Using Continuing Education to Get Creative and Stay Inspired
WE Communications Blog: Culture & Careers
Last year, two members of our Global Marketing team — marketing content program manager Ian Denning and senior marketing designer Katie Baklund — applied for funding through WE’s Continuing Education program to attend professional development events. I sat down with them to talk about the CE program and the opportunities it afforded them.
What conference did you attend?
Ian: I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop, which is a workshop for literary writers — fiction writers, novelists and poets. It was on the Reed campus in Portland, Oregon, and it was HOT! Above one-hundred degrees on the last day!
Katie: AIGA puts on a biannual retreat for aspiring design leaders who want to expand their range and immerse themselves in a creative environment called Into the Woods. It is, quite literally, in the woods. There were three days of keynote presentations, hands-on workshops, fresh mountain air and backwoods bonding.
What did you learn that you could bring back to your work here?
Katie: There was a lot of focus on building balanced teams for projects and ensuring you have different types of brains working together — that was a big takeaway for me, and something I want to be mindful of in the future as I build teams. It was also beneficial to be exposed to folks that work in different industries but are still in a creative field. These connections are people who are experts in their field, and I may need to reach out to them at some point to collaborate, seek council, or network with them.
And of course, I now have a recipe for the best cocktail I’ve ever had in my life.
Ian: I worked with Benjamin Percy in the novel track. Ben Percy is a novelist and writer for comic books, and he focused heavily on long-form and serial narrative structures. While I don’t necessarily write in this form for my work at WE, the knowledge cross-fertilizes.
There’s a logic to novel structure that you can borrow from when you go to outline a whitepaper. I was thinking about this when I was outlining the Brands in Motion whitepaper last summer, actually. You can think of the Brands in Motion whitepaper as a three-act structure: the first act establishes the problem and the context, a world of motion driven by big global disruptors; the second explains an approach to understanding, the Brands in Motion survey; the third looks outwards, into what clients might do with Brands in Motion. It’s not a three-act structure like you might see in a novel or Hollywood movie, but I was influenced by those structures when I was working on it.
How do you stay inspired as folks whose livelihood depends on creativity?
Ian: I try to consume creative work omnivorously. I read a lot, obviously, and I try to be a good student of visual art, TV, film, video games — you can learn a lot by looking at how writers working in other media make the choices they make.
And of course, going home and working on my own writing. I am a happier, more productive, more fulfilled person at work if I’m consistently writing fiction in my off-time.
Katie: For me, the biggest challenge has been staying motivated to step outside my comfort zone. It’s easy to return to the familiar even though I know the times I’ve been in unnerving situations are the times that have pushed me to do my best work. Outside of nurturing hobbies like reading, pinball, and being an avid music-lover/show-goer, participating in workshops and retreats like Into the Woods is another great way to keep my creative juices flowing.
My favorite workshop at Into the Woods was an intro to visual journaling that was facilitated by Steffanie Lorig. We used artistic experimentation and self-reflection as a tool to help problem solve and facilitate unexpected creative breakthroughs. Part of my role as a graphic designer is to separate my own artistic style from my corporate work so that I am solving the client’s problems within their brand guidelines. As a result, I rarely get to venture into self-expression. I think there is something to be said for stepping outside these defined zones and challenging yourself to think beyond the typical. That expression and introspection will flow back into your day-to-day work, leaving you feeling recharged and inspired.
As agencies bring on more creatives, how do you think they can better support these staff?
Katie: I think the most important thing that agencies can do to support creative staff is to find a balance between allowing the creative process to flourish and meeting the bottom line. Too often, we place the pressure on the creative team to do much of the adapting when the adaptability is more successful if it happens at all levels and on all teams. Sometimes you can get amazing results from coloring outside the lines!
Also, I think educating and giving folks a line of sight into other how other departments work would be great — for both creatives and non-creatives.
Ian: YES on the adaptability. This is a conversation we’ve been having a lot around copy. You can have copy that checks off every item on every stakeholder’s must-have list, or you can have good copy. It’s almost impossible to do both. Unfortunately, a lot of the responsibility for educating people falls on the creative side — we need to be able to explain why this design is better than that, why showing is better than telling in content, etc.
Ian, what books or resources can you recommend to other copywriters?
Ian: I was just telling my wife that I learned to write copy from Joanna Wiebe at Copy Hackers. Also, I’m obsessed with a book called “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style” by Virginia Tufte. It’s a deep dive into sentence structure, but it’s’ full of hundreds of examples. If I’m stuck, I turn to Tufte — I can always find some interesting structure or idea to get me going.
Katie, similar question. What books or resources can you recommend to other designers?
Katie: Two books I’ve found most useful as an in-house corporate designer: “In-house Design in Practice” by Cathy Fishel and “Corporate Creative” by Andy Epstein. I recently picked up “Herding Tigers: Being the Leader that Creative People Need” by Todd Henry and I’m stoked to give it a read. Also wanted to mention Andy J Pizza who has a podcast called Creative Pep Talk, which has been invaluable to me and has gotten me through low points in my career.