Inspiring Creativity in Your Employees: Tips From a Top Creative Agency


Want to amp up your team's creative output? Caleb Kozlowski, design director for Hybrid Design, shares his award-winning firm’s formula for inspiring creativity.

It’s hard enough to keep your own creative juices flowing when you’re a practicing creative professional. It’s doubly difficult when you’re charged with inspiring creativity in a team, especially one with a strong reputation for cutting-edge, award-winning work. But for the leadership at San Francisco-based Hybrid Design, inspiring creativity is a key factor in empowering the firm’s 18 team members to create high-caliber work for clients time after time. Here, Hybrid’s design director Caleb Kozlowski (pictured) shares the firm’s approach to inspiring creativity in a variety of common but challenging scenarios.

How do you inspire creativity in your team when they are on tight deadlines? 

Caleb Kozlowski

We narrow the path of exploration. If time is tight, a creative brief that’s too open can leave designers lost at sea. When under a time crunch, we try to give designers clear paths to head down.

How do you go about inspiring creativity in your team when clients are pushing for a solution that the designer thinks is second best?

This happens all the time. Most of the time this is because the designer is hanging onto something: an idea, a typeface, a design style. Whatever it is, I always try to re-center the work. If we (for better or worse) are heading down a path, we need to think creatively how to make that path stronger conceptually and aesthetically based on the client’s desired solution. The designer needs to let go of what they loved and find something new to love.

How do you continue inspiring creativity in your team when in the midst of a long and draining project?

Sometimes the time for creativity is past, and you just need to get the work done. In fact, I think the expectation that we need to be creative 100 percent of the time can be counterproductive. There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty wrapped up in creativity. So much is possible. If you keep your mind in that state for the duration of a project, you’ll be a wreck. Yet as designers we expect ourselves to be full-throttle, maximum creative all the time. It’s not sustainable and often not appropriate. There are times when we need to switch over to the practical, methodical, production part of our brains and just knock it out.

Does your staff do any team-building activities or retreats to recharge their creative batteries?

We do. In fact we have just revived an old tradition: The Studio Tokyo Trip. This fall we are taking the whole studio to Tokyo for a week. While this is obviously a cool perk, it does a lot of good for everyone. Quite simply, Tokyo is an amazing, inspiring place. Around every corner and down every set of stairs there is something to discover. So we break our crew out of the day-to-day, plop them down into a maze of inspiration, and see what happens.

Is your workspace designed in a particular way for inspiring creativity?

I would describe our workspace as aesthetically dense. The walls are covered with mid-century posters, books, owner Brian Flynn’s skateboard and toy collections, not to mention a 10-foot sculpture in our entryway and the numerous Super7 projects that cycle in and out daily. The other day the studio was gathered around a 5-by-5-foot neon Skeletor sign. It’s a totally unique environment.

In what ways do you encourage and enable your team to find inspiration outside of the workplace?

We believe strongly that independent projects outside of the studio make the work in the studio better. But, somewhat paradoxically, we need to be hands-off on those projects. They need to live 100 percent with the designer to really work.

The environment we work in has an evolutionary effect on what we create. Our methods and finished work adapt to the pressures and forces that surround it. Different pressures will produce different work.

As an analogy, think of the evolution of life around the world. Different environments create vastly different creatures. And some of the strangest ones live on islands isolated from the greater continents. They have evolved under completely unique circumstances, often devoid of predators. If that same landmass were nestled up against tiger territory, instead of lost in the ocean, those weird wonderful creatures wouldn't make it.

Now think of the studio environment. It’s fast and competitive, and work lives or dies in a crit or client presentation based on its strength. Client work applies a lot of pressures, from deadlines, to feedback, to competition with other designers. Not to mention creative direction. The studio is full of tigers.

If we truly want designers to bring something to the table, they need a safe place for their ideas, techniques and styles to develop: creative islands. Because often times it’s not that the idea wasn't good, it just didn't have enough time to evolve into something other people could see was good. So it dies on the wall. As designers, we generally pride ourselves on reinvention, but the truth is with studio work we don't always have the time to go from 0 to 60 in a new area of exploration. So we rely on tools that have matured enough to be effective. When we have creative islands, we are constantly building our toolset outside of these pressures. We then have more ways of thinking in our arsenal when the clock is ticking.

Hybrid’s creative team is divided into "logical and experimental" camps. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

This approach came largely from the personalities of our founders: Brian has a tendency towards design that is full and bold and expressive, focused on his cultural perspective rather than design convention. While Dora Drimalas leans more methodical, enjoying tackling large systems and favoring a clean, orderly aesthetic. We always joked that when they could agree, it had to be the right solution. In practice, the logical and experimental camps refer more to a thought process than to a division of labor.

There aren’t experimental and logical sides to the office. Instead, we try to recognize these qualities in each of our designers and draw them out. Some designer’s strengths will be weighted one way or another, but no one is siloed into one kind of work. It’s a reminder that we need to be able to think in both ways to do the work that we do.

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Tags: Creativity