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Cognitive Creativity: Q&A With Gary Whitlock

Gary Whitlock is a hybrid of sorts; trained as both a counselor and a designer, Gary’s remarkable approach rests on an intersection of creativity, problem solving and cognitive psychology. Widely recognized as a creative authority, Gary currently serves as Executive Creative Director at the Cincinnati-based design firm Marsh. As a creative director and business leader, Gary leverages a deep understanding of cultural anthropology and the nuances of neuroscience in his approach to brand building and talent development.

His recent whitepaper “Design Therapy: Developing a Creative Culture from the Inside Out” explores a design management style that focuses on the motivations of the individual and “the psychological foundation of creativity itself” as the most effective way to identify and nurture creative excellence. We recently had the privilege of speaking with Gary on he how uses this “design therapy” model within his own teams at Marsh.

CK: Can “design therapy” help managers to resolve the common challenges faced by many design teams?

GW: The premise of the phrase “design therapy” comes from my conviction that most design issues are usually people issues. To the extent that every human being is a unique organism with distinct emotional motivations and responses, design leaders need to understand and accept those differences as a good thing. Leadership can leverage those insights to deploy an emotional language that best engages and motivates the designer.

CK: Should managers treat their designers differently than other employees or do designers require a unique set of management practices?

GW: This will sound like a generalization, but I’ve observed many creatives to be somewhat gentle on the exterior, but profoundly passionate beneath the surface. Knowing that the passion will flow when trust and safety exist, I find that fostering a nurturing environment that works for individuals is key. Some people are motivated by being challenged, even scolded but I’ve rarely seen this to be the case with designers. I often tell my client services partners, “A plant won’t grow because you yell at it. But give it lots of water and sunlight and watch what happens.”‘ Managers should also view themselves as teachers. They’re hoping to teach designers how to be self-directed, client-friendly, strategic and innovative. However, everyone learns differently. Some students are inspired by the written word, others, by visuals. Yet others respond to storytelling and narratives. We often use the term right-brain (to refer to creativity) and left-brain (to refer to business). The right side of our brain is actually the source of comprehension for visual stimuli. So it should come as no surprise that more designers are motivated by pictures than by text.

CK: As you were building your design career, was there a mentor or even a creative superstar that helped to refine or influence your approach to design?

GW: David Ogilvy. I love his colorful, unconventional migration from being a college dropout to a door-to-door salesman, to a military man, to a chef, to a copywriter, and ultimately to the founder/owner of the world’s largest advertising agency. He never lost sight of believing in (and using) every product he promoted. And he authored a phrase that has been my personal mantra for many years, “To be a successful creative, you must first be a psychologist.”

CK: Do you have any tips for other design leaders on how to inspire cognitive, creative thinking and nurture creative excellence?

GW: Throw away your cookie-cutter design processes and approaches ‘ they’re important and probably necessary to function in any business context ‘ but you need to spend more time in one-on-one conversations with each and every one of your direct reports, discovering what their passions are, what motivates them. And your direct reports need to be doing the same with their direct reports. Design is relatively easy. Relationships are hard. So make your investment in relationships, and the design excellence will follow.

CK: What are you reading right now?

GW: The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller. Miller is Senior Editor for National Geographic. He has studied the phenomenon of “groups” in nature (ants, bees, fish) and how they make profoundly intelligent choices without the need of a dominant leader. The SWARM effect is the result of being so in tune with your neighbor, your coworker, that fast, smart, efficient ideation and problem solving can take place right where it’s happening in real time. Yes folks, the Queen Bee business model is a myth. But, oops, I’m giving away the book!

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