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Take control: A guide for managing a creative project

Assuming creative control in a collaborative project is a skill we should all explore and cultivate. Here’s how it’s done

Illustration: Darren Shaddick

A successful creative process doesn't just happen by itself, like magic. Much like inspiration, successful creative projects take deliberate hard work and intention. More often than not, designers overlook the importance of the process itself, leaving all the responsibility and control in the hands of the project manager, considering it as irrelevant to their job as creatives.


If anyone understands the importance of creative control, it’s Olena Subchuk. As a designer for the Wix Agency team—creating websites for external clients—she has extensive experience in creative project management. She has learned firsthand just how crucial it is to control the creative process. Like she says: “You won’t believe how much your own development and growth depend on it”.


Olena recently led the “Taking Control” workshop at the Pictoplasma conference where she explained how to take control of the creative process and build professional relationships that last, making your work—as well as your life—better.

In this interview she shares more about the workshop and offers additional insight into what control means, how to brush up your management skills, and how to make the most of a collaborative project.


Wix Playground: What does control mean in the creative process? And why is it so important?

Olena Subchuk: “Most people feel as though having a good creative process is a stroke of luck, an accident. As if getting to have a good relationship with your client while doing a project is like playing roulette; you have no control of how it goes and what the outcome is. But I’ve come to realize the opposite is true; we actually have great influence and control over how we develop a relationship and establish a collaboration. And it’s so important because the relationship you have with your client is ultimately the relationship you will have with the project.

If you have good communication and the process is fluid, most likely your creative part—the design—will be better as well.”


WP: The workshop begins by demonstrating the three different roles in a creative project: the client, the designer, and the project manager. You then go on to explain how in many cases, you don’t get to have an official project manager so the designer must step into that role and assume creative control. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that designers have about the role of a project manager?

OS: “The first is that we are not aware of what their job enailts; we fail to understand that their job is also ours. It’s understanding that the main part of what they do—communication—is a universal skill. Another misconception is that project managers are the ‘bad guys’ in the project's process. Because they are all about deadlines and budget, it can seem like they are not helping us work and cultivate our creativity. In the workshop we see how this is a shared responsibility we should all strive for; the success of the project depends on it.”


WP: Why is it challenging for designers to act as project managers, and assume creative control? Is it something you yourself struggled with?

OS:I think it starts with design education. In my case, my formal design education didn’t really prepare me in terms of soft skills. My training was more about the actual work and the design process itself, with not as much focus on communication, organizing, and time management.

I was only exposed to the management side when I started working and was able to see the senior designers, art directors and project managers communicating with the clients and presenting the work. I saw the power of design not just in the visual aspect, but also in how you communicate it, controlling the perception of how people see the work. That’s when I wanted to practice more control - because I saw what an influence it has over the project.”


WP: Is creative control only a challenge with clients, or is it also an issue in other collaborative processes, even those within your own team?

OS:I think it’s the hardest with clients. They’re not designers and don’t speak the same language as you so there’s an extra barrier to overcome. But it can definitely happen with your team as well. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate your work. Your work can feel very personal, or you have low self esteem because you feel you don’t have enough experience—all that can happen with colleagues as well as clients.”


WP: How can you adapt a more professional way of looking at things rather than a personal one?

OS:I definitely think we should all personally care about the work we do, but maybe the mindset could be shifted a bit. Instead of thinking “I am doing something and it needs to be great” or “I failed to create something great”, try thinking in terms of “we”: “we are working together on this and trying to find the best possible solution”. Turning the “I” into “We” is a helpful way to create a less stressful headspace to work in. It doesn’t mean that I’m removing the responsibility from myself, just leaning into the concept of teamwork—enjoying having multiple brains and talents working on a project and communicating together which will ultimately bring better results.“


WP: In your workshop you talk a lot about communication and how, in order to be a good communicator, you need to get to know yourself better first. Can you elaborate on that? Maybe share some tips?

OS: “It’s very simple really. Knowing who you are will allow you to work better with others. Understanding your own personality traits and preferences makes it easier for you to find the right people to work with and avoid miscommunication. Of course, getting to know yourself is a lifelong mission regardless of who you are as a designer, but identifying specific personality traits is a good place to start. Are you a planner who hates last-minute changes? Do you enjoy creating your own briefs or like following someone else’s lead? Are you a charmer who likes running the show? All of these things are little markers you should notice about yourself and take into account as you build relationships.

Another tip I have is to listen to others and pay attention to the way they perceive you. Sometimes people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. They see something in you and direct you to try something new which can create room for discovery about yourself as well.”


WP: As you describe in your workshop, what are the main elements of good communication, regardless of your personality type?

OS: “I’d say there are five key elements to remember: Maintain an ongoing, open channel of communication and updates. Flag problems or setbacks as soon as they arise.

Always keep your tone respectful and nice. Synchronize so that everyone always knows what’s happening now, next and what is needed to finish the project. And finally, and maybe most importantly, establish the projects’ process in advance and be sure to share it with everyone.”

WP: It sounds like being a project manager requires a very specific personality and skill set. If you are very shy and don't feel you have those skills, what can you do to be a good project manager?

OS: “I think there needs to be a distinction between being shy or introverted, and being able to communicate. If being shy stops you from speaking your mind, it’s hurting the process. So you need to be able to get out of that mindset. Without communication you are not really collaborating. Recognize that your teammates are with you, not against you. These are people who respect you and are actually on the same side, with the same goal. You don't have to be the most talkative or the center of attention, but make yourself comfortable enough to share your thoughts and process.

Of course it always helps to follow the traditional, structured steps of the project management process. Planning—which includes research, ideation and kick-off; execution—including design, presentation and feedback; and completion—which is about handoff and support.”


WP: What would you say is most important in each step of the process?

OS: “During the planning and research phase you gather all the information you can, laying it out in front of you like your ingredients before you cook a recipe. Here I’d say asking questions is the most important way to get all the information you need. In the execution and design phase the emphasis is on coming up with solutions, so I’d say it’s all about having a few options to discuss with the client or the team. The more options you have, the more room there is for discussion based on actual references. In the last stage of completion I think it’s important to try and put yourself in the shoes of your client— to try and think if the final product or outcome is enough for them and you’re not leaving any loose ends.”


WP: And lastly, do you feel that working in a team and collaborating makes you a better designer? A better person? What are the benefits of collaboration?

OS: “Personally, I believe it's super important to collaborate. It’s not that working alone is necessarily bad and will get you bad results, but there’s something in a collaboration that teaches you and expands your mind in ways that working alone doesn’t. I’d say balance is the key, so if you're in a position where you can experience everything—working alone and then working in a team; working on small projects and big ones; working remotely and then onsite—that's the best combination. Trying different types of projects will open your mind and diversify your range of expertise. As I mentioned before, that’s how you get to know yourself better and become not just a better designer and collaborator, but a better communicator, which is always beneficial for your personal life as well.”


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