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What Innovators Can Learn from Artists

by Tim Leberecht on December 21, 2012


tim-leberecht's picture

What Innovators Can Learn from Artists

Andy Warhol knew it all along: “Good business is the best art.” And lately, a number of business thinkers and leaders have begun to embrace the arts, not as an escapist notion, a parallel world after office hours, or a creative asset, but as an integral part of the human enterprise that ought to be woven into the fabric of every business—from the management team to operations to customer service.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders and cites RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as prominent examples. The author William Deresiewicz heralds reading as the most important task of any leader. John Coleman makes a compelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician as director of creative innovation. And the World Economic Forum has been inviting arts and cultural leaders to its events for several years and this year added the ‘Role of the Arts’ to its Network of Global Agenda Councils

Indeed, the “art” of business becomes ever more important  as the “science” gets ever more ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of our hyper-connected economies and as Big Data and sophisticated analytical tools allow us to maximize process efficiencies and standardize best innovation practices worldwide, intuition and creativity remain as the only differentiating factors that enable truly game-changing innovations. Like any “soft asset,” they cannot be exploited, only explored. And like artists, innovators must develop a mindset and cultivate creative habits in order to see the world afresh and create something new.

How do artists think and behave? Here are twelve traits any individual aspires to make his or her mark on the world would do well to emulate:

  1. Artists are “neophiles.” They are in love with novelty and have an insatiable appetite for finding and creating new connections, for inventing and reinventing, even themselves. Art means changing the meaning of things or creating new meanings. That’s exactly what innovation is all about. Like artists, great innovators seek to create “black swans.” They know that variance, through the deliberate disruption of mental models and behavioral routines, creates that rare combination of awe that is characteristic of groundbreaking innovations.
  2. Artists are humanists. They are experts of the “human condition” and observe human desires, needs, emotions, and behavior with a sharp, discerning eye and a high degree of empathy. As the archeologists of human vulnerabilities and as genuine ethnographic researchers, they can feel with and for others, which should be every innovator’s distinct strength as well.
  3. Artists are craftspeople. They “think by making” and unite the “hand and the head,” as sociologist Richard Sennett describes it. Like art, every innovation combines excellence with significance. It has both a physical dimension (exhibiting mastery in craftsmanship) and a meta-physical dimension (connecting a new product, service, or business model with the broader zeitgeist and cultural climate). Nike’s Fuelband, for example, masterfully integrates software and hardware, while also being an expression of our society’s growing demand for self-managed, preventive healthcare embedded as a fun, positive activity into our everyday lives.
  4. Artists are like children. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,” Pablo Picasso famously said. Artists retain a child’s unique sense of possibility and wonder. Innovators should, too. It may sound paradoxical, but innovations are always nostalgic. The most meaningful of them, although seemingly all about novelty and the future, reconnect us with a basic human quest or even our childhood dreams (think of the iPhone and our desire to touch, or sharing sites such as Facebook or Pinterest which can be viewed as modern, digital versions of former trust-based tribal economies and cater to our innate urge to share).
  5. Artists rely on their intuition. It seems counter-intuitive but intuition is ever more important in the age of Big Data, because it is the only feature that is faster and deeper than the massive flow of real-time information. Nothing comes close to intuition as innovators seek to anticipate trends and make decisions swiftly. Data is knowledge, intuition is pre-emptive knowledge. Like artists, innovators trust their intuition, and then constantly experiment and prototype to validate it.
  6. Artists are comfortable with ambiguity. By design, they deal with things that are not measurable and can’t be easily quantified. Innovators, too, should value what may not be easily captured in quantitative terms. In stark contrast to more mechanistic models of management, they must be able to tolerate uncertainty and open-ended questions, hold two opposing truths in their mind, and appreciate the beauty of the “and.”
  7. Artists are holistic, interdisciplinary thinkers. Art can stimulate and challenge our understanding of the world around us and within us. Artists are masters of lateral thinking who can connect the dots and take things out of their original context. Likewise, innovators contextualize and re-contextualize, mash up and remix, and embrace the new insights and ideas that magically spark at unexpected, unlikely, and often serendipitous intersections (the most famous examples of such “accidental innovations” may be the pacemaker or 3M’s post-it notes).
  8. Artists thrive under constraints. They often have to work within very structured formats and meet scarce resources with ingenuity and resourcefulness. In fact, these constraints might even stimulate their creativity. Inspired by the phenomenon of “Jugaad” in India, innovation gurus like Navi Radjou have now popularized and globalized the concept of “frugal innovation” as a polycentric and improvisational mindset that can inform various product and business model innovations (e.g. the mobile SMS disaster response platform Ushahidi or the portable “roll-on” hospital hand-sanitizers SwipeSense). Frugal innovation has become the new hallmark for the art of creating maximum value with minimal resources.
  9. Artists are great storytellers. They tell a story with their art but also often tell the story of their art. The same holds true for meaningful innovations. The connected age requires products to have “aura” again. Great innovators design experiences that spawn (social media) conversations. Just look at ideas funded on Kickstarter: The product is also the story of the product.
  10. Artists are conduits and not “masters of the universe.” Most artists – painters, sculptors, writers, film makers, or musicians – will admit that they derived their inspiration from a spiritual sphere that transcends their own individual creativity and skills. This applies to innovators, too. Whether they’re spiritual or not, a new humility suits them well as the social web and its wave of crowd-based collaborations have rendered the myth of the lone genius obsolete. Great innovators transmit memes, they nurture ecosystems of ideas and co-create with employees, customers, and even competitors. They recognize that their new playing-field extends the institutional boundaries of their organization as their products themselves are becoming multi-purpose and involve multiple sectors and disciplines.
  11. Artists are passionate about their work. In fact, their work and life are impossible to separate. That doesn’t mean that innovators need to be workaholics, but basing their ideas on deep beliefs and fervent passions is crucial. Innovation is a leap of faith, and innovators need to be believers. Like artists, they will often face rejection, but if an idea is not worth fighting for, it might not have been the right one in the first place. Strong innovations are always the product of strong convictions.
  12. Artists are contrarians. Artists can see the “cracks through which the light gets in,” as the old adage goes. Likewise, great innovators come up with solutions to problems because they see what is missing. They are eccentric, which means they literally view things from the fringes – and that’s typically where the best ideas come from. Both artists and innovators see the world as it is not (but could be). They look upon our world, as Proust would say, with “fresh eyes.”  You might also call that vision. They are always “initially wrong” to be “ultimately right” as Kathryn Schultz wrote in her book, Being Wrong. They are the fools who speak the truth, have “insane” ideas, and make change happen.

Like art, true innovation has the potential to make our lives better. It stretches our souls and combines the exploration of possibilities with action. It connects and reconnects us with deeply held truths and fundamental human desires; meets complexity with simple, elegant solutions; and rewards risk-taking and vulnerability with lasting value. However, businesses must refrain from making art a disciple of innovation—and they must refrain from designing innovation as a mere process. That is perhaps the golden rule artists and innovators have in common: only if they allow ample space for new things to happen that could happen, will they happen.

Share your innovation story or bold new idea in the MIX’s Innovating Innovation Challenge.  

Tim Leberecht is the chief marketing officer of global design and innovation firm frog. He is also the publisher of frog’s award-winning magazine design mind, the producer of the Reinvent Business hackathon, and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values.

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maryann-farrugia's picture

Artists can be an inspiration to innovate things, they also innovate themselves through acting and doing what needs to be done in order to complete it. They can also help you build great ideas based on their experiences.

Maryann Farrugia

kevin-peters's picture

Great Post Tim, I couldnt agree more about "Artists are humanists. They are experts of the “human condition”.
Very good observation and I'd like to Add this - "Artists have greater sense of getting in touch with their emotions"

yan-laurent's picture

I'm not a great artist but i can confirm that my relationes with an innovator can bring him a lot of inspiration wich may be decisive in a project.

thorild-ljunggren's picture

Inventors are just as creating as artista and they work with parallell methods:- an artist makes a sketch, an inventor makes a prototype. The sketch leads to a piece of art either to be sold or implemented as a piece of public art, the prototype may lead to the manufacture of be sold.
The artist makes so that we see the world with different eyes, the inventor helps to change it.
Both categories are ot the greatest value for our development. Furthermore the inventors shape the conditions for the artists as it is the wealth that emerges through the work of the inventors that in the end creates space for the consumtion, both individually and publicly, of art.

jeff-dodson's picture

Artists are not motivated by $ (they can make $, even mega$...but they are not motived by $).
Designers can be motivated by $.
Businesspersons must, to some degree, be motivated by $...
Businesspersons are Designers (not necessarily good ones).
All Businesspersons are Designers, but all Designers are not Businesspersons.
Everyone is either an Artist or a designer (again, not necessarily good ones).
The distinction:
Artists (alone or in groups) define and solve their own problem(s) - Designers (always in a group of at least 2) define and solve someone else's problem(s).
We all, with everything we do, balance these 4 things: concept/craftsmanship/composition/context. The better the balance ('better' not necessarily meaning 'even'), the better the Art or Design...Businesspeople do this.
Without trying, Artists have always lead the world of business, but not intentionally and not as Businesspersons.
The most effective Businesspersons have always, consciously or subconsciously, looked to Artists for the most innovative solutions to problems.
Businesspersons need to realize that they are Designers.
Businesspersons also need to better realize and more properly balance the 4 things I mentioned above:
Concept: idea(s)...defining of problem(s).
Craftsmanship: choosing and using materials.
Composition: how you form them.
Context: how you situate them. (most important part for Businesspersons because they need to know the prior 3, but they have to do the context part...that is ultimately what the do, they situate products).
And...about the adoration of kids with respect to all of this...they are experts at (alone and/or in groups) defining and solving their own problem(s)...and they are not motivated by $...they are still Artists.

philip-horvath's picture

Well done. The function of artists in society seems to have eroded over the last century. While people love the arts, understanding how crucial artists are has fallen a bit by the wayside - all the while everything around us that we call our culture was originally created by artist and engineers...
Having lived among artists for the last six years and having held events with artists on developing questions around what it means to be an artist in the 21st century, I have seen all the innovation thinking a business could possibly ask for. Few others in society seem as resourceful in their constant drive to create meaning and beauty every day, and many in business (and beyond) could learn a lot from artists.

alan-arnett's picture

Tim. Really nice list - thanks. Particularly liked your closing point:

"That is perhaps the golden rule artists and innovators have in common: only if they allow ample space for new things to happen that could happen, will they happen."

There's a lot of activity in businesses today but I don't see enough space and time taken.

Its the old chicken and egg argument. "I get your point, and I would like to allow more space/time, but I can't because I'm too busy right now dealing with the consequences of not allowing ample space ..."

richard-ferrers's picture

If frog is thinking along these lines, then design is in good hands... We have come so far with our technology, smartphones and digital world. But reading work like this makes me realise how much further we have got to go; how much untapped potential there is still to release. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I look forward to a very interesting 21st century where these kinds of ideas take a centre stage.... My area is value research (, and I think "the Artists Way" and value are similar stories of broadening what is important to us. Leaving the narrow profit focus behind and embracing a more wholistic perspective.... Cheers Richard

margaret-heffernan's picture

I think this is an important insight but I disagree that artists are children. I think society infantilizes artists because it feels threatened by, and envious of, them. But having worked with some of the world's finest writers, musicians and actors, I would not say that they were children at all. To think of them as such is patronizing. These are smart, sturdy, determined, disciplined individuals. They have tremendous courage and work hard developing their talent and skills.

Companies often have difficulty engaging with artists because they think they're children and because they therefore imagine that they must be terrifically fragile. As a consequence, quite often, people are afraid to tell them the truth, which makes it very hard for them to do their job well. Also, because art looks fun, people imagine that it is easy. This is why artists are often under-paid and under-valued. Art is related to play, of course, as all creativity is -- but that doesn't mean it is easy or experienced by the artist as fun.

C.P.Snow wrote about the 2 cultures of arts and science. I'd argue that today we are divided into the 2 cultures of arts and business. They have much to offer each other but mostly tragically misunderstand one another.

richard-ferrers's picture

While I agree Margaret with how artists are treated, I am optimistic that this connection - business and art, is a site of much potential learning over the next century....

mushin-patric-roberts-mato-wambli's picture

Appreciate the meme of art is bringing forth what is missing in social sculpture design making anew the worldhood together. We are autopoieitc child centric wonderer's and I invite you to consider that is the inherent genius in each of us as Homo sapiens amans ~ wise sing up social loving human beings! Thanks great article!

elyssa-dole's picture

Thanks for this Tim. As a former dancer and choreographer and current MBA student, I appreciated this article. I have learned that an ability to employ creative-thinking is not only a talent, it is also a learned skill. Artists are forced to practice creative problem-solving on a daily basis. I read that choreographer George Balanchine often referred to himself as a craftsman as opposed to an artist.

martin-kupp's picture

Thanks for sharing Tim. The German artist Joseph Beuys once said that "Every human is an artist" but only as long as he would keep his curiosity for introspection, endeavor and exploration. In our book "The fine art of success" we look at artists like Picasso, Beuys, Hirst, Koons or musicians like Madonna as potential role models for a new generation of leaders that will be able to foster creativity in their organizations. It is all about inspiration, intuition and imagination.

Let art rule!

grant-millin's picture

I have an arts background. I’ve been thinking of ways to ties that into my consulting work. That’s for these inspiring concepts, Tim. I also have “Innovation X".

choy-kok-kee's picture

As an artist, I thank you for writing this. It takes a lifetime to be an artist. We live in the process of creating not so much about the end result though. It is something that cannot be described nor discussed, rather it needs to be felt and experienced. Both an interpreter of humanistic experience and a translator of the surrounding environment in a nutshell.

francis-jeyaraj's picture

Splendid, Tim
This article is a master piece of observing Artist’s Attributes as Innovator. I can vouch for this comparison!
Because, I noticed my daughter from her child hood days, scribbles a lot on the walls. It is terrific to notice all this on the walls and the papers. It triggered me to tap her Talent as an Artist. She is regularly going for Piano and Art Classes and enjoys doing it all the time.
During this process I noticed her creative writings of stories from her dreams itself. It’s awesome correlation of Art Weds Innovation as I observe her day to day.
Thank you,

frederic-jleconte's picture

Bright Tim.

First time I read about artists contribution to innovation beyond the surface and the very frequent comment made on your point #4.
Deeply true but kind of not serving the cause to convince grown-ups.

Your 12 points are all on target, and a serious and solid series.
Key words and nicely selected reference, nice images and quotations.
Proust about eyes of course a favorite of mine for obvious reasons of Optics and locality.
Keep going.