I spoke with three Creative Directors who have taken this journey, Becky King of Dragon Rouge, and Stu Tallis and Karl Wills of Taxi Studio share their experiences, what worked for them, what they found hard, surprising and helpful. Their reflections make a useful guide for any designer wondering what lies ahead.
There is no step, only steps
There was general agreement in the value of learning as you go. That there wasn’t just one ‘step up’. The path to Creative Director is a series of steps from role to role. The journey could take a Senior Designer to Creative Head, from there to Design Director, on to Associate Creative Director and then to Creative Director. There is learning at each of these points. Each step gives you both new and relevant experience and expertise, preparing you to succeed as a Creative Director.
For these Creative Directors change took place gradually as they moved from one role to the next. And then suddenly, when they became Creative Directors. I asked them what differences they noticed when they made that final step, here’s what they said:
Thinking differently: shifting from being task orientated (eg: ‘How do I approach this piece of work?’) to being more personally orientated (eg. ‘How do I affect the team around me?’). From largely being about ‘self’ to being about ‘self and others’. Wills describes his personal break through as “a switch being flipped”. He moved from “being the first to speak, give a point of view, take charge and getting noticed to doing the opposite, bringing others through, raising their profile”. For Tallis, it was about “stepping outside of ‘this is what I think’, to bring the team with you. Steering the doing.” For King this was about an increased level of choice, “getting to create the director you become. You’re not waiting for approval. As a designer you are asking yourself, ‘is the client happy? am I happy?’ As a Creative Director, bigger questions become apparent. You are given a licence to change things.”
Not the end but the beginning: reaching a career ambition is the start of things. For King, “the job title was the encouragement. It says that someone trusts you and will give you space and support to become a success” For Tallis, “hearing ‘we think you can do this’ strengthened and amplified the fire in my gut. A positive steer from the founders of the business means a lot, people that you respect believing in you, helps you to believe in yourself”. For Wills, the leaders of the business “promote your own belief in yourself. They take a leap of faith and so do you, then you go for it.”
What to do in the run up
The general message seemed to be to seek opportunities to stretch yourself. Tallis advises to “take any opportunity to experience some of what you’ll meet before you get there. Take the opportunity to support leaders. Approach this with drive and enthusiasm. Stick your neck out to do more, give more and be more.” Wills suggests “taking the lead early, going over the bumps will develop you”. Develop your voice and use it to get noticed. Seeing as much of the inner workings of the business as you can.” King says that “what she found helpful was to consistently remind myself of what I’m good at. This helped me to step out, stretch myself and then step back and regroup.”
For Tallis, “as a leader your mindset is not one where you add value by ‘doing’. Instead, you steer the ‘doing’ in the right direction.” He describes this as “a weird feeling because your outputs are less tangible, less physical.” This raises the question, ‘how do you know you’ve helped?’ “Success criteria is different for a leader. But just what is it? Answering this takes some work.”
For King, a notable challenge was that of stepping back, coming to terms with “holding back on sharing where before you might have done. Thinking always more broadly about the context and not just how do I feel about something. You’re consciously always having to think of other people rather than just yourself.”
Has this made you think about the next step in your career? What will you need to get you there? I support aspiring leaders to build the skills and mindset that will help them achieve their ambitions. To arrange an informal conversation, drop me a line.
This article first appeared in Design Week