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10 Tips for Managing Creative People

Today’s workplace is filled with different personality styles. Understanding those differences and how they affect your workforce can make you a more effective manager.

Working with “left-brained” (more analytical) versus “right-brained” (more creative) employees has its own set of rules. Most creative workers use the right-brain style of learning and working, which is a visual, random, emotional and somewhat impulsive style of learning, according to data compiled at Western Michigan University. Right brain people like to work with sound in the background (note all those earbuds around the office), like to move about while thinking about concepts and generally start with a big idea and narrow it to the details. Left-brained workers and more verbal and logical, like things in order and prefer a formal workplace.

Take a look at your staff, when most are graduates from a design programme. How many right-brain workers are in the room? My guess it the number is pretty high among designers. Here are a few tips for managing your creative people in a way they can relate to.

1. Develop Ideas

Start with a collaborative environment. Work with creative people to develop concepts but avoid specific, detailed instructions on what a project should look like. Explain parameters clearly – such as the feel or look a project should have – and let the designer go to work.

Check-in often to see how the project is going and help in its development.

The creative personality is not one to just follow a set of rules; that is one trait that makes them successful in creative and design-oriented fields. Give them room to develop concepts without constant observation.

Coach workers rather than dictate a set of rules to them. Avoid planning out everything that should be done in advance; give employees freedom to make choices so they feel some creative control over projects.

2. Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm

Much of the creative process is organic and creative people like to think and imagine. Because a characteristic of a right-brained thinker is to process information in sometimes random and varied orders, brainstorming sessions can be beneficial. Toss out many ideas (follow the “no idea is stupid rule”) and keep quick notes of concepts that are workable.

Encourage workers to brainstorm with each other. You don’t have to be present for good ideas to emerge. Tracy Collins, a newspaper manager, offered this advice in the 2008 edition of Design Journal: “Help them develop brainstorming alliances that will strengthen teamwork within the visual group, and have that group present their ideas to you.”

3. Foster a Creative Workspace

A row of grey cubicles will not foster creativity. Litter your workspace with color and items that will inspire workers. Look for interesting artwork or showcase some of the work your company has done. Is the room silent? Think about playing music at a certain time of day. Let the employees pick the tunes.

Rearrange the workspace to facilitate communication and collaboration. Paint a white wall orange and add a piece of artwork to it. Set aside an area with couches and tables to employees to relax and chat. One of the world’s top companies, Google, is known for its super-modern workspaces which feature lots of color and modern “cubicles.”

Be flexible with work schedules if possible. Maybe some of your workers would benefit from a schedule that does not fit in the 9-to-5 mould. Try to accommodate shift variances for people to optimize their skills. This is especially true for staff in digital roles like coding, digital marketing, etc.

4. Provide Feedback

Let your employees know how they are doing. It is easy for someone who primarily uses a right-brained style of thinking to become attached to their work emotionally. During critiques, keep the focus on an employee’s work. Choose words carefully.

In any creative field, much of what “works” or does not can be a matter of personal preference. Weigh this when critiquing a project. If you do not like a creative piece look, ask yourself several questions. Does it work for what the client wants? Does it follow our guidelines of the style and is it technically sound?

If the project meets these guidelines and you still don’t like it, the difference may just be a matter of taste. Remember you may not like everything that comes across your desk. It may sound overly simple but people have different styles and like different things. It does not make something right or wrong; it is just a matter of taste.

Do set clear boundaries in black and white areas. A common concern among creative, for example, can be meeting deadlines. Start with how much you like the direction of the project but emphasize that the team is waiting for everyone’s contribution so the project can be completed. Outline a clear set of steps to meet that goal.

5. Develop Style Parameters

Although creative workers like their space, it is a good idea to have some guidelines in place. Develop and post set technical specifications, communication standards and deadline policies.

For certain types of work where visual consistency is important — such as design in magazines, newspapers and some websites — develop a basic set of style rules. Outline what fonts and colours are acceptable; set guidelines for images. Also set guidelines for breaking the rules — what is the threshold, who approves the “rule-breaking.”

6. Don’t Fear Failure

An international Mercedes-Benz ad campaign in early 2011, focused on left and right brain traits in a series of print advertisements. These ads showed the differences in thinking styles visually. The result was visually stunning images that make you think, but did they sell the product described? The creative agency took quite a risk with this edgy campaign, but I doubt people who saw the ad-related it to buying a car. The result could be viewed as both a success and a failure.

Don’t take away work from someone after a failed project. That is the time to “get back on the bike” and try something else. If an employee did good work but a project just did not come together give them another chance and talk about the small success and failures that contributed to the final result. Creative people can have big egos at times and need to feel some success to find continued success.

7. Coach Principles of Communication

Sometimes it can be very frustrating for visual people to communicate with non-visual workers. Your visual group may be able to “see” an idea during a conversation while others cannot. Coach those workers on how to better communicate their ideas.

Sometimes the solution can be as simple as having sketch pads and pens at all meetings so those visual ideas can be put out there for everyone. Ask questions to help visual thinkers learn to better articulate their thoughts as well: “I don’t understand. Please talk me through this one more time.”

Help designers learn to explain their decision-making and why things look a certain way. Don’t accept “because it looks cool” as an answer; push creatives to justify the reasons why something works or does not.

8. Different is Good

Don’t focus on differences as a negative attribute; use them to your team’s advantage. Different styles of thinking and communication can be a challenge in the workplace but try to focus on how to use those differences.

Creative people think in a way that is likely to challenge the more structured through process of managers. Keep your cool during these challenges. It may be frustrating but the same thought process that challenges your rules about a dress code, is the same process that got you stellar results on a project. Learn to mesh your styles effectively but keep lines of communication open and appreciating difference.

9. Emphasize Learning

Technology is changing the way we work each day at a pace that is hard to match. Make sure your employees are learning new things and keeping up.

Print designers should be dabbling in web design. Encourage and find opportunities for those who are not. Web designers should have to participate in a print project or two. Provide learning materials for your staff as well. Subscribe to industry magazines and have them available. Send links to neat ideas or online articles. Show that you are seeking out learning opportunities as well.

10. Start Daydreaming

Daydreaming is at the core of problem-solving, according to an article by Amy Fries for Psychology Today. Don’t stop your best employees when they zone out at their desks; sometimes that is when the creative process is happening.

Further, encourage mental time-outs. Several companies known for innovation – Google, 3M and Gore-Tex — offer employees free time, just to sit and think. When have your best ideas hit — in the shower, at the dinner table? Giving employees more time to think about projects may increase overall productivity.


Managing creative people is no simple task. There are no perfect ways to keep everyone happy and productive. But as a manager, you can create workspaces and environment that fosters out-of-the-box thinking.

The keys to success are understanding how creative people operate (the room may be filled with right-brained thinkers), constant communication and freedom to let people do what they do best. You might have to get out of your comfort zone to do it, but push some of the boundaries to create a space that encourages this open exchange and see where it takes your group.

Do you have any other tips for getting the most out of creative workers? We’d love you to share them.


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