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ON CREATIVITY   CREATIVITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION COMMUNICATIONS—
CAN IT BE DONE?
   
  After way-too-many years in higher ed communications, I’ve been asked to provide a few “tips” at this CASE conference. Never one to miss a chance to play to an audience, I’ve agreed. While most of these maxims will display less a mastery of the craft than an obviously recent and serious brain injury, the more impressionable among you may find them useful. To experienced communications pros I would say “You already know these things or you’d be, say, a lawyer.” And to new faces on the way up I would say “Save yourself! Stop reading this right now and go talk to someone who actually has some skills—like Brian Doyle at University of Portland.”

So, in no particular order…
Do everything you can not to buy into the somnolence.
Faculty, deans, administrators, presidents—with precious few exceptions these talented, intelligent and well-meaning folks are possessed of a conservative nature so deadly boring that it could be used in chemical warfare. On every project, pretty much, they will want you to do what’s been done before. Or do what they are comfortable with. Unless your audience is composed of exactly these same people, your publication, video, CD, whatever, will fail. If you are trying to excite people, raise money—anything other than administer general anesthesia—do not let them force you to be boring!

Remember, always, that no one out there really cares.
I know you’re good. I know the project is good. I know the message is important. But trust me, nobody out there really gives a lab animal’s hind end. You’re competing with TV, books, sports, movies—everything that wants their attention and interest. And most of that stuff has naked people going for it. If you want a shot, your work has to take them by the top two buttons and demand to be read, watched, whatever. Give it energy, motion, weirdness—whatever makes it work in the world. If it don’t tweak, it don’t speak.

Aint no light at the end of tunnel vision.
They know what they mean. You know what they mean. Would people who watch reality TV? Would your Aunt Edna? When you talk to university folks about a project, remember that the truths they hold to be self-evident usually aren’t. And the assumptions about their departments they know to be written in stone are complete ca-ca about 40 percent of the time. Do research! Check everything out! Especially if you are doing student recruitment or fund-raising. You may be surprised. The corollary to this is:

Remember the 5 “W”s—Why, Why, Why, Why, Why.
In your smiling, earnest, jes’ doin’ my job, boss, sort of way—question everything. We need 4-color…why? We need motion video instead of stills…why? We need a basic folder with pockets…why? It has to be a standard size…why? It can’t possibly be printed on old grocery sacks…why not? Trust me: They’ll give you the We-didn’t-bring-you-here-to-cause-problems-we-brought-you-here-to-do-our-bidding look. But stick to your guns if you can. Maybe some particular thing really is needed—but if it isn’t justified, dump it. A perfect example is something I’m asked to do about every other month: shoot a color brochure in a lab. You’ve got three colors in there, max: white, Pyrex and steel. Maybe a little blue where the deadly bacteria live. Shoot it cool in black-and-white. Duotone it maybe. Why?

If everybody loves you, you’ve blown it.
I’ve never done a piece of work that was any good that didn’t piss somebody off. If you haven’t made some faculty person or administrator nervous, if you don’t get a couple disgruntled letters from people in the audience, you’ve been too careful—and the public will ignore you like a four-hour documentary on Bulgarian potato farming. The trick, of course, is not to piss off so many people that you wind up living in a refrigerator carton. But don’t sweat a few complaints—if the work is good, and (most important of all) the work is working, you’ll be okay. But always take pains to answer every complaint from someone important! Don’t let them steam—show them you’re pretending to listen!

Once in while, they’re right.
I hate it when that happens. But they aren’t all mouth-breathers—I’ve learned some important things from folks who think very differently about communications than I do. So really do listen.

First the Big Idea, then the money.
Don’t go into something thinking about the budget. Now obviously you can’t go totally nuts—but come up with the Big Idea, the idea that will make the thing dance and sing, then figure out how to do it with whatever pitiful scrap of moola you’ve got. Getting the most out of what there is works—if it didn’t, how would someone like me ever get a date? And sometimes—sometimes—if the idea is big enough, they’ll give you more budget. Yeah, right.

It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.
If something is good—you know down deep it’s good—and you know that they’ll poop all over it if you ask…don’t ask. That’s why you’re creative and they are molecular geneticists. But, remember, be damn sure it’s going to be worth the grovelling. Which leads us to:

Forget modern ethics…Take responsibility!
Computer error. It’s the printer’s fault. The mail house screwed up. I thought the post-production guys were going to do it. Cut the crap. I’m so tired of everybody passing the buck, I could cry. Just shut up, move ahead, fix it. Besides, I’ve always found that nothing derails somebody who wants my head on a platter faster than getting right in their face and admitting that you blew it and here’s what you’re doing to fix it. They’ll deflate faster than a balloon at a porcupines’ picnic. And don’t risk covering up—let people know there’s a problem before they find out there’s a problem. With apologies to my more gentle listeners: The ass you save will be your own.

Hire people that will stretch you, then get limber.
When you hire designers, shooters, producers, whatever, get the people who are the best—and who are a little bit “out there.” Give them your vision for the thing, then back off. Sure, you’re probably going to have to rein them in at some point—but let them go till you get really scared! Don’t be a control freak until the very end. If you have a bad feeling about some idea, if you’re afraid that it might offend the audience or won’t do what the project is supposed to do, don’t use it. But if you’re just worried that it’s too edgy for ((insert your school’s name here)), get real. Edgy for a university is what was happening about two lifetimes ago in the real world. Watch a little MTV, then you’ll feel better.

Well, yeah, but…
Okay, okay. On the flip side: The exception to the rule, in my mind, is readability. Don’t make your type so hip no one but 16-year-old snowboarders can read it. And don’t be edgy just to be edgy—there has to be a reason for it that makes sense with the message. Geez…I hate being an adult.

Always try to make it good—at least once.
Do what you think is right, right off the bat. Never get careful because you’re dealing with someone you know to be the most conservative person in your particular solar system. Then, if they dump all over it, at least you tried to make it good. And don’t take yourself too seriously—just think, 1.4 billion Chinese people don’t give a damn. And, well, it is the client’s money, I guess. Bummer.

Last but no way least (and at the risk of sounding like a self-help book): Be yourself.
Factor it all in: your audience, your colleagues, your bosses. Know which side of the bread has the butter on it. Schmooze or lose. But down in the subbasement on the very bottom line, write for yourself or design for yourself or manage for yourself. Make it work for your audience. Make it dance for you. You’re still a winning lottery ticket away from never having to compromise, but if you don’t believe the work is good in some way it aint worth the heartbeats (not to mention the trees). Put your own mask on first, then help the others, if you catch my drift. Please yourself. If that makes your projects work, you’ll be a happy little cubby. If it doesn’t…where do they print those want ads?

When all else fails, remember these immortal words of wisdom:
“No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” —Lily Tomlin
   
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