The creative process is a fish

The process involved in creating creative* can sound like a subjective one. You might picture a gaggle of artists smoking cigarettes (or the like) throwing colors and shapes at a wall, making decisions based on feelings or personal taste.

Now that’s FINE for fine artists. But when building creative for brands, this is not a formula for success. A proper creative process for brands needs structure. We cannot afford to have writers’ block or wait for inspiration to strike. We are in the business of delivering amazing and relevant creative on time and on budget. That takes a process.

The fish diagram

We like to describe our creative process as a fish. Not in the way that it behaves or moves. But simply the silhouette of a fish, drawn in its most elementary form. This is the fish.

The Fish Diagram

The process over time (x axis) and quantity of concepts (y-axis) is visualized as a future-facing fish.

It starts with a large bucket of ideas (a tall tail fin) that get narrowed down to a single idea (the base of the tail). That single idea is then expanded into a high quantity of concepts (body of the fish) and then one of those is refined into the end product (the face of the fish).

Here is a project example

Let’s say we are doing a brand identity project for the zoo and we know they want a logo mark that features an animal.

  1. Ideate (the start): Design a panda, lion, monkey, giraffe, etc.
  2. Distill (the narrowing tail fin): Were going with the panda. A client decision was made.
  3. Iterate (the expanding body): Blow the options out again. This time with several different panda logos. Various panda perspectives, stylistic approaches, color ways, etc.
  4. Distill (the narrowing face): Refine into a final mark.

Of course, this is abbreviated

This is a simplified view of how a branding project would go, but it illustrates our approach, the phases of options, and the crucial decisions that need to be made to make this an efficient process. It keeps us all on track.

This fish is a great metaphor in this singular fashion, but also when you need multiple creative efforts within one larger project. A multi-channel ad campaign is a great example.

Your fish just gets friends.

A school of fish.

We cannot execute all creative deliverables at once (stack the fish). This school of fish comes in a stepped progression for strategy, then messaging, then design. You might then be able to stack fish for final creative deliverables like video, production art, web development, etc.

Those are good fish.

These are bad fish

Now let’s talk about when the process goes wrong.

A drawing of the fish, but the fish is dead.

Dead Fish
A client is going backwards. They’ve had a change of heart on their previous decisions. Fish can’t swim backwards. We cannot go back in time. We’ve chopped the process and a dead fish can’t swim. We will have to start a new fish.

A drawing of a squid-like beast.

A client is moving the goal line or changing the final deliverable. We don’t know the target, so we branch out in different directions, eating too much time.

The sawfish is scary.

A client is forever making changes/revisions. Sometimes many many minor changes. Larger decisions may have been made upfront, but then it’s death by a thousand paper cuts.

The eel is slippery and can't make any decisions.

A client is not making any decisions, but we continue to make new stuff. Without clear decisions, or narrowing the focus, the process elongates without a clear destination. The process becomes an eel, and even worse, may become a headless eel. Eww.

The blowfish represents a chaotic, all-at-once process.

When you need to accomplish multiple creative tasks but a client wants you to work on all of them at once instead of in a natural order. We cannot stack all the fish. A barrage of opinions and feedback out of order creates chaos and inflates the hours and the process. Blowfish are spikey and immobile. I don’t know if they can actually blow up, but it sounds pretty messy.

These are all bad fish. Some aren’t even fish! When these bad processes happen, the parties on both sides of the relationship become frustrated. Even if the end product is a whale of a success, the process to get there may leave everyone feeling sea sick.

Key takeaways

We, the agency (Fifteen4) need to produce amazing creative at an appropriate quantity. The client needs to be decisive and provide productive feedback that isn’t based on personal taste. This expanding and contracting action is the healthy heartbeat of the creative process and should harness the expertise of everyone involved.

*Yes we use creative as a noun. I am a creative who creates creative creative.

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