What do you do anyway?

How I am trying to be an effective Creative Director. 

27 May 2021 Dominic Ayre
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I was honoured recently to moderate a series of talks put on by the Registered Graphic Designers entitled, What Design Directors Do. When they asked me to take part, I jumped at the idea of listening to my contemporaries answer that question. On quite a few occasions I have had people ask me what the title of Creative Director means. Though pretty common inside the industry, I would say that it can be a bit grey to the outside. Sure, you might think that a Creative Director, umm, directs the creative (?) but the role is one that has many layers to it and, spoiler alert, doesn’t have much to do with designing.

I will start by clarifying, or not, that I am interchanging Design Director and Creative Director in this post. That does not mean that they are the same role (note: defining the differences is a future post idea). Frances and I have very different focuses, but for the sake of this article I will talk about them in similar ways.

People are People

Yes, a classic Depeche Mode song but also the single truth about what we do (actually, what most client-focused industries do): we connect people to ideas through other people. Graphic design does not exist without a client, and an end user or audience. Really what we do doesn’t matter. Product design, branding, UI/UX design, magazine design, they are all about connecting people, and in turn my role is to connect with people. My partners, our team, our clients, our production partners – whoever it is – I am a conduit for all of them.

Nurturing Ideas

I don’t design anymore. Well, that isn’t technically true. Sometimes a pinch hitter is needed, and I can step up. But my design role is a different one now. I am here to nurture my designers’ ideas and work. As a Creative Director, I have the privilege – and I mean privilege – to watch the amazing concepts and forms that my creative team generates for our clients. I am here to help shape a visual story, make suggestions based on my 30 years of experience, and listen to them when their convictions are true. It is also my role to reveal, pitch, and defend my designers work with our client partners (also known as riding the team’s aesthetic coattails).

Directing the Business of Design

We love design. I personally LOVE design. You know that ice breaker game we have all played: if tomorrow you were not able to be a designer, what would you do? There were various answers from our design team. Some were: make music, paint, garden, ride in the Tour de France!!! Mine: I would fall on the floor in a fetal position and twitch, a lot! I have breathed design since I decided to become a graphic designer at 14 years old (35 years ago). When I was 14, I wanted to design album covers (of course), logos, posters, t-shirts, and skateboards. Skip forward, and now I design processes, Gantt timelines, brand workshop presentation deks, and proposals. These are all part of design for business. We are a design studio, and our business is design. My role is about supporting our team, but I am also a part of finding the work (with Gord & Andrew) to support those designers on. I will say that I kind of love that side of our jobs, too. Knowing that my design skills can help us connect with clients and projects that our team cares about and is inspired by brings on all the feels.

The art of being a Creative Director is about passion, connection, and communication. I love magazine design, but I love it even more when Josiah is showing me something I had not expected. Sure, I love logo design, but I love it even more when Frances goes through her, generally, dozens of drafts for visual brand ideas for our projects. Sure, I love type (live and breathe it), but I love it even more when Hesh is walking me through his rationales for new faces to use.

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