Why Creatives Are Confused

The Ad Contrarian has this great little post about Why Creatives Are Confused. Here’s an excerpt:

When they say advertising is an art, their clients say it’s a business.  When they say it’s a business, their clients say it’s an art. When they finally get something good produced, it fails. When they produce mundane crap, it works.When their friends like it, their clients hate it. When their clients like it, their friends hate it. They are  encouraged to be collaborative. But the more people touch their work, the worse it gets. They are counseled against becoming prima donnas. But they see that the people who get good jobs are often disagreeable monsters.

If they weren’t confused they’d be crazy.

It’s a provocative set of observations – and reading it gave me three divergent feelings.

  1. Life is Confusing. I’m empathetic to creative confusion. Many, if not most people on the planet, are confused. And some are so confused that they don’t know why they’re confused. I feel confused by the many paradoxes I find in life, whether I’m creating things, or just trying to fit in and find my way. Creatives are often more personally invested in their work, so their confusion is more personally painful. But look at your coworkers and friends: nearly everyone is confused in one way or another.
  2. Life is more confusing when you (think you) have little power.  Most ‘creatives’ don’t have much power. Count how many approvals you need to get something out the door – if it’s more than 1, you are not an Artist. You are an artist, being paid to make ‘art’ other people are paying you for the right to reject, or change, or ruin. By law you are free to make whatever you want and try to sell it yourself. If you do, you’ll have more pride in your work, but less money in your pocket – a trade Artists have made throughout history. Art/Design school rarely includes skills for making, or succeeding at, these choices, or even putting in your mindset that the trade-offs are yours to make.
  3. Being an expert comes with traps. The more of an expert you are, the more time you will tend to spend with people who know nothing about your craft. The more senior a creative you become (Art Director, Senior Creative Lead Dude), the more time you will spend in rooms with powerful people who know nothing about creativity. This means the people most interested in you will understand little about your craft, and expect you to work with clients who understand even less. You’d be crazy not to expect to be confused when you are paid the most for your expertise by people who don’t know enough not to squander it.

(found via Cameron Moll)

15 Responses to “Why Creatives Are Confused”

  1. Dennis

    One of the things creatives fail to realize is that people skills are often as important as design skills in turning ideas into reality. If you can work with people, accept criticism, articulate your rationale, and accept constraints you are more likely to be successful (and personally content) than if you are an uncompromising primadonna.

    Compromise doesn’t mean caving. It means engaging with people and working out a solution. My observation is that many people feel confused and frustrated because they can’t handle critique.

  2. Scott Berkun


    I’ve written about critique before and I agree with you. Skills for getting and giving good feedback are not a core part of many degree programs in creative fields.

    But it’s also worth pointing out every team and firm and company is different. Some places have great management and do an excellent job of choosing/framing clients so that creatives are empowered, rather than diminished. Lumping the world of creative work into one big pile makes 500 word blog posts easier, but not much else.

  3. Dave

    I don’t think this dilemma is unique to advertising. People are eager to claim to want fresh ideas, not so eager to take action on them. That leaves creatives scratching their heads.

    That is no reason to stop coming up with new ideas. Most people don’t make quantum leaps. They seem to be willing to jump across a puddle, but not ford a river. Sometimes though, fording a river will beat the competition. Other times fording a river will isolate you.

    Taking a risk can be very rewarding. Taking a blind risk, not so much. Like everything else, the hard part is knowing the difference. I wish I knew the answer to that one.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I agree – these sorts of feelings are universal, and not specific to people in creative fields, although they often take feel angst around this more deeply or personally than others.

  4. Todd Henry

    In organized creative work, there tends to be a tension between possibilities and pragmatics. Organizations seem to trend toward “rolling to the middle of the bed” and deferring to predictability over potential, and this is not necessarily bad. (It tends to keep the paychecks flowing, even though it often squelches brilliant work in the process.) One of the challenges is that creatives are often looking to get something out of their job that isn’t always available to them – complete artistic satisfaction. It’s a romantic notion to expect that your job will contain the sum of your creative expression, but I don’t think it’s realistic. The problem is that organizations often speak out of both sides of their mouth. The battle cry to “INNOVATE! THINK HUGE!” is often followed by a whispered “…practically, please. And by this friday morning if possible…”

  5. Scott Berkun


    I agree. But I get hung up, or even riled up, when I consider this set of conflicting goals/attitudes is ancient – why aren’t people with design degrees and formal training in any creative field taught to be aware of, to influence, and to thrive in, places where those contradictions are in place?

    That’s my gripe. As contradictory as these patterns are, they are common and they are old, yet it seems many creative types get lost in them as if these situations are a surprise.

    So you’re right – and I’m empathetic. But if so many people’s expectations are so far away from the reality, the problem to me is about education and the behavior among leaders.

    All of the creative gurus tend to focus on inspiring people based on how free the creative guru is in their own work, fueling the expectation that inspiration is the missing link. When it’s not. Many of the creative guru types would be utter failures in the kinds of organizations and roles the majority of the people who look up to them likely have.

  6. Todd Henry

    Yes, yes and yes. Agree totally that education is severely lacking, and that there are few people talking about this stuff, which is (IMHO) one of the key issues facing people who work with their mind. The key isn’t more inspiration, the key is learning how to deal with expectations, stay engaged and do great work consistently, and do it in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, to your point, most of the advice out there is about how to find more inspiration when people in the trenches (like me!) are actually more concerned with how to do great work in the midst of the conflicting expectations and constraints.

    Great post – thanks for bringing up this topic.

  7. George Murray


    I agree that these conflicts are everywhere. Life is confusing and everyone feels it. Designers are closest to it.

    I think people are generally afraid of admitting that things are chaotic. Everyone wants to create or feel orderly, even if it means becoming the dick who never compromises, or giving in the status quo, shortcut solutions. The truth is this: life is messy, business is messy, design is in between those two things and very messy. The best thing we can do is help each other, imo.

    Why arn’t we being taught to deal with the complexities? Well, for one no institution or school wants to admit things are crazy and changing fast. Also the ability to feel comfortable in chaos is generally taught by experiencing it. Of course, there are techniques that can be taught ahead for managing or situations that can cut to the chase or focus on developing comfort in certain situations.

    I would like to see classes facilitate projects with real world consequences, that are crafted to focus on areas like

    – Communicating to a non-designer
    – Getting non-designers to join your cause
    – Knowing how/when to move between collaborating and leading
    – Navigating various levels of lack-of-direction (self-starting)
    – Something to develop awareness of personal abilities (i.e. what I can/cannot affect)
    – Personal moral identification, development and reinforcement
    – Working with a variety of personality types

    Surf’s up in the deluge,

  8. Matches Malone

    These are great observations, however, there’s no solution attached. How should someone as myself, with divergent career paths as an independent filmmaker, proceed?

  9. Berthold

    See, this is the downside of our free movement between social strata: there is still a hierarchy, and it’s more than ever governed by people who are clueless about what their job is. In the creative world, said hierarchy should look like this:

    client creative director

    These are on one and the same level. Not because they both have the same salary. Neither because the client is particularly creative. But because the CD is capable of talking in the client’s lingo. He talks not in terms of colour palette, user experience or even retention rate. He talks business, the one thing the client cares about. How many more of X this campaign is going to push in the upcoming quarter. How the new branding (along with the underlying changes in the company itself) will transform the public perception and boost sales.

    CD designer/printer/programmer

    The Creative Director also knows how to talk the other people’s language. He can brief the designer precisely what needs designing and how. If there are design decisions to be made, they are made here, between the person designing and the person responsible. This is the professional way to do it anyway.

    Yes, being a creative director is a tough gig, but this is where the most money and reward is. And personally, I love getting to know different companies and their challenges.

    You just shouldn’t get confused.

  10. Richie

    Every word of every sentence describes my last job. Sometimes I doubt that I was right to turn my back to that place, then along comes your post reminding me what I quit from in the first place! Nice post. Going to go read your source next. Thanks!



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