How to be creative and stay competitive is a universal problem for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. Everyone needs help wrangling the creative process. At Modernist Studio, we work with large companies, but we enjoy working smaller and medium sized businesses, who have fewer resources to help them strategically integrate creativity into their companies. Somewhat ironically, these smaller companies can benefit more from a creative approach to their product and service development, because it will help them differentiate themselves, drive new innovations, and better compete with larger and more established companies. Here are some of the ways we help small businesses harness the power of creativity without getting steeped in the chaos of innovation.
- Bring it in-house. As much as my company likes working with small companies – and as much as we like getting paid! – it’s a huge benefit for small businesses to have a generalist designer inside their doors. Ideally, this is someone who can work tactically on projects through their craft, and can also think strategically about the business. But it’s easy to pigeonhole this person as a production artist, giving them menial activities like creating letterhead or PowerPoint presentations. As you bring in your first creative hire, make sure they are at a decision-making level and have some authority over the way the business works, and that they aren’t just an assembly line of trivial creative artifacts.
- Let them do their job. Everyone has, and is welcome to, their opinion about creative work. It is valuable to offer criticism and suggestions about ways work can be improved. But I’ve notice that in small businesses those suggestions become mandates. Employees, particularly founders, have a strong sense of ownership in the company, and it’s reasonable that they want to explicitly direct the way their company’s products and services appear to the world. But this heavy-handedness can break a creative team, because they start to feel that their intellect isn’t valued – that they are just a set of hired hands. This isn’t art and they should be held to the same collaborative standards as any other employee. But you hired them for their creative expertise. Make sure they have enough runway to explore, and to bring their creativity to reality. Give them room.
- Teach the whole company. It’s tempting to hire a single designer and treat them like “the creative person.” This sends a pretty strong message to the rest of the company – that they aren’t creative, and that they shouldn’t try to be. Innovation comes from all aspects of the business, and it’s important that everyone has the skills to create new, exciting ideas. A lot of consultancies sell one-day workshops in creativity that are intended to help small companies understand a creative process. I’ve found these to be thin and ineffective. Employees walk away feeling that they had a good time, but didn’t really learn anything. Instead, think about implementing a more long-term training program. What if every Friday afternoon, for a whole quarter, the entire team took lessons in ideation and creative problem solving? Compare the perceived productivity loss with the benefits of creativity, innovation, and visualization: it’s a strong investment that could pay for itself in no time.
Small businesses face a lot of challenges that larger organizations can avoid, primarily because of their access to resources. But when creativity is infused into small companies, they can bring new products and services to market faster, and can leverage the creative process to drive rapid change and produce great new innovations: they can better compete with those larger, more intimidating corporations.
About the author:
Jon Kolko is the author of Creative Clarity, Partner at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. Previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, he has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.