Becoming a Director: The Undisclosed Challenge of Creation in a Straightjacket

As professional creatives, as designers, and artists in any medium, staff or freelance, we tend to share a common career goal. After entering the workforce and working in our chosen field for a number of years, we imagine naturally progressing to directing, where we will be inspiring teams of people in doing what we have done. We may further imagine rather loftier goals than that, but surely directing is part of our journey.

Although often eager for this promotion, few creatives understand the implications of directing, and therefor fail to prepare themselves adequately for the role.

Let me state emphatically – the hardest thing any talented creative person will ever have to do in his/her career – and truly nothing is fraught with more hidden challenge – is face the moment of transitioning from being a person who makes things, to a person who directs people who make things.

I have watched and mentored countless creatives through this transition, and at 50 I still continue to face the challenges of this transition myself. As such I can report that upon finding yourself in a directing role, many of you will not be happy, won’t be any good at it, or both. At least not for many more years than you expect.

And that’s because directing is a completely new medium, one that has almost nothing to do with the creative medium you are an expert in. You will (likely) painfully find yourself virtually starting over in your career, you will have to let go of reliance on so many of the expert skills you have acquired, and as when confronting any new medium, you will have to confront the lack of knowing the basics.

Despite expectation and intuition, directing is in no way a natural progression from wherever you are as a creative today.

Despite expectation and intuition, directing is in no way a natural progression from wherever you are as a creative today.

 

Your Internal Director

As a maker of things, as a designer or artist, your work-flow is often intuitive and non-verbal, you feel your way. It’s how virtually all of us started – by making things ourselves, satisfying our inner voices. You form ideas, you sculpt – internally debating, making decisions and solving problems as you feel best, all in the flow, without uttering a word or articulating a thought. If the work doesn’t look, feel or sound right, you simply know it at a glance. You don’t have to articulate why – you only need to respond to that powerful creative intuition you have developed – trusting your hands, your increasing skills, and feelings to take you to the answer.

There is nothing lost in translation at each step because for you it happened organically.

When your work is completed – often you have to step back and analyze why it works. But anyway – in the end it does.

So says your intuitive internal director.

 

Directing: The Art of People

Most assume that because they know how to design or make things that they are suited to direct, succumbing to the illusion that directing is merely a progressive step.

However, what you soon discover is that when you direct people in making things you don’t get to use most of the skills that brought you here. The tools that you spent 10 or more years cultivating. You soon discover that you’re standing there holding a new palette, new tools. The new tools of your trade are interpersonal relationships, the ability to sense feelings, to encourage artists to do what they do, to analyze and diagnose creative, strategic and emotional conditions and articulate them back – all with words. Words. Words.

Words. Words. Words.

Remember that intuitive, internal director? That one who worked so confidently, who felt its way, who, without ever a single utterance, instructed your mind and hands to create stunning works of art?  That director must now step out, stand on stage and articulate every thing it thinks and does – with words alone – in such an attenuated way that it encourages this trusting ego, or that passive-aggressive, defensive ego, or the gentle, sensitive ego over there.

Every creative I have ever known grossly underestimated the difficulty of this, they mistakenly believed directing was a natural evolution, the next step of being the artist that they are.  Which is ironic because, truth be known, a large number of us became artists specifically because we were not good at interacting with people.   But despite this, I think most creatives naturally believe they would excel at directing.

We’re all quite used to being directed ourselves, and as the receiver of someone else’s direction, it just doesn’t seem all that hard to do. Maybe in part because good directors and clients appear to do it effortlessly and bad ones (of which we encounter many more) suck such that you can plainly see it, you feel naturally emboldened that you can do better. The problem is, this game isn’t doing better than the bad ones. The game is doing it great. And doing it great means , among other things, that you must be terrific at motivating, challenging, inspiring and analyzing people.

 

Directing Someone Else’s Good Idea To The Target

Aside from turning interpersonal relationships into creative solutions, there is another aspect of directing that is often a very new experience: Encouraging someone else’s creative voice to occupy the space.

For someone who has come to define his/her aesthetic sensibility through hands-on action, the act of letting go of execution – while still being responsible for the outcome – of motivating someone else to create great work in their own creative voice – not yours, is a daunting challenge.

I now know that when the team’s work is poor, 9 times out of 10 it’s my fault. And when their work is good, 9 times out of 10 it’s not because of me. That’s directing.

…when the team’s work is poor, 9 times out of 10 it’s my fault. And when the work is good, 9 times out of 10 it’s not because of me. That’s directing.

And it’s not because we, as directors, don’t occasionally have good creative ideas, but because the director’s tactical creative solutions are not those that finally manifest. Sure you inspire, and guide and you might even get the team to design down a path that you originally conceived, and you are ultimately responsible if the work sucks. But the work, the image, the site, the art is not yours. It can’t be. The artwork simply is somebody else’s – and it must be allowed to be. It has to come from their heads. They hold the brush, and their heart needs to move it.

There is a close corollary when directing film and theater actors.

A bad theater or film director will give his actor a “line-reading”. This is when the director acts out dialogue from the script by speaking with specific emphasis, and then directing his actor to repeat the line with that emphasis. This is micromanaging, forced, and does not result in a realistic, believable performance.

A great film or theater director will never have to tell an actor how to say a line. That does not mean that he won’t manage to get the actor to say the line differently however. Our hypothetical great director will sit down with the actor and discuss the character – he may revisit the character’s back story, the impact some event must have had on the character’s current emotions. A dramatic event, the context of the scene. The director may further sense a personal conflict in the actor himself, one the director must emotionally counsel the actor through. Armed with that context, feeling, and emotional therapy the actor is then able to do his job – to lose himself in the real emotion – to use his own instrument to become the character. When the actor is truly in character – when he believes what he says – with the emotion of his back story in his heart – the performance will feel real- and it will be consistent. And any emphasis on that line of dialogue, and all the others, will come from the actor alone.

The same is true for all great directors, no matter the medium. Designers need to understand the goal, the intent, the strategy, the feelings that the piece needs to convey. The artist will likely need emotional counsel from time to time- sensitivity to the challenges she faces. And the director must trust the voice of that good designer. If he does not, if he says “do it like I do, do this, do that”, if in exasperation he sits down and creates a piece of art to show his designer what he means, he is essentially giving his designer a “line reading”, he is cheating. And he is undermining his designer’s ability to be great, to do the best work she can do.

…if in exasperation he sits down and creates a piece of art to show his designer what he means, he is essentially giving his designer a “line reading”, he is cheating.

Often new directors gravitate back to their creation tools. Simply because sometimes it is how they think. It’s how they have grown up communicating. The art-making tools are a young director’s comfort zone. Even if you don’t think that’s why you’re doing it – it is usually the reason. It feels safe. You know where you stand when you wield photoshop or whatever your tool is. You have power there.

But when you let go, when you donn the director’s straight-jacket and try to merely talk… well, what does one do? How does one “create”? If the work isn’t right, how does one get the team from point A to point B? How does one get the artist to change the art without telling her what to do? Does one repeat the original direction- again? Does one simply reject bad ideas? Does one compromise? Does one make forms, or charts, or plans? Does one come up with ideas for off-sites to motivate the team? Does one make sure everyone has the best equipment? What’s the job?

The idea that the director’s contribution has little or no physical deliverable is often an alien sensation to someone who has been promoted from making things.

 

Skills and Credibility

With all this talk about “hands off” I hope I haven’t misled you to believe that a director does not need a solid foundation in the hands-on skills in his background. Having watched so many directors from different fields and backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that those who have done the work before, who have solved problems like these many times before, who might otherwise be able to sit down, take up the tools and do this job now, these directors are almost always better. (Again – assuming they apply the knowledge – but withhold from doing it!) They know what their team is going through. A director who lacks such direct hands on skills neither understands the nuanced challenges his team faces, nor does he tend to command respect and belief from his team. The extent to which the director or client has not done this type of work is the extent to which the creative team will likely doubt the integrity of any direction he has provided.

It’s why clients and directors who lack creative or hands-on backgrounds but who provide creative comments are notoriously lampooned and ridiculed by creatives in all fields.

Authority without experience. Creatives are a cynical lot. And few things trigger their cynical response more than an inexperienced client or director giving feedback.

Creatives are a cynical lot. And few things trigger their cynical response more than an inexperienced client or director giving feedback.

And this brings me to the last main challenge for most directors.

 

Navigating the Corporation

Even the title triggers measured sighs and eyes to roll. But this is another arena that often comes as a shock, and where great directors can excel.

Almost all creative jobs exist within a company. Very few of those – even among ad and design agencies – are truly designed to nurture creatives’ needs, disciplines and sensibilities. And it’s here, in the organizational world of profit and loss, of business plans and strategy, of budgets and Excel spreadsheets that the last few creative directors sink or swim.

Nothing elicits such a strong show of cynicism as when corporate machinations impact the creative team. If you run a company you are all to familiar with the fear, uncertainty and doubt that seems to plague your design teams. You feel they often make unrealistic demands, disconnected from what it takes to run a business. They complain when things change – they always seem to look on the dark side when the company grows or changes – never seeing the positive.

But you need to know, your creative teams are not just irrationally “whiny”. They behave this way because creatives, by in large, really are victims of the corporate world.

creatives, by in large, really are victims of the corporate world

See, the reason creatives enter the fields they do is because they were designed for that. It’s how their brain works. And being designed for that often (though perhaps not always) means not being designed for other types of roles: strategy, management, accounting, and sales for example.

Unfortunately for creatives, creating great artwork does not automatically explain or justify its benefits to the business. The disciplines and skills involved in being a great creative does not make one great at conceiving and arguing for organizational change that will both improve the work they produce and also make the company more money.

Not the way, say, salesmen can. Or strategists can. These guys can assemble a compelling argument, compare the numbers – they can argue and show how the bottom line will improve by funneling more money and resource to their departments in ways that make their lives easier and allows them to do better work. They are verbal creatures. They think in quite literal, logical terms. And they can sell in their ideas. Their job skills actually align with organizational operation.

But creatives generally don’t have those skills. They are intuitive thinkers. They have feelings that manifest through their hands into objects and artwork that none of the rest of us can fully explain but that we love and appreciate.

So it goes that when things happen in a company – when teams move, get reorganized or budgets and schedules are allocated, the creative team is carried along for the ride – in whatever way some executive, armed with reasoned arguments from other articulate teams, decided was best. Often this results in non-optimized conditions for the creative teams. When they are lucky the creatives have a team of executives that look out for them. But this is most often not the case.

So creatives the world over are literal victims of the corporate system. And they act like it.

This is where a solid director has an opportunity to make a difference. Navigating the corporate world – selling into the business – justifying the need for greater budgets, schedules, resources. And defending the creative product itself in the face of dissension.

If you can do all this, your creative team will do better work – and to me there need be no more reason to do this part well.

But what exactly does any of this have to do with that wonderful creative skills that brought you to this role?

Very little indeed.

It’s just another unexpected challenge that most directors discover after the fact, and struggle against for years.

 

Love What You Do

Like all things the transition to directing often eventually works itself out if you enter with your eyes open – aware of these otherwise hidden factors, and remain committed, always willing to learn a new lesson.

Mainly though, and I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, it’s important to be aware that directing is not a natural step in the progression of your role as an artist.

If you love your art, if you love designing – if your heart thoroughly enjoys the skills you have developed, my emphatic recommendation is: don’t be too eager to leave that behind you. Because in many ways – that is what directing results in.

 

Conclusion

To recap, there are four main qualifications you’ll end up confronting, if indeed directing is your calling. You’ll have to:

  1. Know the art and have mastered the hands-on skills. If you can’t make things yourself, if you haven’t done it before – you don’t really know what your team is going through – you’re guessing – and therefor can’t direct well. Having these skills behind you is how you will relate to your teams, how your feedback will carry credibility, and more importantly how you will gauge what they are and aren’t capable of.
  2. Become an expert in interpersonal relationships. People are now your medium – where the art form itself no longer is. You must be able to read people’s concealed emotions, you must intuitively know what they need from you and from others to do great work. Your own ego has little place here. You must have nothing to prove, you cannot be defensive. You must be a therapist and a leader. If this one qualification doesn’t come naturally to you – directing may not be up your alley.
  3. Direct with context and words, not “line-readings” and hands. You must be a strong speaker – you must be able to form and articulate thoughts that are valid and make sense. You must wear the director’s straight jacket, able motivate and redirect your teams without doing their jobs – they must be allowed to own and invent the solution. They must be allowed to create the art. If you do it for them, and it does not manifest from their consciousness, they’re ongoing performance will will be weaker.
  4. Navigate the corporate organization. You will have to defend your team’s creative ideas in such a way that clients, and executives can buy in to the creative executions. This is about much more than the “pitch”. You need to be able to explain to them how it improves their business. You need to defend your team when corporate changes are likely to impact them. You need to be able to wrangle the corporate machinery to your team’s best interest.

This is directing.

It’s all about the art – but the art is not your medium.  Now your medium is people.

And that is why, creatives who’ve advanced to directorship often find themselves longing for the days that they were making things again.