Late nights, passion and the creativity myth

My first professional job was in a small advertising agency. Despite knowing many fine people there who have gone on to great careers elsewhere, for a graduate designer it was, put simply, a sweatshop.

Working there taught me two important things:

1) I had to get out of advertising as soon as I could
2) Routinely working long hours reduces quality, productivity and creativity

During my time there I was involved in numerous pitches for advertising accounts that were poorly planned and executed, more often than not resulting in failure. Each had another common characteristic: a reliance on working late into the night.

Time would invariably be wasted on various approaches with no structure or purpose until with little time left, the Creative Director would pipe up dramatically “I’ve got it!”. We’d then throw the kitchen sink at it, working excessively late or over the weekend as though it were proof of creativity and commitment. It wasn’t. It was proof of poor planning and a lack of creativity.

I don’t mean to generalise; of course like all aspects of design, well practiced advertising has its best practice processes and systems. Similarly working late to finish a project based on agreed milestones and deadlines goes with the territory.

However when company culture relies on sapping the energies of junior staff members in the name of creativity then there is a problem. The agency I cut my teeth with was all about the creativity myth. The myth that says if you work late enough and throw enough time at it, great creativity will simply happen.

An over-reliance on “passion” in the marketing lexicon of design agencies further fuels the fallacy. Regardless of the intent, what something like “we’re passionate about design” says at best is that “we will work long into the night for you”. As a client I don’t think I would care how much of a flurry you whip up due to your passion, or how many all-nighters you are prepared to pull. It’s results that count. To paraphrase Joe Rinaldo, what’s the ROI on passion?

Time and again it has been proved that effective results come from careful planning, iteration and craft. Otherwise known as professionalism. Yes, you can work round the clock on a labour of love. We all do it. Can you do it on a number of projects in a row? Yes, you can. Can you sustain that pace and a reliance on late hours over a number of years, over a career? You can if you are prepared to have nothing else of value in your life.

Waiting for the creative director’s faux inspiration wasn’t for me. Despite being completely new to the workplace, I could see that it was an ineffective way of working. Although I didn’t know it at the time I was crying out for process, order and sanity.

Happily UI design provides just that, and I am proud to be working now in a discipline that increasingly values a systematic process over flamboyant showboating.

Author: Rick Monro

Rick has led and managed design teams in agencies in Ireland, provided UX consultancy for both public and private sector clients and is currently a Principal UX Architect with Puppet. He is also a syllabus consultant and lecturer for the Digital Marketing Institute and organiser of UX Bookclub Belfast.

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