How to Find a Common Language for Creative Feedback
Break down the language barrier.

Too much frustration can arise from a language disconnect between creatives and business leaders. But both the creative and business sides of a company must learn to speak each other’s language if they want to succeed.

Tune in to our next Real Creative Leadership episode to join Adam Morgan and Douglas Davis as they discuss how designers can become fluent in the language of business and strategy — and how it will transform your company.

In this conversation with Douglas, you’ll learn:

  • Why creatives struggle in business environments
  • The value of putting yourself in the shoes of non-creative peers
  • Tips for learning the language of business
  • How strategy-fluent creatives can help transform businesses
mentioned in this show:
adammorgan
Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
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The Stoke Group
Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency
Guest Speaker

Douglas Davis

Author, Educator, Designer

Brooklyn-based Douglas Davis enjoys being one of the variety of voices needed in front of and behind the concept. As principal of The Davis Group, Douglas offers strategic solutions to client branding, design, and communications problems. As the author of Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, Douglas regularly contributes to the design discourse in AppliedArtsMag.com, Midwest Digital Marketing Conference, The European Business Review, HOW Design Live, RGD Design Thinkers and the OneClub Educators Summit. Douglas is Chair of the Emmy Award-winning B.F.A. in Communication Design program at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology.

Comments (2)

Great interview.

It is always a pleasure to hear prof. Douglas Davis speaking about how as a designer we need to understand the marketing side. Great interview

Leave a comment

Transcript

Adam Morgan:

Welcome to Real Creative Leadership, a place where creative leaders can find insights and practical guidance on the day-to-day job of being a creative leader. We focus on real issues, topics, and insights of creativity in the business world. Join me as we explore the best strategies for developing your team, getting others to embrace your vision, and generating amazing experiences. This webinar series is produced by The Stoke Group. I'm your host, Adam Morgan, Adobe Executive Creative Director, and author of Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business. And this is Real Creative Leadership.

Adam Morgan:

All right, thank you, and welcome back to Real Creative Leadership. I'm here with Douglas Davis, so let me give you a little bit of background because this has been some time in the making. I heard Douglas on a podcast, Obsessed With Design. It was a year, year and a half ago, and I thought, "I've got to chat with Douglas. We've got to do something together." So, I contacted him and we've been back and forth on different things, and we're finally here. We're finally together, chatting on a Real Creative Leadership podcast, which is awesome.

Douglas Davis:

[crosstalk 00:01:12].

Adam Morgan:

Let me give you a little bit of background of Douglas. Douglas, he started out as an art director and then a creative director, and then he wrote this awesome book called Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, which is what caught my attention. Which is super awesome, we're going to talk about that today. And then now, he's moved on, he is the Chair of Communications Design over at CNYU, the New York City College of Technology. So he's done everything, from academia to training, to being in the trenches, working, doing design and creativity, and all of that. So, super excited. Thank you, Douglas, for being on the show with us.

Douglas Davis:

Adam, thank you for having me, and what's really interesting is, whenever you hear an introduction that goes through the timeline of how long you've been in the trenches, you realize, "Oh my god. Some time has really passed."

Adam Morgan:

It does.

Douglas Davis:

Again, when you're having fun, it really does go pretty fast. But again, thank you for having me on.

Adam Morgan:

You bet. So, what we're going to talk today about, just so that our listeners have a little bit of background, the last episode we talked about was all about giving creative feedback. And we gave some tips on, how do we create a great environment for giving good feedback? How to listen, how to take feedback and also give feedback, so a lot of that good stuff. But I thought it dovetailed really well into your book, because your book is all about, it's more than when you're giving feedback, let's move beyond that topic, too. It's all about speaking the same language and understanding each other.

Douglas Davis:

That's right.

Adam Morgan:

So, this has to do with feedback, and today we're going to talk about that, but it's also about just, good communication. So the first thing I want to hear, and a little bit is in your book, but talk to me about early on where you mention that strategy was the thing that was always beating you, right?

Douglas Davis:

Yeah.

Adam Morgan:

And this first job, where you had to do ugly web design. I'd love to hear a little more about that and let our listeners hear these stories, because they're awesome.

Douglas Davis:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I was on my first job, and I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God. Pratt didn't teach me how to design anything. So, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?" And, I realized that my strategy was, I'm going to add in everything that I would never do. So I'm doing burst and gradients and lens flare, I'm doing all kind of just, the horrible things. I show it to my creative director and they're like, "Yes." And I was like, "Oh, no." So, after that-

Adam Morgan:

"What have I done?"

Douglas Davis:

"What have I done?" So I remember after that, distinctly making a decision. "You know what? I have to bring myself to this. And though I don't care if they want it ugly, I'm going to bring what I do to this. I'm going to bring my aesthetics to this." That's when everything, obviously, smoothed out. That's when I started to realize, "Oh, wait a minute. I'm the only designer around. Got it. Okay. This is the early stages of this thing." But I think, the other part of your question concerning strategy, and I'm not sure whether your listeners are a mix of people who went to design school or whether they also went to business school but, in coming out of design school undergraduate, and going into Pratt Design School graduate, I realized that design school doesn't teach you business.

Douglas Davis:

And, you don't learn that until you get onto the job. You were trained to make it pretty, and there are other people at the table that you just sat down at. Those people are concerned with marketing. Those people are concerned with metrics. Those people understand the business concepts that designers should understand, but were never introduced to, because in design school, they teach you to focus on the tactical parts of what should be strategic decisions without explaining what those strategic decisions are. Fast forward, I broke into advertising. General advertising. My first job was in digital.

Douglas Davis:

I was still straddling the line between design, promotions departments, editorials, as well as digital, which was my very first job, digital advertising. And then I broke into an advertising agency. So I'm there, I'm gaining positions of responsibility relatively quickly because of how well I'm doing my job. I'm good at what I do. I can build the team, I can manage the freelancers, I can pitch the business, we could do pretty much, soup to nuts. And I'm a little kid. I'm 24, 25. But I realized that, I kept losing battles because I couldn't articulate why the design decisions that I was making were the right business decisions. I didn't have that vocabulary. So, I fell back on the aesthetic stuff.

Douglas Davis:

The stuff that the business people who went to business school, because they don't teach how to inspire designers, they didn't learn, are not concerned with, and didn't even understand that there was a creative process that they could inspire. This is also why you get a creative brief sometimes that's the size of a novel, but that's another part of this conversation. But in those contexts, I kept losing because I didn't have that vocabulary. And then one day, I stumbled into a strategy session and I realized, "Oh. This is that thing that keeps beating me. If I can understand and be the creative person who understands business, I can actually sell more creative work because I understand how to think how they think, to do what we do."

Douglas Davis:

And that's essentially, what the book is about, and just one more part of this answer, which is where it came from. This philosophy of, think how they think to do what we do, since Father's Day was yesterday, I'd love to share just a little bit about how I learned this lesson. I think I was in second grade. My grandfather had a standing lunch date with a well-known conservative talk show host. And that's pretty much where we met, standing in the kitchen, in my grandparents' kitchen in South Carolina. And I was again, about eight years old, at that point. But, I remember hearing my grandfather chuckle all the time.

Douglas Davis:

He would laugh constantly, listening to the things that this old host would say, pretty much, every day. One day, he's ranting in this particularly offensive manner, and it registers as such, in my still forming second grade brain. I remember asking my granddaddy, "Granddaddy, do you hear this? Why do you even listen to this? Do you hear what he's saying?" And my grandfather, without even needing a moment to collect his thoughts, he smiled and he said, "I want to know what they think." And it was those seven words that introduced my eight grade brain, to the simple concept of seeking to understand the point of view outside of my own.

Douglas Davis:

And so, in that little lesson, my grandfather and I down South, that exchange is where I built the philosophy and my point of view, to think how they think to do what we do. To seek the points of views that are outside of the creative team. To be concerned with what's going on outside of the creative team, so that you can understand exactly where your part is, but also how you can influence the parts that haven't traditionally included us. So, all of that is how we got here, how I wrote Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, and how I've survived, frankly. So I'm glad that the-

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:09:04]

Douglas Davis:

Or survive, frankly. So I'm glad that the meter is sort of turning towards strategy as an essential skill for creatives, just as tinkering and choosing to change and choosing to learn code was back in 1999. Those are some similarities, but today obviously it's uncharted territory.

Adam Morgan:

No, that's great. I love the fact that for years when I've been talking to my teams or other creative directors that it's like if you are going to become a creative leader, part of creating that environment where there's good communication, good feedback, all of that stuff is really speaking what we call speaking khaki, it's understanding the business and being able to talk to them.

Douglas Davis:

Right.

Adam Morgan:

And really, I would say early on in our careers, it's all about the craft. It's all about figuring out design, figuring out writing-

Douglas Davis:

Make it pretty.

Adam Morgan:

Making it pretty, all that good stuff. But as you get further in your career, it really is essential that you have to be able to speak business. You have to be able to speak strategy. And you're right, you don't learn that anywhere. For me, I had to read so many books on strategy and so many books on business. For years and years I've always said in order to lead, you have to read. And so that was my angle, just read, read, read. But tell us from your perspective, so if we understand this concept of we've got to speak the same language, and part of it is seeking to understand, like your grandfather's story, that's awesome. But then there's also a step where it's like you got to learn that thing that was beating you every time. So how do we learn to speak strategy? How do we learn business? And coming from your background at a university, this would be great to just give some good tips and tricks to how do we as creative leaders step it up and understand that stuff?

Douglas Davis:

So, first for me, I learned strategy by learning that I didn't understand the perspectives that everyone else was coming to the problem with. And therefore, I couldn't understand the criteria that we were judging, what was right, what worked, and what didn't work. So I didn't have the criteria. I didn't have the vocabulary. But I had to recognize that I didn't know those things first. That's long before actually learning what the concepts are, the business concepts that creatives should understand are. I think when I did finally go to NYU to study integrated marketing years later, after I realized, "Hey, this is that thing strategy that keeps beating me, where do I go to learn this?"

Douglas Davis:

And I learned the Harvard Business case study method, which I also love to put sort of into practice here, which is figure out who the decision maker is in the business problem. And then step into their shoes. Look at all the available data that they have to make the actual decision with. Think through what exactly they are going to be judged on in their performance review at the end of the year. Think about their job title. Understand exactly what moving the needle means for them. From there, I then can understand by stepping into their perspective, again, think how they think to do what we do. And from there, I can build in with certain tools like the creative strategy framework, which is in my book, that help you to organize the chaos and then question the answers that the client or your teammates come to you with so that we can turn insights into execution. So first is to become conscious of what it is that's going on, to become conscious that everyone has a different perspective, to then figure out how to step into their shoes.

Douglas Davis:

Because let's be honest, Adam, business and marketing people who went to get their MBAs at NYU or wherever they went, they're not going to learn typography. They're not learning color. It's not going to happen. They're not learning code. They don't care about the long sort of detailed explanations that we have in the creative team. It doesn't mean it's not important. And actually to be very honest, it's actually even more important. I always like to say that creative people offer the spoonful of sugar that make business and marketing objectives palatable to the public. So they can't go public without us. So they need us. So it's very important. But they're not going to learn what we do. Therefore, it's up to us.

Douglas Davis:

And I mentioned before that in business school, they don't teach how to inspire designers. So therefore you get a brief that might be the size of a novel, all useless by the way, but think about the energy. And I'm speaking to you, creatives, think about the energy that you spend spinning your wheels, the fear that we feel already, because we're a perfectionist or we're insecure about whether we have imposter syndrome, whatever it is, the hourglass is running out. The deadline is already set. And you get a novel that you have to thumb through. None of it is useful. What do we normally do? What is the natural thing to do? Well, you fall back on your aesthetic vocabulary. You fall back on the things that got you in the room in the first place. But that's where the danger is. You're focused on making it pretty, you're focused on like and dislike. They're focused on business objectives. They're focused on what's going to move the needle. They're focused on strategy.

Douglas Davis:

So I think it's just really important to recognize those things. But I think the last thing I'll say about this in terms of just making the case as to why it's important for creatives to not only understand strategy, to speak and understand the language of business. Because it's not enough just to speak it. It's not enough just to understand it. Because once you become familiar with what the tools are or what the vocabulary is, you might be on brand but off strategy and off message. You might be on strategy, but off brand and off message. So we're still expected to deliver creative business solutions that despite the delusion and the crazy and the process and the skip steps in all of the issues that happen, we're still expected to deliver creativity that's on brand, on strategy, and on message. Doesn't even matter. So it's really important that we learn to speak and understand the language of business, because then you can be strategic about how you even hear what's going on and you can retrain the way you listen.

Douglas Davis:

So when the client or your teammate says that we need a new website or we need a new identity, you can, instead of thinking, "Cool, they need a new identity. I'll make a cool website. I'm going to make a really cool whatever," which is again, tactical. We can then retrain the ask by thinking how they think, stepping into their shoes, and saying, "Well, wait a minute. If the CMO or the director of eCommerce is asking me for X, Y, and Z, I now understand that what they really need is brand differentiation, or they really need repeat business, or they need to drive traffic, or they need to increase the average order value." Those are the things that you need to hear when someone says to you, "We need a new website or we need a new identity," if that makes sense.

Adam Morgan:

And there's so much to unpack here. In my experience of working at agencies or even in house, oftentimes we get into those business discussions, and the art director or writer, it's like their eyes roll back and we start talking about numbers. And they're just like, "Oh, okay. Tell me when we're getting back to talking about the creative part and then I'll light up again." And that's completely wrong. It really is. For us as a creative leader, if we want to seat at the table and we want to guide the company, give vision to where we could go creatively, we have to know strategy. We have to know business. We have to be able to speak all those things. In fact, I had a boss once at one agency, he said something brilliant. He's like, "The first thing you need to do is understand how the company or how your client makes money, period. How do they make money? Once you understand how they make money, then you can back out of that and start figuring out what's the right solution. What's the right creative idea that will help with that."

Adam Morgan:

And there's two more other things I thought was pretty interesting. It's like you were talking about how a lot of these people, and I spoke about this forever, that they go to get their MBA, or they go to business school, everything they're learning about is numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers, and data, data, data. Whereas you think about as creatives, we've been training our brains our whole careers to focus on emotions. We're all about what's that emotional connection? What's that feeling, right? And so we're just speaking a totally different thing. And in order to cross that bridge, in order for us to explain to a business leader and say, "Here's why those numbers translate-

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:18:04]

Adam Morgan:

For us to explain to a business leader and say, "Here's why those numbers translate into emotions which translates into customer value or translates into loyalty." We have to be able to bridge all that stuff. So I love it. I think this is so fantastic.

Douglas Davis:

Well, that's the job. We're trained to take the emotional language of design and turn it into the rational. I guess I can say the other way. We're trying to take the rational language of business and turn it into the emotional language of desire. That's our job and I think that in understanding those things, you can find out... It's almost like back when we used to leave the house, you go to the mall at different points and you look at that little map and it says, "You are here."

Douglas Davis:

Without the, "You are here." The map is useless because it's all relative. So if you understand you are here and they are here, you can understand, "This is the quickest route." Or, "I have to go and grab some shoes before I head over to wherever so I can take this route." But until you understand where everybody is on the map, we're screwed, we're going to lose the account, everybody's going to blame each other and it really doesn't matter whose fault it is at that point. We lost the account. We have to figure out how to get to yes, but we also have to figure out, well, where is everybody?

Adam Morgan:

And the funny thing is you and I both, when we understood that, one step in our journey is we both went back and got Master's Degrees in Strategy, which is interesting, most creative people don't do that. And I'm not saying most creative people have to do that. My guess is you did that probably just so you can better understand and so you can bridge that gap, but that's one step. That's one way to do it, there're others.

Douglas Davis:

It is one way and for me personally, I thought to myself and again, this is back when there was ActionScript and Flash, which again, doesn't exist anymore. So what is the moral of this story ladies and gentlemen? It is change before you have no choice to change.

Douglas Davis:

But in that situation, I realized, you know what? I don't want to go further downstream into the execution part of this. They're already in the conference room 20, 30 minutes before they walk out and they say, "All right, do this." And I'm questioning why are we doing that?

Douglas Davis:

This drug is a rheumatoid arthritis drug that for senior citizens, why are we doing digital ads? Might they have a hard time holding the mouse? Might they have some pain as a result? Are we going to literally miss the people we're trying to reach because you're not thinking through where we need to be and how we need to reach them? You know what? I know how to do that, but guess who wasn't in the room?

Douglas Davis:

And I want to say another thing about that because sometimes creative people like to hide behind masks, or we're better as sort of being a recluse or I'm better working off to the side on my own and I want to say this to you that, if you're invited to the meeting and you don't contribute anything, guess who's not coming to the meeting again? And what you have to say is very important.

Douglas Davis:

But I think it's just really important to understand that however you learn is the way you need to grab that information and it might be a multitude of ways. I know I needed to really deep dive instead of going downstream and learning things that would make me better execute or learning ActionScript or brushing up on code.

Douglas Davis:

I wanted to swim upstream, I want to be in the places where they were making decisions. And I knew that I needed a deep dive structured sort of way, I needed to go to the source. So again, if they're learning at NYU, I'm going to go to NYU. I'm going to learn where they learned. I want to see what they saw. Again, in my perspective, the art director, the creative director goes to business school. And I wanted somebody to shoot me in the face.

Douglas Davis:

After the first semester, my first class is statistics and I'm panicking. Everything in me is like, "What did I just do? Why am I here?" Because my brain doesn't work that way. And oftentimes it was like Charlie Brown, [inaudible 00:22:24] I don't know what you're doing talking about, but I knew that if I did this, I could be better.

Douglas Davis:

Therefore, I set my mind to it and I just raised my threshold for pain. And in this case, whether it was statistics or some other math thing, I realized I'm not good at that. That's not my first language. I got a tutor. And I made sure that those small hurdles though they were very difficult, didn't defeat the whole purpose.

Douglas Davis:

And I want to just encourage anybody listening. A lot of what I wrote in the book, the reason why the structure is the way it is, the reason why there are stories, long form stories that the first page of every chapter and the introduction and the foreword and all of those things that usually don't read. But I encourage anybody listening to this to read, is because I wanted to make sure that I spoke to my audience, the emotional part.

Douglas Davis:

We're blessed as creative people with a gift that harnesses the emotional part of who we are. That's a gift. It is not a drawback, however, we were not trained to harness and control our emotions. So therefore your super power becomes your weakness whenever you're in a situation like presenting or defending yourself against those people who have those MBAs. And if you don't understand how to deal with your emotions, then it becomes your worst enemy. The thing that makes you special.

Douglas Davis:

So, I think how you learn strategy or how you learn to control your emotions, how you learn how to engage the more rational side of what you're doing to actually learn something that you don't want to learn. You need to do those things to survive.

Douglas Davis:

Again, back to 1999, the people who got jobs in the dotcom era were people who came from English or people came from wherever, you can fill in the blank. But what was common about those people was that they were willing to learn a new language and I believe today that just as coding is essential to being a designer now, it wasn't back then. And it wasn't even a risk to decide not to learn it back then. However, after the dotcom recession happened, there was about a year and nine months, the economy comes back. And the very first question out of everyone's mouths was...

Adam Morgan:

Can you code?

Douglas Davis:

Well, "Are you a web designer or a print designer?"

Adam Morgan:

Oh, yeah.

Douglas Davis:

Whereas before it was, "Oh, I'm a designer". Nobody questioned whether you were a print designer, because that's the only designer that you could be. Maybe you worked on packaging. Maybe you were an industrial designer. Those things could be clarified before the dotcom recession. But after it, the whole world shifted. And you were either one or the other.

Douglas Davis:

I believe today, the whole world is shifting again. And though it's very slow adoption, in terms of designers learning the essential skills of strategy. I think we've moved a little further at them. And I think the essential skills now, because of COVID-19, for designers, the essential skills, in addition to strategy, because that was what I would have said before COVID-19. Now that we're in this situation, the essential skills are new systems design, operations, forecasting.

Douglas Davis:

Now again, everybody listening, do they teach those things at design school? The answer is no. However, what am I telling you? Just as we've always had to move, learn new type faces, keep up with the new programs, learn new like, learn Slack, learn how to deal with project management software. Learn different ways of working or learn a completely new culture, different language every time you leave a job or every time you change your altitude within the same job. We've had to learn those things to survive the whole time.

Douglas Davis:

I'm now telling you, that strategy, in addition to these other things, new systems design, operations and forecasting, these things are now essentially-

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:27:04]

Douglas Davis:

And forecasting. These things are now essential skills. And just as we've had to learn type faces, programs, and new project management software to do our same jobs, over time, I'm telling you that we either ... COVID-19 is asking us, "Are you a canary looking backwards, holding on to the things that we used to do and the way we used to do it? Or are you a caterpillar looking forward, willing to change into and morph into what is going on today? What the industry requires today for you to survive?" That's the question. COVID-19, didn't cancel our industry. It's asking you that question. Are you a canary or are you a caterpillar? So we have to move. We had to change.

Adam Morgan:

Oh absolutely. In fact, I did a presentation, it's been about a year and a half ago on ... so many people have asked the question, "How do I make that leap from just art director or senior writer to a creative director?" And half of my list of like the nine things you need to do, the craft was only number eight and nine, but there were things like you have to be a project manager, you have to learn operations. You have to understand how to manage all the teams, get all the workload together. But I love this systems design now too, where it's like, if you're going to go into, these companies right now are having to go through this huge digital transformation they have to change. They have to digitize to get up with the times. So you, as a designer or creative director or creative leader, you need to know all that stuff.

Douglas Davis:

And who better.

Adam Morgan:

You can't just be like, "I design. That's it." You have to ...

Douglas Davis:

And who better?

Adam Morgan:

You all of it.

Douglas Davis:

Who better than the person and the people who are used to dealing with clients, who after a month, two months, six months on the job, client comes into the conference room, flips over the table, changes the scope. And you can, after cursing, but you can pick up the pieces and figure out how we pivot, which is exactly what's needed right now, Adam. The pivot you mentioned where businesses are at right now, and here's where they're at. There's two choices. We've all seen the news. We've seen how many businesses have gone into bankruptcy. We've seen how many brands, 150 years old and older have gone into bankruptcy. They will not survive for these reasons. You pivot one of two ways. You either do the exact same thing you've always been doing in a completely different way. New supply chain, new system, new everything, right. To do what you've always done.

Douglas Davis:

Or, you look at your assets, you look at your competencies, you look at everything that you have on hand in terms of tools. And you figure out how to do something completely different with the exact same things. Either way you got to pivot one way or the other, it is not possible to continue to do the exact same things that we used to do in business, but also it is not possible to do the exact same things that we used to do as a creative. You can talk to any print designers about that right now, right? If that's what they were and they were standing firm on that, talk to them about how that went, because whether the jobs were less plentiful, whether the rate was a lot less than what they used to get, it doesn't matter. It becomes unsustainable. And if you wait to get lung cancer to stop smoking, you waited too long.

Adam Morgan:

Well Douglas this has been an awesome conversation. We're at time now. But before we take off tell people how can they find your book? How can they find you? How can you stay connected? I'd love people to have an opportunity to reach out to you as well.

Douglas Davis:

Absolutely. I really appreciate you having me on Adam. You can find me at thinkhowtheythink.com. You can reach me on Twitter @DouglasQDavis. And I'm on Facebook. I think I'm professor Davis on Facebook, like I'm professor Davis [inaudible 00:04:07], but yeah, I hope to hear from pretty much everybody. I have my contact information also on my website. So you can go there. Shoot me a line. I'd love to hear from you. Thank you again for having me on.

Adam Morgan:

No. Perfect. Thank you, Douglas. And we'll also have his information at the bottom of this session on realcreativeleadership.com. So again, thank you everyone for listening. We're so glad that you took the time to listen to us rant about, giving good feedback, speaking the same languages as other people. As a creative leader, learning how to understand strategy and operations and all those good things. There's a lot of good nuggets in this session. So thank you, thank you for sticking with us. And then next time we're going to talk about how to build relationships, what are some things that we need to do to encourage relationship building? So stay tuned for that as well. And other ways you can find us so realcreativeleadership.com and also I'd like to thank Stoke again for producing this podcast. You can find them at thestokegroup.com and as always, you can find me at adamwmorgan.com and we hope to connect and hear more from you. So thank you so much for staying with us. We'll see you next time.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [00:32:29]