What are employers looking for in a creative professional?

One of AIGA’s roles is to demonstrate the value effective design brings to business and society. In our work with various business advocacy groups, we look for studies that provide evidence of how important design is to business, from the business world’s perspective. Although it is not a new study, I recently came across research published by The Conference Board and Americans for the Arts, in partnership with the American Association of School Administrators, which surveyed public school superintendents and American business executives to identify and compare how they define and cultivate creativity. The findings are ones that designers might use to reinforce their own case for the value of professional design services.

“Innovation is crucial to competition, and creativity is integral to innovation,” reads the report, which aims to ask and answer the question of how aligned are schools and business leaders in achieving “creative readiness” in the U.S. workforce. In a survey conducted in November 2007, U.S. employers rated “innovation/creativity” among the top five skills that will increase in importance over the next five years—culminating now—and “stimulating innovation/creativity and enabling entrepreneurship” are among the top 10 challenges facing CEOs in the United States.

This survey and its associated report, “Ready to Innovate“ (PDF), were published in 2008, yet the results are just as relevant today, since the economy has been poised to grow since then and companies continue to seek the accelerator for innovation and growth.

The results are important because they reinforce what AIGA has been advocating in recent years: That the opportunity for design and designers has never been greater. Evidence that both the business and design sectors are seizing that opportunity and using creativity to initiate innovation and economic growth remains elusive, however.

Overwhelmingly, both the superintendents of schools who educate future workers and the employers who hire them agreed that creativity is increasingly important in U.S. workplaces, and that arts training—and, to a lesser degree, communications studies—are crucial to developing creativity.

Some salient points in the report can influence the way designers position themselves for jobs:

  • Eighty-five (85) percent of employers concerned with hiring creative people say they can’t find the applicants they seek.
  • While 97 percent of employers say creativity is of increasing importance, only 72 percent say that the hiring process gives creativity priority as selection criterion in hiring of new employees (which means you may need to pitch it, regardless of what they are asking for).
  • According to CEOs, the ability to identify new patterns of behavior or new combinations of actions and the integration of knowledge across different disciplines are foremost in demonstrating creativity.
  • Employers say problem identification or articulation best demonstrates creativity.
  • Of employers seeking creativity, 63 percent prefer the creative employee over the technically skilled one.

Employers look for employees who reinforce their creativity by showing certain characteristics in the selection process:

  • Able to look spontaneously beyond the specifics of a question (78 percent)
  • Respond well to hypothetical scenarios (70 percent)
  • Able to identify new patterns of behavior or new combination of actions
  • Integrate knowledge across different disciplines
  • Show ability to originate new ideas
  • Comfortable with the notion of “no right answer”
  • Fundamentally curious
  • Demonstrate originality and inventiveness in work
  • Show ability to take risks
  • Tolerant of ambiguity
  • Show ability to communicate new ideas to others

Hard economic times force us all to be more creative with less. By focusing on these characteristics throughout the hiring process, candidates who are able to demonstrate their creativity and innovation-generating capabilities may rise above the pack.

As always, we want to hear your perspective. What have your experiences been recently in the hiring process—either as a candidate or hiring manager?

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.