Field Notes:
A Design Film Festival
in Portland, Oregon

Date: 29 Sept 2020
Location: Portland, Orego
By: Felix Ng (Anonymous)
Nike, Ace Hotel, Stumptown, Wieden+Kennedy. For decades, these four companies have been the definition of “cool”. Their strong, independent, and progressive spirit have inspired entrepreneurs and brands all over the world to build company cultures that are as respected and loved. What makes these four especially unique is that they all started from the same place.

Portland, Oregon, U.S.

It was the perfect excuse to visit and learn what makes this place so special when we received an invitation from Tsilli Pines and Eric Hillerns to bring A Design Film Festival (DFF) to be a part of the inaugural Design Week Portland,

People of Portland seem to have life figured out

Everywhere I went, people were friendly, warm, and laid-back. If you jaywalk, drivers would slow down and no one seems to ever honk their car horn. There is an abundance of nature under a few hours drive from the city. There are restaurants, food trucks, and cafes serving all kinds of international cuisine with locally sourced, organic produce. You see bike lanes on almost every road. And the only fast food restaurants I saw were located on a highway. Portland felt like a really great place to live and to enjoy all the good things that life has to offer. The people seem to have figured it all out.

What was especially interesting was that most people I met had some connection with Nike — they were either working at Nike or working on something for Nike. On a night out for a drink at Dig a Pony bar, there were a group of designers sketching ideas for Nike shoes between beers. The brand seemed to have a strong influence on the economy and culture of the city.

A Design Film Festival Portland

From 9 - 13 October 2012, we presented 6 films at Design Week Portland (DWPDX): Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Coast Modern, Design & Thinking, How to Make a Book with Steidl, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, and Yohji Yamamoto: This is my Dream. Aside from the films, the first edition of DWPDX also featured open studios, workshops, talks, and more.

Here are some photos from the event, courtesy of Ryan Bush. You can see more at this link.

On the same trip, I had a chance to finally meet Chris Riley in person. Chris is a strategist, and the founder of Studioriley, a global strategy consultancy based in Portland. He was formerly the head of marketing communication for Apple, and introduced strategic planning to the advertising discipline in the U.S. when he joined Wieden+Kennedy in the early 90s. We first met working on the rebranding for Nikon Japan’s photo competition in 2012, and have been collaborating on many projects ever since. If I had to name a single person who has had the biggest influence on our career, that would be Chris. It was through our collaboration over the past 8 years where I learned many things — the most important being how to work with people in a truly collaborative manner.

How do you get the best work from people?

Whether you are a business owner managing a team of employees or a marketer commissioning creative work, this might be of interest to you.

Over the past 15 years, we have been on both sides of the table. Receiving and writing creative briefs. The perennial question: How do you get the best work from people? The answer I have come to realise is extremely simple.

Hire the right people and stay out of their way.

Let me explain.

To get the best work, give up control

When you hire someone, you might feel a need to manage them and direct their work. This is silly. Because the reason we should hire someone is because they are able to do something better than we can. That is the goal for any business owner, entrepreneur, or employer. To hire people who are better than you, and are able to increase value for your business and customers. You don’t hire a photographer and direct the photographer on how to take a photo. You hire a photographer because you think their work is suitable for you, and because they are better at taking a picture than you are. You hire them because you trust them to perform a quality service that they have delivered before and to provide that value for you. This sounds obvious but happens less often than you think.

But something happens when you give up control.

The benchmark for the project shifts from you to the other person. That person now feels a need to deliver value at a level that is higher than what you could have imagined because they now have ownership and are personally invested into the outcome of the assignment. They feel responsible for its success. Their names are attached to it. They are doing it because they want to do it as well as possible. And not as well as you want it to be. The excuse “my boss / client wanted it this way” no longer applies. They no longer have that to fall back on.

This is especially so when working with creative professionals. Because the work they do is a combination of art and science. It is rational and emotional. It is art performed with intention. Creativity requires emotion, empathy, and self-examination. Every idea or craft is a part of the creators’ identity and personality. When we try to control their work, it is equivalent to us controlling their minds.

A better approach would be to hire the right person, write the rules, and give up control. Let them propose the best approach to achieve your goals. Write a thoughtful brief with clear goals, desired outcomes, and rules. Be an advocate and guardian for the work. And if the work doesn’t quite hit the mark yet, ask questions instead of telling them to do something a certain way. Because questions are a more subtle way to guide the work to reach the project’s desired outcome and goals. *Using tentative language and questions is the secret sauce to nudging people in a direction without making them feel it is an instruction. It is a respectful and collaborative way to work with people.

Swap “I think we should do this” with “what do you think?” instead. When you ask people for help and to offer their point of view, you are allowing the project to breath, and open itself to new and better possibilities than if you decided everything by yourself. This is a really simple way but is very often overlooked because as humans, we fear uncertainty. We fear not being able to control our external environment and the outcomes. We feel a need to control things perhaps because of an intrinsic fear of not feeling useful or needed. We crave to be a part of shaping the world around us. To leave a mark, and our names, on things. To say “we were here”. And to give up control, is to make a leap into the unknown where we don’t feel needed or have left a mark.

This is where I think the way we work with others needs a major transformation. The creative process is a collaboration. It needs to be.

Chris (on the far right) and I on his right with the other speakers at The Straight Six event.

From Us and Them to Us

Chris deploys this better than anyone i have worked with. The idea is simple. Very often, the answer to any business problem or opportunity already exists with the client but it is hidden from plain sight, and needs to be uncovered, framed, and translated to the world in a way that the client’s customers will care about. The idea that an agency comes in to provide solutions is flawed. Unless we are completely in the shoes of the client, with full access to business information, faced with the internal politics and bureaucracy of an organisation, and the pressure of delivering short-term results while keeping an eye on the long term strategy, we will only ever know part of the goal or problem that needs to be solved. And finding the right problem to solve is 50% of the solution (I will write a separate note about this).

So a better way is to bring your client/boss/stakeholders into the process. Create a framework where you can involve them in the project definition, ideation, and creative process. It sounds obvious but you’ll be surprised how rare this is.

The idea that we respond to briefs and sell ideas is antiquated. The “us” and “them” approach needs to be abolished. This process no longer works. Understand that people need to feel in control, to feel like they are contributing and are a part of shaping the outcome and future.

If we want to get the best work out of people, the way we work needs to change. If we want to gain trust from the people we work with, our process and mindset needs to change. With the many challenges in our world today for businesses, governments and communities, this is no longer an option. That change must start today.