Optimizing your own performance as a designer | by Matt Owens | Jul, 2021

When it comes to the idea of “performance” as it relates to graphic design and creativity there are many dimensions. Performance is not just about doing good work. It’s about the totality of what performance really means across creation, behavior, and dialogue; your skills, your aesthetic, your role, and your interactions with others. In this article, I try to unpack design performance to better understand how we might improve ourselves professionally and artistically and to see what we can do to help us become “Total Creatives.”

The craft of design, or any creative endeavor for that matter, is the aesthetic performance that defines the caliber of your creative ability. Call it skills, chops, talent, or style. This is your creative signature. This is the outward performance that defines the work you create and it is the performance through which your talent is evaluated by others.

If you are very self-critical like I am, creative performance is a personal battle to create something that is better than your last creative effort. How you make things and the inner monologue you use to evaluate how good or beautiful or logical an idea becomes is the mysterious thing that makes what you create uniquely yours.

No matter how educated or experienced you are, the creative act always possesses a degree of unknown magic — or at least magical thinking. No matter how hard you plan and strategize, any number of things can transpire that you did not expect both good and bad. One only needs to listen to Dylan’s Basement Tapes to realize that most of what we see as a perfect creative product actually requires a messy and imperfect path of iteration and trial and error to come to life. Despite the unknowns, each one of us works to define and refine our creative process. This process is the series of steps you take to create something out of nothing. Having a process is a way of providing logic to our creative acts so that we can better evaluate what we do and so we don’t go crazy along the way.

Having a process is not about having an answer. It is merely about having a place to begin so that you can find an answer through the act of making. The most important aspect of “Performance as Creative Act” is to embrace your ability while also giving yourself over to where an idea takes you. As a creator, you are as much an author of your work as you are a catalyst to bring it forth so the work has a life of its own. You must accept and embrace that things will inevitably not turn out how you had originally envisioned and that your work will go on to do things you never expected. Your creative acts will bear fruit and take you where they need to go.

Tips when thinking about Performance as Creative Act

  1. If you are not happy with something don’t present it. It’s nearly impossible to defend something you don’t believe in.
  2. As my dad always says to me; “Make a plan and work the plan.” It’s ok if the plan changes but always have a plan to start from.
  3. Stick with a process until you understand the output. Don’t abandon a way of working until you know for sure it’s not working.
  4. Trust the magic. Give the things you did not expect room to breathe. They may surprise you.

The part you play in the context of your professional efforts is your Performance as Persona. You may be performing as an intern, a project manager, a creative director, partner, senior designer, artist, writer, strategist, and the like. Your persona is how people identify and understand your role, expertise, contribution, and accountability for any project or output.

It is important to understand what others expect of your persona. Your ability to execute the skills that are expected of you are table stakes when thinking about Performance as Persona. Like creative talent, the skills of your persona must be expressed at the highest level. Regardless of the project role, I’m a stickler for attention to detail, craft, and clarity of communication. All of us can learn to do almost anything but once you put on the proverbial uniform of your persona, you must demonstrate and deliver as the expert responsible for what you are expected to do. No amateurs allowed.

The second aspect of your Performance as Persona is the personality and vernacular of your role. For example, business people used to always wear suits because that is what business people were expected to look like. We expect a president to be presidential, a technologist to be fluent in technology and a creative director to be creative and mentoring. The delivery of your persona through your behavior and appearance can take on any number of caricatures or archetypes designed to reinforce the work you do and how people perceive you.

As an example, I have been in meetings where the creative lead was a “cool” person that wore a lot of black and had tattoos, or on another occasion they had kooky glasses and weird sneakers and were very goofy. Another CD came off as a Southern California stoner type wearing Birkenstocks and cut-offs and had an easy-going demeanor. All of these creatives had individual personas that were away for that person to say through their behavior and aesthetic, ”hey, I’m the creative person and it’s okay if I look and act like this in this meeting because I am creative and that is what you expect of me in my role.”

I’ve seen this kind of creative role-playing work really well to disarm and make people feel more at ease in a meeting and I have also seen it backfire. In the past I’ve attempted to be “the creative “funny guy” by being self-deprecating and humorous in a meeting in an effort to lighten the tone and make things less stressful or serious. One of my “moves” has been to make a joke at just the right time in a meeting to give everyone a chuckle and relieve the tension. Over the years I’ve done this to great effect but one time it came off horribly.

I read the room wrong and was more interested in my joke (reinforcing my persona) and was not self aware of the people I was speaking to. Some folks in the meeting laughed but a few were very offended. Some members of my team let me know and I was mortified. My persona had gotten in the way and I learned a big lesson about knowing when to express personality and knowing when to take it down a few notches. It can be a fine line. Your persona can be a strength that helps you clarify and deliver on your role and work, however, too much personality can be like too much sriracha — it will ruin the meal.

Tips when thinking about Performance as Persona

  1. When it comes to your work life, be yourself but be self-aware. The worst thing you can do is be inauthentic and false. The second worst thing is to have no filter.
  2. Being the best at your job is infinitely more important than being “cool” at your job. Substance always wins over the surface.
  3. Be humble, be real and always lead with decorum. We are all in this together.
  4. Always take the high road. Petty conflict and bluster has no place at work and will never lead to productive outcomes. Just bad vibes.

For the most part, we all work in teams and have to delegate responsibilities. When it comes to collaboration we all have to fight the impulse to believe that our idea is the right one and that our opinion is the most important. Our default setting as individuals is to put ourselves at the center of our universe, however, humans are fundamentally social animals and we are equally wired to work together.

Performance as Collaboration centers on how we give the floor to others and how we defer to someone else’s idea or solutions and ideally support them with the same level of passion as if their ideas were our own. One way people do this is through formality and courtesy. It’s why senators and congressmen are so cordial to each other during heated debate. Decorum and etiquette provide collaborators with rules to help put the focus on the problem being solved and not the people solving it.

A simple example of this is stopping and letting someone else speak on a Zoom call so that you do not over-talk one another. This behavior seems trivial on the surface yet it embodies a performative level of rational and emotional intelligence that gives everyone an equal place within the dialogue and solutions being discussed. Building off of the decorum of dialogue, Performance as Collaboration is also about empowering others to arrive at solutions on their own and to offer them to the group. As I have mentioned in previous articles, for me collaboration is not as much about working “together” as it is working “alongside” while cheering each other on. When we collaborate we are all contributing our own ingredients to the proverbial creative gumbo and this requires that you chop your own vegetables and do our own work that is then added to the pot.

Successful collaboration is a circular process where everyone has a voice at the table while also allowing space for individual work and collective reconciliation. When done right, Performance as Collaboration can build the great pyramids, send rovers to Mars, and build great businesses and brands.

Tips when thinking about Performance as Collaboration

  1. Everyone must have room to shine. Give everyone their moment.
  2. Always ask a question from which the right answer can be arrived. Try not to volunteer the answer. Give people the power to arrive at it on their own.
  3. If someone’s solution is better, let it be and support it unfettered. Don’t try to muck it up by adding your little mark to an idea just to make you feel like part of it is yours.

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