Being a child of the early 1980s, one of my favorite toys was a plastic, decal-covered Big Wheel—a glorious tricycle that offered the freedom to explore the schoolyard behind my house and practice braking spin-outs in the driveway. Sure, I crashed often and ended up with the occasional bruised or skinned elbow, but it was a magnificent possession and I adored owning it.

As years passed and I progressed through college; spent semesters as an intern, and worked at professional design studios, my ideas of ownership decidedly evolved. It became evident that design was not always a tangible object that could be possessed and the creative process rarely existed as a linear, isolated, single-person task. Creative ownership, as I discovered, is very different from owning an item. It is nuanced and fragile and can rely as heavily on psychological boundaries as it does on the creation of work. As it relates to graphic design and the visual arts, ownership often involves a complex mix of ego, hierarchy, clients, art directors and acknowledgements.

Creative ownership often has multiple contexts within varying project parameters and circumstances, and can be identified through the implementation of the idea, visual style, vision or voice of a project. By choosing to work at a design firm, in-house at a corporation, or even working with clients independently, creative ownership boundaries are inevitably blurred. The more people added to the equation, the more complex the roles and responsibilities can become. Complex roles and responsibilities are not unfavorable and, in many instances, can provide a very positive working and learning experience. Consequently, unclear or undefined responsibilities can cause unease or misconstrued ownership among those involved. It is not uncommon when starting a new project for designers to be overprotective or outright defensive when it comes to a perceived overstepping of boundaries. This can result in behavior that ranges from passive-aggressive to professionally harmful. These behaviors may be the consequence of a psychological response intended to protect ownership.

Individual designers have varying sensitivities to these work-related stimuli. Two of the major theories involved are reactance and frustration-aggression. Reactance is, according to J. W. Brehm’s A theory of psychological reactance, “an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy,” meaning that if a designer perceives that their creative freedoms are being restricted or neglected, it can evoke a response of opposition or flawed compliance.

The frustration-aggression theory states that when individuals are prevented from achieving a goal they tend to grow impatient or irritated, resulting in affected mood and behavior. Even in instances where the goal is ultimately achieved there may be ongoing residual negativity. When they do occur, these responses in the workplace are often mild, but they should be noted for their ability to disrupt workflow or compromise a team.

Of the many challenges a designer must embrace, one of the more difficult is understanding that the decision-making process is often not your own. While producing work for a studio or client you are accountable to refine, re-develop or even begin again, based on the wishes and opinions of others—that although a project may be “yours,” it rarely ever is. This is not to suggest that designers must accept a subservient role, only that the established hierarchy needs to be respected, even against your better judgment, because creative ownership is scarcely exclusive.

It is simplistic although common to conclude that an individual or team not only created the work, but maintained creative ownership over the course of the project. Sometimes that is the case, but it is presumptuous to assume that the person who created the work had both the input and desired responsibility to claim ownership of the project. Designers tend to have healthy egos and some may become defensive when questioned or offered feedback. At any point during the creative process an indiscretion may occur, or a perceived line may be crossed, which can mentally sever an individual’s concept of ownership. A metaphorical washing of the hands (and mind) can occur. That individual or team may go on to complete the project, even successfully, but will no longer view the work in the same manner as they once did. It this behavior irrational? Often, yes—it is petty and yet, entirely understandable.

There is a process at work that few outside of a creative discipline could fully appreciate. We are expected and encouraged to embrace work (or clients) that we may not be personally drawn to, and, despite those hesitations, we attempt to engulf ourselves — learning what we can, getting as excited as we can, to produce the most interesting work that we are able. Knowing full well, that anywhere along the project’s path, anyone with enough authority can render the work incapacitated, or changed outright. Is it a seemingly cruel cycle? Perhaps, but it is also the way the field and client relationships have evolved. For me, one of the most interesting psychological dynamics at work is this corporate client relationship. In dealing with corporate clients, there will typically be a team involved—which adds complexity to the project. Integrated into that complexity, is a team looking for ownership.

Determining how this meeting of the minds will play out, we can look to research published in the “Journal of Organizational Behavior” (2004). Linn Van Dyne and Jon L. Pierce conducted a study on psychological ownership and feelings of possession. Using responses from over 800 employees they concluded that: “Results demonstrate positive links between psychological ownership for the organization and employee attitudes (organizational commitment, job satisfaction, organization-based self-esteem), and work behavior (performance and organizational citizenship). More important, psychological ownership increased explained variance in organization-based self-esteem and organizational citizenship behavior (both peer and supervisor observations of citizenship), over and above the effects of job satisfaction and organizational commitment,” meaning that employees gain significant satisfaction through increased psychological ownership. This, I think, would be safe to conclude, is true for both the creatives and corporates.

So in essence, what will give the corporate employees great satisfaction (psychological ownership), will more than likely have the adverse effect on their creative counterparts. As changes and corporate modifications increase, creative ownership begins to recede. This is not a tragedy or a creative coup, as those paying for a service, should have final say over their projects; it is simply a forewarning for those new to the field, or soon to be entering it. To be aware of the psychology involved, and to insist upon the best work that you can, however, it is necessary to protect yourself from the mental and emotional toll that investing oneself too deeply in creative ownership can cause.

Can the psychological aspect of the creative process be avoided? If there are multiple individuals or teams involved, often times not. However, explaining work in terms of client ownership can minimize the psychological response that might otherwise occur. Using their language, and discussing concepts based on prior client input, can be an inclusive way for designers to explain and justify work, while satisfying client oversight. Many times though, even these tactics will not be enough. Project specifications can change, client teams may be shuffled, those with authority may assert it—any number of factors can change a project. It should go without stating, but dismissing or minimizing someone’s, especially a client’s, thoughts or opinions is not a sound approach in maintaining creative integrity. If this seems too much to bear, there may be an alternative or, at the very least, an outlet.

A rewarding way to maintain full creative ownership, while avoiding client and creative director oversight, is to work independently on self-directed projects. Personally, I spend an adequate portion of my time working in this manner. I enjoy the freedom and have a store of ideas to keep busy for years. By working in this way, I can abstain from compromise, control content and style, and have only myself to blame for failed or inadequate results. The ownership is mine, though the results tend to vary. This process works for me, and, because I have a separate creative outlet, the negative psychological responses are significantly minimized when involved in team or client-driven work. The reality remains that some designers do not have the desire, time, or the inclination to work in such a method. Thus they must be willing to mentally adapt to a professional environment and embrace the challenges that come with it.

Creative ownership can be a powerful motivator determined by an individual’s psychological disposition. It can generate either excellent work or a slighted ego and poor attitude. Ultimately, it is your responsibility as a designer to understand how psychology may affect you, other members of your creative team or your clients. The better understanding you have of the complexities of creative ownership, the better suited you will be for the daily interactions of professional practice. As with many aspects of graphic design, the more experience you gain dealing with the psychology involved, the more aware you become of its effects and importance.

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