Recently I was working with a graphic designer — we will call him Phil — to create a new logo for an annual event I was organizing. While the old logo was simple and communicated the culture and feel of the event, it too closely resembled another prominent logo. When I first met Phil and told him about our event, he immediately began explaining to me how I could make it better, obviously disregarding everything I had just told him and the overall goals of the event. His attitude would eventually come back to haunt our collaboration.

When Phil and I met up to discuss what I was looking for in the logo, I admittedly gave a better description of the event than what I wanted from the logo. But I figured that would give him some freedom in his design. He told me he would get me a rough draft in a few days. I waited, and eventually he sent me the logo. To be honest, I did not like it. But I thought that maybe it was just me and I did not want to offend the graphic designer if it was not necessary. So I sent it to a couple of my more artistic friends and some folks within the organization I work for to see what they thought.

They all hated it!

Even more than I did.

The logo, much like his earlier suggestions for the event, only loosely represented what I had described, but many of the people I sent it to disliked it merely for aesthetic reasons.

Having received a sort of communal go ahead, I sent a polite email explaining my issues with the logo. Despite being a “rough draft,” Phil responded defensively and explained to me how everyone he had shown the logo to loved it and how my expectations were unrealistic. I sent him some examples of what I would like the logo to look like. These, he exclaimed were poorly designed, and he began asking me to come up with ideas that better represented what I wanted. At this point I had had enough and gave him an out, which he gladly took.

From my point of view, Phil was unprofessional and incompetent, but I’m sure if you discussed this incident with him he would express a whole slew of issues with me and what I wanted. Since, I’m telling the story, we get to delve a little deeper into his shortcomings and hopefully come out a little wiser. Upon reflecting on this experience, I realized some important principles of the creative process:

1.       In order for design to work, we need to listen.

I could tell through the whole process that Phil was not listening. This was apparent from the fact that the logo represented a word in the actual name of the event but did not represent anything I had told him. In fact, the logo actually looked much like the suggestions he gave me when we first met. This calls to mind the 19th century engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla, whose biography I recently finished reading. Tesla, who like his contemporary Thomas Edison, was a genius, but unlike Edison, he often did not create products that people actually wanted. For all of Edison’s faults, he listened, and for that he is one of America’s best known inventors.

2.      We must be open to honest criticism.

Initially I thought that Phil made up the fact that other people liked his logo. How could the responses of the people I spoke with be so drastically different? But the more I thought on it, the more I realized that he probably did show it to other people but possibly did not have relationships with those people that allowed for them to be open and honest with their feedback about the logo. We need to cultivate relationships — personal and professional — that allow for honest feedback. For example, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both part of a writing group called the Inklings whose members were notorious for their ruthless criticisms. It is no coincidence that these two authors, with the steady refinement of honest criticism helping them hone their craft, came to be seen as the fathers of modern fantasy literature.

3.      The creative process is a gradual process.

Phil may have said the first logo was a rough draft, but he did not mean it. We cannot expect to create perfection in our first go. I, myself, did not fully know what I wanted from the logo when we first talked. The creative process involves development and refinement. Neuroscience has shown that unlike conventional intelligence, which uses established neural pathways, creativity actually requires the brain to create new connections as we come up with new ideas. We cannot rush through this process, and if we do, the product will often be clichéd and poorly executed.

One day we may be like Phil, frustrated with a client or even a collaborator that doesn’t seem to understand our “genius.” I hope we can take a step back to make sure we are truly designing as we listen to our clients, seek open and honest feedback, and patiently work through the creative process.

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