How to Become a Creative Director by the Time You’re 25Stories From the Trenches

A creative work table in an open office plan typical of a design firm or an advertising agency with wide high resolution monitors and design instruments

1. Observe.

From this second onwards, observe every detail around you. From the way a stranger is signing his check at a restaurant, to the way the dust piles up especially peculiarly in one corner of your room, to the way the sun through the blinds creates a layered mathematical dance of shadows on the wall.

Observation is the most important method of information acquisition. As humans we do it instinctually, but we are rarely mindful enough to catalogue what we observe, especially seemingly drab details of everyday life. So flex the observation muscle: it needs to be trained and built up over time so that you are able to quickly (most of the time subconsciously) access a huge reservoir of human and world data.. Actions, details, patterns all combine to create a toolbox of references that you will use down the road to create products, campaigns and solutions that are authentic, relevant, and HUMAN.

And don’t just look: listen, touch, feel, preferably with eyes closed.

2. Get really good at math.

I’m not joking. And I can see your Calculus teacher smiling quietly in our general direction. I cannot tell you how useful my mathematical background has been in my journey. The corners of your brain that are used to solve complex equations and study structure, shape, and change, are forever re-wired. For the rest of your life, your brain functions a bit differently. And for the better — you can never unlearn a method for solving a problem.

And if I can’t convince you that this will impact every part of your life, then at least let me convince you that it will allow you to provide clever and ingenious tactics and ideas for your design projects, especially those of the product flavor.

3. Study science.

No, don’t just study it, understand it. For all the same reasons as the ones mentioned above. And if you can get as good at it as math, then even better. Okay, I’ll hesitate a step further and say: study Physics. Physics is essentially the application of mathematics (what you’ve already gotten really good at) to the study of how everything around you works. As a Creative Director you will be creating beautiful things, for the PHYSICAL world. And this includes the internet and your cutely animated mobile interactions that bounce just right mimicking a hypothetical force of gravity…

Understanding how the world around you works provides you with an unparalleled foundation for you to build upon.

And for you to demolish.

Once you learn the rules of the physical world, you will know which rules to cleverly break.

4. Study art.

Know your shit. Study art history (I’m bad about this, but include in that the history of design), learn from the greats and about the rules they broke and how they broke them. Learn how they viewed society and how they responded to society so you can better equip yourself to do the same for the present day. Familiarize yourself with contemporary conceptual artists who are pushing boundaries — art has no rules, it is always new, changing, mutating, evolving while acting as a mirror to individuals’ minds and our society as a whole. Studying art trains you to become skeptical, especially of established paradigms. It teaches you to always question, investigate, and to discover the truth behind all motivations.

Select starting points: Lucas Samaras, Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter

5. Be mindful and kind.

This one is obvious. You will get nowhere in life if you are not kind, you know this. But in this industry it is paramount. Feelings, thoughts, intuitions go haywire, especially during crunch time, or the inevitable 9 to 9 that you will work. You MUST always keep this perspective at the forefront of your mind: Everyone means well, no one is out to get you or anyone else for that matter (don’t go into fashion), no one intends to harm purposefully, and you should practice similar mentalities accordingly.

To help yourself get there, practice mindfulness — love of yourself will allow the love of others to flourish. Love of yourself, will allow you be honest with yourself, down to the very little details you hate. Which brings me to the next point:

6. Be confident, but lean on others.

Your opinion is important, know that. But that doesn’t mean that you can be cocky; you don’t know it all, nor will you ever. In fact, the more you continue on this path the less you will know. Younger designers will teach you some of your most important lessons. You will need to lean on others almost every step of the way; ask for help when you need it. There is no such thing as truly creating something by yourself, no idea is yours alone. Your entire future will be collaborative, get used to it now. But while you develop these symbiotic relationships, make sure you continue to trust yourself and trust your past. Trust your intuitions, listen to your gut feelings, know that your entire life’s experience is relevant and affects every aspect of the choices that you are making today.

7. Speaking of younger designers, manage up.

I am good friends, still, with nearly all of my previous bosses. And I would like to think that I was good friends with them long before now. They are my mentors, for work and for life.
Managing up doesn’t necessarily imply that your bosses are bad, in fact, I’ve been blessed to have had very few bad bosses, but I have still “managed up” — be warned, this may involve some subterfuge.

Your relationship with your boss is like any other relationship: it is symbiotic. If they don’t know this, and are truly dreadful, then what in the world are you doing to yourself (aka get out)? But otherwise, you have the opportunity to create an incredibly rewarding connection for both individuals.

Your boss is a human. Like with all humans that you chose to spend 9–12 hours a day with (think about that for a second) you want to make sure you feel comfortable and appreciated, but at the same time you want to make sure THEY are comfortable and appreciated. Usually this involves learning something about them (god forbid), e.g. what does your boss constantly worry about? It’s probably 10,000% more important and hectic than whatever you’re dealing with. Why are they acting the way they are? There is always a good reason, and it usually has nothing to do with you. Do you honestly know how much time he/she spends on x, y, and z? The answer is no. Make sure THEY are happy. And after working your ass off, doing great work, and learning what appeals to them, speak up. Tell them how you feel. Be open and honest. Make sure they know how you want to be treated and talk to them openly and constructively about your ideal working environment.

Be responsible. Be responSIVE. Be adaptive, flexible, open hearted, empathetic and kind. It’s a marriage, sorry. But it’s probably the most informative marriage you’ll ever have. And that type of support is hard to come by, but once achieved will undoubtedly accelerate your career to places you didn’t even think were possible.

Oh and maybe you’ll get a really decent friend out of it.

8. Work for free.

When I started my career as a designer I worked a full-time job (in fashion retail no less) and worked a side design job in the evenings and weekends, for free. I immersed myself in the start-up world and started helping people wherever they would let me. Can you imagine the lessons I learned about myself (my value and self-worth), time management, and business strategy in general by working for free?

The first benefit you’ll see is the womb of fire and passion you’ll suddenly find yourself surrounded by when working with individuals who are also working for free (if you don’t, I should have prefaced: work for free, but work for something you care about, and work with people who care even more about it). These individuals will be your mentors, even though they don’t know that yet.

Secondly, this will create a space for experimentation and for self-education. Working for free creates a space with very little expectation, allowing your creativity to run wild. You will be able to make mistakes without fear of repercussion. Interested in product design but have always been a marketer? Jump into the start-up world: offer your services to design an app, but do actually take the time to learn how to do it properly.

Okay, now it’s about it get interesting.

9. Stop reading this article.

There is no right path, and ultimately no advise will help you get to where you want to go except for perseverance, faith, and a shit ton of hard work. But you know this, and more than likely, if you’re reading this article and remotely interested in heading up creative, you already have what it takes. And you’ll do whatever feels right to you, regardless of what anyone has to say about it. So, don’t be afraid to go your own way. Dedicate your time to what you love, and do it well, and you will find yourself falling backwards into what will ultimately be a true calling. But it might not happen by the time you’re 25…and be okay with that, because otherwise… here comes #10.

10. Quit.

You’re chasing a title. Stop. You’re going to be unhappy, trust me (or don’t trust me, you just read #9, you’re going to do whatever you need to do regardless of what I have to say about it).
Don’t get me wrong, some CD positions might be everything you expected, but more than likely if someone is hiring a 25 year old Creative Director, they don’t know what the hell they are doing, and neither do you. They won’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated, and you won’t know what to do with that situation to make it happy for all involved.

Quit, because you’ve reached your hypothetical ultimate goal of being “Creative Director” and well…now what? You’re going to be unhappy because you have more than likely been chasing the wrong thing.

And you probably haven’t been paying enough attention to your real life to even know what the right thing is. If you’ve done 1 — 8, you’ve done amazing things already, and nothing will bring you truer happiness than finding your calling, a calling without a title attached — but what is your calling? Do you know? Because I didn’t (don’t). I was a Creative Director at 25 and I didn’t know shit about what I truly wanted. All I had was a pressure from above, be it societal, parental, masochistic, to blindly chase what everyone else told me I should want.

So quit. Take some time for yourself. Relish, and I mean really relish, in some hearty solitude while diving deeply into your soul. What you will more than likely find is that you need the right people and the right direction, and that’s really all you need. Find people who care and feel as deeply as you do. Who share your world-views and visions for society as a whole, who will be there by your side to fight the fight.

Work, if done properly, in my strange and potentially skewed humble opinion, has the potential to create the most beautiful relationships…marriages, partnerships…

Don’t look for a title (and definitely not a salary).
Look for your people

This article first appeared on and has been republished here with Jana’s permission

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Jana Stýblová is an artist, designer, problem-solver and former physicist. She has spearheaded creative direction and design at Matter, MakeSpace, and Tourneau. You can follow Jana on Medium, Twitter, or keep up with her art.