Remote creativity

Meet the brand design team. Rambles on remote creativity 

︎ by Rui, Brand Design Director & Creative hermit

This is an article I have been postponing for a very long time, started & restarted endless times, meanwhile, when I set off to write it initially we had a 5 Designer team, now there are 8 of us but not much has changed when it comes to the topic in discussion, creativity, remotely in this case, and, generally speaking, happy productive teams.

The context, late 2019 and the brand design team is born, me & 4 incredibly talented and ambitious designers, in 4 different locations, Natalie in London, Thea & Magda in Copenhagen, Emma in Stockholm, and me in my Northern Italian hideout. September 2021, the team finally met for the first time irl, it was strange and emotional, truly like being 13 again and finally meeting your internet friends, anyway, keep going and it is now M̶a̶y October 2023 and there are 8 of us in 6 locations across Europe, we’ve produced a huge body of work that extends from out of home campaigns to big and small events across Europe, brand product features, make all sorts of merchandise, lots of content in every output format you can think of, digital and physical, lead creative workshops, fixed internal processes ad infinitum, navigated through internal changes ad nauseam - priorities - KPI’s - OKR’s - RKO’s - FML’s , survived an org restructure cycle like most other tech companies*, ignored 17 trends, still bothered to write this for some reason instead of just doing it on chat GPT. 

*Disclaimer: These are all things you should expect when working in-house at a fast paced, ever-evolving & exciting scale-up tech company, especially if you are the #1 player in your market.

This is not by all means a formula for how to run a team, remote or not, just what has been working out for us and for me, which perhaps, might be of help to a few folks. Oh and please ignore the order of my rules.

Rule #1 find a common enemy Goal! 

Let’s face it, nothing beats having a common enemy, no no of course that is not a healthy way to operate, almost as fun and as gratifying is a common goal, and sure we all have different objectives, secret desires, life plans etc, so good to keep things simple which should help in the quest to have a common goal the whole team can stand by and agree. For us, good work with good people was simple enough to be collectively agreed, and no, this is not something that happened formally over a voting pole, mainly something I can talk about in retrospective that I had in mind when hiring and building the team from the ground up. 

You would be surprised how far “I just want to do work I’m proud of with people I get along who are nice & likeminded” goes, or how far it has gone. If you want some very businessy metrics, our team retention is of 100 % since it was created, I’m proud of that one. 

To me personally, I love interesting people. Surrounding myself with interesting people that inspire me and I can learn from, plus, that I’m happy to have around, since ( like most of us ) I have to be using the best years of my life laboring from 9 to 5, in this case selling a financial product & working in tech which can be fun, but none of us said I want to sell Saas when I grow up mom! 

How grand it is to not take design or work too seriously & not make each other’s lives miserable.

Rule #2 Documentation ²

This is not a super fun part of the process but an absolute essential when running a remote setup. A lot of lessons were taken from the developers and their obsessive documentation. So this is how we run our setup.

First, tools, this our holy trinity Notion®® & Googledrive®,  we try to keep things relatively simple, its hard to navigate this area with so many tools that look great, so being disciplined and keep it contained with those.  Notion® is where most of our documentation lives, our project management is also done there and our ticker request system and many other things.® of course, I’ve been a long-term adopter and fan of its simplicity, the platform and the folks running it, “platform for connecting ideas and building knowledge“  which for our team is focused on connecting ideas, fantastic for moodboarding new projects and so on. And to end, the file storage is done in Googledrive® not very creative but very reliable, this year we had a big reorganization of all of our file names, folders, areas, owners, original files, tags etc so now it really works like a charm. 

A sidenote for Figjam / Miro, which has proved also very helpful for virtual workshopping sessions, combined with making sure things are documented in Notion & so on. It’s fantastic how far these collaborative tools have come, and no it does not replace real-life workshopping, can’t beat a whiteboard, but, we reserve that for bigger projects & high-priority key initiatives. 

We try our best to remove ambiguity or friction when it comes to having easy access to information and files, a very obvious goal I know, but this allows for everyone to move independently quite fast, while in an office environment, you might be able to ask your colleague in 30 seconds where something is, or who designed that asset, sadly, online this is something that might drag for hours if not days, so really, documentation and good file hygiene is your best friend to reduce ambiguity, reduce friction, reduce frustrations. 

One last area worth mentioning where we’ve seen this approach be very beneficial is onboarding new team members. I suspect we’ve all been there in joining a new place and trying to swim through a sea of information, as if starting a new journey was not overwhelming enough, so having clarity over what where when why of the Brand Design team has been a key to having designers focus on their onboarding being smooth, connecting with colleagues, creating meaningful connections and importantly, be productive, independent and up & running in no time. Sidenote, new colleagues mean new approaches, so make sure you review your tools here and there. Listen, and remember maybe the new folks bring a cool new approach you did not consider or some tool you did not know!  

Rule #3 Ownership & experimenting

The best way I found of having the team feel like they have ownership, is, actually giving them ownership (I know, groundbreaking stuff) and the space to lead initiatives, yes, faux ownership brings nothing but frustrations, the accidental overbearing to protect helps no one either. Yes, they might make mistakes to which we’ll all learn and grow, yes, they will likely succeed and also learn & grow from the experience, everybody wins as far as I’m concerned. The mutual trust, the development, the junior members looking up to how it is okay to take risks and lead projects & being exalted for taking initiative even if it does not quite work how you originally planned.

Initiatives and ideas tend to come in our weekly meetings, organically, however, you still have to be paying attention to them and make sure you enable your people to action them, that they have the trust and space for that mentally and sometimes physically, and also that you are all aligned on expectations. 

Sidenote, more hands-on, less hands-on, that will depend on you, I’m comfortable being hands-off but being available to help. I found the art of letting go an interesting one running a creative team, not just for control reasons, but sometimes you also want to have fun or do that super cool project! Do make sure you prioritize the team’s needs, and sure you have a balanced flow of predictable common tasks & high-profile or fun projects for everyone.

To conclude this part, give the team responsibilities, let them run that workshop they wanted to try, let them lead the project to fix that process they hate so dearly, let them run the revamp & redesign of that old thing, all of that while being supportive.  

Just as important for a creative team is space for experimentation, which requires the same amount of space & trust, experimenting freely will bring you benefits for future projects, obviously, we’ve seen this happening often, ideas that were conceived in very free environments being later used in a campaign or projects, regardless of that, allow the room for silly ideas, do non-work projects for the sake of exploration, if it helps, create micro goals that are purely internal. Although I think aimless exercises are also important, to train specific techniques or skills, to train and challenge the little gray cells. So remember to balance the endless flow of outputs with internal initiatives too, focused on the team’s needs for being creative. 

Sidenote, no we are not an artistic practice, but often our most free projects that are on the edge of our brand and design established rules, are the ones leading the way and dictating where we move, poorly compared, how haute couture inspires ready to wear & consumer markets. All of that and often those are great to inspire the company internally. 

Rule #4 Rituals & sticking to them

Some of them came through with Covid, some before, anyway, let’s break down some of our routines at the Pleo Brand Design team.

We start the week with a casual standup where we talk about our weekends, sometimes about work and priorities too, we say hello hejhej bom dia! I used to also do a 15m catch-up with everyone individually, which I had to eventually stop as it took my Monday morning, sadly, however, if you have a smaller team I highly recommend it, it’s a fantastic way to have a more intimate stand-up.

On Tuesdays we have our Weekly Brand Design Align, a space of discussion, opinions, the  emergency war council, occasional workshops and where we sometimes invite stakeholders to talk about specific topics of collaboration, for example how we art direct for inclusion in our photography, a colour debate with design ops & product, chatting with sales about event design, reviewing an internal process, workshopping and so on and so on. It’s important to have an agenda or topics of discussion beforehand to avoid the awkward sooo what do we discuss this week moments, so remember to also check with the team who has anything to bring next week.

On Wednesdays, we have WWW (my favourite) which stands for What Whoa Wednesday ® read more about it here. Now this is not a meeting, its simply a Slack bot that asks the team what have you been looking at, this has proven to be a fantastic source of internal inspiration, every week we end up with huge threads from things folks saw randomly when walking outside, travels, cool design found online, obscure record covers or your classic incredible mid-century illustration find that then inspires a whole campaign months later ( true story ) or charity shop’s miscellaneous publications on any topic, mostly trains though. 

We also do a small catch-up in the afternoon called Where are we?, most of the time we just have a laugh & say hi, but the space is there in case someone is overwhelmed with tasks and needs help or an opinion to get unstuck.

Finally, every other week we have a casual Friday catch-up, sometimes a show & tell too. We balance that with an all brand team monthly, oh and not so interesting but some of us do next week’s sprint planning.

And do it all over again next week.

In the scale up’s fast-paced chronically changing environment, I find it important to have our rituals be more grounded, static and predictable, is almost comforting I would dare say, it also helps neuro-diverse folks which is a sidenote. Does it mean we never review these rituals ? No not at all, every half year I like to check in with the team to see if these rituals still make sense... and for the most part they have, although we have done small tweaks here and there, changed times slightly or introduce elements to recurring meetings.

I refuse to call it cadence, stop being so cryptic, it’s just a recurring meeting 

Rule #5 Not forgetting to get together & Celebrate!

The problem with highly efficient successful teams is that you tend to be busy with solving this, sorting that, getting those last-minute changes, kicking off that Q3 initiative, argh why did the agency not follow the guidelines, who approved that weird co-branded Patagonia vest, where did that shade of pink come from, aaaah changes, aaaah this, aah that!  

All of that matters, but try to at least sometimes break the cycle of endless work. Stop and celebrate. Look back to both learn some valuable lessons but also acknowledge the work that was done, call out a team member who did great, cheer the team’s effort on that very tricky deadline that kept changing, toast to that event looking incredible, share positive feedback you received from a stakeholder! (we have a secret channel for positive feedback ) Do more Slack shoutouts with lots of emojis, and remind everyone that, yes, it could have been better but damn, how great does that look ?! 

Its not always the easiest thing to coordinate, logistically and work-wise, but really try to get the team together a few times a year, also encourage team members to go to other offices and do this independently. The memories and moments shared in real life will never compare to our remote hangouts, even just grabbing a burger and a beer or doing a long walk with a colleague can have a huge impact on motivation & feeling inspired, creating those spaces and room for chance.

There is no formula here, some of us are happy in hiding, and some need more contact, try to accommodate all by enabling so they can do what fits them, within reason & common sense as always, and provide guides and best practices if needed, but again, trust them.

A few weeks ago, while visiting our Copenhagen office I was having a conversation with a team member Gabi about stamps, philately, really, for a bit, and after a while, we were told by another team member Thea How great to feel comfortable talking about such niche nerdy topics with a colleague, she was absolutely right, and I’m very happy to end this article / ramble on that note, doing nice things & nice people, take care of your team, try to keep everyone inspired, which would be the same for a physical team I guess.  


The illustrations were adapted & taken from an old Danish song book.
If you got this far, thanks for reading, hope this was useful somehow and/or fun, I confess I’m still embarrassed by how long this has taken me to write & rewrite, a great reflecting exercise overall, anyway. Tata - Over and out. 

© Pleo 2023