Life in a creative dead zone

They’re places where the unqualified reign and suppress rather than foster creativity


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Like the Gulf of Mexico’s lifeless “hypoxic” zones — caused by farmers who mismanage agricultural chemicals — creative dead zones exist within organizations that mismanage creative work. 

Most common in organizations with in-house creative groups, creative dead zones are work settings in which writers and designers are unable to learn, grow or thrive, and unable to do rewarding, meaningful work.

In creative dead zones, the unqualified reign over creative work. The shots are called by people who cannot tell a fresh and engaging new concept from a cliché, people who have no background in design or writing, who are unaware of the skills, processes and knowledge necessary for creative work, and who are too timid or insecure to take creative risks. These are managers who suppress rather than foster the confidence required for creativity.

In creative dead zones, there’s often a naiveté that has overseers asking for work that will “go viral” or creative that’s “breakthrough,” as if it’s possible to order these things as one would order meatloaf at a diner — as if planning on your video going viral isn’t exactly as foolish as planning on your lottery ticket being a winner.

Dead zones are places where managers ask for creative that’s “outside the box.” And the ironies abound. It’s the dead-zone culture these same managers sustain that prevents the great creative they ask for. And they employ a tattered, old cliché to ask for something original.

In creative dead zones, emotionally insecure managers are set for hair-trigger recoil from the “difficult personalities” or “unmanageable egos” of creative staff members. Writers and designers are praised only to the degree to which they do not express opinions and to which they are willing to throw out their own good work to accommodate the random, off-base and silly opinions of business administrators posing as creative directors.

In creative dead zones, bona fide creative directors are seen as superfluous or as a threat and either not hired (the organization simply has no creative director) or not given enough organizational power to be effective.

Creative dead zones lack established processes around creative work. They are places where there is no creative brief in use and where creative work is reviewed and approved haphazardly by whoever happens to be around or happens to be copied in on a given email exchange. There’s little understanding of branding and the importance of brand consistency in the dead zone. Style and brand guides are either nonexistent or ignored.

Creative dead zones are places where creative work, at any and all stages of development, is nitpicked to death by platoons of overseers. They are places where strong, new concepts are crushed because managers are incapable of imagining the finished, polished product. They are places where managers expect every comment spoken in a full room to be incorporated into the creative work, because they believe this will make the work stronger and are unaware of how quickly good creative is destroyed by committee.

“Everyone’s opinion matters” is a common motto in the creative dead zone, as is, “Good ideas can come from anywhere” — the subtext of both being that there’s nothing special about the opinions and ideas of professional writers, designers and creative directors. Designers are reduced to graphics-software operators and writers to typists.

In the dead zone, junior managers will not say they like a piece of creative work until they receive some sign from managers above them that it’s OK to like it. When they do opine, dead-zone managers tend to criticize rather than praise. They also tend to imagine problems in early-stage creative work — seeing problems that simply are not there. They see huge tasks where there are only small, and small tasks where there’s a lot of creative work to be done.

Creative dead zones are places where managers say “Project X must accomplish Y!” one week, and then, “Project X must accomplish Z!” the next, having apparently altogether forgotten about the Y to which you’ve devoted hours or days. Of course, these overseers don’t know or agree upon what they want; their priority is simply to look like they’re in command.

The creative target is always moving in the dead zone, so creatives are set up for failure. The dead-zone creative worker is doomed to creating only collections of rough drafts, over and over again, in pursuit of creative targets that won’t stand still — targets moved perpetually about by unknowing, oblivious overseers.

Such is work life in the creative dead zone. Should you — a writer, designer or creative director—find yourself working there, do the only thing you can to minimize its damaging effects on your work and career. Get out. 

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