Thomas Hull: The Value of Riffing

How Riffing As A Good Design Manager Can Make You A Better Creative

Thomas Hull is a professor of Graphic Design at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah GA and Partner at Rigsby Hull. Thomas presents, lectures and teaches at conferences and institutions throughout the country. As a partner at Rigsby Hull, his work has won consistent international acclaim and is part of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s permanent collection, the Denver Art Museum, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, The Letterform Archive, and exhibited in the Museu Picasso in Malaga, Spain. In each of its 40th, 50th, and 60th Anniversary issues Communication Arts cited partners Lana Rigsby and Thomas Hull’s work as among the most influential in American design for the decades 1990-2000, 2000-2010, and 2010-2020. Thomas has served as a board member of AIGA, Houston and as Executive Vice Chairman of The Printing Museum. Photo credit: Nick Thomsen

Over the past two decades, I’ve been fascinated by the way creative people in varying disciplines manage teams and create. From film to architecture to music — even cycling — I’ve long been fascinated by the way teams worked in tandem, feeding off each other, watching each other intently, shifting the energy and focus from one place to another as they meander, riff, and build in the moment.

I’ve thought over and over about the way a jazz ensemble relates to managing my work in the studio and in the classroom. I’m certainly not alone in thinking about management and creativity this way. John Kao and his colleagues at Harvard have as well, but here are three of my takeaways — the lessons learned — from those moments that have been as memorable for me as perhaps they are for a group of jazz players gathered on stage or in a recording studio.

In Order To Be Your Best, Work With The Best.

When recording his classic album Kind of Blue, Miles Davis assembled the best players in the world then led them to create this iconic music by not telling them what to do. Miles Davis knew this to be true, So did George Lucas, Thomas Watson, and Steve Jobs — anyone that has wanted to make something diabolically great. If you want to do your best work, develop the best products, have joy in your work you have to surround yourself with folks who are exceptionally good at what they do.

For years, I’ve been asked over and over “how did you ever convince the client to do that!” Honestly, I didn’t ever have to convince them of anything. I’ve been able by choice and a little bit of luck to work with some of the industry’s best writers, photographers, printers and yes, even clients. When you assemble the very best team, the odds of creating truly exceptional work increase. Design management becomes infinitely clearer — even easier — because you have common expectations and goals.

Plans Can Be A Trap.

Plans are necessary and well thought out processes are essential. They give you the freedom to experiment and explore. But plans are not a formula for divining a solution. Innovation, mind-blowing leaps, and unexpected connections are rarely born out of detailed plans and predictable processes. Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin posited, “Working without a script or with a very loose script forces you to listen to each other intensely to ensure that when you riff off each other, your own contribution is contextually relevant to what everybody else is doing in the moment.”

In The End, It’s About The Work.

More specifically The Work, not necessarily work-ing. We all like to get along, we love to get paid, we like to be liked and those things matter to varying degrees, but I’ve found when I’m focused on making everyone happy — I rarely am. However, when I’m focused on making The Work, my work exceptional, my communication objective, clear, and focused on that singular outcome — usually, everyone is happy. They do get along. We all get paid. And, many times, as a bonus, I like them and they like me.

In a season of unpredictability, there may be many who strive to cling to the familiar or well-worn patterns for managing and creating communications or products. The individuals and teams that thrive in this climate will be those that are able to pivot, jam, even riff their way through the coming months and years ahead.