27 December 2019

Learning from Experience

A Designer Journal from Head of Studio Andrew Navaro

#DesignerJournal

In 2004, Andrew Navaro joined the team at Fantasy Flight Games—working from a Graphic Designer up the ranks to eventually take the reins as Head of Studio in 2016. As FFG's Head of Studio, Andrew shaped the trajectory of countless games and expansions, elevating every product to come out of Fantasy Flight Games over these past years. At the end of 2019, however, Andrew will be moving on to the next step of his professional journey, exploring new possibilities and creating new experiences.

Before he departs from FFG, Andrew wanted to take a moment to share a bit of what he's learned over his time here—specifically on how he grew as a creative professional in his early years at the company. Read on for Andrew's insights!

Andrew Navaro on Growing as a Creative Professional at FFG

When I first began working at FFG, I had recently come off working for several months as a freelance illustrator for a handful of independent RPG designers (Ron Edwards, Matt Wilson, and Clinton R. Nixon, among others). It was a lot of fun, and they gave me a lot of freedom in my assignments. The art briefs were usually short on details—more concerned with mood than the particulars of a given composition. I would create an illustration, email it to them, and they would pay me. I don’t remember if they ever gave me any notes or requested any revisions. They must have, but as I sit here today, more than fifteen years later, I can’t think of any.

This was my introduction to professional creative work: praise, complete and joyful acceptance of the thing that I had made, and demonstrative gratitude for my time and effort. These were people who were making games on their own, with their own money, long before the advent of Kickstarter—driven by their passion for design, delighted to see their ideas come to life, and thankful for the part I played in making that happen. Little did I know that when my life as a “real” creative professional began, I would be in for a rude awakening.

Talk to any experienced creative professional in the gaming industry (or other industries, I imagine), and they’ll tell you that if you can’t handle rejection, or aren’t willing to make revisions to your work, you should probably do something else for a living. Personally, I’ve worked with people across the entire spectrum—some diligently make revision after revision without complaint until the work is done, while others throw up their hands after the first round of notes, swearing angrily that they’ll never work with us again.

I’ll admit that when I first started working at FFG, I bore more resemblance to the latter than the former. For the majority of my career, however, I was more than happy to revise my work. Well… “happy” probably isn’t the right word, but my attitude certainly changed dramatically. I went from constantly bristling at feedback to taking it in stride, even if I wasn’t necessarily happy about it. What happened to make this transformation, and how I grew as a creative professional during my first few years at FFG, is the focus of this Designer Journal.

Most creative professionals understand that other people have thoughts on what their work should look like, and that those people's opinions oftentimes matter more than their own. If the person in charge of a given project has an idea about what they’d like to see, but you have a different idea, more often than not, the person in charge’s idea takes precedence over yours. Strange as it may sound, this is something that I did not realize when I first started working as a graphic designer at FFG. As a freelance illustrator, I had become used to making something that I thought was cool, fine-tuning it until I was happy, then moving on to the next thing. And while that happened on occasion in the early going at FFG, it was more common for me to turn something in (a card design, a logo, a token, or whatever) only to have that thing “rejected.”

Having your work rejected isn’t fun. It can be frustrating and aggravating. At the time, there was a lot of pressure on us to work quickly. So, when I would turn in a component for review, and the response was “not good enough,” I felt like I had wasted precious time, and that I had failed to meet expectations for both quality and productivity.

Adding to my frustration was the fact that I felt I wasn’t receiving useful direction before I began working (I was receiving useful direction, but at the time, I didn’t realize it). I would go into a project with something as bare bones as, “It’s fantasy. You know!” I did. Or I thought I did. When I’d receive that kind of very broad direction, I’d then assume that whatever I did would be sufficient. It was not.

Usually, when I would turn in my work for review, I would be given a litany of notes, often accompanied by the words “This isn’t what I had in mind at all.” To which I would respond, “Well, you should have told me what you wanted at the beginning. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” It seemed simple enough: explain desires, receive desired outcome. This oversimplification, however, is a trap, and it trapped me again and again in those easy days.

While languishing in this trap, I began to hedge my bets. Since I “knew” that whatever I did was going to meet with a laundry list of revisions, I put in less effort. That is, I’d take a given design only so far, and present that instead. This approach didn’t work at all.

Having my work in progress rejected didn’t feel any better, and the notes I received didn’t necessarily lead toward a successful final submission. A lot of times—even when I felt like I followed the notes to a T, I’d still meet with rejection or heavy revisions at the final stage. I started to feel like I couldn’t win no matter what I did.

It was around this time that I experienced a major life change that cannot be understated: my wife and I had our first child. It may sound corny (but I’ll bet that many parents reading this will understand what I’m talking about), but as soon as he was born, it was like he threw a switch in my brain, and my ego shrank to a quarter of its previous size. I was given a new perspective on my personal life, and that translated almost immediately into positive change in my professional life.

I was not my work—more specifically, I came to realize that I was not that card back, or that logo that was getting scribbled on with a Sharpie. That card back, that logo, was just my contribution to a product that an entire team was striving to create, and everyone on the team wanted nothing more than to make the best product they could. It belonged to the project, not me.

So, I decided to go the opposite way entirely. Instead of stopping short on a design and waiting for the hammer to drop, I started taking my designs as far as I could take them. I started putting more work and more care into my designs than I had ever before. After years of working under a single creative lead, I also came to understand their personal preferences, and to accept their strengths and weaknesses when it came to creative direction. Feeling comfortable in my understanding of their personal likes and dislikes put me in a place where I could put a lot of work into something and get good results, and that’s precisely what started to happen. FFG products of that era—2005 to 2012—(the ones that were produced in-house) have a lot of similarities when it comes to graphic design, and it’s not because they were all done by the same graphic designer. All of those products have a similar look because the person giving direction liked things a certain way.

Lastly, I came to accept the fact that revisions are just part of the job. A very important part of being a creative professional is the ability to receive feedback and translate that feedback into the desired result. I wasn’t able to do that very well until I removed my ego from the equation. Once I did, however, I stopped fearing revisions and accepted the fact that I would probably have to make some. Interestingly, once I did that, I stopped having to make as many.

I moved on from graphic design at the end of 2010 to become the Managing Art Director. And when I made that change, I was presented with a whole host of new challenges to confront and overcome, but that’s a story for a different day.

Eventually, things came full circle, and I was the one providing direction and asking for revisions. I’ve been doing that for almost ten years now, in various capacities. I know that I have certainly caused my fair share of anxiety and hand-wringing, but I feel—or at least I hope—that with every piece of feedback I have expressed gratitude, and acknowledged the hard work that went into what I was reviewing, even if I was ultimately unhappy with what was presented.

The creative professionals at FFG work very hard on the products they bring to market. They’re invested in making the best games they can possibly make, and they hold each other to higher standards than even our staunchest critics. They care deeply about their creations, and I think that comes through in the final product. I think that’s why we have the fans that we do—because that love and care comes through when you play an FFG game. Implicitly, you know that the people who brought that game to your tabletop are as much fans of the game as you are.

FFG owes much of its creative success to the spirit of collaboration that inhabits the studio. A lot of thought, effort, and attention goes into everything we make, and while designers and developers tend to get the majority of the credit for a given product’s success, they’re able to achieve that success in large part due to the strength of their supporting cast. If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to read the credits lists of your favorite FFG products. The artists, art directors, graphic designers, producers, writers, editors, play-testers, sculptors, managers, and many more make extremely meaningful contributions to the products on which they work—oftentimes beyond even the definition of their credited role.

In addition to being a designer journal about growing as a creative professional, this is also a farewell. In a couple weeks, I will be leaving FFG to pursue new creative endeavors in tabletop, but the creative staff at FFG remains, and they will continue to make games with the passion and care that is their hallmark.

It feels strange for my time with FFG to be coming to an end, almost fifteen years to the day from when it began. If you’ve ever worked somewhere for an extended period of time and left, or retired, you probably have some sense of what I’m feeling. I’m 45 years old, so the math is simple: I’ve spent a third of my life working at FFG—longer than I dreamed possible when I first started. I’ve worked on a ton of amazing projects, and was able to work with literally all of my favorite IPs. It’s been an absolute dream—even the nightmarish parts. I look back on it all with only gratitude and joy. Be you a fan or a colleague, thank you for everything. I’ll see you soon.

Peace and love,
Andrew

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