Jane Technologies’ Emily Williams on defeating endless feedback loops
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.
What does it mean — for you — to be a creative director?
When I joined my current company [Jane Technologies], I became the company’s first-ever creative director. It was a new role, so there was a lot of education around what being a creative director means. It was an opportunity to set the tone and define exactly what you’re asking here.
It can mean so many different things based on the organization you’re at. At a high level, it’s about having a creative-strategic mindset by which you inspire and guide teams to solve problems. Ultimately, it’s almost always about being a support to a creative team — giving them the right mix of structure and freedom to do what they do best. There’s also the individual support component of the role. It’s my job to identify peoples’ strengths and help them push and stretch to foster those strengths and expand a skillset around them.
At Jane, I have a smaller team than at previous organizations I’ve been at. There’s the obvious challenge of having less hands and less resources, but what’s great about it is we’re not at all siloed. With bigger teams, you’re always actively working to prevent siloing. Here, we’re working hand-in-hand with the product and sales teams, which helps us come to creative solutions faster and more effectively.
How do you approach the team-building and leadership side of the creative director role?
Throughout my career, I’ve noticed that many of the organizations I’ve come into are very segmented in terms of responsibility. The designers work on designs; the copywriters work on copy. They’re specialized to the point where they’re stuck in their lane. In my experience, you improve both the quality of the creative work and the happiness of the team by removing some of those barriers between functional lanes.
Teams should work together as teams. A designer might have the initial grain of an idea that leads to the perfect copy for a project and vice versa. Approaching projects as collaborative efforts rather than creative director-dictated, segmented tasks is better for everyone. It also exposes people to more of what’s going on in the larger company, informing not just the work at hand but their path forward. Maybe you’ve got a copywriter who’s just been working on growth marketing, but they start working with a designer who’s focused fully on social and email marketing — those things start to mix and both improve.
How exactly does a dedicated creative ops team benefit a creative team?
In my previous role, we had a full creative ops team. It was incredible. They really understood prioritization, forecasting how long projects might take, when to push back on one project in favor of another, all these logistics. It’s a lot to keep track of. Jane operates as a start-up without a dedicated ops team, so I've taken on what creative ops work we do have. It’s been a learning curve.
So, at my previous company, I’d work really closely with project managers to delegate the work. We were able to make sure that everyone on the team was working on varied enough projects that they’d never get bored, that they were able to feel both creatively rewarded and productive all the time. I’m taking that same approach at Jane, but in a different way. Our designers are also talented copywriters, for example, and I try to give them projects to own or opportunities to collaborate on campaigns that give them the chance to grow their skills. But I’m really thankful to have had and learned from that past experience. Being able to learn from such focused creative ops people and bring it here to Jane, even if it’s just me, has been invaluable.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
An open-minded team is number one. They need to be talented, of course, but the best thing you can have is a team around you that’s open to exploring different ideas. You don’t want to be surrounded by people who are super precious about their work, people who are bad at giving and receiving feedback.
Second is Figma. That’s a huge part of our work today. Pretty much everything we work on at Jane goes through Figma. The collaboration element is huge for us, not just the design tools themselves. We do all of our brainstorms on Figma and Zoom together. The collaborative aspects of software that have really bloomed in the past few years have been so impactful on working within a team, especially at a remote company. I’ve felt more connected and effective using these tools.
The third thing is good collaborators outside my immediate team. The marketing people, the leadership, the VP of Product — having good, collaborative relationships with these people is key for me to understand the products we’re trying to market and the goals we’re trying to hit. I’d be completely lost without having people in these positions that can really guide me,
How do you make sure that the feedback process is effective — that feelings aren’t getting hurt and you’re not running through too many rounds?
It’s different at every stage in the process. In the brainstorming phase, there’s usually around six of us involved here at Jane. That might sound small, but it’s still a lot of voices and ideas for one room. At that stage, if someone shuts down an idea, I just gently remind them that we’re in the “yes, and” phase. Any idea might spark another, better idea, so it’s just about producing as many as possible and iterating. Feedback, as such, isn’t really important here unless it’s a “yes, and.”
Once we actually have some assets that need real, critical feedback, it’s my job to remind people what effective feedback looks like if they’re not already giving it. You can't just say something subjective and not propose an idea or solution. If you aren’t offering some sort of solution, you probably shouldn’t be saying anything. It’s not helpful. I’m always trying to remind people that if they’re going to make a callout, it needs to be solution-oriented. We’re all trying to get this project out the door — your feedback should serve that purpose.
In terms of taking feedback, I encourage people to ask questions that will lead them to a solution. It’s not one-sided. If someone gives you a piece of feedback that is short of solution-oriented, ask a few questions: what about this doesn’t align with the brief? What are some ways you would improve this? What about this do you like or dislike? Usually when you start asking these questions, it either highlights that the person didn’t really think their feedback through, or it quickly leads you to a great solution that improves the work.
As I’ve taken on the creative ops, project manager role in addition to my creative director duties here at Jane, I generally try to enforce a three-round feedback rule. You usually don’t need more than that, and creating that expectation leads to better, less meandering feedback. When people know they have a limited feedback window, they tend to make sure they’ve consolidated their thoughts in advance. The way you avoid constant, endless feedback loops is simply by pre-empting them like that.
What’s a piece of advice someone once gave you that’s influenced your career through the years?
Make sure you’re working on projects that push you to learn. Whether the project is fun or not is besides the point — the project you’re working on may not be the most creative thing you’ve ever done, but as long as you can find a way to learn something from it and make it additive to your skills and knowledge, it’s worth doing.
You should always be seeking to work for your growth. You have to produce work that moves your company forward; that’s why you’re paid to do the job, of course. But while you probably won’t be at the same company in 20 years, you’ll still be you, with any new skills you’ve gained — so make sure that you’re still prioritizing your own growth as much as possible on every project.