A hand successfully navigating the winding path of a creative workflow

How to define and streamline a creative workflow

July 20, 2021 · 11 min read

Marketing and maintaining a brand in the digital age presents some very specific challenges. Chief among those challenges is a constant, pressing need to create content. Logos, social media posts, product shots, blogs, marketing emails … the list goes on! Content creation needs vary from business to business, yes — but from the one-person, freelancer-powered startups to multinational retailers employing thousands, one thing holds true. Every business needs to have a well-defined creative workflow for each of their content creation categories.

Understand that a creative workflow is different from the creative process. The creative process is centered on the actual creatives: designers, copywriters, and photographers. It’s about their work and the work other stakeholders (brand managers, marketers, and social media managers) do to facilitate that creative process.

The creative process is simply one component of a creative workflow. Where the creative process focuses on the actual creatives, creative workflow focuses more specifically on birds-eye level business needs surrounding any given creative project. Creative workflow is about infrastructure, optimization, and business metrics.


What is a creative workflow?

Creative workflow is to a marketing team what creative process is to a design team. It’s the series of steps that these teams follow to create marketing assets like product shots, social media posts, and web pages. It’s the process by which all the relevant stakeholders of a project come together to ideate, create, review, approve, and launch assets.


The steps of a creative workflow

While different teams at specific organizations might use different tools, templates, and processes to do their work, there are four crucial steps in any successful creative workflow. Whether you’re working as part of a fully in-house team, you’re bringing in external collaborators (creative agencies), or you’re an agency or freelancer creating work for a client, these steps will apply. To further help you optimize your creative workflow, we’ve included tool recommendations.

Step 1: Definition and ideation

It’s rarely a good idea to simply start creating without any context. Businesses have specific needs and goals to meet; annual recurring revenue targets; percentage subscription increases; you get the picture. Before you begin, do some research and make sure what you’ll be creating will work towards those goals!

In this first stage, you need to nail down the who, what, why, and how of your plan. Who is the audience; what kind of assets need to be created; why this audience and these audiences; and how you’ll create these assets (using specific tools and creatives, scheduling, etc.).

Illustration of the ideation stage and many possible factors

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This is the most important stage of the process because it’s where you set expectations; with clearly defined expectations, the later steps should take less time. Get everybody on the same page as soon as possible!

It’s safe to say that the creative workflow begins with a need; a reason to begin working. For example, let’s say you work as a marketing manager at an e-commerce company specializing in furniture. You’re launching a new chair, and you need to create some visual assets to support the launch. In conjunction with your designers, you create a moodboard. You create a brief for the project that defines who will be doing what tasks, what the budget is, what the deliverables are, and what the due date is. With everything clearly defined, you move on to the next stage.

 Tools used in this stage

  • Air: build a mood board, including past internal assets and external inspiration

  • Project management tools: Notion, Trello, Asana, and others. Break down and assign tasks. This will help your entire team with task management. 

  • Video meeting software: Google Meet, Zoom, whatever your team uses. Have at least one real-time kickoff meeting to work out project needs and expectations.

  • Slack: Before and after the project kickoff meeting, use Slack to communicate questions and concerns to your fellow team members.

Step 2: Content creation

With expectations set, and when every member of the project team has a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities, it’s time to actually create. If the specific creation needs were tightly and clearly defined in the ideation stage, perfect — the creative team simply has to go through the motions and produce some initial drafts. Otherwise (if the initial brief was somewhat loose), the creative team might spend a little more time brainstorming and honing in on an exact plan of action.

A person sits at their desk, design software on their computer screen

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As long as there’s a clear path and a well-defined schedule, this is just a matter of the creative team running through their specific creative process until they’ve created one or more drafts that they’re satisfied with — work they believe meets the needs set in the ideation stage. This stage should include focused feedback, either in live meetings or within a platform like Air. For a full breakdown of the actual creative process, visit our handy guide.

Tools used in this stage:

  • Air: Store and share every version of every asset created, passing them back and forth between collaborators for modifications and feedback

  • Creation tools: Depends on what the specific creative needs are, but will likely include Adobe products, Figma, Google Docs, actual cameras, and whatever else is necessary to actually create the assets.

  • Project management tools: Includes Notion, Trello, Asana, and others.

Step 3: Creative review

This stage involves the creative team sharing what they created in the previous stage with all the other stakeholders involved in the project. Everyone who met to define the initial creative brief in the ideation stage comes back together to discuss the work done by the creative team, perhaps bringing any other stakeholders who could bring a valuable perspective.

Once the creative team decides they’ve reached a stopping point, or that their work is complete, creative review can begin. There should have been some feedback happening during the content creation stage, but the creative review stage involves feedback from more stakeholders at once.

Commenting on "social media assets.png" in Air

Start by sharing the creative assets with everyone involved in the project — upload them to Air and request questions and comments. If everyone approves (a miracle!), then you’re ready to move on to the next stage. If not, it’s back to the content creation stage, back to review, and so on until the project leader decides that the creative product is finished.

If you find yourself spending too much time in this stage, on project after project, it’s probably because your ideation stage lacks clarity. Create some thorough project brief templates and spend more time outlining specific project needs — give your creative team the tools to succeed so you don’t get caught up in a repetitive review process!

Tools used in this stage:

  • Air: Your visual assets live here — collect each version of each project asset for team review. Team members should leave comments and give initial feedback here. 

  • Video meeting software: Google Meet, Zoom, whatever your team uses. Have at least one live feedback session to set expectations for further creative requests that will bring the project assets to completion.

  • Slack: Before and after feedback meetings, use Slack to communicate questions, concerns, and actionable requests to your fellow team members.

  • Project management tools: Includes Notion, Trello, Asana, and others. Constantly update your tasks’ status! Ensure the project’s success by using these tools to stay accountable at every step of the process.

Step 4: Approval

Congratulations, your team has successfully made it through however many rounds of creation and review necessary to satisfy the project needs, and you’re almost ready to move on to the next project. The final product is in your hands — all that remains is the final approval process, involving high-level stakeholders.

Choosing an asset, getting approval, scheduling, and publishing

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For agencies creating assets for a client, this means getting the sign-off from your primary client operative and invoicing once you receive confirmation that your work is done. For internal teams, this means getting approval from your Project Manager, Head of Marketing, or maybe even CEO — whoever controls the area of the organization your project serves.

Once you’ve secured that final approval, make sure the entire project team knows that it’s wrapped and has deposited their deliverables in the appropriate location, such as a project board within Air.

Tools used in this stage:

  • Air: Storage for all deliverables, visual or otherwise.

  • Project management software: Includes Notion, Trello, Asana, and others. Ensure that all assigned tasks are moved to the “Completed” column or equivalent. Tie up any loose ends.


Tips for creative workflow management

You should now have a firm grasp on the different stages of the creative workflow process, as well as different tools you might want to use and why you’d want to use them. However, even if you have a well-established workflow, you can probably still streamline certain processes. Here are a few extra tips to help you out.

Make a creative brief template

To save time across your creative workflow, it’s necessary to spend a little extra time in the ideation stage. To optimize ideation and task breakdown, simply make creative brief templates for every kind of asset your organization routinely creates. This could be as simple as a template for copy, a template for illustrations, a template for photographs, and a template for videos. Maybe that structure doesn’t work for your organization — perhaps you need a template for product release assets, a template for e-store listings, and a template for marketing emails.

A simple creative brief template

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Spending some time with your team building templates for your foreseeable project needs will certainly take some time, but it’ll save countless hours in the long run. This is an excellent way to implement automation into your workflow.

Choose the right project management software

There are many different project management software products on the market. Most use a freemium model. Most have kanban boards and some have time tracking capabilities. Each platform has slightly different functionality. Other publications have written detailed comparison pieces that will help you choose.

A kanban board for project management in Notion

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There’s absolutely no reason any modern organization wouldn’t use a project management tool. Pick one and then make sure your team uses it. Create guides. Establish best practices. Enforce usage. This will save everyone on your team countless hours, empowering people to do their own task management, as well as enforcing accountability through transparent project boards.

At Air, we use Notion. Need help figuring out how to structure project management in Notion? We’ve built dozens of handy templates to help you get started.

Avoid infinite feedback loops

The creative review stage can easily become a huge time sink. The key to removing any bottlenecks that might occur here is to establish a hierarchy among the people providing feedback. For creative agencies, that means account managers (or whoever has the best client relationship) should have the final say on any creative asset before it’s passed off to the client. For internal projects, the person who has final say might be a Project Manager, Head of Marketing, or even the CEO.

An infinite feedback loop

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Another key to avoiding feedback loops and bottlenecks is just to make sure there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. Don’t include people in feedback sessions who don’t actually have a relevant opinion or a real stake in the project!

Automation

An automated creative workflow is something of a unicorn. While there are new software tools that automate aspects of design and copywriting, there’s no real substitute for talented creatives. Seek automation in infrastructure and processes. If you simply follow all these tips and generally establish clear and repeatable expectations, you’ll achieve natural automation over time. It’s just muscle memory. The more one team runs through a similar process, using the same tools, the faster they’ll get and the less they’ll ask of project managers. Just make sure your team is set up for success.

Digital asset management

Whether you’re part of an agency or a company with a fully in-house creative team, you absolutely need a full-functionality digital asset management (DAM) platform. Air, the only truly modern DAM tool, offers everything any organization, regardless of size or industry, could need.

Air allows you to store, utilize, share, and navigate your digital assets in an intuitive and appealing user interface. It perfectly complements other hassle-free modern workplace tools like Notion, Asana, and Slack. Affordable, scalable pricing means your plan grows with you. Start for free with 5GB of storage and go from there.

Search bar within Air, with automatic suggestions

There’s no better way to store every digital asset produced over the lifetime of a business. Archive your past projects to use as inspiration for future projects. Compile creative brief templates. Store reusable design components. Achieve a streamlined creative workflow with Air.


In summary ...

Yes, this is a lot of information to take in. If you only take one thing away from this article, it should be that a streamlined creative workflow is achieved by setting clear expectations from the beginning, using the right tools, and building templates and repeatable processes.

With modern workplace software like Air in your toolbox, ironing out the kinks in your workflow is simply a matter of keeping a clear head, iterating, and iterating again, until your creation process is smart and smooth.

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