Perfecting the Art of People
by Taylor Slattery | March 10, 2022
We’re all drawn to creative work for different reasons. For some, it might be the opportunity to work with huge brands and collaborate on exciting projects. For others, creative work may be seen as a bit of a refuge.
It should come as no surprise that creative work has certain qualities that introverts find appealing. After all, much of the time required to hone these skills is spent alone. In both a studio environment or in-house team, you’ll likely only have a small number of people you’ll need to interact with for meetings and otherwise be left to your own devices.
It’s not just the shelter from interaction that makes creative work appealing, either. Not only is the work not demanding of us socially, but it can even be used to speak on our behalf. For those who struggle to express themselves with words, creative work offers an outlet through which feelings and ideas can be communicated in ways that may be inaccessible via more conventional methods. What is difficult to say through a microphone might come much more easily through a keyboard or paintbrush. For many, it’s only through our work that we can be our most bold and courageous selves.
However, even in creative industries, you can’t escape interaction entirely. Regardless of the path you choose, in-house, agency, or freelance, there will be barriers to your progression for which the only key to moving past will be people skills. The truth is, if you hope to grow in your creative career, you’ll also have to grow as a person. This will mean leaving your comfort zone to take on new responsibilities and developing skills outside of your creative discipline.
After you’ve paid your dues for a while as a junior, eventually, you’ll want to start to climb the ladder in pursuit of more responsibility and bigger rewards. While your creative abilities will undoubtedly play a role in securing these spots, it’s your ability to communicate effectively and manage people that will make all the difference. The higher you set your sights, the truer this becomes.
As you ascend through the ranks, the amount of hands-on creative work will decrease and management will take its place. Whether pitching projects, interacting with clients, or managing your team, it’s the strength of your soft skills that will determine your success.
Even if the idea of a leadership role feels like a far distant future, it’s worth thinking about how you can find ways to consciously develop these skills through your daily interactions so you’re ready when the time comes. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.
One of the most important soft skills you can develop is empathy. Being able to empathize with clients will allow you to better understand their needs and in turn craft better solutions for their problems. Empathy for your team members and colleagues means understanding how to communicate with different types of people and an ability to shift gears so you can meet people where they’re at. A big part of developing empathy is patience. What may seem clear to you might not be so crystal to others, and it takes time to reach a point where you’re able to sense how best to communicate in different scenarios with clients and colleagues.
To reach this point you’ll need to listen carefully to others and remain open to feedback. We’re often blind to our own shortcomings and sometimes it takes the help of someone else for us to see the error in our ways. Because of the hierarchical dynamics between roles, sometimes these hints can be less than direct, and it will take a keen eye to perceive them. Getting to know your team and their general baseline behaviors will help you to notice if something you’ve said or done might have rubbed someone the wrong way. Being upfront and honest about your desire to improve and the inevitability that you’ll make mistakes along the way is a great way to establish an environment where feedback is welcomed.
Another key soft skill to develop is the ability to persuade. Not in a Machiavellian way—your aim shouldn’t be to manipulate people, but rather, to use your own strongly held convictions and confidence to win them over to your way of thinking. People respond to enthusiasm. When you believe what you’re saying, people can feel that and are more receptive to your message. Enthusiasm is an important tool for dealing with clients. It can be a challenge to balance the needs of your client with your own creative ambitions and instincts. Ceding control over the process can be difficult for some clients, and part of your job will be to find tactful ways to gently remind them of your expertise and keep the ball rolling.
Clients aren’t the only ones who may need a gentle nudge in the right direction. In the case of team members either dropping the ball or simply not rising to meet the level of work you know they’re capable of, you’ll have to find ways to help them reach their potential. An ability to pull the strengths out of others is an essential quality for a team leader. There’s no room for ego. You can and will work with juniors who are more talented than you, but you can’t allow this fact to bother you. You’re working towards a collective goal and it’s because of your experience your team is looking to you for direction.
Specifically, they’re looking to you for clarity. You need to be able to articulate your ideas in a clear manner that easily translates into action. To do so requires clarity in both thought and communication. This is another case where you’ll need to learn to meet people where they’re at. Keep in mind that clients will often come from a different background and may not understand some of the industry-specific jargon that for you is commonplace. Part of being an effective communicator is finding ways to reduce complex ideas to their most simple forms so they can be more readily received regardless of the audience.
Your ability to articulate your vision with clarity relates directly to your ability to make decisions. When you communicate an idea clearly in a way that demonstrates your thought process, you demonstrate expertise which goes a long way to winning the trust of both your clients and team members.
Trust is an integral part of the process in more ways than one. Just as your clients and team members place their trust in you, it’s just as important for you to place your trust in them. Delegate tasks fairly and strategically to pull out the best of your team, and trust in their ability to deliver. Once you’ve delegated a task, you can’t micromanage. If you’re always watching over your junior’s shoulders and showing them the correct way of doing things, you rob them of the opportunity of learning for themselves, potentially harming their confidence in the process.
The final key soft skill I think you should be aware of is flexibility. Creative work often requires that you respond to unforeseen changes and obstacles. Being flexible means accepting that some things are out of your control. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, life gets in the way. Understanding this upfront will allow you to keep a cool head in the 11th hour when everything is falling down around you. If a teammate is sick or a freelancer dropped the ball, this means requesting more time for a project if you don’t believe you can deliver work up to your standards within the given time frame. Other times being flexible may mean sacrificing personal time or time spent with family to grind it out and ensure that you do meet a deadline.
Creative fields are not immune to the effects of aging. Trends and tools change quickly and they can be hard to keep up with. More senior positions that focus primarily on ideas and management can act as a shield, protecting you from the waves of change as you grow in age. Even if you don’t think management is for you, do yourself a favor and make an effort to pick up some of these skills, your future self will thank you.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.