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110: Listening x Creativity: Douglas Davis, Creative Strategist

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

In reading author Celeste Headlee’s book We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, I marked up, underlined, highlighted and starred passages throughout the entire book. It’s been an incredible resource for my personal and professional growth. The final chapter (simply entitled ‘Listen!’) contains particularly helpful insights that relate to today’s guest and listening’s role in being creatively strategic.

On page 217, Celeste says this: “It’s not easy to break the habit of simply waiting for someone to take a breath so that you can speak again, but it can be done. First, try to listen for ideas. While the other person is talking, think about the deeper meaning of their words and their thoughts. Watch their facial expressions and gestures. What are they really trying to say? You can ask questions like, “Does that mean that…?” or “Are you saying that…?” Perhaps they’re hinting at something. What is it? Why are they telling that story at that moment? What’s the big idea?”

After two additional pages of advice, Celeste aptly states: “Listening is work.”

Today’s guest knows the important role that listening plays (particularly listening below the surface) in the creative process. Douglas Davis is an Emmy Award-winning designer, author, speaker and educator. He wrote Creative Strategy and the Business of Design (which will be available in an audio book format this month) and his resource helps creatives be more strategic in their process, allowing them to turn the rational language of business into the emotional language of design.

In today’s conversation, Douglas generously shares the way listening is critical to the dynamic of understanding communication gaps that can exist between various stakeholders in the creative process and how listening allows creatives to be more strategic, including the importance of listening for the questions behind the questions. He also shares how learning to control our emotions is something we must learn how to do within the context of the creative process through listening to our own bodies, as well as his take on imposter syndrome, drawing parallels between today’s creative climate and that of the turn of the new millennium (in the early days of web design). Finally, Douglas reminds us that listening is required to allow creative people everywhere to remain on brand, on strategy and on message.

You can see Douglas at RGD’s DesignThinkers Vancouver 2022 conference in early June. Let’s get this party started.

Illustration Credit: Dean O'Callaghan


Today’s listening invitation encourages you to pick up on the subtleties in conversation that Douglas Davis mentioned in a strategic context, but I believe can be applied equally in everyday conversation, too. The next time someone asks you a question, take a minute to uncover the motivation – the why – the question behind the question.

Listen to the question and question the answer that the person you’re speaking with is looking for. For example, one that hit home for me this very morning was speaking with my eldest daughter before I left on the train to head downtown. She asked me: “Will you be working on the train?” I responded with: “Yes, I’ll be working on the train…” (as I often like to do on the ride into the city that offers 50 minutes of uninterrupted time to focus). We both sat for a minute while she continued to think about my answer. So I thought about the question a little more deeply. I realized that she didn’t want to know if I’d be working on the train. What she really wanted to get a sense of is if I would get all my work done on the train or if I’d still have to do work when I got home. So I added: “I’ll be working on the train so that I can finish what I’m doing and come home and play with you.” That seemed to more directly get at the heart of why she asked me the initial question. She seemed much more satisfied with this answer.

So question the question. Become aware of the underlying narratives, concerns, fears or motivations behind why someone is asking you something. And if you really aren’t sure about the underlying why but your gut tells you that there’s something deeper, just ask. Asking is way better than assuming. As Brene Brown reminds us: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

About Our Guest:

Brooklyn-based Douglas Davis enjoys being one of the variety of voices needed in front of and behind the concept. His approach to creativity combines right-brained creative problem solving with left-brained strategic thinking. Douglas is an Emmy Award-winning strategist who serves on the advisory boards of the Poster House Museum CMYK council, The Type Director’s Club, The University of Oregon’s Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility, and City College’s Masters in Branding and Integrated Communications. He has found an international audience interested in his approach to blurring the lines between advertising, design, and business education. In 2016, Douglas wrote Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, a title translated into Mandarin and released in 2020 by Beijing Normal University. He is the former Chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design program at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn and holds a B.A. in Graphic Design from Hampton University, an M.S. in Communications Design from Pratt Institute, and an M.S. in Integrated Marketing from New York University. Strategist, Author & Professor who depends on what day.

Photo Credit: Rain River Images

Music (public domain via Free Music Archive): Jahzzar - Flutter

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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