Managing the tug of war between change and stability

Inside the Moskito Design office, team members work at rows of computers.

Managing the tug of war between change and stability

Change is good. It keeps you interested, excited, stimulated; boredom is the worst thing that can happen to you in creative work.

But stability is also good. It’s how you build relationships. How you build trust. Both on your team and in your organization, as well as with the client.

You can’t know your team and what they can do when you’ve got constant turnover.

And you can’t know a client if you’re bouncing all over the place. You can’t give them what they need if your understanding of them is only superficial.

It’s a constant game of tug-of-war between change and stability.

Uprooting to find my roots

I’m from Brazil. I graduated in visual arts in my hometown, Londrina, which means “little London”. One of the founders of the city was English. He was the great grandfather of one of my best friends, named Arthur Thomas.

After I’d graduated and freelanced for a few years I came to Italy to get my Italian citizenship. Like everybody in Brazil, I’m a mix. In my case, I’m half-Japanese and half-Italian. My parents had been researching our background so I managed to get all the documents together to become an Italian citizen.

So I moved to Italy. I’d never even been outside Brazil before and I just upped and moved to Milan. But not for very long.

Working for one client

I got a job offer at an agency down in Reggio Calabria. In other words, at the other end of Italy. People in Milan told me all sorts of terrible things about Reggio. But I went.

What I learned at the agency there is that I love working for one client. It’s what I do now, back in the north at Moskito Design, too. What I like is that you get to know the client intimately, know what they want, what they need.

But knowing the client doesn’t mean you know all the people who work there. Having a relationship with a client means having lots of different relationships. Everyone might have different goals, but they’ve got one overall mission. The marketing managers, business unit leaders, tech support, they can come and go. Strategies change, but the mission, your core, doesn’t.

Because your relationship is with the client.

Helping the team react to client changes

But all that change can also make it harder for the agency to manage internally. You’ve got to know your team, understand each person’s individual approach, their good and bad qualities. You have to know who’s the best person to do a certain job. It’s a learning process. And when you’re working with a big company they can often make internal changes, and we’ve got to adjust ― move people around, reassign the best person for a given circumstance.

We don’t have a lot of time so you’ve got to think fast, make quick decisions, and understand how long things are going to take.

Working with one growing client means you have to adapt. You have to change. But you also get to share in that growth, and be a part of it.

It takes a box to think outside one

The other thing about big clients like this is they usually have fairly strict guidelines. I like that.

People think of strict guidelines as a box. But you can’t think outside the box if you don’t have a box to start with.

If you have no guidelines, you can do whatever the hell you want. If you can do whatever you want, then you have nowhere to start. But when you know what you want to push and you know what you can’t use, what you can’t include, what you can’t mention ― that’s a starting point.

The beginning is always the hardest. The idea is the hardest. Once you’ve got the idea, the rest flows from there. It’s almost mechanical.

I’ve always thought talk about “creatives” and “creativity” is a bit confusing. There is a lot of creativity in what we do, but it’s not wild, not out there. What’s creative is figuring out how to do something different, and fresh, given the constraints. There’s always a portion of your own sensibility and art that you apply. But it’s only the constraints that let you do that.

And it doesn’t smother your identity. Even if you’re working within strict guidelines, when you look at the big picture and all the work we’ve done you can see the signature of our agency.

But in the end you’re not just working for the client, but for their customers. If don’t effectively communicate the right thing to them, it’s no good. No matter how creative you think it is.

Technology and experimentation

I’m a tech guy. I like technical things. Even if I don’t do web development, I read about it a lot. I try to keep up to date because it helps me figure out solutions.

I’d love to experiment more, but that’s not always possible with our clients because a lot of what I want to experiment with isn’t supported.

We do a lot of email and CRM programs, but the reality is that our clients have a huge user base, and to reach them on their device, on their browser and on their email client ― even if it’s old or out-of-date. You’ve got to calculate where to put your investment. So the bigger the pool of users is, the less freedom you’ll have to experiment in terms of technology.

Take responsive design. Globally something like 55% of the world reads email on mobile. But it was only last autumn that Gmail started allowing media queries. They were so late to the game. How can a company that pushes responsive design not have allowed responsive email before that?

My point is that when you’ve got to develop a single email marketing send-out for all these different email clients you’re going to have to work within some serious limitations, no matter how much you would like to innovate.

Growth is good ― and scary

If we’re growing it means we’ve been doing a good job, and that we’ve been getting more demands from clients.

It also means we’re changing, which is good. But it’s scary good.

We’re not just managing a corner grocery here. We’re managing relationships with big clients. That’s a lot of responsibility. That means there’s a lot more money involved. That’s stressful. But it’s mostly good stress. You perform high and you’ve got to deliver.

Thankfully we don’t have a lot of turnover here, which is good. If your team is constantly changing it means you’ve got to retrain constantly, which takes time and costs money. And relationships and trust need to be constructed. You can’t do that overnight.

But when you build good relationships, and you have a team you can depend on, it gives you the power to handle the scary stuff. Because you know you can.

Designing for change

I’m a designer, just like I was when I started out freelancing in Brazil. But what’s different is that now design for me is much less about graphics and visuals. Instead, I design processes. Workflows. Systems.

The client changes. The agency changes. The work changes. People change. I’ve changed, too. We’re all in this constant state of flux.

I’m still playing the game of tug-of-war, but the stability I provide is to guide it, channel it and make it better and smoother for everyone.

At Moskito Design we craft better client relationships and ways of working ― by design.

Thiago is a graphic designer at heart and Agency Director at Moskito Design. He's half-Japanese, half-Italian and 100% Brazilian.