Sean Thomas, ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor for Jones Knowles Ritchie, on how break­ing out of your com­fort zone can lead to sur­pris­ing re­sults

Computer Arts - - Contents - Are there any ben­e­fits to play­ing it safe? Tweet your thoughts to @Com­put­erArts us­ing #De­signMat­ters

Sean Thomas on how to break out of your com­fort zone creatively

If you choose to play it safe, re­peat­ing the same old tricks, you will miss an op­por­tu­nity to em­power the next gen­er­a­tion of cre­atives

My art teacher once ended our monthly life draw­ing ses­sion with a quick ex­er­cise. We first took sheets of pa­per de­creas­ing in size from A1 to A6, and then lined up ma­te­ri­als in­creas­ing in size, from a fine-haired brush to a solid block of paint. As the ex­er­cise pro­gressed, we were given less and less time to cap­ture the model’s chang­ing poses, with the can­vas re­duc­ing as each im­ple­ment grew in size.

It was fren­zied, in­stinc­tive mark-mak­ing that made me feel in­creas­ingly un­com­fort­able. The cul­mi­na­tion of the les­son saw us grab a solid block of un­wieldy, wet, black paint which spawned – in five sec­onds – the most ex­cit­ing piece of art I’ve pro­duced.

For years, I couldn’t put my fin­ger on why I loved that les­son so much, but re­cently I re­alised it was be­cause the out­come sur­prised me. I sim­ply couldn’t be­lieve I had pro­duced this work. It was as if it had just ap­peared through a surge of ner­vous adren­a­line or some­one had pos­sessed me. And it felt good.

Reg­u­larly mov­ing out of our com­fort zone is some­thing we have vowed to do more at Jones Knowles Ritchie. Not be­cause it makes us money — of­ten that first at­tempt at some­thing is costly and dif­fi­cult — but be­cause it’s ex­cit­ing, and be­cause learn­ing new things is in­valu­able.

The best brands stay rel­e­vant and adapt to evolv­ing times. They don’t fall by the way­side. Brands will en­dure for as long as they find per­ti­nent things to say and cre­ate, and I think clients, de­sign­ers and agen­cies are no dif­fer­ent.

In the time I’ve worked in the in­dus­try, I’ve seen design shift hugely, and it’s never been more thrilling. And in my eight years at jkr, the busi­ness has al­ready un­der­gone two big trans­for­ma­tions. At one point, it was pay­ing peo­ple to look for tal­ent and clients, rather than at­tract­ing them through the work. So the own­ers shook every­thing up. They made de­ci­sions that could have fun­da­men­tally bro­ken a suc­cess­ful agency and put their faith in the peo­ple hun­gry to prove them­selves, un­der the men­tor­ship of those who had got the com­pany this far.

The re­sults were un­ortho­dox but trans­for­ma­tive. Design and strat­egy di­rec­tors now ef­fec­tively lead their own mini stu­dios, ac­count man­agers with a love of words have be­come copy­writ­ers, our 70-year-old ty­pog­ra­pher teaches ev­ery grad­u­ate how to cre­ate their own font, the head of work­shop who dis­played an in­ter­est in an­i­ma­tion now runs a film­mak­ing team, our 3D pack­ag­ing ex­perts are run­ning client work­shops. Bit by bit, those same clients who told us they didn’t have any more work for us have com­mis­sioned jkr to fun­da­men­tally over­haul their brands from top to bot­tom.

It has been a bril­liant, re­ward­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing era of my life. We were go­ing into pitches di­vert­ing from the given brief in favour of what we be­lieved the real is­sue to be. We were re­spond­ing to clients with a sin­gle so­lu­tion, know­ing we’d lose the ac­count if they dis­agreed. We were turn­ing away projects, be­cause they didn’t mo­ti­vate us or ben­e­fit the brand. We were ask­ing peo­ple to do things they’d never done be­fore.

And of course, we failed. Count­less times. But we learned from those ex­pe­ri­ences and we also ben­e­fit­ted from them. All of this helped us fig­ure out who the most proac­tive mem­bers of staff were, what our clients were look­ing for that we couldn’t yet of­fer, who was do­ing the wrong job and what sort of work we wanted to be do­ing as a com­pany.

This pe­riod also made me re­alise the im­por­tance of re­lin­quish­ing con­trol. There have been high pro­file re­brands I per­son­ally didn’t love aes­thet­i­cally; how­ever, the team had been so pas­sion­ate, I held my tongue and slept on it. At the time, that feel­ing made me deeply un­com­fort­able – do I let some­thing leave the build­ing I don’t like? Or do I shat­ter a pas­sion­ate, emerg­ing team’s vi­sion? As the work an­swered the brief, I took the call to see what hap­pened and em­brace the un­cer­tainty. Th­ese projects have be­come two of jkr’s most warmly re­garded.

I’m no dif­fer­ent to the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple work­ing in the cre­ative in­dus­try. I dread some­one com­ing up be­hind me, tap­ping me on the shoul­der and say­ing, ‘I’m onto you and we all re­alise you’re clue­less’. Putting a bit of your­self onto a piece of pa­per (or a screen) and hav­ing it torn to shreds never gets any more fun. But if you don’t keep do­ing it and you choose to play it safe, re­peat­ing the same old tricks, you will miss an op­por­tu­nity to em­power the next gen­er­a­tion of cre­atives to fol­low your lead. And re­mem­ber what hap­pens to the brands that do that?

To this point, I’ve re­alised you cre­ate your own luck. So my ad­vice to any­one who asks me now is this: go in the di­rec­tion that looks most in­ter­est­ing, no mat­ter how il­log­i­cal it seems. And if you’re not in­spired by the peo­ple around you, leave.

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