Breaking Down The Creative Process

Story 7 min
As military communicators, it's important to understand how exactly to approach the communication products you make. Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mike DiMestico will break down his creative process, including identifying a problem, finding inspiration and developing a solution from thorough research to thoughtful assembly, packaging, approval and delivery.

It's critical you understand how to mold each creative communication product from rough ideas to the polished product you deliver to your audience. MCC Mike DiMestico has decades of experience in photography, videography, graphic design, journalism and broadcasting as a civilian and military communicator. See his Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) portfolio and YouTube channel for examples of his work.

In this interview, MCC DiMestico shares his creative process for crafting engaging and memorable communication products.

Photo of Michael DiMestico
Photo of Michael DiMestico
Photo by: Edwin L. "Bo" Wriston
VIRIN: 210903-D-ZW071-0005

Tell us about yourself and your background in creative communication.

Creative communication has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. I began making short films at eight and eventually graduated from Columbia Chicago with a degree in Film and Video and a concentration in Screenwriting. I worked in film for years, but I needed a career of greater consequence. I joined the Navy at 30 and found just that.

How do you identify and approach a problem in your work?

Creative communication is about identifying problems and developing solutions. I either accept a problem that’s been identified for me by leadership, or I look for a problem that needs solving. I start general and narrow my focus to the more specific. Once I understand the problem, I decide on the best vehicle to deliver a solution. In other words, what would be the most effective format to communicate a solution?

What do you look for when developing a story?

All creative communication is storytelling. In choosing a story, and I don’t just mean a print or video story, I first look for the human element. Every story must be about people. Even when I’m assigned a story about a program or a piece of equipment, I focus on the humans behind it or those affected by it.

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180315-N-UP035-0570 PUERTO CORTES, Honduras (March 15, 2018) A Honduran man waits to be seen by a doctor at the medical site in Puerto Cortes on the first day of treatment of Continuing Promise 2018's Honduras visit. U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet has deployed a force to execute Continuing Promise to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian assistance, training engagements, and medical, dental, and veterinary support in an effort to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mike DiMestico / Released)
Photo by: Michael DiMestico
VIRIN: 180315-N-UP035-0570

How do you build inspiration or interest in a story?

I only commit to a story or a project if it interests me. Not only does a personal interest inspire my exploration of a subject and a desire to present it in the most effective way possible, but I find audiences experience vicariously the emotions I feel during production. As a viewer, I can always tell whether a creator was truly interested in his/her topic. If a creator is disinterested, so, too, will his/her audience be.

  • A personal connection to a project or story.
  • A good story, one with compelling characters, intriguing events and conflict. Those with a historical tie, preferably with a positive resolution.
  • A unique subject, one seldom or never before seen.
  • A subject with the potential to move people and affect change.

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180321-N-UP035-0119 SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (March 21, 2018) A Honduran man waits for his missing father at the Dr. Mario Catarino Rivas National Hospital morgue in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mike DiMestico/Released)
Photo by: Michael DiMestico
VIRIN: 180321-N-UP035-0119

Once you've found your inspiration, what is the next step in your creative process?
Research is one of the most important stages of my process and my personal favorite. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I have to be careful not to get too lost and manage my time wisely. I’ve been known to blow deadlines as a result of digging too deep. Research helps me acquaint myself with a subject. It stimulates my interest and allows me to determine what content and techniques have been used in similar products so that I can avoid them and develop new and original approaches. Remember that "lack of research is the root of all cliche."

What part of the creation process do you find the most valuable?

Dreaming is without question the most valuable, productive and time-consuming step of my process. It is the soul of my creative process. Ideas germinate here. This stage can easily claim more than half of my allotted project time, but there is no denying it. I often have difficulty explaining to leadership why I have nothing tangible to show weeks after beginning. The most significant ideas occur during my commutes, in the shower or while lying in bed. Music is especially helpful in realizing the mood of a piece. I like to say that music is the flint to inspiration’s flame.
Some products of the dreaming stage:

  • Determine a subject and focus.
  • Identify a mood.
  • Choose a visual aesthetic.
  • Select production elements such as music, effects, techniques, and processes.

Once I have enough idea fragments, I move on to packaging.

Can you explain what you mean by 'packaging'?

The creative communication process is a lot like giving medicine to a dog. One doesn’t simply hand-feed a dog a pill. Instead, one must hide the pill in a piece of cheese. That way, not only does the dog receive the medicine it needs, but it enjoys the cheese so much, it never even notices the pill within. It’s the same with audiences. Here, I determine the most palatable package for my specific audience to provide them an incentive to consume it and the underlying message.

How do you compile all your ideas into a story?

Depending on the format, I start committing my ideas to paper or digital canvas in a modular format. I consider the individual elements and begin arranging them to form a coherent story. The process is the same, whether it’s sentences on a page, video clips on a timeline or graphic elements on an artboard. Once they’re arranged in such a way that I can identify a narrative thread, I begin filling in the gaps. This process is like building bridges between islands so that a viewer may easily and intuitively travel from beginning to end.

Fleet Week HR 2019: Grunt Run
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Oct. 12, 2019) NSA Hampton Roads Northwest Annex holds annual Grunt Run and Runt Grunt Kid's Obstacle Course as part of Fleet Week Hampton Roads 2019. Participants of the Runt Grunt complete a short obstacle course with the assistance of Marines and parents. Participants of the Grunt Run complete a course over six miles through the woods with many obstacles and mud pits. The U.S. Navy, local businesses, and civic organizations will celebrate 2019 Fleet Week Hampton Roads from Oct. 11-19, with a variety of events that serve to honor the contributions and sacrifices of Sailors and their families, and recognizes Hampton Roads as “America’s Navy Town.” (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mike DiMestico/Released)
Photo by: Michael DiMestico
VIRIN: 191012-N-UP035-0119

What is your experience with the approval process?

The approval process is a necessary evil and one that causes me a good deal of stress, as it represents the possible undoing of much of my work. However, it also serves a number of critical functions. The approval process:

  • Identifies any errors or policy violations.
  • Helps me refine and better focus my ideas.
  • Helps me better align my message with Navy messaging.
  • Provides objective opinions about the quality and effectiveness of my work.

How do you get the product in front of your audience?

Effective delivery of a product is understanding what it is you hope to communicate, to whom you hope to communicate and how to customize delivery to their wants and needs. This is the stage at which I try to really think outside the box. I’m often eager at this point to release my product to the world, but it is crucial that I find the most appropriate and effective channel to do so.

I can remember in detail the strategy behind the delivery of every product I’ve created. A fairly recent example was Fleet Week New York 2020, the first ever virtual Fleet Week. We were asked to create a minute-long video that would loop on a massive screen in Times Square for a week before the event. It would also be posted to all the major social media sites. We tailored our product to both audiences.

In order to accommodate the Times Square pedestrians, we made sure that the video was brief and visually impactful. Because there would be no sound accompanying the display, we had to make the video as visually appealing as possible. Subtitles heavily influenced the writing and pacing of the narration. We knew that this half our audience would consist mostly of gawking tourists and hurried commuters who would have very limited time to identify and consume our message. Therefore, we had to effectively communicate our message in as few words and images as possible. It also meant that the video had to be dynamic and full of energy if it were to get them to seek out Fleet Week’s virtual programming on their own.

For our social media viewers, however, we focused on voice and recording quality and carefully selected a music track that would build anticipation and resolve in a sort of audio cliff-hanger intended to pique interest in Fleet Week’s online programming. The overarching theme of the video, in both formats, was solidarity. We emphasized that we’re all in this together and that although so much is different, we can find new ways to enjoy old traditions.

Both the video, which was seen and shared by millions around the world, and Fleet Week 2020 were resounding successes thanks to a team of communicators who were willing to take the time to understand their audiences and deliver them a customized experience.

In your opinion, what is the value of feedback?

It’s easy to forget about the feedback stage. I’m often on to my next project during the time for collecting feedback, but I’ve learned that the communication loop isn’t closed until feedback is returned, and so I never miss an opportunity to monitor and collect feedback.
What can feedback do?

  • Provide quantifiable data pertaining to the overall effectiveness of the communication product, so I make a point to save any metrics in the project folder.
  • Specifically, reference any demographics information to determine the targeting effectiveness of the product.
  • Offer leadership evidence of message reach.
  • Provide valuable lessons learned for my future projects.
  • Provide data for my evaluations.