As someone who works in the corporate sector with an art degree, I often find myself under-represented, underappreciated or disrespected for such an educational choice. I’m here to speak up, to change the perceptions that surround us “crazy weirdo art kids” because with only a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting I’ve managed to build a career I’m truly proud of. No, it wasn’t easy, but regardless of my uphill battles, I’ve managed to prove myself and my worth over the years, as many of my fellow art students have. But how did we get here? And why have I not succumbed to the introverted awkward stereotype?
Here’s a little secret I bet you didn’t know: All artists are entrepreneurs whether they know it or not.
We are some of the most resourceful, determined individuals who embody the raw elements of what it means to be a creative problem solver. Daymond John has a similar story and notes in his book, The Power of Broke, that “…if you’ve got to succeed to survive, you will.“ He built FuBu off the power of having no choice but to figure it out. Artists understand this realm better than most. We are diligent and obsessive because we’ll wither away if we can’t find a way to be creative and earn a living. But I bet you’re still wondering how an art degree actually chalks up to business know-how.
Here are the four ways in which my painting degree continues to push me towards success
1. Color is relative to what surrounds it. It reflects what is next to it and responds with pleasure or vibrating disgust. People in the workplace are like colors. Some create beautiful palettes where they blend, compliment, and allow each other to shine in different lights. Then there are those who suck all the life out of the room, off the canvas and turn the group to mud. In UX we study behavioral colors like robin’s egg blue with an orange button on the page. It relaxes the mind while drawing attention to warm happy tones. People are no different than this imaginary web page you currently see in your head. When the room becomes a pool of glassy blue and the impassioned leader at that moment shines like the sun, THAT is the color of business! On the flip side, have you ever been in a meeting with two alphas? It’s like cadmium red and lime green are vying for our attention at 3:30 am when the party’s over and we can’t see straight. Life is colorful. People represent the diversity of color, not necessarily in race, but in the way that mood, light, and utility shape our relationships with one another. If you understand your own color you’ll be able to see how you work together or against one another.
2. Critiques build courage, calluses, and constant feedback loops. When attending art school we create drawings of subject matter and then hang it on a wall for the entire class to criticize. No, you don’t get to present a PowerPoint presentation to convince your peers of why it’s great, and no, you don’t get to submit a dissertation on how it came to be. Sit awkwardly, stiffly, and uncomfortably until it doesn’t sting as much to take in the raw feedback from your peers and professors.
Art school teaches us to leave our egos at home so that we can constantly improve, collaborate, and see what cannot be seen. In business, selflessness may take you farther than salesiness.
Consider critiques to be the cave drawings of lean feedback loops. Sometimes we know our work is such shit we don’t hang it on the wall at all and take an F home for the day. Other times we toss fear to the wind and long for the help, the understanding, the mental clarity from others around us to help us see what we’ve been working so hard to see but cannot find. We find this in companies new to UX, those afraid to really hear what the customers feel and think. All that hard work put into a product or service that might be a total flop takes courage to develop, but it takes even more to ask for feedback. Pin your diligence on the wall and let your customers attack it.
3. Self-awareness of work habits breeds efficiency. In art school, the first and largest challenge is not the act of making a piece, rather it is the balancing of a deadline with the times available to get into the studio. We all discover our most efficient hours of working quickly by moving through this struggling schedule-maker. By the time most art students graduate college, they have learned “I am a night person,” or “I am an early morning, let me feel the quiet as much as the light sort of person.” In a typical business setting, so long as the artist stays true to their innate work habits and collaborates with their employer, they can find a foundational equilibrium from practiced self-observation. What have you observed over the years about your own habits? How might you change them to better suit your natural productivity tendencies?
4. Stop and step back. One of the most significant principles of art school is the practiced skill of stepping back from our work. Without setting some distance between ourselves and what may be on our easel or freshly pulled off the press, we pay too much attention to the minute details and not enough to the composition, the contrast, or the story we are trying to tell. Stepping back also encourages constant feedback, with our peers, with ourselves, with our professors.
In business, we put our nose to the grindstone, sometimes over pushing ourselves to complete a task and never take as little as 2 minutes to step back, clear the mind, and objectively see what we’ve produced. Design Thinking and Lean UX teaches us to embrace iteration cycles much like art school. Step back, observe the challenge, ask open-ended questions, try, test, learn. How often do you take a moment to step back from your work? Not only for the purpose of pushing it to the next level but to appreciate the effort put in thus far? While we art students leave our egos at the door in anticipation of that upcoming critique, we got into this school because of our talent, our work ethic, and our personal values. What causes you to be proud of your work?
Let’s wrap it up.
1. People in the workplace are like colors, they blend and complement or they vibrate and turn the room to mud
2. Leave your ego at home so that you can constantly improve, collaborate, and see what cannot be seen.
3. It takes courage to develop a solution, but it takes even more courage to ask for feedback.
4. Observe your habits. How natural or unnatural do they feel? How successful, efficient, or scattered do you feel?
5. Step back from your work often. Appreciate the effort put forth thus far. Use an objective eye to think about the big picture, the audience, and the story you’re trying to tell.