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Partnership / Adobe: Hovering Art Directors

The hovering art director: advice for receiving feedback under pressure

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Raul Soria

It’s Nice That has partnered with Adobe Stock a series of articles that examine and celebrate the role of art directors and creatives across the industry. Over the coming weeks we will be providing an insight into what makes them tick, how they can help you to develop your career and what it is they do all day. Kicking off the series is an article that looks at the hovering art director and asks why they appear when you least expect, or want, them to…

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The chips are down. The deadline is looming like a tidal wave ready to crash and every tick of the clock raises anxiety levels. Hunched over your keyboard and track pad, the project is coming together when you sense a presence looming over you. Someone else is watching. Their arms are folded. You hear them inhale and a hand shoots over your shoulder and points at something on screen. “That should be bigger,” says the voice. “And that bit should be placed over there.”

Breathe.

It’s a common occurrence in any high pressure studio environment. The Hovering Art Director who, if the myth is to be believed, emerges like Nosferatu from the shadows to turn a design on its head at the most inconvenient moment, undoing hours of creative work and pushing a project in an unexpected direction. Putting aside the melodrama for a moment, in the fast-paced and exacting environments in most creative studios, the relationship between senior creative directors and art directors and junior staff is a dynamic that relies on trust and mutual respect.

The feedback loop and creative hierarchies in a company are integral to creating great work, but frustrations can inevitably arise. We spoke to a number of experienced hands about how best to develop a great working relationship, how to respond to feedback under pressure, and how to deal with a hovering art director – after all, they are only human.

Objectivity is key when working under pressure says Alan Dye, co-founder of NB Studio. “Staying focused is a little trickier when facing tight deadlines as it’s easy to become emotionally attached to ideas. It’s probably a good idea not to say what you think at that moment – and instead go for a little walk and think about your response. Sometimes things need turning upside down to get better results.” It’s something that every person we spoke to reiterated when asked for their advice. “On larger projects it can be easy for the design language to start to change and move away from the original intent. Almost like Chinese whispers it can morph into something else. So stepping back, re-centring and making sure you are on track is key,” offers Aporva Baxi, co-founder and executive creative director at DixonBaxi. “When the chips are down it inevitably focusses the mind. The challenge is to also stay open-minded and not fall down a rabbit hole into one possible approach. Staying agile, going back to basics and listening to intuition is always a strength.” Director, and creative director Margot Bowman sees the criticism as a chance to refine ideas. “For me, it’s about knowing what to sacrifice,” she says. “If your idea is strong enough, small changes can improve it. That said, too much feedback can make you question if you had an idea in the first place.”

Tony Brook, founder of Spin and Unit Editions advises making the work physical, by printing it out, before asking for feedback. “The person working on the project is entirely consumed by it. There is no distance. If they can get their head around that idea and accept it, you’re halfway there,” he says. “I’d always say to print something out and put it on the wall before reviewing it. On screen you have infinite possibilities, you can move an image by a pixel. When it’s been printed it is static for a moment and you can reflect, with others.”

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When in the thick of a project, fulfilling the brief set by the client is paramount – art directors will be checking for this. “Get out of that bedroom-graphic-design mentality. Think about your client and what they want, not what you want – and remember that they’re the ones who pay your salary. Micro detail comes later,” says Alan. For Andrew Diprose, creative director of Wired magazine, the needs of the person the work is for, and the collaborative efforts of the team should be in focus throughout any project. “When I first started at Wired, Scott Dadich at Wired US, told me that we were the design studio for the magazine. The client was the editor, the publisher and the readers. We were there to service that relationship,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the work exists to make them happy. So listen to them, I’d say. Is that piece of work with an insane piece of typography really what they want? Even if you love it and spent a serious amount of time and energy on it? Keep the idea for another day maybe. If it’s genuinely brilliant, though, maybe fair enough.”

How you deal with the suggestions that are fired at you will determine how well a project, and possibly your career, will turn out. All of the people we interviewed were quick to point out that anything said was not intended as a personal slight. “It’s really tough. As a designer you pour so much into work, and it’s not like a spreadsheet or graph, but your best, crafted ideas. You can feel a bit bruised if someone criticises your work,” says Andrew. “Be magnanimous. Yes, it hurts, but if you listen to criticism it makes you look better professionally.”

Tony concurs, but points out that if you continually challenge yourself and take on ideas that stretch your own ideas about your role, and the work being done, ultimately it leads to bigger, better things: “There can be a profound lack of self analysis or self criticism. People can often decide they “get it” when they don’t, and plough on with an idea that they love. Don’t be precious. You can’t be. The work isn’t a matter of life and death. You might need others to help you see a way out of what you have done,” he says. “If you can try something that makes you feel uncomfortable, then in time you get hooked on the feeling. We call it ‘edging into the scary room’. Aspects of design tend to be conservative, but if you push the boundaries and do the scary stuff it will have a better effect on you personally.”

“Be magnanimous. Yes, it hurts, but if you listen to criticism it makes you look better professionally.”

Andrew Diprose

Even if the feedback is direct, and creates a different dynamic across a team then it can allow you to thrive. “I’ve come to enjoy honest, robust feedback. It makes for a live, in the moment conversation that gets to the heart of a challenge,” says Aporva. “Treated positively – this tension can be turned into an opportunity. Either going away and thinking about it, or through experience, debating and creatively/intellectually unpicking it with a client in a meeting. The best way is to deal with it head on – we use sprints to sketch, write, create rapid responses that avoid dead ends. There’s always an answer. 

The collective nature of working on a design brief means harmony is key. “I’ve always believed a design group is like a band – you have the lead singer, rhythm and lead guitars, the drummer, backing singer and strings. You create beautiful, original songs and deliver them live. Everything is packaged up in one unique, sellable band,” says Alan, a metaphor that was also introduced, unprompted by Andrew in his interview.

The hovering art director has earned the right to interfere. They will have a wealth of experience and know what a client wants. All of the people we interviewed see support and development of their teams as essential to success. “You can’t do everything yourself, as an art director you need to be surrounded by talented people of all stages of a career.” says Andrew. “You give them a platform to shine, support them professionally and emotionally. You want to work with a team that makes the most of every opportunity.”

It really is a two-way street. It’s important to stick to your guns, and even the most experienced art director will be learning from colleagues each day. “When putting together a creative and cutting edge design company you need everyone’s talent to make extraordinary and courageous design and what better than a fresh, young, designer to add to that mix. Also they help Nick [Finney, co-forunder of NB] and I out with all things technical.”

So what it is it that makes an art director. The people we spoke to identified a number of traits including an ability to nurture the best in others, uncover the best ideas, help clients to see potential, and also be decisive. “I always like football manager Brian Clough’s quote: ‘We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right,’” says Tony with a laugh. “But I’d say don’t be aloof and removed. The art director has a privileged position, but anyone can fill it. Be respectful, but offer your ideas and opinions. I’d encourage that.”

Ambition is critical, but also a sense of reality and career progression, even humility will help as you climb the greasy pole. “I always smile when I see Linked In requests from students saying “Creative Director at” then their university course – it’s an aspiration. I call it the Kanye effect. But what does it mean?” says Andrew. “No one wants to go in on the ground floor, but thats where the real experience is gained. Are you actually an art director unifying a team under one creative vision and delivering a project? Or are you a passionate and talented designer producing some wonderful personal work on your own? Be realistic.”

Margot takes the idea one step further. “The title creative director or art director is something you do, not something you are,” she says. “How you make work and what you make is most important. You need to have wide interests in the world, enjoy working with, and be interested in people, and carve out time to actually do something creative. Not just organise people and emails.”

Then again, you can always turn a hovering art director into an experienced assistant by addressing them directly. “if I find myself hovering then it’s better to dive in and sit side by side and have a chat about the work,” says Aporva. “Getting stuck in makes it much more fun anyway. Failing that, noise cancelling headphones can be a massive help.”

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This article was produced in partnership with Adobe Stock. Adobe Stock gives you access to over 75 million creative assets from directly within your Creative Cloud apps, so you can spend more time designing and less time searching.