5 LA Design Leaders Share Their Secrets for Managing Collaborative Creative Teams

Creative leaders say artists work differently than engineers or sales representatives — and knowing how to manage them effectively is key.

Written by Olivia Arnold
Published on Aug. 15, 2022
5 LA Design Leaders Share Their Secrets for Managing Collaborative Creative Teams
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You likely consume thousands of marketing campaigns a day — from mindlessly scrolling through social media to passing colorful billboards on the street. Behind each of these ads is a powerhouse design team shepherded by a manager, who plays a unique role balancing their team’s creative workflows with the demanding deliverables of a company.

In some ways, the skills needed to lead a creative team are universal; you must collaborate on cross-functional teams to align on companywide goals, monitor deadlines, inspire your team and provide mentorship. In other ways, however, managing a design department is starkly different from leading other teams. 

For one, artists work differently compared to engineers or sales representatives, according to the creative managers featured below. When given a project, some will immediately put their heads down, working fervently and independently; others may need more time for inspiration to strike, and benefit from using colleagues as sounding boards. Either way, creative professionals require time to focus on ideation and development without distractions. A corporate work day, which is often peppered with daily meetings and strict deliverables, can drag down the creative process. 

Managers must also act as shields for their creatives, filtering out unreasonable or misguided requests from other departments to preserve their designers’ sacred workflow. 

“Creative people need uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish their best work, and the flexibility to explore multiple options as part of their process,” said Lisa Leight, vice president of marketing at Convoso

Built In Los Angeles connected with creative leaders from Ruggable, M13, Convoso, MobilityWare and See Tickets US to discuss how they fostered collaborative cultures on their teams and what advice they have for fellow design department heads. 

 

Convoso team Zoom call
Convoso

 

Lisa Leight
VP of Marketing • Convoso

 

At Convoso, a Woodland Hills-based software provider for call centers, creative managers balance adhering to structure and meeting deliverables with supporting their team’s creative process. Marketing Vice President Lisa Leight emphasizes the importance of connecting with team members casually and through weekly one-on-one meetings in order to nurture an inclusive, collaborative environment that fosters creativity.

 

From a manager’s perspective, what sets a creative/design team apart from others in a typical tech company?

A creative team generates ideas to address company initiatives, applies skills to produce those ideas and delivers tangible outputs. The results of their efforts tend to be more visible than, for example, the work done by engineers or the product team. 

Individuals on the creative team collaborate with others on projects and across departments. The higher visibility of their work inherently invites more feedback, praise and subjective opinions. Managers can both filter and put context on that feedback or translate it into positive actions that improve a given project.

Creative people need uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish their best work, and the flexibility to explore multiple options as part of their process. 

The manager is there to challenge, guide and protect creatives on the team in a business environment, which isn’t generally conducive to the creative process (not to take away from the creativity others bring to their work, it helps to be a bit creative to code!). Managing a creative team means supporting that creative process while balancing the need for structure, goals and meeting deliverables.

Managing a creative team means supporting that creative process while balancing the need for structure, goals and meeting deliverables.

 

What initial challenges can designers expect when they first move into management?

In a management role, you need to expand your mindset. Your responsibilities have grown beyond your own output to guiding the productivity of a team in meeting larger goals on various timelines. You’ll be drawing on or learning organizational skills and, more importantly, people skills. This means connecting, not bossing.

New creative managers may experience project management deficiencies, ineffective processes and challenges in cooperation. These can all be improved with patience, persistence and humility. Be willing to ask for help.

You’ll support others by: balancing the demands of creativity with deadlines, monitoring for and avoiding burnout and stagnation, and communicating clearly and regularly. You will also understand (or learn) the process and needs of their creative niche, provide positive, constructive feedback and focus on the ultimate goal of a creative piece. You will listen, nurture relationships and support aspirations. 

Remember that someone may be highly creative but feel constrained and uninspired by the limited scope of assignments, unrealistic productivity goals, a critical environment, overly tight deadlines, chaotic processes or inflexible expectations.

 

What tips would you offer to a new manager on a creative team for building a positive and collaborative culture?

In a management role, it helps to understand the challenges and processes of each discipline you manage. If you feel inadequate in an area, keep asking questions. Most people are happy to share what they know and are pleased that you’re taking an interest. How can you manage someone when you don’t know the struggles of their work?

Building rapport with individuals and among your team is essential. Before each meeting and at the beginning of each day, casually check in with people. Share your own status as well. Find connection. Listen. Support. These are among the building blocks of a positive culture.

Nurture a safe, open, collaborative environment and an inclusive community. Encourage and recognize contributions of individuals and the team. Develop the independence and leadership of individuals. Show how the creative team aligns with the company’s values and culture. Inspire by clarifying how the team’s work supports the company’s larger goals and vision. 

Meet one on one weekly. Ask open questions about how they’re doing. Discover and support creative or career dreams and goals. Check in quarterly if they’re progressing. Balance time to avoid burnout with flexibility, breaks and time off. 

 

 

M13 team photo outside
M13

 

Christine Choi
Partner and Head of Brand • M13

 

For M13, a Santa Monica-based early stage consumer tech venture firm, the creative team is viewed as an essential part of winning over the company’s stakeholders through expert storytelling. Partner and Head of Brand Christine Choi encourages leaders to cultivate brand advocates who can act as sounding boards to ensure creative projects are as relevant and engaging as possible. 

 

From a manager’s perspective, what sets a creative team apart from others in a typical tech company?

The creative team is on the front line of winning over the hearts and minds of a company’s stakeholders: talent, customers, partners and investors. That’s very important in a downturn, so that the company maintains the market’s confidence and loyalty. The creative team is an essential part of the storytelling required to reach business goals. It’s important for them to know and be able to articulate what is so special and lovable about the company’s products and services, and then to create touch points for stakeholders to keep a company at the top of mind. 

Being a step ahead of the market is an important part of what the creative team does. They see ahead what matters to customers, how they make decisions and where they get information to make those decisions.  

Everyone tends to have an opinion about marketing because they consume content, but it does not make them an expert in what it takes to create effective campaigns. Making sure the team has the freedom to be creative on behalf of and in collaboration with the rest of the company is important.

The creative team is on the front line of winning over the hearts and minds of a company’s stakeholders.”

 

What initial challenges can designers expect when they first move into management?

One challenge is maintaining that balance between trusting your team to be creative and innovative while making sure their process and products meet the company’s operational goals and budgets.

The transition from designer to manager involves listening and understanding the business needs, pitching ideas to internal and external clients and clearly communicating how the work helps reach company goals, all while inspiring your team to collaborate effectively. 

 

What tips would you offer to a new manager on a creative team for building a positive and collaborative culture?

Listen to as many internal stakeholders as possible and hear for common pain points that creative solutions and storytelling can resolve. Cultivate brand advocates and sounding boards to make creative projects relevant, engaging and high impact.

 

 

Ruggable team Zoom call
Ruggable

 

Maylee Tan
Associate Graphic Design Manager • Ruggable

 

At Ruggable, a Gardena-based e-commerce company for residential rugs, Associate Graphic Design Manager Maylee Tan guides her team members in expressing their creativity, both technically and conceptually, and discovering their specialties or niches. For other design managers, Tan advises being open to everything, adapting to change and listening to their team’s needs. 

 

From a manager’s perspective, what sets a design team apart from others in a typical tech company?

Operationally, I’ve found there are many similarities between us and other functions within a tech company, especially when it comes to workflows and processes. We’re often united in our goals, so a lot of what we do is in an effort to optimize how we work with other teams. What I’m proud to see at Ruggable is our heavy emphasis on mentorship that encourages and empowers all members of the creative teams to find their specialties or creative niches. 

There are numerous ways to express creativity, both technically and conceptually. As a manager, I seek opportunities to aid in that exploration. Ultimately, I ask myself: How can my team use creativity to make a mark while contributing to a cohesive brand voice that really speaks to our audience? In practice, if a more junior designer expresses a desire to explore on-set art direction, I invite them to conceptualize a shoot, provide guidance and feedback along the way and keep an eye out for openings to shadow or participate in future shoots. 

We collectively believe in opportunity, no matter the level and experience, and this is supported by the knowledge that we are all our best resources.

 

What initial challenges can designers expect when they first move into management?

The greatest hurdle I’ve experienced and observed is the transition from being more of a “doer” to both a “doer” and a “strategic thinker.” It requires adjusting how to quantify your work in a way that’s less tangible. Making the switch into creative management means being able to think more about the bigger picture, especially the final result and impact, when you’ve primarily been in the weeds up until that point in your career. I appreciated the regular stretch opportunities I was provided prior to becoming a manager that gave me the skills and confidence to move into a leadership role on our team.

Another hurdle is the shift away from the ease and pace of working alone to working more directly and collaboratively with others, who may exist outside of your comfortable creative bubble. With a very teamwork-focused culture at Ruggable, I was able to learn from the great examples of leaders not only on my creative team, but also across the entire organization. In my career, I’m delighted by how this shift and opportunity to learn collaboratively adjusted my outlook on my work. I’ve grown into a better team player and a more effective communicator.

A great creative team is anchored on collaboration and the freedom to try new things.

 

What tips would you offer to a new manager on a creative team for building a positive and collaborative culture?

A great creative team is anchored on collaboration and the freedom to try new things. At Ruggable, I’ve seen our core values — to be fierce and work as one team to achieve our dreams — each and every day.  By leaning into our culture, I’ve seen countless examples of ways a new manager can establish a team culture that will bring value to each individual on the team and ultimately our customers.

First, be open to everything and anything. Be a steward for the brand and honor principles of design, as you’re the expert in this field, but invite opportunities to explore and expand.

Second, be flexible and adaptive to change. Observe and respond to changes, but strike the balance between service and innovation. It’s easy to fall into routines, but continue to challenge yourself and your team to find ways to disrupt the status quo. I’m always amazed how taking a chance leads to growth.

Third, really listen to your team’s needs and set them up to be able to perform their best. As a team leader, I want to provide a great experience that enhances my team’s development by providing opportunities that align to their interests.

 

 

Tyler Endicott
Senior Creative Producer • MobilityWare

 

At Irvine-based mobile gaming company MobilityWare, Senior Creative Producer Tyler Endicott calls managing the creative team “the best gig in the building.” For new creative managers, Endicott emphasizes that a supervisor’s main priority is no longer as a designer, but as a leader protecting their team members from unreasonable requests and ensuring they have the tools to do their job successfully. He also advises that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for managing people, especially creatives who may adopt different work styles, and it’s important to learn your team’s individual strengths and weaknesses. 

 

From a manager’s perspective, what sets a creative team apart from others in a typical tech company?

Managing MobiltyWare’s creative team is the best gig in the building. You’re among a group of talented individuals who all have great design senses and unique styles. Your work changes on a day-to-day basis, and you interact with many different teams throughout the company. 

We play a crucial role. We’re encouraged to think outside of the box and have the opportunity to help steer the creative direction of the company.

 

What initial challenges can designers expect when they first move into management?

The most important thing to remember is that your primary role isn’t to be a designer anymore. Your job is to help make your team as successful as possible. 

You’re now the shield for your team, ensuring that they have the tools they need to do their job, protecting them from unreasonable requests and streamlining any processes you can with templates and documentation. You’re also coaching other departments on how to put in creative requests so they understand what a creative brief is and how to fill one out correctly.

Encourage communication and foster an environment where everyone has a voice and every opinion is valid.

 

What tips would you offer to a new manager on a creative team for building a positive and collaborative culture?

Get people talking. Encourage communication and foster an environment where everyone has a voice and every opinion is valid. Pair people off in teams to work on a project. Get feedback from the designers, ask them how they’re doing and most importantly, remember that they’re unique individuals and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to people management. 

Some artists, when given a task, go out guns blazing, talking to anyone and everyone to get their tasks done. Some artists work quietly and if they get blocked, they’re now stuck. Learn your team’s strengths and weaknesses, encourage the former and limit the latter as much as you can. Praise your team publicly and, finally, be kind.

 

 

See Tickets team member group photo outside
See Tickets

 

Claire Lopacki
Head of Design • See Tickets

 

At See Tickets US, a Los Angeles-based ticketing organization for festivals, designers work in close collaboration with each other and across teams. The key to a successful creative team, according to Head of Design Claire Lopacki, is supporting team members’ professional development by giving them opportunities to grow in their roles. 

 

From a manager’s perspective, what sets a creative/design team apart from others in a typical tech company?

A creative team is energized by the design process, by close and functional collaboration between teams, and by teammates who are set up for success and mentorship.

 

What initial challenges can designers expect when they first move into management?

Managing and blending different personalities is a learned skill, and one that does not often come naturally. The time management of layering one’s own workload with overseeing others, especially when the appropriate support doesn’t yet exist, can feel overwhelming at first.

Give people opportunities to grow in their roles and always keep conversations open.

 

What tips would you offer to a new manager on a creative team for building a positive and collaborative culture?

Support the professional development of people on your team. Give people opportunities to grow in their roles and always keep conversations open. Have a skillful project manager on your team to support you so you’re successful with meeting deadlines, keeping everyone productive and enjoying your own workload.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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