The Art Of Creative Control

Do you imagine your client as an ally or an adversary? I answer a few common questions about navigating the world of creative business and how to keep your need for creative control in check.
Close up photo of two bears fighting face to face
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček
By Greg Gunn
September 15, 2015
January 28, 2024
4 min read

I’d like to share three questions I’ve consistently received over the years about the business of creativity. These are usually sent from students and aimed at the motion design industry, but I feel that they’re ubiquitous in a lot of creative fields. No matter what form the question takes, it usually boils down to the concept of perceived creative control.

Before we get too deep into it, let me state—and really emphasize—that these responses are written in the context of commercial creative commerce. Meaning, there is a real client and a real budget to work with.

How do I keep the client from messing up my project?

A common theme I’ve found with us creative souls is this burning desire to control a project’s outcome. It’s as if we know the answer before we hear the question.

I spent years struggling with this concept until I came to an important realization: no matter how strongly I feel about something, at the end of the day it is not my project to control. Even if I am the creative director who pitched the initial idea, the end product does not belong to me—it is for my client and their purposes.

In creative business we tend to fall in love with our own ideas. And when a client doesn’t like our idea, we take it personally or become frustrated—maybe even angry that they don’t “get it.” The quality of my work (and life) drastically improved after grasping this concept. And I’m not talking about giving in to demands or watering-down an idea, I’m talking about truly understanding what your client’s needs are and why. My job is to do my absolute best given the parameters to work within.

For instance, if you had a client that wanted a hamburger, you’d make them the juiciest, meatiest most delicious burger you know how to make. You wouldn’t make them a tasty vegetable lasagna because you felt like lasagna at the time.

How do I become Creative Director/Art Director/etc.?

Start by asking yourself a different question: Why do I want to become Creative Director/Art Director/etc.? It’s important to have a goal, but knowing why and what that goal means is much more important.

Lets face it, everyone is a director or art director. All you have to do say so, right? Fake it ‘til you make as they like to say. However, I suspect few people really understand what that role entails. Dan Mall wrote a great article defining creative direction that I recommend everyone read. It highlights the differences (and overlap) between what a designer, art director, and creative director do.

Instead of aspiring for a title, I dare you to spend a few minutes and think about what you imagine yourself doing every day. Literally. Write it down in practical terms that anyone can read and understand. Whether it aligns with the dream title you seek or not, at least you’ll know what it means and that it will make you happy if you’re able to achieve it.

During my junior year at Otis College of Art + Design I formed a filmmaking collective with two friends. We made a handful of films for fun, for school, and for no reason. And we submitted them everywhere we could to be seen online and in festivals (pre-youtube era, you see).

As it turned out, someone saw value in what we were making and emailed us asking if we wanted to direct commercials. That was when we formed our animation studio, Three Legged Legs.

I didn’t aspire to be a commercial director or creative director. All I wanted (and still do) is to make fun films with people I like, constantly try new techniques and tell lots of different stories. What I do day-to-day supports that.

Do you have any advice for an aspiring (insert dream job here)?

This is the most frequently asked question and it’s quite difficult to answer. It’s so open-ended there could be 10,000 ways to reply. And all of them great. When confronted with this one, I like to share the most important thing I’ve gained from not only work, but also (albeit short) life experience. It’s something anyone can learn to do and applies to everyone.

Become a great listener.

By a great listener I mean turn everything else off—especially your inner monologue—and really pay attention. If you do it right, you’ll realize how difficult it is to do at all. It’s exhausting and requires a tremendous amount of focus. But if you learn to really listen to others (e.g. clients, bosses, girlfriends, yourself) you will gain a better understanding of empathy.

In my opinion, empathy is the cornerstone to communication, and clear communication is the key to finding one’s voice and place in this world. By mastering the art of listening each decision you make—creative or otherwise—will be a meaningful response and should bring you closer to achieving what it is you’re ultimately after on this planet.