How to Manage “Creative Differences”

Nov 21, 2016
Post Masthead

How many times have you heard that band members, actors or other creative-types were parting ways due to “creative differences?” (Name virtually any band from the 80s).

The thing is, when you work in a creative industry you’re always going to butt up against creative differences at some point, whether that is with clients, colleagues or managers.

When it happens, those differences don’t need to mean “the end of your band." Here’s how you can tackle creative differences (but not the other person) when they occur:

Expect differences to happen

First of all, you need to accept that creative differences will be part of the job. It’s not something to be offended over, it’s to be expected in a healthy environment where different people are free to express an opinion.

Instead, be prepared for these differences occur by understanding how to work through them. They may even be an opportunity to learn and grow. Setting yourself up with the right mindset to cope without leaping to a defensive response is a good way to ensure you get through without damaging relationships. Remember that sometimes creative differences can work out in your favor.

If you’re working with clients, you can help to minimize these situations by ensuring you have set expectations properly with them in the first place. Have a thorough preliminary research process with the client so that you can identify early whether there are likely to be any sticky areas.

Be a little wary of clients who might provide little to no direction for your project. This can be a sign that they don’t really know what they want and will try to tie you up with revisions later on. Make sure your contract clearly states a policy around revisions and puts some kind of limit on them so you can minimize time-wasting.

Creative differences can be good...

It can be very tempting to take a creative difference of opinion personally, or at the opposite end, to brush them off claiming that the other person “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Unless we’re talking about a physics problem that has a formulaic answer, remember there is always going to be more than one answer and those will vary with the backgrounds of the people giving the opposing opinion.

Always try to keep relations civil and remember that different people will have different tolerances and strategies when it comes to conflict. When Gordon Ramsay yells profanities in the kitchen, some people take it well and strive to learn, while others crumble. You probably don’t want to be yelling like that, but an approach that states your view in a matter-of-fact kind of way could work in your favor.

Creative conflict can be good if it is handled in a healthy way. It forces us to think outside of the box and to become creative problem-solvers. It opens us to new perspectives and ways of thinking we might not have considered previously.

Creative differences can also be good when they challenge you to broaden your skills. There’s a good chance that someone may see something differently to how you do because his or her own skills differ. You never know until you give them a chance - they might be right! On that note, creative conflict might also help you to avoid making a mistake, but you won’t learn if you’re not open to it.

Many excellent finished products have resulted from a series of creative conflicts to get to the right solution. If people had simply avoided the conflict or ignored the opinions of others, an inferior product may have resulted.

It is about balance really. You can’t take a stance that your way is always right if you want to grow, but at the same time it simply isn’t truthful if you go by the old “customer is always right” adage. There’s a reason you’ve been hired and they can probably learn something off you too.

Have logical examples

You’ve designed that particular feature on the client's website to work this way because you have mobile-friendliness in mind, but the client doesn’t necessarily understand that. For any instances where you’re experiencing creative differences (with colleagues or managers included), make sure you have good reasoning to back yourself up.

Have data, case studies and other examples of why you’ve decided to do something the way you have. Be prepared to explain in simple terms using your evidence. Keep it logical and stick to facts; “I have 10 years working in this field” is not a logical argument for why you’ve done something the way you have (and of course, that just sounds defensive!).

Listen to their reasoning

Human communication is rife with miscommunication, especially if you’re dealing with a client who doesn’t necessarily know the terminology you use to describe things. First of all, clarify with them and make sure you’ve really understood their objection and what they think should happen.

Once you understand what it is that they (think) they want, hear them out and listen to their reasoning. Sometimes you’ll get a client who simply doesn’t like something but can’t articulate in a constructive way why it is they dislike it. Try to dig deeper by asking a few more questions such as; “can you show me an example of one you do like?” or “what part bothers you the most?”

Most of the time, if you’re experiencing creative conflict with a colleague or manager, they should be able to give you some kind of creative criticism, but if not, use this same technique. Hear them out as you would a client.

Find a compromise

If you each had a chance to discuss your reasoning and the other person still disagrees with you, is there some kind of middle ground you can find that satisfies you both?

If their ideas simply won’t work and you know why, explain it to them. Use your evidence and be straight with them; you don’t want to produce work for clients that you know is sub-par, doesn’t meet best practices and probably won’t work. It’s your reputation and you’ll only end up with an unhappy client when their expectations of results aren’t met.


When is it time to end it?

Unfortunately, like those 80s bands, you won’t always be able to resolve your creative differences (though you probably won’t destroy any hotel rooms over the experience). If there is no way to bridge the gap, you might end up with a fundamental difference that makes continuing to work together impossible.

If this is the case (and it is for a client), end the project as soon as is practicable, preferably without any flaming bridges. It might be that you know someone else who is qualified and would be happy to work with the client, in which case you could make a referral. The client will often appreciate that and you get to preserve your professionalism too.

If this is a situation happening at work with colleagues or a manager, you may have no choice but to tow the line, however make sure your objections are noted. You could do this by saving emails and keeping meeting minutes. If the stuff does hit the fan later on, you may be able to reduce the splatter on you that way.

Final Thoughts

If you are in any kind of creative work, dealing with creative conflict will come up for you from time to time. Expect that to happen and be mindful of not taking it personally or immediately being on the defensive.

If you can keep an open mind, you will have a better chance of resolving the conflict and you just might learn something, too.

Be clear with expectations in the first place and always clarify for meaning. Have evidence backing up your decisions, but also be prepared to listen to the other person and look for a solution together.

You might need to do what you have to for preserving relationships at work, but if your conflict is with a client, remember that not every client is for you. It’s ok to professionally end a working relationship and move on.