Advice for designers: how to produce great creative work, no matter what

Including our Art Director's tip for how to never be creatively blocked again

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“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer.” — Stephen King

Being creative on a deadline is no easy task. But at agencies, that’s basically the whole job, so you might as well get good at it, eh?

In my continuing quest to gather wisdom from the smart folks working here in the coop, I spent a fun hour with our new Art Director Mary Rauzi talking how she makes amazing work happen on the clock. We talked about productivity strategies, where to find inspiration, and her technique for never being creatively blocked.

 
How do you balance your time between creative work and the other stuff you have to get done like emails, meetings, etc?

“I usually try to chunk my time,” says Mary. “For my personal creative process, I tend to work quicker the longer chunk of time I have to power through. It generally doesn’t matter if that is multiple creative projects, but interruptions like emails, meetings, or quick requests can cause a minor slow down in my brain. It’s usually no problem when that only happens once or twice, but on occasion the day is filled with clerical tasks and I really have to reposition to get back into a creative head space.”

Like many creatives, Mary has to get into a groove before the work just starts flowing; you can’t expect to just turn it on and off like a light switch, so avoiding interruptions and planning your time wisely is key. “Sometimes it will take me about 4 hours to get into a place where I’m working really, really quick,” Mary says. “It’s like when you’re skiing down a mountain. At the beginning it’s kind of slow, but once you get going it’s quick.”

She adds, “As an Army wife, I have gotten really efficient of putting my all into whatever task I am tackling in the moment, whether it is creative, analytical, social, or family. It’s a challenge to balance everyday life and being dedicated to my career, so I’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing my time.”

When you’re often the only parent in the house, she explains, you have to be the one making sure your child is in bed and the dishes are done — and then you have to get all your own work done too. Mary says, “You pull up the bootstraps and you get it done. And then you drink wine later.”
 
Do you ever feel burnt out? How do you recharge?

“I try my best to recharge as I go. Doing things like yoga, swimming, and taking time to create things with my son on the weekends help break up the way I think so I can continue to design effectively. I love getting my hands dirty, painting, reupholstering furniture, building things, getting outside so it’s a nice change of pace. On occasion, a good ol’ nap is all I really needed.”

It’s important to start working on your burnout before you ever feel it; it’s hard to reverse once it’s set in. “You can’t just keep going, going, going.”

Finding inspiration and energy from your work and the people you work with is also key. If you don’t feel excited by what you’re doing (or at least some aspect of what you’re doing), then you’re going to burn out a lot faster. Mary says, “I choose the places I work carefully. I love what I do so much, and I do get recharged when I come to work and do design.”
 
What do you do when you feel creatively blocked?

“I get my creative blocks when I don’t do my research up front,” says Mary.

One of my favorite parts of talking to Mary was when she talked about her process for making amazing work happen, no matter what. It’s smart, simple, and works every time.

The key? Understanding the WHY of the project.

Why does the company want this design done? What is their goal? Who are they trying to connect with, and why? What is the emotional connection they want to create with their audience?

Once you know that, it informs your design and tells you what needs to be done. Being inspired isn’t as magical as many people think; if you know where you want to end up, it’s so much easier to get there.

Mary puts it this way: “Design is merely the visual representation of the emotional connection from the company to who they want to connect with. The closer you are to the client/company, the better you will really know what they do, how they do it, and most importantly WHY they do what they do. It helps you make quick design decision that really represent what they are trying to accomplish in a beautiful way. ”

She continues, “If you do your job right that will happen, because you had the answers to your questions along the way because you started with research.”

Sometimes, all it takes it talking to the business owners over a beer about their passion for their business, who their perfect customer is, and why they love what they do. It’s all about asking the right questions to get the direction and answers that you need.

“Being a designer sometimes is a lot of pressure,” Mary says. “There is no right and wrong way to get to an answer. There is no solution that comes from anywhere else than in my head.”

This strategy makes it possible to find the answers that matter, so you can make a design that gets you to the ultimate goal.
 
Do you have any go-to strategies when you need to get something amazing done on a tight deadline?

“This always varies by project, but I have been working in design long enough to really know myself and my process. I’ll start by looking at things that inspire me, whether it’s design work or something related to the project but not design. Sometimes it helps to get creative projects out of the way that I already know where I am going with it. The momentum from that usually seeps over into the next project. When all else fails, I talk to people that inspire me. Every time it gives me the boost to do better every day.”

And when in doubt? “Coffee. A lot of coffee and wine.”
 
When you’re working with clients, it’s important to be able to absorb feedback and iterate on ideas quickly. How do you make that happen?

If your first design (or first few designs) don’t make the client happy, then it’s up to you to get the information you need to give the client something that works for them.

“When you’re presenting to clients, I’ve found people can attack things because they can see that you didn’t listen,” says Mary. That’s why that research we mentioned earlier is so important. If you understand the client, you’ll give them work that reflects that understanding. And it’s your job to understand the client, and to help them to help you understand them.

Many (especially newer) creatives can struggle getting feedback and criticism, but when you’re designing for clients, that is part of the job. It’s your job to make something that they love and that will help them meet their goals, so being able to hear and act on their feedback is a must.

Mary says, “Most people get into design because they love it. It can be hard not to take criticism personally, because you put your heart into it. When I was in school, though, they were huge advocates of always have reasoning for what you do. You would have explain why you picked every typeface, every detail.”

And here’s how that logical mindset helps you with clients: “Most clients are coming to you because they’re not creatives. They understand logical reasoning, so if you’re prepared to back up whatever creative execution you did with an analytical reason, usually they’ll understand that. Or at least they’ll be able to say, ‘I understand it but I don’t like it,’ so then you can change the details but keep the look and feel that still speaks to the consumer in the way that you needed it to.”

When you’re in the meeting getting feedback from a client, after you’ve presented your ideas, here’s how you can maximize that time to get your new ideas going fast:

“As I get feedback, I immediately start sketching solutions in the meeting,” says Mary. “I really believe in back and forth communication with clients to get at the root of what they are trying to accomplish to eliminate misunderstandings. That way, you already have a plan of action for most of the feedback before the meeting is over, and you are half done with the to-do list.

Funny thing with design is there is never a right or wrong way to do something. There are multiple paths to create great solutions, the key is to finding out what creative system works for you personally and honing in on what makes you great.”

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