Ryan Michlitsch is a San Francisco-based Creative Director working at Hook. Skilled in design, user experience, art direction, UI, branding, team building and leadership, he’s worked at ad agencies from the Midwest to the West Coast.
Over the course of his 18+ years in this industry, Ryan has received numerous awards from FWA, Awwwards, CSS Design, One Club, Art Directors Club, Shorty Awards, AIGA, The Webby’s, Anthem Awards, D&AD and Communication Arts.
Today, we’re getting to know the man behind the awards.
Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?
My work day usually begins with daily standups, first with the creative team, then with the larger team. Since the onset of the pandemic, it’s been super helpful to meet as a creative team every morning for at least 15 minutes, as it’s sort of a replacement for the water cooler conversations that used to happen back in the office.
From there, I’ll usually jump into an internal review that could involve reviewing and giving feedback on illustration, animation (UI or character), edits, designs or creative concepts. Then I’ll typically have a few meetings where we discuss the health and wellbeing of the team and anything we should be watching out for. Those happen with my partner or the other discipline leads.
After that, I break for a mid-day walk or some exercise. I’ve found that being on top of my own mental health is key to living a balanced life and also helps me handle day-to-day stress more effectively. Working out or even going for a short walk every day allows me to make much clearer decisions. Mid-afternoon onward I’ll either have 1-on-1’s with team members or more reviews.
I try to make myself available to the team as much as possible to help keep things moving and to provide mentorship and guidance when helpful.
What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?
I’m probably not the type of person you’d typically think of as a “traditional Creative Director.” I’ve spent most of my career quietly working away on whatever assignments I’d been given.
Standing out and getting quickly promoted wasn’t really my thing, so I guess you could say I’m a bit of a late bloomer career-wise. Fortunately, I landed at Hook, where my design chops and conceptual skills blended into the perfect mix that made me the right person to help run a team.
To me, being a good leader requires a lot of self-reflection – identifying your own strengths and weaknesses and being aware of your blind spots. As our team has evolved over the years, I’ve consistently sought to hire individuals whose strengths offer a nice balance to my weaknesses.
I’ve put a lot of effort into finding and hiring individuals who bring a range of diverse experiences and perspectives to the table. So that the team, as a unit, is better able to handle whatever challenges come up.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
From an early age, I knew I wanted to do something involving creativity. I always loved drawing as a kid, so when it came time to choose a career path, I decided to go to art school where I double-majored in Illustration and Graphic Design.
What I really wanted, though, was to be a comic book artist. So, I guess you could say I'm a failed comic artist who ended up working in advertising. In school, I loved motion graphics and design and spent a lot of time in After Effects. I also had an interest in code and web design.
After art school I worked at pretty much every digital agency in my hometown of Minneapolis, then eventually moved to Los Angeles where I had the opportunity to work on bigger brands with more visibility. This eventually led me to HOOK.
What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?
Honestly, I’ve gotten the most satisfaction from helping to shape a team of Jr. creatives/designers into solid performers with conceptual thinking skills and the confidence to sell their ideas. Project-wise, it’d have to be the work I’ve done that helped drive awareness around social issues and empowering marginalized voices.
One such project was Google’s Living Portraits of Courage where we interviewed five women from around the world, each advocating for Women’s Rights in their communities. They all had such powerful, heart-wrenching stories and it was an honor to bring these stories to life through AR and animation.
The biggest loss was being awarded a shoot only to have the final result rejected by the client! It was a heavy loss for the team, as well as for me personally. We put so much effort into the work and it just didn’t turn out to anyone’s expectations.
To make matters worse, the client then turned around and had another agency work from the same brief, with the same idea and reuse a lot of the same assets we created in their ad. Failure sucks and on that one I’d say we landed on our faces, but on the plus side I definitely learned from it – at least there’s that.
Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
I really appreciate the founders at Hook as they’ve managed to create a 100+ person agency from humble beginnings, all while maintaining a culture that’s completely devoid of the big egos that are notorious within our industry.
If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?
I definitely would have been less angsty.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
Maybe dentistry? At this point, I feel like I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, so it's hard to say.
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
For advertising to be less driven by metrics and data and for ads to be more fearless again.
What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?
No matter what level you’re at, don’t be afraid to speak up when you have something to say. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and really embrace the discomfort. Because leaning into life’s challenges is what creates opportunities to extend yourself and grow.
What are your top tips for other creative leaders?
Take the time to listen to the people on your team. Get to know their goals and aspirations. That way, you can always be on the lookout for opportunities to help them grow in the direction they want to grow.
When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?
Creating a space where people can feel safe to make their best work.
Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?
FWA and Awwwards for website inspiration, Harvard Business Review for leadership ideas, and I recently read Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, which I thought offered some amazing insights into the decision-making process of a good leader.