What makes a great Creative Director?
For many designers making it to the coveted role of Creative Director at a reputable agency is viewed as a 'dream job', and the realisation of reaching the very top of the career ladder. The truth is, only a select few talented individuals actually achieve this accolade, and when they do many find it hard to successfully transition from Designer to Creative Director.
Unfortunately, the ultimate Creative Director user guide, addressing the infinite number of new soft and hard skills necessary to triumph in this challenging role, has yet to be written. Until it is, the BNO Creative Directors Forum has opened its own black book to ask a number of Creative Directors from leading studios for their advice and top tips on how to make it.
About Fenne Roefs
After finishing a master's in Cognitive Psychology, Fenne started her career as a human factors researcher at Delft University of Technology. While working in Delft, she also studied Graphic Design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.
As a psychologist and researcher as well as designer, what better place for Fenne to go next than Mijksenaar? Here, she became part of the team and – over the course of 11 years – a wayfinding expert. Fenne has worked on many projects, as a designer, project lead and eventually Creative Director, with every project teaching her something new.
Photo: Fenne Roefs
Wayfinding as a discipline is kind of a niche. Not many people specialize in this field of expertise, nor is it regularly offered at universities. On the other hand, the field is huge! Wayfinding is something we all encounter, every day. Developing wayfinding solutions requires an analytical, strategic and creative, as well as multidisciplinary and even multi-sensory approach. All in all: it's incredibly interesting.
In 2020 Fenne founded a wayfinding research & education institute, in partnership with Mijksenaar. The goal is to develop and share knowledge to further develop wayfinding as a discipline.
Tell us your own path from Designer to Creative Director.
"I started at Mijksenaar as a junior designer and grew quite quickly into more senior roles. After a few years I got to take the lead on projects. After a few more years I became senior project lead, and then Creative Director. Quickly transitioning from one role into the next meant a continuously steep learning curve. Very interesting and rewarding, as well as exciting and sometimes quite scary."
What was the hardest part of the transition from Designer to Creative Director?
"Since I had been leading projects for quite some time, I had already made the transition from ‘doing it myself’ to ‘guiding others’, so that was not the hardest part anymore. Transitioning into the role of Creative Director meant that my position in relation to my colleagues changed in a more fundamental way than before though. At Mijksenaar there’s only one Creative Director. This required adaptation. Seeing myself in this new capacity was something I found difficult at times, it was easy to ‘lapse back’ into my previous role as project lead."
"What makes a great creative director, is something best judged by the designers on the team."
What specific qualities are essential to become a great Creative Director?
"My first thought when I read this question was that what makes a great creative director, is something best judged by the designers on the team.
It’s a difficult question, as I think it can entail many different things and is dependent on many things. Experience and having a lot of knowledge about your field of expertise is essential of course. This is the basis for developing a vision for the agency. It helps if you don’t have a huge ego, so you can focus on your team and feel pride in their accomplishments and successes. Trying to keep it short, I would say that a great Creative Director is able to figure out what is needed to bring out the best in individuals and in the team and then do exactly that."
Tell us about some of the pros and cons of being a Creative Director
"I love learning new things, and becoming Creative Director certainly meant learning a lot of new things. It’s extremely interesting. I had to think not just about the work itself, but also about ways for our team to grow and thrive, creativity to flow, discover different working methods, build new partnerships and collaborations, create learning opportunities, etc. I started to develop more of an overview of our field of work and vision for how we could further grow our specific expertise through the projects we worked on.
When I was a designer and later a project lead, I loved diving deep into projects. When I became Creative Director, I missed that.
Another con for me was that the responsibility sometimes weighed a bit heavily on me. I am a worrier of the worst kind, perfectionist, as well as sensitive to real (or imagined) and deserved (or unfair) criticism."
In your view what are the primary responsibilities of the Creative Director in an agency setting?
"First: to ensure the agency delivers high quality in each project.
Second: to support and encourage the team to not only deliver great projects, but also use those projects to learn new things, try out different strategies and solutions and share those learnings with each other. So, the whole team is always learning and developing our field of expertise."
Describe your management style.
"Open and friendly with room for discussion. Fun and jokes are important, as part of a relaxed culture and sometimes to blow off some steam. At the same time, I can be directive if I am convinced of something. And my style can be quite demanding on colleagues as I’ve been told I set a very high bar. It probably says something about me that I take this as a compliment."
How long did it take you to feel completely comfortable in your role?
"Over time I grew more comfortable, but I must say I never became completely comfortable."
Did you ever suffer from what's known as 'imposter syndrome'? If so, how did you deal with this?
"Yep. One of the things that helped me was the realisation that this is a thing that many others suffer from as well, even people who are very accomplished and talented.
I found it challenging to figure out how to best fulfil this role and thought it would be helpful to spar with other creative directors. This is why in 2017 with the BNO, I initiated the Creative Directors Forum. Sharing ideas, strategies and solutions, as well as doubts, questions and dilemmas within this community of creative directors was helpful and inspiring.
Celebrating successes and accepting compliments instead of waving them away is another way to battle this annoying feeling."
"A shared vision means the team knows they’re not only working on their projects, but all are part of a bigger, constantly evolving, thing."
What has been your biggest learning experience as a Creative Director?
"To be (more) patient. I am not a patient person but have learnt to hold myself back sometimes. When you set something in motion in a project, you quickly get reactions and result. But when you set something in motion for an agency, like trying out a new working method, it takes longer before you see how it turns out."
Is it important to set and adhere to a creative vision for the agency?
"Yes, a vision about where the agency is going is important. A shared vision means the team knows they’re not only working on their projects, but all are part of a bigger, constantly evolving, thing."
Should a Creative Director be hands on or hands off?
"In principle I would say ‘hands off’. That offers clarity and is more empowering to the team. Of course, there can be occasions where hands on is more helpful, and that is fine (and fun!) as well."
What tips do you have for building and nurturing a healthy and vibrant creative culture within an agency?
"Be kind. Be honest. Allow room for mistakes. Trust that everyone is doing their best. Listen to everyone, not just senior colleagues and not just designers. I really agreed with what was said during one of the creative director forums, that the distinction between ‘creatives’ versus ‘non-creatives’ in an agency is not useful. The designers, receptionists, business director — all creatives."
"Trust that everyone is doing their best."
What tips do you have to continuously inspire creative teams?
"For the Mijksenaar team, it is all about connecting people to places and spaces. Therefore, to get inspiration I would say: go and visit places and spaces! Put yourself in the shoes of the visitor by being a visitor. Working with multidisciplinary teams is inspirational as well. And always keep figuring out ways to do things different than before, to make sure you don’t get too deep in the same old tracks."
How do you maintain your own creativity to ensure you remain on top of your game?
"Balancing work & time off. Playing with my kids. Bouldering helps to empty my head. Get enough sleep!"
How do you create a balance between giving your team creative space while maintaining overall responsibility for the creative output?
"Giving creative space is not opposite to maintaining overall responsibility. On the contrary; I would say giving space is the best way. When you have a team of experts with different backgrounds, talents and experience, giving space is how you get the best output. However, this is not the same as not being involved. You can take responsibility by asking questions and giving feedback, sharing ideas and simply by being available for the team — so they can always use you as a sparring partner."
In your opinion what is the best way to give feedback on creative work?
"First ask questions to understand which choices were made and why, to get to this point. Don’t make assumptions. Often, in answering all your questions, the team will already have given itself the feedback they need. The goal of the feedback is not to judge but to support the team in improving their work."
How do you defend creative ideas to stop bad things happening to the work?
"First you need to understand where the ‘bad things’ are coming from. Why does a team or client want to make a choice you don’t agree with; what’s behind it? If you understand what behind it, you can figure out how to deal with it.
There is a lot of wayfinding expertise and experience behind Mijksenaar’s proposed strategy and designs. Sharing the reasoning behind the proposals is very convincing. After all, this is why the client hired a wayfinding expert in the first place."
What has been your biggest success as a Creative Director?
"The fact that I was given the opportunity to be the Creative Director of a world-renowned agency with such an impressive service record and portfolio in itself feels like a huge success. Taking over from Paul and setting a course for the studio together with my former colleagues has been awesome."
What was the best piece of advice ever given to you as a Creative Director?
"Be yourself, trust yourself."
And finally, what advice would you give to anyone who has recently been promoted to the role of Creative Director?
"Two things: You can’t place too much importance on communication and relationships. And: put your trust in your team as well as yourself."
About Graham Sturt
Graham Sturt is Creative Director and Partner at D8, a strategic design and branding agency with studios in Amsterdam and Glasgow. During his career Graham has held roles at a number of leading international agencies, collecting numerous awards for his work.
Graham is active in the creative community as an awards judge and collaborator, providing workshops and mentoring for emerging creative talent.
Photo: Graham Sturt (Photography: Jerome de Lint)
A passionate advocate of Dutch design, he hosts an ongoing series of interviews with some of the countries greatest designers called 'Dutch Design Heroes'.