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Creative Ops

Ruggable’s Emily Simmons tells us what she thinks about “success” in creative work

September 28, 2023 · 6 min read

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

How would you describe yourself as a creative director?

I would describe myself as somebody who puts a lot of faith in the creative process and seeks to create an environment where people are jazzed, doing their best work, and come away with renewed inspiration each day. I put a lot of faith in the team and do my part to make sure they’re set up to succeed.

What would you say is the hardest part of shipping great work?

The hardest part of shipping great work is in the buy-in and approvals process. Having an overly strict focus on exact business needs and the design-by-committee mentality can sometimes blunt great ideas. When you see these creative environments led by visionaries running like wild horses, it’s because nobody has put barriers in front of them and their creativity.

Sometimes creative ideas can’t ship because they’re new or they’re edgy or they’re too forward-thinking. They don’t appeal to the masses but they light the stage on fire, and that can create fear in stakeholders.

What are some of the brands you really admire that are doing that kind of work, where they’re running like wild horses?

It's easy to point to some of the younger DTC brands. I think of a brand like Bask Sunscreen, they’re very irreverent. I love Oatly, they’ve made such a splash with their campaigns. They’re constantly putting out these essentially immeasurable awareness campaigns that become viral just because of someone’s great idea. An agency that I love and admire is Chandelier Creative, for always generating unique 360-degree hospitality concepts.

A brand I’ve always looked up to is Nike. They do such a good job of being edgy while being leaders. When you’re a leader it’s hard to keep your eyes forward instead of looking back at your past successes. It’s amazing how they’ve maintained this confidence that pushes them to keep doing things in new ways, even though they have these winning formulas.

Another brand that keeps it fresh is Architectural Digest. I admire them so much because they’ve really adapted to new channels, new systems. They have this perfect line of maintaining this traditional, sort of institutional persona while being very much in conversation with the kids, with new platforms, with new types of content. The people at the helm there really believe in content; they don’t think even one email is too small to leave an impression with a customer, too small to put that effort into.

How do you define success in creative work?

Success comes down to a few questions of quality. Did we come up with something that elicits emotion? Did we come up with something that’s original? Of course, you have to quantify — did we hit the goals we set out at the start? If not, did we at least learn why we didn’t hit those goals? This is how I judge any individual piece of work.

In terms of a macro view, if I’m looking at a month-long period, success is also about how many new ideas and pivots we’ve come up with. If I’ve had a really smooth month or quarter, there’s something unsuccessful about that. I should be setting up Petri dishes where ideas can grow and jump out. I should be setting up a creative process where we have a buffer that allows for that last, amazing idea to come to life. I should be setting up a team where their synapses are still firing on new ideas, even though we’ve locked in a bit of a template.

The general percent of innovative ideas percolating and experimentation happening is a real sign of success over a long horizon.

What are three things that you could not do your job without?

I couldn’t do my job without my RoWrite. It’s like a ThinkPad, I can draw on it, sketch on it. It’s funny, I got an Instagram ad for some really cool tool like it, but it was $2,000 and I just decided to go for this, which is like the budget version. But it’s incredible.

I don’t think I could do my job without Pinterest, to be honest. I don’t know what those engineers are doing over there, because the platform seems like it hasn’t really innovated over the years but there’s nothing out there like it. There’s such a deep repository, you can search from so wide to so narrow. It’s like exploring a bazaar in Morocco, every corner you turn around just has more, it really brings me in.

Third, I want to mention the creative forums I’ve found. All these things I go to and look at for content like Design Milk and Cabana Magazine. It’s actually less direct to my job, it’s more just fueling me. All the inspiration around this industry, the non-stop stream I’ve set up in my inbox and around me.

Regarding that last answer, given how much of our world is based on what we’re consuming online, do you think you could still be a creative director without your phone, your laptop, your Wi-Fi? 

Sometimes I use my RoWrite for that, when I’m just sitting down and coming up with my own thing or imagining how a website could look without seeking out some example out there. Communication of visual ideas is always a derivative of something else that’s out there. I could do my job without these technologies, yes, but I’d be going outside to find the nearest fern, picking that fern, and showing my team the fern to say, “we need this color.”

I do think everything comes from nature. There is just so much content out there, though, it’s the filtration that’s so important. Pinterest, again, is basic but expansive and you can drive it yourself. When you pick your inspirations wisely, what you’re reading religiously, the editors you follow, that’s how you’re influenced, but you can control it.

What’s a piece of advice you’d get to up-and-coming creatives?

My biggest advice is to bite off more than you think you can chew. Literally, always. I really believe in that, and there’s times I’ve done it where the result has been extreme chaos, but there’s more times I’ve done it that have produced extreme opportunities. Those moments have been some of my favorite ever in my career.

My second piece of advice is actually borrowed from Jonathan Adler, who we had a chance to work with when we did a collection with him at Ruggable. He said: Listen to your mentors, but listen even more to your tormentors. The people who have told you that you’re too much, or that you’re bad at this, or that you can’t succeed here? Believe them. Don’t try to succeed there; look for where you can succeed. Know that you’re too much; learn to lean into it.

Recognize where you’re being pointed by both your mentors and your tormentors. Listen to calamities, turn those challenges into superpowers. Everybody is always reacting to you in a mirror, either telling you how they would prefer you to be or how you’re too much for this scenario. 

When I actually sat down and wrote down my tormentors and thought about situations and people that weren’t a fit for me, it was crystal clear what I should have been doing with my time.

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