How to support junior creatives with the skills they need to grow
If a junior is helping to achieve your creative vision, the onus is on you to develop them professionally – but what’s the best way to do so?
Surveying creatives from 60 of the most respected agencies, brands and studios across Europe, The Creative Skills Report, produced by It’s Nice That in partnership with Adobe, is a reflection of the skills, needs and opinions of our industry. Here we expand on one of the emerging themes we discovered. To gain 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.
The creative industry is constantly changing. From shifting visual trends to emerging technologies, our community is constantly being shaped and reshaped. Because of this, it’s difficult to assess what skills creatives should be focusing their efforts on – what to develop, both as an individual and, arguably more importantly, as a manager. To gain a better understanding of the skills currently in the tool belt of our industry, It’s Nice That, in partnership with Adobe, has written The Creative Skills Report. Built from surveying the opinions of leading studios, agencies and brands, the report acts as a reflection of the industry.
Our survey began with the very beginning of an individual’s career. Proposing separate questions to both junior and senior members of teams, not only do the results present a difference and disconnect in opinions, but a gap in knowledge too. An alarming revelation is how only 15 per cent of seniors believe that universities are providing enough skills-based learning for students. Yet, when asked if they expect juniors applying for roles to have these skills developed, 41 per cent said yes, with a minuscule nine per cent saying they would expect a junior to develop these skills while under their employment. Surely our industry is headed for major trouble if universities are not providing necessary training, but employers won’t accept the responsibility either. How then, as a senior creative or team leader, do you best support employees in a way which benefits both their creative journey and your business?
To begin, it’s interesting to assess whether it’s even the responsibility of universities to instruct skills-based learning to its students. Of course the responsibility lies with an educational institution to impart skills, but do these have to be so hands-on? In the words of Alex Ostrowski, the founder and creative director of London and New York-based studio Lovers: “Teach me ideas, teach me confidence, teach me visual culture. Teach me communication, teach me explaining ideas, teach me how to look at things properly. Those aren’t software dropdowns, are they?”
In Alex’s case, his university experience was a broad visual communication course. It enforced his opinion that “part of why you go to university is to find a sense of yourself within the practice – both in terms of your abilities and also your outlook on the world,” he tells It’s Nice That.
This is also an opinion shared by each of our interviewees including James Hurst, global creative director at Pinterest. For James, in its truest form, “Design is about solving a problem,” and as a result, “Schools should focus on developing skills and confidence in that. You pick up the rest.” The creative director also believes that the greatest designers “have, through curiosity and ham-fistedness, bent programmes to their will”.
This is also reflected in the design skills Pinterest keeps an eye out for while hiring too, with James identifying two types of thinking he searches for. The first is “deductive (who follow best practice)” followed by “inductive (who invent new ways to solve problems),” he tells us. While there is obviously a need to balance these two approaches to designing, “we lean towards people who can think inductively,” he says. It’s the same notion when hiring for Sarah-Grace Mankarious, senior visual editor at CNN. In her case, although “it sounds cheesy,” she admits that “enthusiasm and drive are the most important attributes for me,” when it’s a junior applying for a role. “If they come to the table with ideas for projects, are keen to learn and can communicate well, it doesn’t matter if they don’t know the shortcut for outlining an object in Illustrator.”
Kitty Turley, executive producer at animation agency Strange Beast, feels similarly about the creative character. “In my experience, people who do really well on the creative side are basically always autodidactic,” she says. “I do think there is something in having the drive to just watch that tutorial and try and fail multiple times. That’s not just me trying to put a silver lining on education being ridiculously expensive and not giving enough practical support to people – there are just good sides to being forced to stand on your own two feet.”
“People have to be given the space to figure out who they are, where they fit in, and how they can add value."Alex Ostrowski, Lovers
However, due to our interviewees less-than-shining assessment of universities, each see the importance of allowing creatives a chance to develop once in a role. In Alex’s case it’s because of his own experience. “When I started out I was able to just sit in studios a little and be part of it,” he recalls. “To listen and pick up things.” It’s a working environment difficult to imagine now, and a point which also matches with another finding in our survey, revealing that 50 per cent of seniors believe employers expect more hard skills from juniors today compared to when they began their careers.
This expectation for immediate skills links back to many of our respondents explaining how they felt university doesn’t provide enough skills – it’s impacting their businesses’ output. “Another kind of ugly bit of the ‘they should teach them more skills at university’ opinion is the greedy design business runner who wants the junior lackey to come in and be immediately as effective as an artworker,” Alex says. “I think that a junior’s destiny isn’t going to be pressing all the buttons on day one. People have to be given the space to figure out who they are, where they fit in, and how they can add value. The effectiveness, usefulness and wizardry of operating machines is not something you should expect if somebody has just left education. I don’t think that’s the thrust of what someone’s value is or what they should be told their value is.”
It becomes complicated however when faced with this assessment head on, as Sarah-Grace admits that assessing skills is multi-layered, “because although I would expect juniors to be familiar with creative programmes, I don’t think these programmes should be taught at universities,” she tells us. Instead skills-based development should grow as projects and responsibilities do, much like Alex suggests, with Sarah-Grace also relating back to how university should be kept safe as “a unique time to explore and make mistakes, to learn how to collaborate, how to review designs and get critical feedback to further your practice.”
“It’s really important, as a senior, to encourage your direct team members to give you critical feedback as much as possible, and give them space to disagree.”Kitty Turley, Strange Beast
Yet, as James at Pinterest points out, high expectations have always been expected of a graduating class. In his case, graduating into the financial crisis of 2008, the memory of his University of Brighton dean stating that “more people would graduate than [there are] jobs in the industry” has always stuck in his mind. “It was a hustle then and it’ll be a hustle now.”
Because of this, within Pinterest’s design teams there is also no assumption that creatives intuitively have the answer to every design question – in fact questions are encouraged. Describing his approach to training and development, this offering of space is mentioned again, particularly around offering “space to play and opportunities to think for themselves,” says James. It’s an approach that stretches upwards to other roles too. “Always be learning. I’m more hungry to push my thinking more than ever. I see an arc of new graduates having all the confidence, before hitting their stride and having the humility to ask more fundamental questions… The best ideas come when different people feel confident and safe to be generous with their thinking and comfortable enough to challenge whoever is in charge.”
For Sarah-Grace expectations have also risen due to how easy it seems (on paper) to learn new creative tools online. “Free programmes to make your ideas comes to life!” as she puts it. More is expected and so more is demanded, in a world where “what once used to be an iPhone mock-up to showcase a mobile website design, is now a prototyping App and programmes to convert design to code.” Nevertheless, at CNN it seems that personality will always be the nugget of gold Sarah-Grace’s creative team are searching for, explaining how at the end of the day: “A junior with a clear drive and strong ideas can still shine through even if their portfolio doesn’t have the ‘obligatory’ bells and whistles!”
With these mammoth expectations in mind, at Strange Beast the agency enables an environment for growth in a number of different ways. From a public-facing angle, it has The Greenhouse, an emerging talent roster of directors which act as “a way of allowing us to really champion emerging talent so they’re not getting lost on the main rosters,” as Kitty describes it. This also enables the team to set expectations with clients too, and “makes a slightly safer environment for people to thrive”.
“Take your assumptions and ego out of the room and listen.”James Hurst, Pinterest
Internally, Kitty explains that it is instilled in team members to make themselves a resource for brain picking. A “massive sense of responsibility” is also acknowledged across directors and producers in “making sure that people are experiencing professional development while achieving your vision”. Overall describing their approach to training as “something that we take very seriously, but also quite informally,” formal reviews are a must to balance friendships and professional development at work. “It can feel a bit weird because you’ve got such a good bond,” Kitty points out, “but I think it’s really important because it’s sometimes the only time to raise concerns.”
In fact, a close relationship with a manager “can sometimes be your undoing,” she continues, explaining that it can raise anxieties around stating specific needs, say if a team member feels they’re being blocked from an opportunity. Formal reviews therefore offer a chance for discussion and, in Kitty’s advice, it’s best to encourage this from both sides. “It’s really important, as a senior, to encourage your direct team members to give you critical feedback as much as possible, and give them space to disagree. Otherwise, it becomes a sort of dictatorship – albeit accidentally.”
Recognising that as a manager you can learn as much from your direct report as they learn from you is key to enabling growth on a company-wide scale. “I’ve never hired someone because I want them to be me,” says James from Pinterest. “But I am thrilled about what I’m going to learn from them, and how their thinking will surprise.” Confirming that one of the biggest design lessons that any creative, at any stage of their career, can learn is to “take your assumptions and ego out of the room and listen,” he says.
Across at Lovers, an employee’s training is assessed on a case-by-case basis, with Alex describing his team as “on a bit of an individual journey,” working towards “their own thing that they want to get better at”. He continues: “It’s my job to listen and notice that, and talk about it with individuals. To figure out what things are maybe good for them to be exposed to or connect to. We kind of play it like that.” Within this, Alex is also the first to admit that he’s “got lots of bettering to do,” but will continue to adopt a “general philosophy of letting people be who they are and become who they’re meant to be, not keep them trapped in a sort of role,” he says.
Whether it’s specific skills training an employee is after, a bit of space to grow into something else creatively, or nothing at all, “it’s important to help people remember that they can grow into anything that they feel they can,” concludes Alex. And if you – as a manager, a creative yourself, or a business owner – know that and consciously provide room for growth within your workplace: “I think that makes going to work a bit better.”
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.