-generation without grounding. “Maybe we shun client participation because most of us just want to do step three, don’t give a shit about the other steps, and don’t want anyone else interfering in that fun ‘creative’ step. This, by the way, is why most designers are unsuccessful and why most design is bad,” he said.

At some point, I’ve heard all these excuses as well as a handful of others used for locking the client out. Heck, I know I could be quoted in moments of frustration as saying, “They just don’t understand.” And to some degree, they don’t. And to some degree, clients do. We often box out the client and dismiss them because they’re not traditionally trained. “They didn’t go to design school,” we boast. But then again I didn’t go to business school and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about good business. True, I’m no financial wizard. But that doesn’t mean that because I don’t have an MBA, I shouldn’t be involved with managing my investments.

There is a place for client contribution and creativity. All the designers interviewed for this story agreed. Perhaps our challenge is coming up with creative ways to include our clients.

Zusi is a master at this practice. When signing a new client, her team organizes an “agency day.” The client is brought in house and is briefed on Klemtner’s process from how to brainstorm to the physical steps a project travels to the nuances of serif and sans serif.

When working on a project the creative team identifies appropriate areas for client interaction. For instance, if the group is hiring a model, they’ll cull through a series of people, pick out a handful and allow the client to make the final call. “You can cherry-pick their involvement,” she said. “You have to know what pieces you can offer up that won’t jeopardize the project.”

Zusi doesn’t stop at involving the direct client. At times she’ll call in sales representatives and others within the company for a sneak peek of the goods. When she does this, she never shows a final project. She exhibits a wireframe, exposing people to the concept and content avoiding the pitfall of someone interjecting, “Well, I don’t like gray.”

At Fossil, Hale has employed similar techniques. Since the company is heavily focused on branding and design, Hale’s team spreads the gospel of their branding mission and process allowing co-workers an understanding of where they can plug into the creative outlet.

Harrison highly advocates this technique. “Both sides need a clear understanding of the process. There’s no formula for creativity, of course, but there is definitely flowing form used by highly creative people to generate ideas. This process may sometimes be intuitive and unspoken. But it’s worthwhile for creatives to articulate their methodology—for the sake of their creative teams as well as their clients.”

The client can take on many roles within this process, said Bierut. “The client can function in different ways at every stage. As prime mover. As devil’s advocate. As the person who understands their business better than you do. As the person who understands their customer much better than you do. As a representative of that class of normal person who doesn’t know anything about design. And sometimes, as a person who can make a great design contribution...”

At my own company, Course Technology, a Boston-based publisher, we’ve taken a different approach to encouraging client creativity. We’ve exposed our co-workers creative talents by offering our internal clients a venue to show off their own creativity.

The idea sparked at one of our bi-annual sales meetings. At one of these occasions I began chatting after hours with one of my favorite clients, the product manager for one of our premiere software products. I’d been to dozens of meetings with him, but knew nothing about what he did off hours. After a few beers, he confided in me that he was in the midst of writing a novel. Every morning he would get up and write for 30 minutes. When I commended him on this accomplishment, he shrugged it off.

The next day I stirred up a conversation with our director of marketing operations. In her free time, she created handmade cards and snapped photos. I came to find out that my company was spilling over with talent. One marketing associate took part in a comedy improv group, our associate production manager donated her time at a local junior high to choreograph musicals, many painted, several played in bands and all were talented.

Upon return to the office, I talked to my fellow designers about creating a forum to exhibit the creativity flowing all around us. Our office was filled with empty walls. Why not use this space?

Little by little the work streamed in. There were prints, paintings, photographs, collages, multimedia pieces, music and a video from our production manager/choreographer. In all we collected 35 pieces including 3 CDs from members in the company who played in bands. We chose a day in early November 2003 to hang the work. We followed up the exhibit with a lunch reception where more than 150 company employees admired the creative works of their co-workers over pizza and cookies.

After this initial success, we hosted our second show in June where more than 80 pieces were exhibited. Several co-workers confessed to having resurrected their brushes, dusted off their camera, picked up their pencils just for the sake of creating work for the show.

The response to both shows has been inspiring and enlightening in so many ways and for many people. Both times I walked the halls ears pricked listening to the discussions. I heard several exclaim, “I never knew so-and-so painted, drew, fill in the blank” or “I had no idea so-and-so was so talented.” Several people came up to me afterwards with their own realizations. “I paint a little on the side. Do you think I can bring my piece in tomorrow.” I even heard it rumored that in the weeks following the opening reception the president of our company was heard praising the talents of my fellow employees while giving tours of the office to prospective partners and customers.

“I was very surprised at the talent,” said senior acquisitions manager Maureen Martin. “You don’t know their other sides beside work...It gave me a different perspective about the people I work with.”

“I was amazed,” said George White, systems architect and participant in the spring show. “There are many creative people in the company...I looked at those people and internalized it. It inspired me. It wasn’t just employee art. It was art. Period.”

White said he felt his co-workers exhibited appreciation for his photographic talents and perhaps that put him in a new light. He feels peers now see more depth to his character... “I’m not just a wonk or a geek,” he said.

The benefit of this small, inexpensive company art campaign has been exponential. For one it decorated our bare walls with beautiful work. For another, it opened communications. People became acquainted with each other more and got a glimpse at the secret lives and desires of the people they spend at least 40 hours a week with. But best of all was the feeling of respect and understanding that grew from the event. If people could take away one thing from the show, our department hoped that our clients would realize that you don’t have to have the title “creative” to be one.

As designers, the inclusion of our clients into our creative club doesn’t need to be as complicated as developing an art show to yield great results, however.

“By involving the client in part of the creative process, we’re really opening doors for an honest and on-going exchange,” Harrison said. He continued to point out that we “...get a better view of the needs and objectives, fears and doubts of the client...the client gets a clear picture of the time, energy and talent required for creativity. And third, the client takes on a sense of participation and ownership, gliding the path for the creative team’s final pitch.”

Zusi agreed. “Every campaign is kind of like a child. You want to make sure everyone is thinking about it, nurturing it, protecting it.” When your client is involved in the conception of that child they’re more likely to defend it when someone tries to defame it.

There are infinite advantages to partnering with our clients and keeping faith in their creative abilities. Not the least of which is, we might actually learn something ourselves.

So what’s the point of these long-winded rantings you might ask. I guess what I’m trying to do is encourage all you acknowledged “creative” types out there to reject the idea that our clients aren’t creative and don’t let them believe it either. Give them room to prove their worth in the creative process. Perhaps our jobs as solution finders are as much about coaxing the creativity out of others and nurturing the process as it is about dreaming stuff up for ourselves.

So now when clients give me the same old line about me being the creative one, I cut them off and point at our company walls. I’m not falling for it. We all have our role to play and each role in its own right is creative. CA

Editor’s note: The day I read this piece, two people independently said “you’re the artist, you should know this,” to which I quipped, “We’re all artists.” Forewarned is forearmed! —DK Holland

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