From design to communications, I’ve spent my career thus far working on both the client and agency sides, spending much time navigating the corporate approval process. Also known as an idea choke chamber or death spiral, it explains why there’s so much mediocrity in America.

We’re homogenized, diluted, messaged, bulleted and shouted at to death with too much ‘next generation’ crap. David Scott counted how many times “next generation” was used in one year in North American press releases in 2008: 15,371. And that wasn’t the highest. “Innovate” was used no less than 51,390 times. Yikes!

So here goes what I think are the 12 most efficient ways to sap the creativity out of even the most thick-skinned, experienced designer. It’s the equivalent of death by a thousand cuts.

1. “That’s fun”

Whenever someone tells you your concept is ‘fun’, it’s like telling someone ‘he’s a nice guy’. In other words, I don’t like your idea and it’s never going to see the light of day.

2. “Play around with this a bit”

The operative word here is play. A common misconception by non-designers is that creatives simply play all day on their big, fancy monitors. They get to use every single Photoshop filter at the same time! Certainly the ability to earn a living as a designer has its rewards, but to do it well is seriously hard work. And it’s serious business. Dismissing it as play is devalues the process, is shortsighted and a missed opportunity.

3. “That’s too risky for us”

That shiny, super cool, ground breaking idea you have? Never gonna fly because it’s shiny and ground breaking. Most approval committees have a very low tolerance for the unfamiliar. It’s scary. They want proof it’s going to be successful without taking the risk. You can’t prove a ground-breaking idea beforehand. Focus groups rarely deliver accurate feedback.

But good designers have a knack for spotting trends, tapping into the culture and creating work that has a fighting chance of success if the powers that be allow it into the world. An all-too-rare occurrence. Jeffrey Hayzlett, former Kodak CMO, says, “It is marketing. No one’s going to die.” This puts the risk in context.

4. “That might offend someone”

Yep, gotta be all things to all people because we don’t want to miss an opportunity. Too bad this takes you down mediocre lane and kills the deal. The best brands actually do appeal to a narrow audience. And do quite well, thank you. Apple anyone?

5. “Make it bigger”

Yes, we’re going to Vegas where everything is supersized. Even your logo. Because bigger is always better, right? If there’s white space you’re missing an opportunity to pack in more features and benefits. Wrong. Simple works because it’s rare and grabs the right people at the right time. Simplicity stands out from the clutter by focusing on the single most important point and nothing more.

6. “Check out the cool clip art in this presentation and let me know what you think”

The best designers LOVE free clip art. And all of the bevels, shadows, and animations you can do in Powerpoint. ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Wrong again. Ever notice how the presentations that really draw people in exercise restraint and practice clarity? They communicate a powerful message because each element is used to communicate. A well designed, well-placed chart is powerful. 57 pie charts with 28 bullet points are forgettable.

Good presentations are hard work. They take time and most presenters treat them as a sloppy afterthought. And people notice.

7. “That’s not what our competitor’s ads look like”

Yes, how often do businesses practice the ‘Me Too?’ If their competition does it, they have to as well. Because you wouldn’t dare to be different. That only works for cool companies like Apple and Harley Davidson.

I recently heard Ken Schmidt from Harley talk about how in the 80s, when HD was failing, he noticed they all talked about horsepower and wheel size. It wasn’t until they understood that they were in the metal-bending business and could ‘Fit’ each bike to its owner that they rebounded. And with bikes that were slower and heavier than the Hondas and Yamahas. Yes, they took a different path!!! Yet when many hear this story, they don’t see how that could apply to their commoditized business. After all, Harley is cool, they’re not. But at the time, Harley was a commodity.

So reframe your position. Stand for something.

8. “You don’t understand business because you’re a designer”

Really? Design is one of the last opportunities to create a competitive edge today. But for some reason, so many in business assume those with a ‘creative bent’ can’t possibly understand how business works. Designers are business people too. The best know how to create business models that deliver real results from the power of good design. And are the people you want on your team helping you build a sustainable competitive advantage? You can’t afford not to.

9. “You need to be more literal. People aren’t going to get that. They need to see a (insert generic object related to business) here. We really need to hit them over the head with our value proposition”

Right. Never mind that rational minds don’t buy products. Emotions do. Save the rational for the proof points to back up your emotional claims. Win the heart and the mind will follow. And above all, respect your audience. They’re smarter than you think.

10. “Let’s run that by a few people”

People say this when they either don’t like your ideas nor want to be responsible for making a decision. If it fails, they can point the finger at others. Focus groups and committees may still have a place, but given the technology available today, why not A/B test your concepts in the real world? Unless you structure a focus group properly, you’re not going to get meaningful, actionable feedback. And if you do, you may not like it and will just toss it aside, for, yep, personal preference.

When you design by committee, including everyone’s ideas just to be ‘safe’, you’ve lost. Collaboration is a great thing – and essential in business – but at some point there needs to be a steward who knows how to incorporate feedback when appropriate and when not to. Yes, that can be a very scary thing to do.

11. “It really needs to pop more”

Whenever anyone tells you this, they want either a starburst, super bold type or many different colors so everything ‘stands out’. For some reason, many think this makes a lackluster offer more compelling. But what they fail to realize is that when everything ‘pops’, nothing does. Go back and create an offer that people actually want. Something they’ll talk about and share. Do that well and that starburst will seem quite silly.

12. “I don’t like that color because it reminds me of my rival high school”

Yes, some people take a completely subjective approach when reviewing concepts. Rather than look at the business reasons for a design, they think about that rival high school that beat them at their home coming game in 1987. May I suggest that a more appropriate approach is to view color selection in the context of your audience, understanding that certain colors enhance sales?

So what have I left out? I know there are more… let me have them in the comments below!

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