The art and balance of the creative director

Opinion

Eric Weng, Susana Lamas Docampo

Coaching the team, checking key details and seeing the big picture – all at the same time – a creative director must find the right balance on behalf of the client.

What exactly is a creative director? Just what does she do all day? And what traits do clients really look for in a designer? These are a few of the questions we put to Fabian Bertschinger, Creative Director and Member of the Executive Board at Process Zurich. Fabian believes that apart from managing and coaching their team, creative directors have to anticipate where clients might go next and have a profound understanding of the design and communications industry in order to steer the future of a creative agency. The interview also offers a glimpse of Process’ holistic approach to creating genuine and successful brands.

Fabian, how can design express a brand’s identity?

If we think of a brand as a person with a strong character, what we actually do, is to find the appropriate visual identity for this unique personality: the equivalent of a person’s clothes, hairdo, styling. We develop tools and key elements that are the basis for a consistent and suitable appearance in any future situation. In other words, we translate the positioning of the company into a visual toolbox. If you consider that the sense of sight is our strongest and often responsible for our first impression, it is crucial to do this right.

Have you ever called a client’s brief into question?

Certainly. It happens quite often that a client approaches us with a brand positioning and values that he developed on his own. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. Our task, though, is to challenge these; to ask the nasty and uncomfortable questions. We are a strong and independent sparring partner, not a “yes-man”, and that’s exactly what our clients want. That’s what they pay us for, after all.

What traits do clients look for in a designer?

They look for a good designer, who is also a good communicator and offers constructive criticism. Moreover, he should have a true interest in and understanding of the client’s business and his needs. That is key to establishing trust and for a client to accept our advice and design services altogether.

What makes a good brand identity?

Good brands are like unique personalities with strong characters. The traits of these personalities are tangible in everything they do, say, emanate or create. And a good brand is relevant to and appeals to its target audience.

«I see the creative director as a soccer coach: he scouts appropriate talent, motivates the team, brings together players of varying skill sets, seeks balance and deploys the right personalities for each particular project – or game.»

Fabian Bertschinger

What is the difference between leading a team of designers at an agency compared to working as a freelance designer?

As an individual, a designer is only able to deal with discrete parts of a brand world. These days, our clients’ businesses as well as modern media are highly complex. If you want to cover all the bases of managing a brand, you need an entire team. We take a holistic approach at Process. Working in a team means that, in addition to design skills, you need the ability to deal with people. It’s important to listen, be able to compromise and enjoy creating composite works, a bit like putting together a puzzle where everyone adds a piece. Besides, we live in an age of co-working. Which is fun!

Which position do you prefer?

I enjoy taking responsibility. As creative director I have had an important stake in developing the agency and its output over the past five years. An agency is not just a theoretical construct; it is ultimately led by the practical projects that it gets to work on. That is why it is so important that management stays connected to the team and daily business – even being on top of project details at times. It is important to me not to lose track of my design craft. Our profession is always changing and I want to know exactly what I am talking about. I don’t want to just evaluate design, I feel the need to work hands-on from time to time. I did that recently for KKL Luzern, where besides coaching the team I developed an entire design route.

Could you describe the creative director’s role?

A creative director looks beyond daily business to spot what clients are going to need next, then leads the agency in developing the resources to meet those needs. It helps to be well connected, attentive and alert in order to know what the rest of the industry is up to. Never being satisfied with what you have achieved is also a good way to constantly develop yourself further.

When it comes to actual mandates, the creative director must step back, let go of the details and see the big picture. A bird’s eye view is useful for our main aim as brand designers: to make strategies visible. Our work has to be a fluent, seamless transition between consulting and design. I see the creative director as a soccer coach: he scouts appropriate talent, motivates the team, brings together players of varying skill sets, seeks balance and deploys the right personalities for each particular project – or game.

What are your tips for management in the field of design? Are there any big differences to management in general?

As a designer your work is characterized by personal and individual perceptions. This can potentially lead to misunderstandings when criticism directed towards one’s work is interpreted as a personal reproach. It’s a challenge I find more common in the design industry than in other fields, where one’s output is less directly tied to one’s person. This strong identification with one’s creative output also means that an agency needs to offer an attractive client portfolio and room for creative development if it wants to win and keep good designers.

Another challenge in our industry – though I suspect this is one managers in all fields see – is that ambitious, creative designers never rest and are always looking for new opportunities, be it inside or outside the agency. While customers appreciate a certain stability in the people they deal with, designers would rather be working on a different client’s project every few months. As a manager of a design team you need to be aware of these potential conflicts and accommodate them, the best you can.