This may come as a shock to you, but while my IG stories may give the impression that all I do is eat excessively and gallivant around the globe, I have an actual 9-to-5 career at a design agency. You know, one that requires sitting at a desk, chatty co-workers (I’m said chatty co-worker), and demanding clients.
Having Asian parents means that I wouldn’t be able to do anything as frivolous as quitting my job to travel the world without incurring their extremely terrifying wrath. Instead, having stereotypical accountant parents means I responsibly started contributing to my retirement fund after my first day on the job almost a decade ago. Very practical. But I digress…
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was fresh out of the OCAD University oven, stressing over how I’d ever make in in the competitive creative industry. Now almost 10 years later with several awards wins under my belt (humble brag or outright brag?), I’ve not only cultivated new skills and developed a vastly improved (see: less pathetic) portfolio, but have gained priceless experience leading and directing junior creatives on projects that I’ve helmed.
While everyone has their own leadership style, there are 9* commandments that I have learned over the years and live by:
* I’ll eventually pick up more along the way to make an even (and biblical) 10
1/ THOU SHALT CREATE GOOD VIBES
A leader keeps projects on track, communicates client goals and sets expectations but it’s also their job to set the tone. Getting critical feedback on creative work that you’ve inevitably become attached to is stressful (but necessary) so it’s understandable that people come to critiques already on the defensive. To try and create an open dialogue, I try to start meetings with silly ice breaker games to break the tension.
2/ THOU SHALT COLLABORATE
“Leader” is NOT another word for “Dictator.” While you may have more insight and experience, there’s a difference between guiding a junior designer with constructive criticism and imposing your aesthetic. Just because someone does something differently that you would’ve done, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There are many solutions to a creative problem and great ideas don’t just come from those higher up the totem pole.
3/ THOU SHALT SANDWICH CRITICISM
Speaking of constructive criticism, “constructive” is the key word. While criticism is essential to improving work, try using the “compliment sandwich” technique from Family Guy where critical feedback is “sandwiched” between praise. In this case, point out something you like about their design – font choice, colour palette, etc – so they don’t feel like it’s a lost cause. Some people lead with “tough love” but I prefer an encouraging versus a soul-crushing approach.
4/ THOU SHALT BOND AS A UNIT
I see my co-workers more than I see anyone – 9-to-5, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year – but you don’t do much bonding from behind your computer screen. Socializing over a happy hour beer can have positive effects that transfer into the workplace. The more you get to know someone, the more trust you build which in turn leads to open communication which is a key ingredient to not only producing award-winning work, but a more pleasant day-to-day experience.
5/ THOU SHALT KNOW THY TEAM
Being a naturally nosy person, I always try to get to know my team members individually – their passions, side projects, and why they got into design in the first place. If possible, use StrengthsFinder to accurately assess strengths because the better you know your team, the more effectively you are able to utilize them. For example, a designer who is OCD about fonts and typesetting may be better suited to a 90-page brochure project over the animation aficionado.
6/ THOU SHALT LISTEN
Being a leader doesn’t mean being right all the time or being omniscient. You may be an awesome a natural leader and experienced AF but a sometimes the greatest show of strength is also being able to admit when you don’t know everything. If you’re clueless when it comes to UX Design, then don’t be afraid to defer to someone on your team who is a digital whiz. Sometimes LISTENING is the most valuable skill to cultivate because learning doesn’t end just because you’ve achieved a certain level in your career.
7/ THOUGH SHALT EXPLAIN AND EDUCATE
As a leader, no doubt you are up to your eyeballs in responsibilities – from schmoozing with potential clients to managing accounts – but that doesn’t mean your team has suddenly become mindreaders. Take the time to explain a project properly from the get-go and encourage your team to come to you if they have questions.
8/ THOU SHALT GIVE PEOPLE SPACE TO DO THEIR OWN THING
What is the point of delegating work when you micromanage your team, hovering over every click of the mouse they make? In the end what you deliver to the client is entirely your call (because it’s your ass on the line) but give people space to play, experiment, flourish and even fail sometimes, otherwise they’ll never learn for themselves or trust your judgement.
9/ THOU SHALT CELEBRATE THE small VICTORIES
Popping a bottle of champagne doesn’t have to be reserved for award wins or landing an important client. It’s important to instill a sense of pride in your team by celebrating the little victories, because even if it’s a pro bono project, the work produced is still Dom Pérignon-worthy. Cheers-ing with a round (or 3) of gin shots is never a bad idea. Or is that not the saying….