In my first 25 interviews with creative directors, the notion of possessing some sort of “magic” kept uncomfortably coming up. Many interviewees had heard this word to descibe what they do. They acknowledged that being told that what you do is “unexplainable” feels nice and taps into one of our deepest desires. Like Harry Potter, we are told that we are special. And while this is true on a cosmic level (you ARE special!), from all other angles it sets the stage for inequity.
The idea of “innate magic” is dangerous because it implies no understandable cause and leaves no hope for understanding. It offers no path for the novice. It blocks everyone else out and creates a system of exclusion. Designer Khoi Vinh argues that the his field field has rallied against its own democratization, keeping the walls up, with every generation.
We might argue that creative direction as a role has shrouded itself in the same secrecy in order to concentrate power. Lyanne Dubon-Aguilar, a Creative Director at Etsy, describes her past experience as a culture that continues to demand decades of work as a prerequisite for advancement, despite the rapidly changing industry. This prerequisite centers power in a select few people and dampens the goals of young creative to simply want “proximity to legacy.”
We might also see myth as pretext for compeition. I worked in places that employed the magic myth to dangerous degree. Announcing the hire of a new designer they would casually announce their rank (e.g. “We just hired Susan, she’s maybe the #2 or #3 best designers in Germany.”) While the idea of such a ranking is absurd, the point was to create a mysterious competition that we were all are in.
If mystery is the tool of exclusion, will a clear process aid inclusion? Executive Creative Director Joe Staples of the advertising agency, Mother, believes so, and he has a process. His goal is to define the mechanics of Creative Direction in his field of advertising. He likens the creation of resonate and authentic concepts to Jiu-Jitsu. For him and his team there are a list of steps, and skipping a step will result in failure to knock down your opponent (or knock the proverbial socks off with a new idea).
What feels striking is not just Joe’s generosity of giving away all “the secrets,” it is that it feels so novel. This something that shares more with coding, than it does with advertising and takes a confidence that’s hard to find in the creative industry.
So what if we start sharing? I’d start with three tools. Mindsets I’ve gleaned from conversations with creative directors (and a few from my own experiences.) These are quick ways of understanding the creative direction process as both uniquely yours and completely available.
“Bricolage” (/ˈbrik ə läZH/) is a fancy french word. It has a long history as a term without proper translation in English. A simple definition might be: “inventiveness by using whatever is at hand.” Americans over a certain age might use the term “MacGyver,” to refer to this type of inventiveness. MacGyver was the title of an iconic 1980s TV show featuring nonviolent hero who could cobble together wild inventions in the field of battle. (While the show ended in 1992, MacGyver was introduced as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015). We may feel we are under as much pressure as our TV hero but the verb’s association with brute force lacks the spirit of inventiveness of “bricolage.”
Anthropologist Levis-Strauss argued that the mind can use Bricolage as a tool for myth-making that is the opposite of “the engineer”. He proposed the idea of “intellectual bricolage” as a way that humans invent and create new ideas using previously unrelated knowledge. Supposed “unrelated knowledge” featured in my talk with Apple Music Creative Director Yego Moravia, who told me that his interests in skateboarding, typography, geography, and rally races are the ingredients to his way of working.
Bricolage helps us to examine a perhaps mythical “engineer brain” — a magical brain that takes in all the world’s information and perfectly solves each problem with objective (and elegant!) solutions. Dismissing the myth of brain as computer, or muscle, reminds us that everyone, by nature, does need to use “intellectual bricolage” knowing full well, we will never obtain every single tool (or infinite knowledge).
Sculptor Tom Sachs challenged his studio and fans to show off their bricolage during the early days of the pandemic. Most artists and designers had begun working from home, in a solitude, and Sachs’ obsession with NASA, tinkering, and inspiration became an early beacon of hope, for many who were feeling trapped in their own homes. His fans began showing off their inventiveness, creating tools and objects designed from the flotsam and jetson of their own homes and studios.
Outside of the studio, relying on the tools in front of you can become huge avenues to creative expression. Steve Powers came to New York City as a young artist intent on not just becoming known for large displays of his moniker ESPO, but also for connecting the world of graffiti, sign-painting, and fine art. In an inspiring move, he found the most access he would have to paint large murals was to actually become the opposite of who he was, a volunteer member of the city's Graffiti-removal service. These tools empowered him with legal obligation to paint white or grey blocks over massive stretches of graffiti, he spelled his name using blocks at enormous size. Subverting our expectation of who is on what side of the law, and what constitutes art and its opposite.
One of the most readily available tools we have is our own tendancy to see everything as human—anthropomorphizing all that is around us. English primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall DBE, was professionally attacked for this (and massive amounts of sexism and ageism) early in her career. She had the audacity to assign “human names” the primates she was studying and there was a strong belief in the scientific community is that this would skew her objective view of the animal’s behavior, invalidating her research.
While objective goals of science are without question, the subjectivity of what Goodall was doing in her notes and in her publications was an extremely important tool, if not for science, for communication and discovery. When she observed gorillas manipulating strips of bamboo in order to harvest termites she immediately personified them thus realizing that human’s understanding of our uniqueness was dead wrong. We were not “man the tool-maker” — She understood intuitively that they looked like people using tools, and that was objectively true.
Humans are biased to see themselves in everything, and we can use this self-centeredness to understand the world around us. We know the story of Sir Issac Newton, but who believes he was ACTUALLY sitting under an apple tree? — he, or those around him, created an enduring story of invention that centers us in an abstract concept. The same is true with Archemedes’ “Eureka!” moment, we can all picture his ancient bathtub because we’ve taken a bath.
How might we push this tool beyond painting a human face on non-human things? Virgil Abloh’s answer was his 2021 Louis Vuitton Fall-Winter Men’s collection. Adding an overt, child-book-like gaze to the ideas of “professions” he uses the grammar of human “archetypes” to push his ideas forward.
I don't think it’s a stretch to say Abloh may have anthropomorphized the abstract nature of fashion in this moment. Abloh created a body of work that is at once easy to understand and powerfully complex as he challenged his audience and simultaneously connected with them. Creative and scientific work need human-based stories. They cannot stay locked in the lab or in the abstract. Your ideas need to get to everyone else, politicians, artists, citizens.
Abloh’s show notes go beyond the ability to showcase archetypes, he patiently, and generously explains his method. This mix of accessibility and challenge in our work forces all of us to look how best to meet our audiences. While many of us enjoy the challenge of reading Shakespeare or of Tibor Kalman’s Benetton Ads, we also enjoy the radical accessibility of work that teaches, slowly.
Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference is an excellent example of teaching, patiently. The work can be broken down pretty simply. It’s six tracks (or a “six-movement suite”) that total 31 minutes and 57 seconds. The first five tracks explore several individual melodies and musical ideas. The last track, “Truth” which accounts for nearly half the total piece, combines all of the individual melodies into one dramatic finish. The melodies are simple, memorizable. After listening you might hum one or two of them to yourself, but you’ll never remember which instrument, or which track you are humming. When they weave together in the final piece they are beyond comprehension. As Washington introduced “Truth” to a crowd in 2018 he explained we are each these melodies and we’re all very different, but we can be combined. It’s a simple concept that delivering complex results, but it is communicated with great care. You don’t have to be a student of improvisational music to hear each melody and hear them again playing on top of each other. Washington is communicating elegantly, and with accessibility in mind, in a genre known for its challenge and secret codes.
Showing us the ingredients of his complex work, teasing them out over a half an hour, Washington displays a level of care that creators of all types can use more of. Artist Sol Lewitt’s life work can be seen conceptually similar. His wall art is stunning but what makes it divine is that it lives on as instructions. Lewitt’s work is not the finished piece, but the recipe to create more. He’s created a body of work that has outlived him and can still be viewed with absolute freshness. The recreation of 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings at MassMoca employed countless artists many years after his death.
Italian designer Enzo Mari used instruction manuals in the same radical way. Through his autoprogettazione work, Mari shared plans to make chairs and tables out simple materials, putting his work in the hands of others and empowering his audience.
These are just three ways of working, but I've had trouble finding them documented outside of my conversations with Creative Directors. If you’ve read this far, you’re invested in learning or sharing, reach out and let’s talk about either or both! The goal of putting this out into the world is to keep empowering each other with more and better tools!