The system of learning new creative skills is broken – so how can it evolve?
Time is often impossible to find within creative teams. But, with individuals across different levels keen to learn new skills, how can we evolve this possibly broken system?
The Creative Skills Report, by It’s Nice That in partnership with Adobe, is a reflection of the skills, needs and opinions of our industry. Gaining our insight by surveying a long list of studios, agencies and brands, we expand on one of the emerging themes we discovered. For even more insight into the creative skills currently vital to our industry, and what our teams may need in future, you can download the full Creative Skills Report here.
Deciding to work within the creative industry is almost like signing yourself up for a career of continual learning. New hurdles continuously appear as you climb the ranks, both for yourself or those you manage, across new approaches, programmes or leadership steps. But, in many ways, it’s this untouchable ambition of being a creative that keeps us going day-to-day. You can’t “complete” design and we should always be evolving. So why are we never given any time to do so?
Across a survey It's Nice That conducted with over 60 of Europe’s well regarded design studios, agencies and brands, 74 per cent of responders at all levels agreed that they should dedicate more time to learning new skills. Communication however seems to be the issue, with a disconnect between juniors and their managers. 27 per cent of juniors say they are given no resources to aid learning, and only four per cent of seniors agree with them. Additionally, almost half (49 per cent) of those responding to our survey said that their work is not measured or accounted for, but 74 per cent say a lack of time is the biggest barrier against dedicating time to work.
On paper the results are clear: Give the people more time! Give yourself more time! But in reality with a revolving door of clients, salaries and rent to pay – not to mention a global pandemic – dedicating time to learning is more difficult than blocking out a morning in your calendar. So, although our survey points out what creative teams really want, we thought it would be best to see how teams of varying sizes, aims and ideals, actually do it.
In the case of Studio Moniker, a unique studio working at the intersection of art and design, continuous learning is an essential part of its DNA. As co-founder Luna Maurer tells us, “new endeavours lie at the core of our work,” and so learning new skills is encouraged in two ways. The first is direct, involving “specific learning of creative technical skills that goes along with technical research”. While the second is more personal, involving “making time and space for general creative development,” says Luna. As a result, professional development is something taken seriously and managers encourage team members to inject their interests into work. Although, “this requires discipline, and it’s not always easy and effective,” in the case of Moniker, “it is the soil for our work.”
This directly applies to projects, which differ in concept and skill set “quite considerably”. For instance, three developers at the studio work in close contact, learning frameworks and teaching themselves. These learned abilities then take part in an “exchange of knowledge”, and allow the rest of the team to get involved. For the co-founders half a day is saved, specifically “for development and exchange outside of the projects of the team”. This allows the group to get on the same page and continue writing it together, as these sessions “help frame the thoughts that lie beneath the projects at Moniker.”
Although learning is front of mind, Luna and her team are not blind to a lack of time admitting: “We all know the problem of too little time for discovery.” Yet, by placing importance and dedicating regular time such as a slot each week, or a longer stint between projects, it can be found. It’s also been Moniker’s decision to take this approach, understanding that it can place limitations on possible other areas. The problem with changing project outcomes consistently “is also that the clients come to you for what they already know about you,” adds Luna. “New creative endeavours are not necessarily appreciated.”
“There are not many studios like Moniker, having employees and serving clients but painting a strong artistic vision.”Luna Maurer, Studio Moniker
However in the small and trusting circle that Moniker operates, the approach appears to be working. “It is a balance that we constantly need to readjust ,”concludes Luna, “between earning enough to pay the bills and maintaining artistic autonomy with the projects we take on.”
Over in London and operating at a similar scale is Koto, a design studio specifically working in the commercial sector developing the tone of voice of many brands. Applying the visual and systematic personalities to household names such as SkyScanner, Fanta and Venmo, the needs of a client is always Koto’s first consideration. “I would say new skills keep our practice fresh and it’s actively encouraged, but our work is a priority,” explains the studio’s co-founder and creative director, James Greenfield. “Working with clients to help build their brands will always be the number one focus for us, and skills can help deliver new and interesting results, but it’s our ideas that we use the most.”
On a daily basis this process presents itself organically. Considering Koto's work operates in a similar realm, the team are able to “naturally lean on each other to develop language, visual and technology skills to upscale their work,” explains James. It’s true that most reactionary creative skills often develop from doing, with the creative director rightfully pointing out that: “Learning doesn’t always have to be intentional, but can be something that just happens naturally, day-by-day, as we work together as one team.”
“Learning doesn’t always have to be intentional, but can be something that just happens naturally.”James Greenfield, Koto
Aside from this natural growth, Koto offers opportunities for further learning from outside sources. The chance to develop in more specific areas is offered via a different company, through “workshops, group settings and attending talks and lectures,” explains James. “For technical skills we use online, self-learning resources, as there are so many good ones out there.” Setting aside outside classes as a team leader also holds individuals accountable for their own learning. “They offer us new training most weeks and the team opt in to take anything which interests them,” he continues. “Once you have committed, then the time seems to appear.”
When it comes to James’ leadership on learning, although he offers time for learning new skills, it comes from an understanding that there is never enough. “Time is always the most precious thing and as creatives we always want more of it,” he concludes. “Our work can be so time intensive compared to some works styles, so the only way to make space for new skills is concisely doing it.” And why does there never seem enough? Simply because of the level of work required. “It’s a competitive industry,” adds James, “and people are scared of not putting 110 per cent into everything.”
Working at a company on a much larger level, but still retaining the skill sharing and learning emphasis of these smaller studios, is Alice Moloney, a senior creative strategist at Google Research.
Within this role, Alice specifically looks “at how to make strategy felt through narrative, data and code,” in the context of AI development and emotional intelligence. A research-focused team of around 12, but part of a much larger group of 600, skills are first shared naturally. This is due to each team member having varying skill sets; made up of people from creative backgrounds, psychology careers, privacy experts, UX engineers and interaction designers. “It’s a unique team,” explains Alice, “everyone has their subject of specialism or a subject matter of expertise, coupled with core skills which shape the projects we work on.”
“As long as you get there, and the way you get there is thoughtful, you can get there in whatever way you want.”Alice Moloney, Google Research
Learning therefore, “is almost part of the culture”. Resources are also offered whenever needed, and team members are actively encouraged to carve out chunks of time just for learning. For Alice however, largely as many of her projects are investigating something possibly not made yet, learning is more active on a project-by-project basis. “I think it’s down to my manager. She’s an absolute powerhouse who will just chuck a problem at you and you’ll have to find a solution.”
In this sense, workshops are critical to Alice’s team's learning, not to mention “critical for skill sharing”. Everyone is also actively motivated to adopt ownership over their work, with “leadership at any level” encouraged. “It doesn’t matter how junior you are, if it’s your expertise you lead it.” Although a daunting prospect, she points out how leadership is actually only a difficult step in larger groups, “but what if you go into pods of two or three? Then a junior is leading a group but they’re supporting each other. That to me feels really healthy,” she tells us. “I would say it’s all about the manager and the culture that you breed within the group.”
Due to the nature of Alice’s team, some of the structural methods agencies tend to use aren’t suitable for the work at hand. One example is timesheets, a method used by most. Although “so important for agencies”, it’s not suitable for the open-ended work in the case of Google Research. Again this places more onus on the employees, with the creative concluding that: “As long as you get there, and the way you get there is thoughtful, you can get there in whatever way you want. It’s up to you to structure your day how you need to, and there’s a lot of trust in that.” It’s an interesting point to consider: If a tightly organised agency led with a more open learning approach, would it lead to better quality work?
“We wouldn’t be able to produce the work we do without the team’s wide range of experience and continued growth.”Aporva Baxi, DixonBaxi
At DixonBaxi however, a London-based agency founded by Simon Dixon and Aporva Baxi, whose projects span from Pluto TV to rebranding AC Milan, scheduling time allows and encourages variety. Outside of the immediate organisational use it is a vital way for managers to ensure a varied approach to designing, building in time “for each person to do research and development, training, cultural trips etc. and so we factor that into how time is allocated," explains its co-founder and creative director, Aporva Baxi.
Variety, in general, appears to be the agency’s approach to training and development too, applying learning resources in numerous ways. Firstly, its team members are varied in their backgrounds and interests, allowing for a diverse range of skills to grow. This is followed by an emphasis on experimentation. “A crucial part of our process,” describes Aporva, this experimental quality is nurtured during work and by levelling up skills across the board; “not just software, but ideation, communication writing and so on,” he continues.
Direct training also happens in two approaches. For example senior and junior members are buddied up as an “organic way to share their knowledge”, followed by more direct sharing “through ‘master-class’ live sessions, or screen-recorded tutorials, as well as curated reading and listening lists,” explains the creative director. This too is driven by the team’s own enthusiasm, with Aporva describing himself “fortunate to have an incredibly driven team who also do a lot of self-initiated research and training.” When these areas do not appear to be offering enough, or a particular learning is demanded, third party training is also introduced.
Though these leaders' approaches to learning and creative growth all differ hugely, the hunt for time still appears to be a difficult battle for creative teams. That being said, it seems that trusting in-house team members, and their own want to nurture themselves as much as the team and business they work for, is the way forward.
At Moniker, this personal development involvement not only propels the studio forward but its team individually too. Koto’s approach of cultivating a group of individuals who can learn from one another acts in a similar way when driving projects into a new space. At Google, Alice's team's differing skills don't cause difficulties but an appreciation for one another to pick up new ways of thinking. And at DixonBaxi, as Aporva clearly states: “We wouldn’t be able to produce the work we do without the team’s wide range of experience and continued growth.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.