Suzanne McKenzie on How to Align Your Values With Your Creative Output

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by Suzanne McKenzie

At Arnold Worldwide in 2002, I was part of a team that worked on the American Legacy Foundation’s advertising campaign to reduce smoking. That project showed me that social impact is the path to a better world—and led to my vow that every creative project I work on must have a social impact component.

As a creative professional who has worked with both Fortune 500 companies and emerging brands, I have had many challenging but exciting opportunities to solve problems for clients including Maria Sharapova/SuperGoop, the Museum of Modern Art and Timberland. This work has convinced me that design has the power to change lives, make a difference in our communities, and help create a healthier planet.

I am sharing my guiding principles here to encourage you to align your values with your creative output. The first and most crucial rule: Always strive to make things better.

Embrace Fresh Perspective as a Powerful Tool

Elon Musk is fearless. Musk had no automobile experience before getting involved with Tesla. Yet Tesla now is clearly leading in the race to electrify—whizzing past the automobile industry’s giants: Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and General Motors. Musk created his own lane. And now, everyone else is playing catch-up.

Working in new categories or with new content should not scare you. Look at it as an opportunity to grow; you can do something others may have overlooked or never realized because you have fresh perspective.

Fresh perspective is the ability to approach a blank canvas with imagination. Fresh perspective inspires me because I know that this approach will help me find a creative solution to solve a problem.

I earned my degree in graphic design. While graphic design obviously involves a heavy visual element, its main mission is to solve problems—a universal need in any industry. Ultimately, design is visual problem-solving that conveys a message that will lead to action. I’ve been able to integrate my graphic design and product development skills seamlessly into the fashion category because I take the same creative approach to designing an accessories collection that I take in designing a logo. I start by identifying a clear message I want to communicate for the brand, and then build a visual image or product to convey that message.

Push the Boundaries

In leading the creative process for our latest Able Made bag collection, my objective was to communicate the concept of a healthy and active lifestyle while paying homage to the youth soccer and health nonprofit supported by the brand. In addition to using style and design as a vehicle to convey the health message, I was interested in expanding our sustainable line and further pushing the potential of sustainable material in fashion.

We first identified two main active-lifestyle bag silhouettes that would appeal to people living a busy and productive day, and then researched new material innovations across the globe that could help us express the concept of health. The result was a bag line composed of a leather alternative, made of pineapple and apple fruit fiber materials.

When doing something new, be prepared for unexpected challenges. Our new fiber mimics the look and feel of leather—but does not drape or perform like leather. Therefore, we had to restructure the technical details of our designs to work successfully with the materials.

Staying grounded with a “healthy and active lifestyle” concept allowed my team to build a new bag collection that says so much more about our health concept than conventional material could. Without the challenge of testing uncharted waters and the idea of fresh perspective, these discoveries would not have been possible.

Be Ready to Pivot

I start a new project with a concept-driven approach, leading execution with one core idea that plays off a strategic goal. I learned this tactic in advertising early in my career at Arnold Worldwide.

How do you use creativity to reinforce an idea that solves a strategic goal? Concept development is always critical, but imperative when time-sensitive goals need to be met, or when a pivot is needed in your organization. COVID-19 has strangled businesses and nonprofit organizations. Pivoting is essential for survival and requires lightning speed—creating make-or-break moments.

The Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation, the nonprofit I established in 2009 to honor my late husband, offers soccer and health camps for city youth. We were faced with the decision to cancel for the first time in 11 years, due to social distancing mandates.

I was resistant to the idea of canceling. I wanted to serve the kids and communities we work with—and not break our decade of consecutively doing so. After many conversations with the board of directors, we decided to pivot and reinvent our camp as an online experience.

Before concept development, we first addressed the barriers to an online soccer and health camp. As a starting point, we made sure the kids all had access to wi-fi and a mobile device or tablet. Realizing that kids were experiencing online learning fatigue from school and other activities, we knew we would have to pique and maintain their attention with something different.

We surveyed kids for their input, and I used video calls to ask children and their parents or guardians what kinds of online learning had either worked or not worked for them. We asked what they would like us to do for their camp. Furthermore, we wanted the online camp experience to be inclusive, especially for kids who did not have access to an outside play area. The curriculum needed to be both fun and doable in someone’s living room.

The concept we developed was a three-day-long program that would embody the core tenets of our soccer and health offering—combining soccer training, guest speakers for heart health, hydration education, as well as sports recovery content and Kahoot! quizzes. Because we wanted to prevent technology glitches, we created the camp platform right on the foundation’s website, so the daily login would be in only one place, without needing to download external apps like Zoom. We also lined up live tech support to assure all would go smoothly.

The online camp opened up amazing new opportunities. For example, we introduced a third location, Brooklyn, New York, a year ahead of schedule. Kids participated simultaneously in Boston, Hartford and New York City. We engaged professional soccer players from across the country, such as Cody Cropper of the MLS Houston Dynamos and Shannen Pelletier of the Rhode Island Rogues; we even accessed a highly-acclaimed soccer training program from Barcelona, the MBP School of Coaches, with exclusive and new content. Our organization would never have been able to afford flying these people in for a physical camp.

Finally, we coordinated an equipment bag pickup at locations in each city before camp began with our Puma, Able Made and JUST Water partners. Since we offered the camp for free, this helped the kids and families get excited and commit to participating in the program. Our first online camp wa
s a success due to teamwork, a can-do attitude, and strong conceptual thinking as a base.

Know Your Core Message

Knowing your core message is important and fundamental for any project, especially when you are communicating a social mission. I co-founded the accessibly priced, certified organic home textile brand Farm to Home, which we launched on QVC in September 2019. Our core message is “no compromise,” which means that fair working conditions for farmers and factory workers and low environmental impact are all part of the brand promise. The collection uses certified organic cotton. Style, softness, beautiful colors and dynamic prints personify the quality.

All aspects of the brand and its creative components were designed to reinforce the core message of “no compromise.” Showrooms presenting new products and techniques have a strong focus on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX certifications, along with quality and softness. Our products are made in GOTS-certified factories.

I developed minimalist packaging to reduce the use of paper; plastic was completely eliminated by using organic cotton fabric ties and clear biodegradable bags. Both prints and color palettes are inspired by nature themes to reinforce the positioning. Product names and descriptions weave an interplay of design features and social impact.

A fully integrated creative approach that clearly stays true to the core message is key. Letting that message guide you as you execute will help keep you focused on your output. An emphasis on conveying your message in all the details will preserve the integrity. With this paradigm, you can craft great products that will benefit the planet, people and your conscience.

Suzanne McKenzie is an award-winning chief creative officer, designer and entrepreneur. You can listen to her new Purposely Podcast on iHeartRadio.