Do a quick job search for jobs offered in the advertising/design industry, and it won’t take you long to realize that every listing is looking for one trait above all others, extroversion. They don’t say it explicitly, and it goes by many names, but extroversion seems to be the holy grail in the creative industry.
The words they use to describe the kinds of gregarious characters who are so highly prized are all too familiar: ‘team player’, ‘dynamic’, ‘energetic’, ‘outgoing’. Even the spaces that the modern creative works in are tailor-made for the extrovert. Agencies are open-plan, promoting constant human contact, and the supposed day-long idea mingling thought to be conducive to sharing the creative magic. It’s the perfect situation for creatives with huge personalities. And it really works for those who find constant socialising positively thrilling; those who small-talk leaves supercharged. But what about the introverts? The ones who feed off of personal space and often say very little. Surely, they’re in the minority, and a duck-out-of-water in advertising, and the industry shouldn’t pander to them? Not exactly.
The open-plan environment is borne out of the notion of ‘Open Source’. Open Source software development is when someone develops a software program and distributes the source code freely, allowing the dev community to make alterations, improvements and contributions to the software at will. The open plan office space seeks to mimic this dynamic: sit everyone in an open environment and everybody contributes to everything. Like open source development. Except, the whole concept is missing the point. Software developers are often introverts who have chosen a career that allows them the solitude and respite from social interaction they need. Open Source works for them precisely because they don’t need to be there in person to contribute to the software. They can work comfortably alone on their own machines in their own spaces. If you crammed a group of introverted programmers all in a crowded room day-after-day, and forced them to share desks, with no personal space, their work would suffer.
Recent studies into the personality types of advertising creatives show that introverts boast a higher stake of the share. It’s counter intuitive that the reticent observer might be able to craft communications designs which reaches more disparate personalities than the effortless communicators who parlay with finesse. Ross Chowles, founding partner of the Jupiter Drawing Room, confirmed in a 2011 Design Indaba talk that the crazily-dressed creatives with the wacky hairstyles usually produce the most boring work.
Interviews favour extroverts. But, being good at interviews is a skill. Being able to turn on the charm for an interview is no indicator of future performance on-the-job. I personally know of people who have hired the person who performed the best in the interviews, only to realise that their interview prowess was no indication of future performance.
“Ross Chowles, founding partner of the Jupiter Drawing Room, confirmed in a 2011 Design Indaba talk that the crazily-dressed creatives with the wacky hairstyles usually produce the most boring work.“
Some of the greatest creative thinkers and artists have been introverts. Leonardo da Vinci spent an almost incomprehensible amount of time alone. Holed up in his Florentine studio, he produced some of the defining inventions and works of art in history. There is a wealth of personal accounts from celebrated creatives — from literary icons to masters of the arts — which demonstrate a clear correlation between introversion, creativity and innovation. But, in the interests of brevity I will only touch on one more decidedly more modern example: Steve Jobs is credited as the pioneering force behind Apple, the driver of its legendary innovation. But his partner, Wozniak – a man many have never even heard of — single-handedly built the first Apple computer and designed its heralded operating system, completely alone. Spending his Apple career out of the media spotlight, just where he liked it. And delivering some of the great innovations of our time. Most people don’t even know who he is.
Even leadership, a concept that seems inexorably linked to extroversion, is often performed better by introverts: the work of Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino has provided some valuable insights as to how introverts and extroverts perform leadership differently: her research proves that introverts thoroughly outperform their exuberant counterparts at leadership when they’re leading pro-active and self-motivated employees. She details how introverted leaders tend to have less desire for control and allow their employees to contribute with more autonomy in the workplace. Introverted leaders are also more likely to be more receptive to contributions from their team, markedly improving efficiency in companies with highly-motivated staff. Conversely, it’s extroverts who perform better when motivating idle subordinates.
Yes, agencies need their gregarious showmen and promoters, those for whom presenting comes naturally, and who feed off of the energy of large crowds. But agencies also also need the visionaries who prefer life outside of the limelight. Make no mistake introverts are everywhere in this industry, incognito, pretending to be social while counting down the hours until they can escape open-plan hell, and trade it for a little slice of closed-door sanctuary and recuperation. The sensitivities of the quiet creative should be celebrated and nurtured. Introverted creatives should be given free-reign to work alone, without the ever-present eyes in office spaces and awkward interactions keeping them on-edge.
It should serve as no surprise that sensitive introverted types should be attracted to creative vocations. Maybe we should stop pretending they don’t walk among us. Shoe-horned into environments that cater almost exclusively to extroverts. Patronisingly told to ‘come out of their shells’. Perhaps we would be wise to remember when dealing with silence, that genius may be close by.
For more on the subject, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World which can’t Stop Talking.