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On Creative Leadership

I have spent nearly a decade experimenting with a single goal in mind: to create scalable, predictably insightful, inspirational environments. I have led creative teams in these environments, and I’m currently doing it as the Director of Web Interface and Development at Astonish (a digital marketing company in Rhode Island, US).

It hasn’t been easy, because forcing inspiration is impossible. You have to use finesse and let it come to you. What follows is what I’ve found to help my team and me harness inspiration effectively.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link


Accessing Your Creativity …In The Shower Link

It’s 4:30 in the morning. The sun is starting to smear pink across the sky, and I’m in bed, working. Laying in bed in the dark is comfortable, but it’s hardly a working environment. Yet, I am solving problems. At this moment, I am more connected with my subconscious (the most creative part of my brain) than I will be at any other time today.

I have been practicing this combined meditation and creative thinking for several months now. It has been a hugely beneficial experiment, which started early one morning in the shower. Ever have a great idea in the shower? I have had hundreds, and I now know why.

Your morning shower is a breeding ground for ideas and sparks of inspiration. When you stumble into the shower shortly after you wake, you’re able to relax and, because you’re still tired, you’re able to reconnect with your subconscious. I’ve found this state to be so helpful in solving problems that I’ve had to devise ways to take notes on the shower wall.

The relaxed state of your morning shower helps you to reconnect with your subconscious. (Image source: Simon Law6)

My wife is constantly surprised to find product diagrams, flow charts, code and wireframes written in soap, kids shower crayons and anything else I can find. I’ve even considered painting the walls with idea paint, to have a bit more creativity.

I’m sure you’ve had a spark of inspiration or maybe just a moment of clear insight in the shower. I’ve asked many people about their creative abilities during their morning routine, and the answers always support my assumption. The reason? It’s because your insight, inspiration and creative abilities were always there; they’re just more accessible in that relaxed state because you are not grasping for them.

Science Link

You see, the harder you grasp to be creative, the more easily it slips through your fingers. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to sit down at work and just flip on the creative switch? Do you find yourself intentionally distracting yourself? Browsing Amazon, reading your news feed and skimming Facebook are all ways to indirectly access your creative abilities. Sometimes it’s important to turn off your desire to be creative and just let it come to you.

Artists depiction of the right and left brain.7
Distraction-free environments help our brains to “take our minds off the problem” just long enough to get the answer we’re looking for. (Image source: TZA8)

John Kounios of Drexel University studies the brain and looks for scientific explanations for the delivery of insight. In one study, Kounios asked subjects to solve puzzles while undergoing a brain scan. He found that insight, or the inspiration needed to solve a problem, comes from the visual cortex. However, in the time leading up to a puzzle being displayed on the screen, the subjects’ brain activity was around the temporal lobe. As Kounios explains in his TED talk9:

“This is the mind turning in on itself. This is the mind disengaging from the world. This empowers a person to imagine new and different ways to transfer reality, creatively, into something better.”

Our brain looks for a distraction-free environment to get inspired. This might seem a bit contradictory to what I just said. Believe it or not, your intentional distraction (Amazon and Facebook) can help to relax your brain and “take your mind off the problem” just long enough to get the answer you’re looking for.

Managing A Team Link

This creates an interesting situation for individuals in a corporate environment. Small studios and agencies usually respect and understand the creative process a bit more. I’ve known a lot of directors who understand the need for a little distraction at work, even if they don’t really know why it works.

When it comes to managing a team of creatives, you have to balance finesse and creative leadership. In fact, I like to eliminate the word “manage” altogether. Take a Web designer. A Web designer already needs to manage their time, creative process, projects, clients and more. Isn’t that enough management already?

If you have the right people on your team, they shouldn’t need to be managed — they need leadership. They need someone to pull them to an answer, not push them. If you trust your team, they’ll come through for you. However, they’ll do a much better job of it if they enjoy their work and are trusted to work openly when they want to. Why restrict your team? Why force them to work the way you want them to or even when you want them to?

Trust and good leadership can steer your team to enjoy their work and do a much better job. (Image source: opensource.com11)

This notion that a creative team should have working hours, such as 9:00 to 5:00, baffles me. Sure, I get it: Your accounts team answers the phone during that time. Well, the fact is that they don’t need to be inspired to answer the phone. And yes, motivation and inspiration are very different.

Work With The Grain, Not Against It Link

An extremely talented designer and front-end developer named Jeff is on my Web development team. Jeff commutes 30 miles to and from work every day. Having a set schedule from 9:00 to 5:00 would require Jeff to get up earlier every morning to fight traffic for over an hour. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic and getting frustrated by the people around him doesn’t exactly scream “distraction-free moments of inspiration.”

Having the freedom to arrive at work around 9:30 or 10:00 cuts Jeff’s commute by over 25 minutes. Does this mean that Jeff works less? Absolutely not! Not only does Jeff make up his time, but he also works smarter. And because his day starts off with way less stress, he’s even more likely to enjoy his work and stick around to get the job done.

This is just one example; there are hundreds. Some people like to listen to music while they work; others play Netflix in the background. Sometimes a good meeting can get a team in the right mindset; other times, they just want to be left alone. Lead people with respect and trust and you’ll get so much more out of them. Not to mention that you’ll learn whether they are the right fit for your team.

There is no better way to make the cream rise to the top than by letting it sit for a while. If you keep stirring it, you’ll never get it to settle.

“Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light” Link

As a leader of creatives, your job is to provide an insight-sparking, inspirational environment, while guarding against distraction.

The creatives on my team work smart and fast. They do this because they are in touch with their brains’ ability to perform different tasks. At 4:30 in the morning, I might be working on a problem that I went to bed with. You might work on a coding problem at 11:00 pm until about the time I wake up. We are all different; the important thing is to know why and how we are different.

I get to know my team and work closely with everyone on it. They all have different needs and like to be communicated with differently. At the same time, they all enjoy working on different types of projects at different times.

Each member of my team has an inspiration schedule, a time when they know they are more likely to be creative. During those times, there are no meetings, distractions or interruptions. This is their time to increase their working memory, to build, to design and to solve problems.

Being a leader, my job is to help them understand what this time means for them and to fight anyone who jeopardizes it. Don’t dismiss this point. It is vital to the clients, products and team that your creatives have the time to do their job right. Remember that they will get the job done either way, because you trust them to come through. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that they have time during the day to do it, when they have allocated time to do it, rather than bombard them with meetings and problems?

Finding And Feeding Inspiration Link

It’s as if the sky parts and a divine entity comes down and delivers the answer directly into your brain. Understanding where inspiration comes from or how you’ve solved the problem isn’t easy, but at that point you don’t care because you’re off and running.

In 2013, learning code, understanding design patterns and analyzing data are extremely easy. Our tools, documentation and frameworks are accessible and ubiquitous. What’s both rare and stubborn is a great imagination. The concept of “thinking outside the box” is based on the idea of being creative with knowledge.

Imagination is vital, but without inspiration, it can lie dormant. If imagination is the playground, then inspiration is the gravity that pulls you down the slide, bounces you on the seesaw or propels you on the swing. Without inspiration, imagination is as pointless as a slide in outer space. It’s the powerful force behind creation.

Harnessing inspiration is almost impossible. Yet, we can cultivate ideas by finding patterns in our moments of inspiration. We’ve already talked about relaxation, daily schedules and the link to your subconscious. What about your mood and other factors that play into it?

Music Link

I love music. In fact, music is the only thing I love more than food. Music comes in so many different forms, is readily available and is creative in itself. I bet you already know that different types of music have different effects on people. Some types help you to concentrate, while others make you want to get up and dance; some types help you to relax, while others keep you up all night.

I remember my science teacher in school telling me that listening to classical music helps mice navigate a maze faster than listening to heavy metal. Is this really true?

Remember when we talked about John Kounios and brain activity around the temporal lobe? Well, that temporal lobe is in charge of receiving auditory signals, such as from music. When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. This, and the fact that music has a direct correlation to increased amounts of dopamine and adrenaline, means you can have a direct and significant emotional response to the right type of music.

When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. (Image source: opensource.com13)

Classical music is very rhythmic and, oddly enough, predictable. Classical also usually has a slower tempo, less than 60 beats per minute, whereas pop and jazz have unpredictable variances in tone and rhythm and often a much faster tempo.

Why is this important? Remember that the more opportunities your brain has to turn in on itself, away from distraction, the greater the chance of finding insight. Classical music lends itself to a distraction-free environment and provides relaxation, which the brain enjoys. You’re favorite Coldplay song might trigger a powerful emotional response, but that type of music is actually better saved for menial tasks. Upbeat pop music can help you stay on track by distracting you from what you are doing, which is helpful when you’re inputting data and answering emails.

Vinod Menon, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has written an interesting article on the subject14. In the paper, Menon writes about music’s effect on the brain during an MRI. To simplify, the brain performs better when predictable patterns are in the music. During sudden breaks in the sound, the brain reacts to check on what’s happening. Your brain turns its attention back to the music, rather than stays on what you were concentrating on.

Experiment with this theory on your own. I have found Italian opera to be particularly conducive to creative thinking. Take some time today to create a short playlist on Spotify15. Add five to eight of the top-ranked classical pieces, then drop in an AC/DC song. Shuffle the playlist, and then try to focus on a task. I bet you won’t even consciously hear the classical music (once you get into the groove), but when “Highway to Hell” comes on, you’ll be pulled away from what you’re working on, as if waking from a great dream.

Weather Link

Controlling a playlist is easy, but one thing science may never solve is how to control the weather. And what has the human race done for thousands of years when it can’t control something? We try to understand it, which helps us control our response to it.

The things in this world that affect our brain are absolutely amazing. For example, even subconsciously, wet and rainy weather will depress us, while beautiful sunny days will make us happy. So, if we have a big creative deadline and the forecast calls for rain, we must be screwed, right? Wrong.

As Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales puts it16:

“It seems counter-intuitive but a little bit of sadness turns out to be a good thing.”

You see, memory is actually more active and accessible during periods of sadness. Forgas studies the brain and the weather’s effect on it. He found, surprisingly, that subjects retain more information on rainy gloomy days than subjects who are asked the same things on beautiful sunny days. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer attributes this as the reason why some tortured artists are so amazing at what they do.

Memory, especially our working memory, is vital to the creative process.

Human RAM Link

Random access memory (RAM) is a computer’s ability to access data without (for lack of a better explanation) having to dig for it. The human brain works like this, too. Our RAM is called working memory. This working memory directly correlates to our ability to be creative and unique.

If you want to redesign the interface of a Web form, what’s the first thing you do? You go onto the Web, trying to find something. Can you guess what you’re not finding? Inspiration. You’re building a working memory. Whether you know it or not, your brain is retaining everything you see. And your ability to access it randomly later is the working memory in action. The more you see, the more your brain can hold.

I am not a scientist, but I suspect that this is one of the reasons why you have that moment of insight during your morning shower. You try so hard during the day to solve a problem; you’re trying to force the answer by researching and scouring the Internet. During that time, your brain is retaining all that information. Later that night, during REM sleep, your brain catalogs everything it’s seen.

I propose that your mind, tapped into the subconscious during deep sleep while recounting the day’s working memory, is able to solve the problem for you. It’s only after you wake — during that morning routine — that you’re able to access it. This is why forcing inspiration, while impossible, does reap positive results.

Finely Tuned Problem-Solving Sessions Link

We’ve learned that you can’t force inspiration, and, although we try to control our environment, doing so is hard as well because so much plays into it. The problem is that sometimes you have to be inspirational on the fly. Well, practice makes perfect.

Last summer, I read an article by Seth Godin titled “Impresarios17.” In the article, Godin talks about how impresarios “weave together resources and opportunities and put on a show.” This gave me an idea, and I will forever be in Godin’s debt because I am now my own version of an impresario. An impresario is someone who organizes and often finances concerts, plays and theatrical productions. In my case, I organize brainstorming events.

Every month, my team and I enter our planning room for at least three hours. We lock the doors, opening it only for pizza and beer deliveries. Our mission is to solve one problem. In past sessions, we have redesigned the user interface that powers our systems, solved marketing problems by “remarketing,” and found new and creative ways to present information. The role of an impresario has had such a direct and positive impact on the way we do business that I am now introducing the role to every team in our 100+ person company.

Why does having an impresario work? Well, certain rules guide the team to moments of insight:

  1. Identify a very specific problem to solve, and stay focused.
  2. Provide the necessary tools to spark inspiration (white boards, markers, paper, etc.).
  3. Be technology-agnostic! Don’t worry about how you will solve the problem; focus only on the why.
  4. There are no wrong answers; some are just better than others.
  5. Celebrate failures.

My team looks forward to their time spent locked up together because it gives us an opportunity to be creative in front of each other. Support their ideas, and help them grow. Don’t force your opinions and thoughts. If the group is moving in the wrong direction, ask them questions until they find the right path.

Celebrating Failures Link

Admitting defeat is one thing; celebrating it an entirely other. Only good can come from openness and honesty. We all learn from our own mistakes, but if you don’t share yours, how can I learn from it? Celebrating failures and realizing that “missing the target” isn’t a bad thing will help your team to grow, recover and build things faster.

At the end of the process, my team always has something to show for it. On occasion, we have realized that the problem we set out to solve was the wrong problem to focus on. We failed to find a solution because there was no reason to find one. That in itself was the solution, and presenting the outcome of the session to our company helped us to refocus.

The only failure I’m not comfortable with is the failure to try.

In Retrospect Link

I’ve found a groove. I go to bed, thinking hard about a problem, and fall asleep trying to solve it. Waking early in the morning and refocusing my efforts brings the solution closer to my consciousness. I’ll often get to work quite early, continually working on the problem. Then, when I feel my creativity beginning to slip, I’ll hit the gym.

Getting my energy level up, increasing my adrenaline and getting my mind off the topic help to realign my thoughts. Then, I hit the sauna for a good 20 minutes. Nothing like 80 °C heat in a quiet room and with eyes closed to restart that relaxed, creative meditation. Then, I head back to work.

Keep in mind that we all have our own ways of getting our minds off topic, and later realigning our thoughts — and making things better. (Image source: opensource.com19)

I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue this schedule over time, nor do I expect you to follow it. Right now, I’m treating this as an experiment, and it’s proving to be highly fruitful.

Here are the big take-aways from my experience:

  • Respect your teammates and their periods of inspiration.
  • Protect your team from the day’s distractions and interruptions.
  • Deliver freedom as a gift. You’ll see boundless gains in creativity from the team.
  • Try to more deeply understand your brain and its ability to be affected by its environment.
  • And, of course, celebrate your failures!

Thoughts? Link

Please feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.

(al) (il) (ea)

Footnotes Link

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Jesse Friedman is a veteran developer turned experience craftsman. He prides himself as being an advocate for users and their experience. Currently employed by Automattic, Jesse works with products that impact millions of websites and users everyday. In 2012 he wrote the “Web Designers Guide to WordPress” and this year he released two new books “WordPress in a Weekend”, and “WordPress Security”. With years of experience as a speaker and a Professor, he delivers impactful and educational talks. Jesse co-organizes local meetups, and is very active in the community. He works closely with his students and others to share knowledge and bring forth a better future for Internet.

  1. 1

    Christopher Butler

    August 28, 2013 1:58 pm

    Hey Jesse,

    Great piece! So many of these concepts are resonant (and I’m thinking somehow in the air at the moment). We’ve got a team of 21 here at Newfangled, and almost every idea you mention has been important to nurturing our creativity, productivity, and all around well-being.

    It’s amazing really — in just the past few weeks, I’ve been ruminating on some of this stuff too. Definitely on the same wavelength with you. For example:

    On seeking out inspiration and education individually:
    On fostering inspiration in creative teams:
    On understanding the timing of creativity and creative production:

    I think you’re absolutely right that what creative teams need is leadership, far more than management (though systems certainly have their place). I love the distinction that John Kotter brings to leadership vs. management: that management is coping with complexity; leadership is coping with change. With that in mind, I find it fascinating that, as you point out, most of us have understood “the need for a little distraction at work, even if [we] don’t really know why it works.” That intuition is profound, and something that should inspire systems, not buck against them!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and insightful read. I’m going to spread it around :)

    – Chris

    • 2

      Jesse Friedman

      August 28, 2013 6:27 pm

      Hey Chris

      Love the time v timing article and it starts off a lot like this one, huh? I guess we’re both spending a lot of time reeling through ideas in the late or early morning hours.

      Thanks the feedback, we should get together soon!


  2. 3

    Hi Jesse,

    Great article! I’m only 21 and starting studies in a few weeks, but I have already had a few opportunities to work in different creative teams. I completely agree with you that what keeps a bunch of creative weirdos on track is not someone who micro-manages a whole project to death but rather a creative leader.

    For me, personally, it is easier to get creative when i have someone on my team who knows better what my job is right now than i do, so i can get a little distracted without ever having to worry about really losing track.

    And I think you really brought to the point how everyone is different and how in our business these differences have to be respected to a larger extent than in non-creative jobs (e.g. everyone in your team likes to be communicated to differently, that is because everyone evaluates information differently and not respecting this might result in questions, quarrels and/or other problems).

    I am pretty much the music addict myself and I am convinced that music
    sometimes can get your inspiration going. I have worked at an advertising agency where I was forbidden to listen to my own music , and even worse, I had to listen to the same horrible music on the same horrible radio station every single day. You can imagine how my motivation droppped month after month..

    And for me, losing motivation always is the final nail in the coffin.
    As an upcoming designer I don’t get as much trust, nor respect, nor freedom so keeping motivation up sometimes can be the toughest problem.
    And, to extend your analogy, I don’t think inspiration is the driving force on the playground. I think imagination is the playground, inspiration is the motion (or maybe the ‘change’, as Chris would propose) but what really gets my inspiration going is motivation.

    Now you have written this brilliant piece on creative leaderhip and different methods of finding inspiration in the best-possible work environment, but do you have any tips for young designers who can’t keep their motivation up on ridiculous projects/clients/bosses/co-workers? And I really can’t really take “sit through it!” as answer anymore, that’s just lazy.

    Greetings from Germany!

    • 4

      Jesse Friedman

      August 28, 2013 6:30 pm


      While I fully believe in everything I wrote, there are so many who don’t. They want designers to produce and they would have you on a factory line if they could. I think we’ve all worked in places like that one time or another.

      The good news is, we’re seeing far less of those “shops” and “free to be creative” agencies.

      Just keep focusing on doing great work and find a good flow for you. Don’t be scared to look for an environment that will foster creativity. The better your working environment, the better your work, the faster you’ll be a creative director, dictating your own terms.


    • 5

      I totally agree with you. I found myself in similar situations. I have not had to work in an agency where I wouldn’t be allowed to hear music (god forbid :D), I couldn’t live a day with the music played on the radios in Germany, but currently I’m facing a boss, who is eager to “optimize” everyone at every time. Pushing too much and even phoning and texting me after my home time ( which is holy to me) and putting unecessary onto me.

      In the beginning, which is not far away actually, I wondered if I just couldn’t handle the pressure of a real working environment (I’m fresh out of my apprenticeship, which was rather relaxing), but now I think it’s more a problem of leadership, or rather management, since he’s trying to manage us.

      I like your ideas on the subject, I think you’ll make a great CD :D

      • 6

        Jesse Friedman

        August 29, 2013 1:50 pm


        I too have had jobs that don’t seem to have an end to the day. The “if your boss is awake, you’re supposed to be at your desk” mentality exists all over the place. It’s unfortunate because as @dhh put it yesterday:

        “Secret to productivity is not finding more time to do more stuff, but finding the strength to do less of the stuff that doesn’t need doing.”

        Good luck!


  3. 7

    Thanks for this great post…as Creative Director for my company I lead a team of young designers and we struggle with how to wrangle creative inspiration every day. Your environment, freedom and trust in each other are certainly huge aspects of being open to inspiration. Music is a huge part of our daily routine too – I’m encouraging everyone to try the spotify challenge today!

  4. 9

    Hi Jesse,

    Thank you for the great food-for-thought to start this Wednesday! I find your reflection on music particularly interesting and suggest reading The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause: This book has been a “little distraction from work” that offers creative inspiration and a wonderful starting point for those interested in how music affects us.

    I would add that we creatives benefit greatly from turning off the manufactured music now and then, which can often have a wearying effect on our brains, and listen more to natural soundscapes (sources of inspiration for many classical composers).

    Just as the weather changes our mood and creativity levels, the cadenced rhythm of waves, bird songs, etc also plays an important role. Krause writes “In office spaces where the sound level never varies, the white noise becomes another unconscious irritant, not unlike the fluorescent lights with which workers also have to contend.”

    While living in a city means I can’t get into a 100% natural environment, I also break from the 9 – 5 schedule every other day to swim in a gym pool. The sound of water + exercise leads me to an inspiring state of mind. I make up the hours later on and enjoy an increased productivity level.

    There is so much to learn about the relationship between creativity and how our brain works, I certainly appreciate the links and leadership inspiration!

    • 10

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 12:49 am


      Great point! I love listening to nature. I wrote my last book outside in my backyard just listening to the birds, dogs, squirrels etc…

      Thanks for the input.


  5. 11

    Man, I wish you were my boss!!

  6. 15

    guy greenbaum

    August 28, 2013 5:22 pm

    Thanks for the inspiring post. After this read, I’m closer to celebrating my failure as a first-time Creative Director.

    For the past few years, my mind wakes me up between 4-4:30am when it’s ready to problem-solve. As you propose, go-time happens for me after voracious, bordering on aimless, research.

    My current go-to zen (pandora) playlist is: Steve Reich + Mulatu Astatke + Debussy + Far East Suite (Ellington)

    • 16

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 12:50 am


      You and I would have a lot of great conversations in those early morning hours. Great to see there are other early birds actively searching for answers.


  7. 17

    I’m a Front-end developer on a creative team and I’m also a fan of classical, but I find myself getting tired, drifty, and more prone to outside distractions if I listen to slower/predictable music.

    I often find myself listening to Metallica, Disturbed, and currently Avenged Sevenfold not only because I like the music but I’ve noticed it keeps my adrenaline pumping and my brain flowing. I program so much faster, and better, without outside distractions. Although, I really enjoy walking away from my computer every hour or so (or scan Facebook like you mentioned) to clear my head and start from scratch a couple minutes later. This also leads to creative thinking as I’m not trying to force myself to find an answer, just thinking subconsciously.

    Many of the things you pointed out in this article are completely true in my case though, and I’m thankful our leadership understands the importance of this type of environment.

    Thanks for the read, great article!

    • 18

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 12:53 am


      You might benefit from the 45/15 work process. You work really hard for 45 min then take a 15 min break every hour. A break requires you to get up, walk around, go outside, do something other than work or work related tasks, then get back to it.

      Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.


  8. 19

    Hey Thank you Jesse, I always struggle to become creative, this post is really going to help me. Thanks again.

    • 20

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 12:53 am

      Great Sagar, thanks! Let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear about it.

  9. 21

    Amazing article, and the synchronicity of it all is interesting, as me and a coworker dreamt of ways to make everyone happier and more productive at my current company today over lunch. I’ve found working on a rather small creative team in a very corporate environment has definitely made the creative part very forced and at times difficult.

    So glad to know there are places out there thinking differently about how creative people work and think! May just have to start looking for one to work at…

    • 22

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 12:54 am

      Stacy I’m really happy my article resonated with you. Hopefully we’ll see more and more companies adopting some of these ideas.

  10. 23

    This is a very timely article for me personally – thanks! I’m a freelancer who’s recently grown into a small studio with a team of 3 others.

    Music is a huge part of creativity for me, but my taste in music isn’t everyones favorite. I like pop/punk/metal mainly, but do like more mainstream stuff too. That’s meant I’ve kind of given in to mediocracy and just settled on playing the radio day in day out to keep everyone happy, but it’s really sapping my strength listening to the same rubbish everyday.

    After reading this I’m not going to worry about coming across rude and just put my headphones on to try and get some creativity back. I’ve been telling the guys to put headphones on too if the radio is draining for them too, but they don’t, so I guess it isn’t affecting them so much.

    The flexi-time thing is also big for me. Currently we do 9-5, but after doing this for nearly 3 months (I use to mix things up a bit when I was a single freelancer) I’m finding the routine is draining. Definitely going to try implementing some kind of flexi-time arrangement and trial it for a couple of weeks to see how we get on.

    Thanks again!

    • 24

      Jesse Friedman

      August 28, 2013 10:08 pm


      Congrats on your success, sounds like you’re doing great.

      You might want to try it allows everyone in the room to cycle through being the DJ in online “club”. If you all have reasonably similar tastes it gives everyone the opportunity to share their music and be in control.

      It can however, become a huge distraction, as my team and I stopped using it because it became a competition to see who could find the cheesiest songs to play. That got old quick.


  11. 25

    david ibañez

    August 29, 2013 12:31 am

    You talk about the brain and the weather’s effect on it, and studies consider sadness on rainy gloomy days the main cause.
    From some months ago, an idea is rounding my head that low pressures has a positive impact on our brain and inspiration. I like to have my pen and notebook when I flight, because It usually gets my inspiration going. I think that on flight low pressure is the main cause as the low pressure on the rainy days.
    We can’t control the weather, but we can control the room’s air pressure. I’m sure that if you could lower the room’s air pressure during your problem-solving sessions will improve your team results!

    • 26

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 1:38 pm


      That is a really interesting theory. Especially since every other aspect of flying is not really conducive to being a creative environment. Unfortunately I’m not sure how to test it.


  12. 27

    I don’t often find myself commenting on blogs but this is spot. fucking. on. I totally get that not everyone feels like this but my brain doesn’t soley function on work between 9-5PM monday through friday. I kind of have a system. If I’ve got a big writing project to get done I’ll start up at around 9PM. When I lose focus I’ll crack open a bottle of wine, and let the magic happen. I’ll work until the sun comes up then crash for a few. Wake up, edit, then send for approval.

    I also live by the Gym philosophy you mentioned except for me it’s more so once I feel myself getting to caught up in the client chaos, I’ll head to the gym and cycle off about 10 miles worth of frustration. I do this because it levels me out.

    Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to work with a wonderful band of misfits who have a similar mindest as you. Everyone is different. We all have our own system. But we get shit done, and we do it well.



    • 28

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 1:39 pm


      I really appreciate the enthusiasm and I’m glad you’re at such a cool working environment. Based on these comments it doesn’t seem like you’re in the majority.


  13. 29

    Great article, thanx.

  14. 31

    This is awesome post! infect some of these ideas i have experinced personally in my career but as time have passed i was forgotten to use such tactics and started manging the team by fully managerial prospect.

    Thanks for your post to reminding me those oldies… :) which can be fruit full for my team and myself

    Thanks a lot!

  15. 33

    Thanks Jesse for this great article and also for the comments left by other people.

    I think ‘managing’ creatives and the creative process is possibly one of the hardest tasks to perform. Being creative is not an on/off button and applies to each people in a different way.

    It’s great to read about some ways to help improve the team building and participation to the project, but I was wondering if you had any ideas/technique on how to nurture very junior (but not necessary young!) people in the team and make sure they are challenged but also protected (and the project is protected too)? So far, in my experience, that’s the most difficult thing to achieve especially if the junior person has the basic skill but not the critical thinking…

    If you have experience with that, I would love to hear your ideas!

    • 34

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 1:45 pm


      The first thing to conquer would be to make sure that everyone is very comfortable with each other. The best way for the “junior” to learn and grow is to do that through his/her peers. That doesn’t always happen if the “seniors” don’t have the motivation to help.

      We do team building events all the time. This summer we challenged ourselves to read a certain number of books and do enough training to earn a day on the paint ball field. The team came together and focused on a way to meet the challenge, not as individuals but as a team.

      The biggest issue with this, is that the challenge may have left my team eager to use me for target practice. :)

      Anyways, my point is maybe you give the team a challenge that requires everyone’s contributions and expertise. This way they have to work together but it’d be good to make sure it isn’t tied to a client, so there isn’t pressure behind the deadlines.

  16. 35

    Thanks Jesse!

    This was a great read, and completely aligned with your insight. I arrive to where I work about 2 hours before the “day starts”. Allowing myself to feel the comfort mindset and fully immerse in what I love doing most, designing.

    One of the hardest struggles I deal with is allowing myself to seek a creative mindset during the day, being that I am one of the only “creatives” at where I work. I find great inspiration through speaking and collaborating on an informal basis, but is always something I am working on and trying to improve.

    I applaud your mentality and execution!

    • 36

      Jesse Friedman

      August 29, 2013 5:02 pm

      Thanks Kyle

      I’m glad you’re finding ways of being creative even if you’re alone in the office. One thing you might think about doing is seeing if you can offer some office space to local freelancers who need an office. Sometimes a small stipend will go a long way and you’ll be joined by fellow like minded people.


      • 37

        That’s a great idea, I have often wondered how I can implement like-minded designers into a shared space. So far a good beer does the trick!

  17. 39

    Hi Jesse,

    Thanks for the article. It’s refreshing to know that there are team heads (director, whatever, anyone who leads a team of talent) who spend so much effort thinking about how best to bring out the best in his members.

    I especially concur with the part about everyone being different. That’s right, we’re not factory workers (hell, even factory workers can inject creativity into their work), so we should all be allowed freedom to do whatever it takes to be at our best, even if it appears strange to others. A colleague of mine opens dozens of windows as she works, one of them being Youtube, but you can see she’s working hard on just one, Illustrator/Photoshop window. Don’t ask me why. Myself, if I’m at work, I won’t necessary be at my desk all the time, but you can be assured that I’m just cooling my head so I can get back to whatever problem I was trying to solve. There are people I know who sit right through 9 to 5, but spend much of their time doing personal stuff. I don’t know if management is supposed to be ecstatic about that.

    • 40

      Jesse Friedman

      September 3, 2013 1:16 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Anthony.

      We have people in our office who are machines. They come in, sit down, get their work down, rarely get up during the day even to go to the bathroom. Then they’re gone.

      I think those people are extremely rare. I think they are also more likely to get burnt out.


  18. 41

    Nice article, thanks for sharing. Look forward for more from you.


    • 42

      Jesse Friedman

      September 3, 2013 1:16 pm

      Thanks Jay. I really enjoyed writing this article, so I look forward to more from me as well :)

  19. 43

    I’m glad to have found this article. So many valuable points which I’d forgotten. Thanks for sharing. Will look forward for more articles from you.

  20. 45

    Look into ASMR.

    Try to start with.

    If you can experience ASMR, you can take the “express route” into that state of flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about. It’s a little like reaching a deep meditative state, but in a short amount of time. From there, switch to something creative and you’ll be amazed at what you can come up with.

    • 46

      Jesse Friedman

      September 3, 2013 1:21 pm

      Interesting… I haven’t heard about that until now. I’ll do some reading.

  21. 47

    Jesse if you ever get to the bottom of the ‘shower think tank’ please let us all know: ) Great article!

    • 48

      Jesse Friedman

      September 3, 2013 1:19 pm

      I think a hot tub with a dry erase board on a swivel arm would be the perfect solution for me :)

  22. 49

    Great article Jesse!
    I am a fitness studio owner and a beginner web developer so I found the line “learning code, understanding design patterns and analyzing data are extremely easy” to be true but not so easy for me yet. I believe all your lucid points can be used in many venues including how someone connects to their health and fitness; as in finding insights, inspiration and music to stay in healthy/fit connection with the body which will then come back full circle and inspire greater creativity.

    • 50

      Jesse Friedman

      September 3, 2013 1:20 pm

      You’re right. So much of this can be applied elsewhere. Also in regards to fitness, there are so many benefits to working out and opening the doors to creative thinking is definitely one of them.

      Good health and a happy body is a necessity to a clear and strong mind :)


  23. 51

    I listen to way too much death metal while I work but it makes total sense that the irregularity of the music actually distracts me. Do you mind linking to a Spotify playlist you have composed of some of the best classical music you have listened to? I’m interested to see how my next work week will go without my usual distraction.

  24. 53

    Hey Jesse — loved your perspective and words of wisdom. I’m fairly new as an art director leading a team of creatives and every point you mentioned rings true. Do you know of any books (or other resources) that teach specifically how to lead a team of designers (or creatives in general)? I’ve been searching for a while and apparently this is not the easiest subject to find. Thanks!

    • 54

      Jesse Friedman

      September 5, 2013 5:38 pm

      Hi Vini

      I have yet to see one myself but I think I just might write one :)


  25. 55

    Awesome Article!! Thanks for Sharing!!!

  26. 57

    Thank you for the great article, this surely kick-started my day.

  27. 59

    Awesome read.

    Both confirming, and inspiring for me. Thank you for tailoring such a lovely suit good sir, I will wear it to work tomorrow.

  28. 60


    Very nice article. I am wondering if you can share any video of conference over these article.


  29. 61

    Michael Droske

    January 4, 2014 10:27 pm

    Jesse –

    Love your article. It’s funny how creativity just creeps up on us when we aren’t looking for it, and how elusive it can be when we are trying to put it to work for us.

    I know what you mean about creative thoughts in the shower. I never thought about using shower crayons. Thanks for that! Now I may never leave the shower! :-)

    Anyway, good stuff my brother!

    Your best ideas are ahead…

  30. 64

    Jesse Friedman

    January 10, 2014 1:00 pm

    If any of you are having a hard time with the concept of getting up early. Start your day off right with this vid. It’s Rush, live, playing YYZ. If that doesn’t wake you up…


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