Breaking Routines to Focus on Creativity
May 23, 2019
A few weeks back, the whole Wistia design team left our keyboards, pixels, and hex codes behind for a letterpress printing workshop at a local Somerville establishment called Union Press. We split up into two teams and spent the whole day in Eli’s shop creating two-color poster designs in groups.
I could easily see this as a hard sell. It’s a big investment for a team of 12 to spend the entire day learning a skill that we didn’t have plans to directly use in our day-to-day. But this event and others like it help us break our routines, connect as a team, and reinforce our company commitment to creativity. Events like this have proved so important to fostering our team’s creative thinking that we’ve made them recurring, and have worked to find ways of injecting the spirit of them into our everyday processes.
Working on something completely different
Working in-house for a digital product means that, for a lot of projects, we’re working with the same cross-functional teams, on the same product, using the same style guidelines and messaging. Sometimes it’s hard to think outside of the tried-and-true playbook or remember that there’s a whole set of tools available to us that predate our screens and software.
Doing a letterpress workshop meant working with a whole new set of tools — as well as many new constraints. We couldn’t swap out an image and copy in an existing layout, or fall into our usual keyboard shortcuts and patterns. We couldn’t download new fonts or eye-drop a color we liked. We learned that the typography term leading came from actual units of lead, and adjusted it in our compositions. We chose Pantone colors from a book and then actually mixed the recipes, adjusting as needed. We worked together on something we could all physically pick up and move — there wasn’t just one person controlling the mouse.
When we’re confronted with unfamiliar problems, tools, or constraints, we’re forced to think outside of our familiar solutions or methods. An all-day workshop exercises this skill in a big, concentrated way. But, we’ve also brought this into our own design processes here at Wistia, too.
Bringing it into business-as-usual
For several teams here at Wistia, Friday afternoons are set aside for “Thinking Big” time. This means that you can work on anything you’d like, so long as it is:
- Valuable to our team or our company
- Important and interesting to you personally
- Clearly stated in its goal, so that it’s well-scoped and attainable
It’s completely optional, but people are given the freedom to use this time to do things like explore a new UI for an old feature, build up some coding skills, or even make a big video play button suit (just because it would be funny to wear in a video someday).
Maybe those explorations will get used down the road, or maybe they won’t. Either way, you’re using different methods and tools to solve an unfamiliar problem, which opens up doors for when you return to your more familiar ones.
“Either way, you’re using different methods or tools to solve an unfamiliar problem, which opens up doors for when you return to your more familiar ones.”
Connecting with new team members
Creativity cannot exist without trust. There is inherent risk in thinking outside of past patterns, and it’s difficult without both the support and room to do so. With this particular workshop, I aimed to create a shared experience amongst the group by learning a new skill together.
I divided the group into two teams, mixing folks across disciplines, levels, and products. People stepped up, listened to each other, asked questions, and helped each other navigate the drawers and drawers of wood-block type. We learned about something that most of us had never done before. We huddled around arranged blocks of letters, passed each other pieces of leading, and ate delivery sandwiches together in the stairwell of the cozy shop. We got to know each other in ways that usual days at the office don’t always encourage.
Bringing it into business-as-usual
Especially as the team grows, we need to work to stay connected. In addition to collaborative projects and biweekly critiques with the whole team, we’ve implemented a Buddy System. It aims to help the design team:
- Get to know people across disciplines and products
- Learn skills from each other
- Give and receive more frequent design feedback
Each pairing is given a budget for that month and everyone is encouraged to reach out to one another frequently. People bounce ideas off one another and share their skills, and grab coffee and get lunch together a few times throughout the month. By systematizing the “breaking out” of routines and relationships folks naturally create at work, we’re building more connections and trust on the team.
Reinforcing that we encourage creativity
You can’t foster creativity without rewarding it. Asking folks to be creative in a workplace that only rewards those who don’t fail, or those who can prove every success with numbers, is incentivizing a different value. In order to talk the creativity talk, you’ve got to walk the creativity walk.
“Asking folks to be creative in a workplace that only rewards those who don’t fail, or those who can prove every success with numbers, is incentivizing a different value.”
Getting permission and budget to do this workshop is a step of that walk. For the team, and the greater company, it sends a message that learning is a good thing. This workshop is in no way the first or only event like this we’ve done as a team – we’ve gone hiking on a Wednesday, and hosted a hand-lettering workshop in our office. Stepping back for a day is a good thing. We are working hard, but we have full, human lives to live, and we seek inspiration outside of our walls and screens. Being your full, human self at work is a good thing.
Bringing it into business-as-usual
Fostering creativity at a systemic level as a business is hard. As they say, time is money! And creativity doesn’t always answer to time. So, how does a business balance both?
Well, we’re trying our best. On the Design Team, we start every project with a Design Studio, an exercise that our Director of Design and User Experience, Jocelyn Perron, brought to our process. Every stakeholder in the project — whether a designer, marketer, engineer, or otherwise — spends an hour sketching in a room together and discussing their ideas. Encouraging everyone on the team to think this way, and starting with such an open, green-light brainstorm, really gets people thinking outside of the box.
I also talked to Dan Mills, our Creative Director, about how he encourages creativity through team processes. He says he’s hyper-aware of opportunities for a project’s scope to grow slightly in the name of creativity. If we can find a big creative idea in a little bit longer timeline, we’ve found a sweet spot. In those projects, we’ll not only make a better experience for our customers, but we’ll create opportunities for play and learning on our side, too, which is crucial for employee engagement. Dan says:
“At some point, every business is going to need to you to think big about something specific, whether it’s a rebrand, a big marketing push, or something that feels fresh. And if you’re not flexing that muscle continually, you’re just not going to know how to do it.”
That’s for any business, but as one that holds Creativity as a company value, it’s even more apparent. If we want to solve problems creatively and produce content with original thinking, we’ve simply got to bake it into everything we do. We can’t just step up to the plate when it’s time to hit a home run — we need both the daily practices and the occasional Red Sox game. We need the routines in place that encourage creativity, and the breaks from our routines to learn new things, get inspired and connect to each other and our work as people.