Kindergarten was a confusing time for Stephen Gates. While most children simply read storybooks, Gates was making them in his basement with his dad. Gates is what he calls a second-generation creative: His father was a creative director and his mother was a toy maker. How Gates sees it, "I’m not really sure I had much choice but to go into design."
Gates is the VP and creative director of Global Brand Design for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, aka the guy in charge of all the creative content for the 11 brands under Starwood Hotels' massive umbrella, including W Hotels, St. Regis, and Sheraton. Throughout his career, Gates has stayed the course with design, from his early years cutting rubylith to studying 3-D animation in college to his current role with Starwood Hotels.
So where does someone who's spent his entire life in design go for inspiration?
Gates talked with Fast Company about his surprising sources to feed his creativity, how butter helped him have a revelation, and why there's no such thing as "light bulb" moments.
Creativity is obviously in your DNA, but you're in a management role now: Do you still design and should other creative leaders aim to strike that balance?
For most creative people, there’s a transition where the emphasis becomes less on the execution and more on the leadership. It was one piece of advice my dad gave early on: The longer you're in this business, the further away you get from what brought you into the business in the first place. I fiercely try to protect my time to design. I see so many agencies and companies get it wrong. Just because you’re a great illustrator does not mean you have any of the tools to be a great creative director. The one thing I have believed all along is that if you center your career on being the person who has the best idea and who recognizes that technology is not an idea—technology is a pencil—no matter what new social networks come out, no matter where we go with web or mobile design, if you have nothing to say people don’t care.
From a creative space, how do you manage 11 discrete brands?
That’s such wonderful challenge to be able to have such incredible constraints. That’s why we work so hard to differentiate the brands because that allows us really then to tighten in the box and it also brings focus. The worst thing you can do to any creative is to tell him to do whatever he wants.
But wait, we thought the general logic for being creative is having no constraints?
In a lot of cases, the tighter the constraints, the greater the creativity. Without some type of a box, you just wander around in the darkness. I always felt like what designers needed to do was to really embrace the constraints the client gave them. I think the greatest creativity comes out of whenever you are forced to work inside a really small space.
So where do you go to find creative inspiration?
I have tattoo artists who I love working with because they’re designers who get one shot. Once you make a line it’s on somebody’s skin forever. For me, I try to go out and find other people who are incredibly creative but are somehow doing it in a different medium than what I work in.
If you think about food, most chefs are given all the same ingredients but the ability to go to an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant, or a modernist cuisine restaurant and see those vastly different things they can do with it, that’s the essence of great design because it’s taking the brief, it’s taking those basic elements and making something really great out of it.
I also love to talk to chefs about how they run their team and go from the wild creativity of coming up with a dish to the rote execution of doing it exactly the same time after time every day. A lot of creatives don’t account for the fact there’s always the ecstasy of having an idea and the agony of its execution as repetition comes in. I’ve been insanely lucky to travel the world and spend the days with people like Ferran Adrià in Spain or Thomas Keller in California and talk to them about what their creative process is.
What did you find from these chefs that you apply to your creative process?
I met with Heston Blumenthal, who is the chef at The Fat Duck in London. I asked, "Heston, what do you look for whenever you have a great meal?" And his answer flabbergasted me and completely changed every dinner I’ve had with my wife since. Because he said what he looks at is the butter.
He said if they bring out the butter and it’s rock hard he can tell the chef has never had a meal in his own restaurant—he’s not paying attention to the details. That’s such an incredible insight of making sure you do take the time to pay attention to the experiences you’re creating and not just take them for granted. It really is understanding what are the details those people pay attention to.
How does attention to detail translate to innovation?
If you are focused on mimicking what everyone else does, or if you literally take results of focus groups, you will tend to only innovate in small leaps because you’re just going to innovate on the problem that’s right in front of you.
For us, it’s much more looking at what are our guests doing. What are the different things they need? That was what led us to doing something like the mobile check-in process. We weren’t seeing a whole lot of guests who were saying that was their number-one pain point, but if you watch most people stand in line after a really long flight or if you notice most people tend to forget their room number when they come into a hotel—those were the things we were paying attention to that led us to be able to do something that was a much bigger leap in innovation.
When do you know you're on the right track toward innovation?
A lot of people really got suckered into the idea that having an idea is this light bulb moment where the clouds part and everything makes sense. That’s such a rarity. Having great ideas is a tremendous amount of work. You have to start with something you think is a good idea but then you constantly have to go back and try to poke holes in it to try to figure out what’s wrong with it. The way I tend to know I’m on that track is when some of the people you’re working with get a little uncomfortable because it means they’re going to have to go into a new area.
Good work won’t make people uncomfortable. Good work is easier to sell. I view that as a betrayal to what our role is in that it is to be the advocate and defender of doing something that is great.
How do you lead your team toward creative solutions?
By making sure that as a leader you’re somebody who never gets blinded by what it is that you want to do or blinded by where it is you want to take a team—you have to turn the leadership over to everybody. I grew up with a lot of mentors who were the creative director and they were the ideation person and everybody else was the executor. I think it gets fascist—it gets old. Teams turn over too quickly. I think that’s something I had to go back and re-learn: How to genuinely empower my team, how to let them become the people who are also ownable to the solution and the culture of our group.