Know Stephen Gates

A young Stephen Gates begins exploring what will be his answer to question 6.

I’ve learned to say yes when asked to be on a group panel or contest jury for the simple reason that it gives me a chance to meet top Creatives where we’re set on equal footing. This is a big deal, as these potential clients are getting to know me for me, and whatever insights I can bring to the given situation, not for my overt ability to sell myself in a portfolio meeting or a pitch session.

Three years ago I participated as a juror on the Art Director’s Club of Houston, and there I met Stephen Gates. Clever, highly achieved and slightly intimating, I took my time in befriending him and his wife (along for the trip to Texas, her home state). But we were both based New York and had a similar bemused attitude about about the whole affair (a healthy balance of a great respect for boldness and creativity while not suffering fools gladly), so it just seemed like our bond would come together on it own. And so it did, and to great effect.

Not only did Stephen and Whitney become friends but I invited him to design my first book, PRESENCE: The Invisible Portrait and he fully threw himself into it, making a piece both inventive and properly serving the content. I am proud of his participation in the project, and very grateful.

As I’m blogging about the book some these days I thought that I’d feature the book’s designer in a post. I e-mailed Stephen a few questions and what follows are his answers. A little background…

Stephen Gates is the Vice President and Senior Creative Director for Global Brand Design at Starwood Hotels & Resorts where he leads global digital design, film and video, and content strategy for their 9 brands including W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, and St. Regis. Before leaving the agency world for Starwood he created award winning integrated advertising for American Airlines, Disney, ExxonMobil, Nationwide Insurance, Subaru and others. He’s also been a design consultant and launch partner with Apple, Microsoft and Adobe including sitting on Adobe’s Consumer Advisory Board. 

1. Which of your commercial design projects are you most proud of, and why?

I love the projects were I was able to create a great concept that solved a complex problem with lot of restraints. I have been lucky enough to create a lot of those over the years. For instance when I led the advertising for Subaru they needed several viral videos to promote the launch of their new 7 passenger SUV at the upcoming Detroit Auto Show. The only problem was that this new car was under a press blackout so Subaru couldn’t give us the name of the SUV, any photos or any details at all plus they needed the videos in under a week on a $10k budget. Just to recap, we had to make a viral video campaign with no details, no assets, no time and no budget – what could go wrong?

We came up with this slightly risqué concept where we promoted that Subaru was coming out with a 7 passenger SUV so people better get busy making more passengers for this bigger car. We went to the local Subaru dealer and talked them into letting us borrow one of every model to take all over town for our video shoot. At every location I had my project manager hide behind the car, rocking it back and forth as I filmed. We went back to the agency and cut all the footage together into several different spots featuring tango, R&B and 70’s porno music. The whole process took three days with no sleep but the videos were a huge hit.

I love those types of ideas not only because they are great solutions to tough problems but also because I am always fighting to prove that the biggest threat to great work is good work. Good work solves the problem and good work can get sold to a client but it is a compromise. Great work taken harder work, more attention to detail and better thinking to elevate your ideas above some that could be sold into something that should be sold to a client. In this case we could have easily been overwhelmed by the fact that all the odds were stacked against us but instead we put in the hard work, found a way to make it happen and brought a great idea to life.

A welcome packet design, showing the visual language for Starwood Preferred Guest Rewards.

2. You’ve managed straddle a number of worlds as a creative director, what do you see your primary role as?

This always feels like it should be a simple answer but the longer I work as a creative director the more I know that isn’t the case. I think my role provides three key things – creativity, inspiration and security. Creativity is the lifeblood of my work, my studio and everything I do.  I have to bring inspiration on a personal and professional level. I have to work on inspiration because I am at a point in my career where I can’t find that many people who are working at a level on concepts that really inspire me so I have had to take the responsibility to know that I need to provide more of it for myself. Professionally because the creative types on your team need to feel like their skills are growing, their work is getting better and they are coming up with new ideas and insights.  More people think all of this just happens naturally but I think creativity is a blue-collar profession that takes work and investment into keeping people inspired. Finally I need to provide security because your team needs to know that you believe in their work and that you will fight for it.

3. How did you come to commercial art and design?

I was lucky enough to literally be born into design and advertising. Both my parents are artists and my father was creative director at an ad agency in Pittsburgh. They gave me an amazing design lead childhood with opportunities like being able to learn typography on a 3000-pound cast-iron letterpress in the basement of our house. That evolved into me working as a junior designer with my father at his ad agency when I was in high school. It is a path that I am incredibly thankful for creativity and design has been in my life from the very beginning and it led me to be the only second-generation creative director I have ever encountered.

4. You sometimes are called upon to speak about creativity in public speaking engagements, what inspires you creatively?

I’ve spend most of my career figuring out how to answer this question because you need to develop a self awareness of your creative process and understand how your creative process is different from everybody else’s. What inspires me will be different for everybody else because it is based on my experiences, inspiration and insecurities. It took me a long time to be able to tap into that idea and really become comfortable with it. It has also lead me really want to understand what drives creativity and how I can foster it in my design team.

I get my inspiration in other professions that share similar characteristics and challenges to what I do but aren’t literally the same as what it is that I do. For instance I get a tremendous amount of inspiration from going to restaurants and talking with chefs who are challenging the traditional definition of gastronomy. This movement is often referred to molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine at restaurants like WD 50 here in NYC, The Fat Duck in London or the now closed elBulli in Spain. These restaurants are run by chefs who are working with everyday ingredients but using tool and techniques that put their work at the intersection of traditional cooking and science to find new techniques and question long held concepts. I think designers are asked to solve the same challenges where we need to take a set of common ingredients and find a way to reinvent them into something new. We can also use new techniques like in my case digital channels, mobile, apps, social media, etc.. But in both cases if we use those techniques without a concept then we will end up with a tasteless mess.

At WD 50 in New York. L to R: Chris Buck, Michelle Golden, Whitney & Stephen Gates.

 5. My sense is that commercial art is not getting a lot respect these days, do you get this sense as well? Will we shift to a more appreciative period sometime soon?

I agree that we are going through a period right now where commercial art really isn’t getting a lot of respect but I think this downturn may only be temporary.

I think it is driven out of the rise in technology and the effect this new technology is having on society. Something like an iPhone has put a huge array of creative tools in the hands of everyone so their perception of what it takes to create photography and video have changed. This happened because the barriers to many creative professions have fallen. People can use Instagram to feel like a professional photographer or use iMovie to feel like a movie producer. As a result many creative professions have been devalued because people confuse the executional act of creation with the creative process of creating something that has lasting meaning.

I think social media has been a huge contributor to this problem. A year and a half ago I wrote an article called ‘What Britney Spears can teach you about modern experiential branding‘ that explained the concept of experiencal currency which is the trend where social media has transcended mere technology to become embedded in the very fabric of modern inter-personal relationships and changed how we represent ourselves through our digital personas. It basically means that social currency has forced people become their own individual brands struggling to express our own unique brand image, tone and voice, and create compelling content other people will want to engage with. Brands want to stand out from the crowd and noise created by other brands or in this case people want to stand out from our friends who are also posting and are competing for our friends attention in social media channels so our content is perceived as having valued and makes an impression. This means in social media there is an increased pressure on people to become content creators. That need to become a content creators has lead to the rise creative tools like Instagram where people feel like that can create more unique and differentiated content than with their cell phone camera alone.

These trends have been focused on the executional process of content creation brought on by the democratization of creative tools but I think it will soon find a better balance.  We saw a similar trend with graphic design when desktop publishing exploded and it took some time for people to understand that just because they owned a copy of MacPaint or went to Kinko’s they weren’t going to get the same product as when they worked with a professional designer. I think you will see the same trend in behavior around commercial art.

6. Star Wars is everything. Discuss.

There is a point in my career I definitely would have wholeheartedly agreed with that statement that my passion for that subject that faded some over the years. But that being said, Star Wars is really the reason why I ended up going into a creative profession. That movie and the toys that followed were my first real introduction into my using my imagination and creativity. It was the first time I would remember being aware of a concept that was so fully formed it felt real and it gave me my first platform to image and be creative. My love of Star Wars has diminished after seeing what Lucas did with the three-prequel movies and the fact that he is so willing to license it a long line of mediocre games and TV shows. I am sure we will all wait with baited breath to see what fresh hell the sale of LucasFilm to Disney will bring. So while it is no longer everything to me but it will always have a special place in my heart and history.

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2 Responses to Know Stephen Gates

  1. Linda Kuo says:

    Great to be introduced to the designer of your latest book Chris. First of all, I found that the subaru piece only reinforced my belief that the simpler concepts are the most profound, Along with the fact that it has always been my belief that the less you have, the more creative you are forced to become. I also appreciated Mr. Gates thoughtful and thorough response to question #5, his take on branding and social media, and felt reassured of his opinion that he feels it will all balance out in the end. As for Star Wars, despite the fact that Lucas has diluted series, the original remains unsurpassable in the science fiction realm.

  2. Pingback: CHRIS BUCK in Conversation With JOAO CANZIANI | POP | Photographers on Photography

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