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The Art & Science of Building Strong Creative Teams - Part III

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A Case Study:  FEE Values Art 

In this series on building strong creative teams, we've looked at the psychology of shaping innovative work environments and the importance of a clear vision. 

I hope the last two articles have helped spark ideas for your own work teams and that they've been especially helpful as you look to ways of teaching the lessons of liberty to tomorrow's leaders.  In this final installment, I'd love to share a process we recently worked through to unveil a new piece of art in our office that depicts our organizational values. 

Below is the final product: 

This project was a true collaboration between myself and FEE’s Sr. Graphic Design Associate, Tim Webster. And because most of our conversations took place via Slack, we have a detailed record of each successive iteration from the beginning, which makes it an excellent case-study in bringing together all of the elements I’ve discussed throughout this paper.

Phase 01: Establishing the vision and creative direction

The impetus for this project was simple. Late last year, FEE’s senior staff codified a set of six guiding principles for our organization. Our Executive Vice President Richard Lorenc wanted to commemorate these values with new art that would live on one of our walls.

These kinds of requests are always exciting because they clearly establish the problem that needs to be solved, but still leave a ton of room for original ideas. After a brief conversation, we settled on a large piece of wall-art and I proposed a direction for the design that (1) used continuous panels to tell a generally sequential story of our values; and which was (2) ultimately printed using a process called "dye sublimation," which prints a bold, vibrant, colorful image on metal surfaces. 

I also provided some references for what that could look like from photographer Peter Lik and a TED Education presentation:

Note here that while this was all a fairly brief exchange, taking place over the course of only about 15 minutes, the three of us were able to cover quite a bit of ground in defining what would eventually become the final design. 

For example, we agreed on the following:

  • What needed to be created: Permanent wall art at FEE’s offices
  • Intended audience: FEE’s staff & visitors
  • Required elements/information to be conveyed through the design: FEE’s six organizational value
  • Medium: Dye-sublimated metal; and…
  • Artistic Aesthetic: “Bold”, high contrast, minimalist illustration using silhouetted figures that incorporate some kind of “hero’s journey” into the overall design.
Clarifying these factors constitutes a fairly strong creative vision, and a sufficiently specific artistic direction. 

But at the same time, I’d especially like to draw attention to the use of language such as “I can definitely use that for inspiration”, and “Unless we don’t do the metal printing process”. These phrases indicate that both Tim and I left the initial meeting with a strong sense of what needed to be created while still leaving a lot of room for us to continue developing the overall idea and possibly changing aspects of our plans down the road if we had better ideas once we had more time to think about it. 

This is an important attitude to maintain, especially so early in the creative process. 

Very little at the beginning stages should feel (to the artist or the client) like it’s completely set in stone, or it will stifle the flow of good ideas. Remember that our best and most fully formed ideas are rarely our first ones, so leaving the design open to a range of future possibilities and making sure that we don’t prematurely commit ourselves to one aesthetic direction prevents us from locking in an idea too soon -- before we’ve all really had a chance to let it steep and get into our subconscious.

We want this phase of the process to give guidance and clarity, but also empower the artist (in this case, Tim) to ruminate, play, and experiment with different rough concepts until one rises to the top.

Phase 02: Test Illustrations and Solidifying the Direction

A little over week after the first discussion, Tim presented this image:

An enormous benefit of working with more experienced professionals is that while any lay-person can see that this is a fully-formed, well-executed illustration, it still constitutes part of the experimental testing phase of the creative process for a designer like Tim. 

This is effectively one step above a basic sketch, made presentable enough to show for the purposes of review.

Tim explains his intention for the first draft:

At this stage in the process, I was thinking about how I could create a design system for each of the values, so that we could incorporate the illustrations in other ways. For instance, if each value had a corresponding icon/symbol, we'd be able to use them as badges for awards, or even in our brand guidelines. The illustration at this point was simply expanding on those symbols. The problem with this approach was that I wasn’t able to form a cohesive narrative and the imagery wasn’t strong enough on its own.

It’s also worth noting that the way Tim framed the design was very explicitly not as a final product in any way, but rather as just one possible direction we could go.

Tim: I’ve started on the designs for FEE values. They still need a lot of work.

The point of this draft was mostly just to quickly escape the tyranny of the blank page so that we could both start talking about a more concrete concept and align our independent visions into one idea.

And since we both understood that, it was very easy for us to discuss the work in more critical terms. 

My initial reaction was mixed:

Sean: My gut right now on these designs is that while I like them, they’re not quite what we talked about, ya know? They certainly wouldn’t have the bold contrast that we’d need if we were to do the metal printing.

Tim: Okay, I see what you mean. This started out as a wire frame just to get the basic outlines down, but then I got carried away with color. If I were to fix the colors and the contrast, would these concepts still work or should I revisit the drawings too?

Sean: Personally, I like them, and I’m happy to see where you go with it, but when we talked before it was more minimalist, like… there’d just be shapes. Let me ask you this… Richard’s goal was something really bold and eye-catching. So that, for me, really is about contrast more than it is about illustration style. So do you think that you can take these characters and re-work the backgrounds/settings to put huge highlights on them?

Tim: Yes, definitely. I have more thoughts on it that we can talk about later though.

Sean: Sure.

Once again, this round of feedback was very brief, but worthwhile. The basic tone and nature of the feedback encouraged Tim to think more about the design, and rather than totally shutting down the parts I mainly highlighted the problems of lack of boldness and contrast and asked for options on how to fix those issues. 

Here's Tim’s perspective on this process:

I think presenting a problem and then asking questions is one of the best ways to give feedback to a designer. It allows us to explore a lot of ideas and then pick the best one, without locking us down to specific concepts. Suggestions are helpful too, but I've found that the exploration phase usually leads to the smartest solutions. 

I agree.

This question-based approach is one I use a lot and it goes back to the idea of creating an environment where we try to bring the best ideas to the top by trying to facilitate a more collaborative environment.

Remember that Tim is not only closer to the design, having been the one to create it, he’s also the one of us who is dedicating serious time to thinking about it. I may be able to see some issues he can’t, but I’m not going to be the one spending the next several hours working on the next iteration, so even if I have a suggestion that I think is a good idea, I don’t want to presume that it’s the only solution or necessarily even the best solution. More time and experimentation will almost always pay off.

To that end, Tim and I did not speak about the project again for another two weeks, when he presented me with a new design:

Here we have a version that seems to be much simpler than the previous draft. With its sketch-like aesthetic, lack of color, and minimal detail, I’m sure that to the layperson, this could look like a step backward.

But in reality, this version is a major leap forward.

Simplicity of the artwork aside, it’s a far more cohesive concept which now showcases the hero’s journey aspect that Tim and I had discussed and it connects all six values together into a single image.

As surprising as this might be, I see this version as being very close to the final product. 

At this point all the basic elements we ended up with are now on the page and the next several changes are successive, iterative, and more subtle - yet they're all extremely important.

Let's look at the next stage of these revision notes: 

I’ll transcribe the above so that I can also break down the thinking behind my various notes:

Sean: My biggest note on this before we get to anything else is to get rid of the tie and make it into a character like our hero’s journey boy [editor’s note: this is a design already on one of FEE’s office walls, taken from a cover illustration for the Freeman Magazine]. Younger, less formal, maybe not even modern -- Someone on a quest to slay monsters, not just a corporate office guy. The concepts here are starting to form a story though, and I like that.

My reason for suggesting that we get away from modern-looking people wearing office attire is that the intended audience are FEE staffers who (1) mostly do not wear suits and ties; and (2) perform what we all believe to be incredibly meaningful work that I certainly believe is heroic. 

Tapping into heroic archetypes instead of the staid and dare-I-say boring modern workplace imagery seemed like a much better way to get our staff to identify with the values on a personal level.

In addition, a heroic fantasy setting is much more whimsical and fun, which I tend to think is important given that the goal is to inspire people. We also have similar imagery on another wall of our office, near the final placement of this artwork.

This change marks one of the final major shifts in direction for the design. 

From here on out, we start really building on the existing elements and making what’s already there better -- starting with the narrative structure itself so that the images actually tell a more coherent story:

Sean: Integrity isn’t quite right, but if we re-order the others, you’d have a narrative. I’ll think a bit more about how to show integrity here, but I really like this idea of someone leading a team of people into the forest to deal with a monster, then coming out victorious…Perhaps it starts with respect (protagonist speaks with his tribe around the fire and maybe instead of just generic dots, we see some indication that there is fear of a monster). Then maybe integrity is a scene of the group choosing the protagonist as their leader. Then we see creativity with the leader choosing a path among many options (perhaps there’s a mountain visible in the background). All this could happen in one continuous horizontal scene. Underneath that, we see the leader helping the others to climb the mountain (accountability), and the group battling the monster together for courage, followed by a victory showing excellence.

For me, all the best and most rewarding versions of this process are about taking the great aspects of what’s there and improving them. 

But this is something that can really only occur when working with talented people who bring their own style and ideas to the table. A less experienced or skilled designer working on this project would have necessitated different kinds of conversations, mainly pertaining to catching and fixing technical errors.

Tim’s existing design was already very good as presented, even in this still-early state. My job was really just to think about how the elements fit together in service of the project vision and make sure we stay true to our goal. 

Of course, I’m also suggesting possible solutions to various creative problems at the same time.

Even as I was recommending structural changes to enhance the story, my subconscious kept working on the problem and generating new ideas, so I had another thought going back to the plot of the story itself:

Sean: Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.... another nearly identical version could be that the defeat of the monster isn't via violence, but rather by taming the beast.

Taming the monster vs. killing it may seem like a fairly subtle distinction, but I personally regard this thought as one of my most important contributions to the whole project.

Consider that leading a group of people to go attack a monster is a common heroic narrative, but it’s actually at odds with a lot of what FEE stands for, both philosophically and strategically. 

Our organization is defined by respect for individual rights and a deep belief in the value of individual liberty for all -- very much including those who may seem different to ourselves. Attacking someone else, even someone who has the physical appearance of a monster, violates that principle. 

What’s more, our mission is to speak with people who are not already familiar with our values and help them to understand why they should also consider adopting liberty as a life philosophy. We do not accomplish our goals by “attacking” our perceived enemies, but by persuading them that there’s a better way.

Conveying this idea through the metaphor of the hero’s journey struck me as a really excellent way of maintaining the exciting narrative of the artwork while also saying something important about who we are as an organization and what we believe.

This project is about our values, after all, so it’s important that our actual values are present not only in the descriptive text but also the imagery itself.

It’s those kinds of details that really matter when coming up with the best possible end product, but thinking about that kind of thing also requires conscientiousness and time to ponder. Fortunately, we had both for this project.

Phase 03: Draft Revisions

Once the direction for the image was fully formed, Tim got to work creating a series of successive drafts and presenting them to me for feedback, starting with this:

The next iteration added the torch, and made a bunch of other minor changes, but it was still very dark.

Tim brightened up the background and worked on some of the changes I suggested, but the fact that the design was so monochromatic meant that it still wasn’t as bold or eye-catching as Richard had originally asked for, nor would it take full advantage of the dye sublimation printing process, which creates an incredibly vibrant result -- especially when well-lit. 

At this stage of the process, I began to shift the way I was thinking about my feedback away from big-picture, structural kinds of observations towards the finer details. As that happens on most projects, I find that it gets harder and harder to provide worthwhile notes immediately. More careful consideration  is required:

Sean: I want to mull this over for a bit. I generally love it. My biggest worry right now is that it still doesn’t have any really bright spots other than a few fires. As a result it feels a little monochromatic and may not stand out as much as I wish it did. I’m not sure yet what kinds of changes to suggest, though.

Tim: I definitely see what you’re seeing… I’m also not quite sure how to fix it yet. But let me know if you think of anything. I’ll work on it tomorrow.

Sean: I will ponder.

And ponder, I did. The following afternoon, I came back to the conversation with some ideas:

This thought ultimately led to Tim significantly revise the backgrounds to incorporate the warmer end of FEE’s brand-approved color palette, creating a much more exciting and dynamic image in the process:

However, this version still seemed a little random to me. So I offered a few more suggestions:

One thing I think is fascinating about this process is how creative ideas build off of each other. 

First we decided to try to tell a narrative story through the imagery. Then, once we had a coherent story in place, we started tweaking the images to reflect that story more effectively, then as we approached the end of the process we made even more tweaks to demonstrate a continuous passage of time from morning to evening making the story more seamless. 

The color change in the skies also necessitated a change of color in the mountains in the background:

After a few other minor revisions, we also made one more major change in order to more accurately reflect our audience -- gender balance between the characters:

With the core elements and structure in a great place, the final few rounds of feedback involved digging into highly specific tweaks that discussed a number of fine details in the illustration (such as the conspicuously unrealistic lack of a rope supporting the characters in the accountability panel), adding more highlights, dialing in the color tones, and moving the position/size of the “FEE values” logo at the bottom right corner inward, etc.

This phase of the editing process can often feel like nitpicking, but it’s extremely important. In Tim’s words: 

The fine details of a piece, especially a piece of this scale, play a surprisingly significant role in how these concepts are received. If one small detail strikes a viewer as unrealistic, like the lack of a rope attached to the tree, does that also then affect the validity of the entire concept? It’s something that we don’t think about if the designer gets it right, but something we can't ignore if the designer gets it wrong. Luckily I was given really valuable and specific constructive criticism in order to take this to its final stage.

And once we settled on those details, we were finally done with the design.

The only thing left was to have the image printed using the metal dye sublimation process we discussed. Tim found a fantastic vendor in Atlanta called Colorchrome, and the final product now hangs in our office:

Final Thoughts

I’m very proud of the values art we created, and it’s already a huge hit around the office, but it’s also just one example of literally hundreds that our team has been able to execute over the last nearly-three years. 

By asking the right questions and spending the time to define the creative vision for this project by thinking deeply about what we wanted to communicate and who we wanted to speak to, and then by unleashing as much creativity as we can inside an environment that deliberately encourages openness and imagination, and finally by sharpening those ideas via a collaborative process of honest critical feedback we’re able to punch well above our weight and create products that rival organizations with much bigger budgets and larger teams.

Getting the highest quality creative output for your organization will always require:

  1. A clear vision
  2. Work environments conducive to creativity
  3. Quality feedback

It will also require one last thing I’ve not talked about yet: Patience.

It takes time to develop the right talent and skills, just as it takes time to figure out exactly what products are really going to engage your target audience. Don’t expect the first idea or the first attempt at making something to be a massive hit, and don’t get discouraged if you have hits and misses along the way. Learn to enjoy the process more than the end result, and the end results will always be better for it.

The principles of building strong creative teams that I’ve outlined throughout this ebook are each essential to our success and they can be transferred to pretty much any other organization looking to develop more of their work in-house. 

That said, the one thing that can’t be transferred are the ideas and skills of our people. So in closing I’d just like to leave with some appreciation for FEE’s small but extremely talented team and some of our most frequent collaborators. 

Without Tim Webster, Pavel Rusakov, Jennifer Maffessanti, Arash Ayrom, Seamus Coughlin, Valerie Hinkle, Jared Hinkle-Marshall, Elijah Stanfield, Michael Angelo Zervos, Jason Rink, Riaz Virani, Robert Chapman-Smith, TK Coleman, and Richard Lorenc, none of these processes would mean anything.


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