As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Art in the office; it’s not just eye candy–it can help you reach real business goals, albeit unconventionally

Seeing a real commitment to using art in a workspace always lifts my soul.   Paintings and sculptures uniquely take the work environment beyond the mundane. Even if you hate a given piece, it gives you something to think about.

But, like most folks, I’ve never had any real budget for art in the office.  Yet I have used art strategically to advance company objectives.   Here is one example:  when I was President of Ziggs, we needed to launch a nine month project to totally rework our site and business model.  It was going to tap the entire team and require a major “this-is-huge” effort.  We planned a project launch day when each person would go through their objectives and make sure we understood the collective effort.  That alone was a big piece of focus.  But we needed something more.  We were doing our kickoff meeting in the same old conference room where we did every other ordinary meeting.  I needed that day to feel different, and coffee and donuts were not going to cut it.

So a few weeks before Launch Day (I still remember the date)  I approached Paul Arsenault, one of our software developers, who is a serious painter as well.  I offered to pay for paint if Paul would use his evenings and weekends to create paintings to cover every square inch of the (boring) conference walls.  The only constraint was that I wanted each painting to say “Ziggs” or “2.0”, however subtly.  I didn’t know if Paul would laugh at this idea–he normally sells his work.  So I was delighted when Paul agreed and threw himself–covertly, in his studio–at the task.  We achieved our goal…the team was blown away by the bright and exciting images surrounding them for the Launch Day.  After that success and surprise, we all agreed that we wanted to frame some of our favorite paintings.  The office walls went from bland to beautiful. Paul was pleased to bring his “whole self” into the office and I think it helped all of us feel a little more focussed and excited about the task at hand.  And…most important, the Ziggs project was done on time and on budget, and Paul’s series of paintings was used in a huge multi-media show at the glitzy Launch Party.

Founder and CEO of BzzAgent, Dave Balter, has used artist efforts in very creative ways to support the company’s vision.  He twice commissioned artist Seth Minkin to document– through paintings–developments in the company.  One is described on the BzzAgent site as the  “Bento Box–Part blog, part art show, part essay, part media experience, the Bento Box allows you see what’s happening inside an operating company — in real-time.”  Jeff Bussgang, one of the investors in BzzAgent writes about working with Dave; “One of the things I love about being a VC is the opportunity to work with passionate, brilliant, talented (and sometimes wacky) entrepreneurs. BzzAgent CEO/founder Dave Balter is all these things, particularly wacky.”  I suspect that this sideways, unusual thinking is part of what got Dave his funding from Jeff, and part of what keeps people at BzzAgent engaged.

Some of this halo effect of using art to inspire or teach is familiar to any parent who knows the Multiple Theories of Intelligence created by Howard Gardner.  The basic thought is that people have many kinds of talents and ways of taking in information.  So, for instance, if you have a kid with an athletic ability you would, ideally, teach him how to add partly by hopscotching out the sums, or physically moving objects to represent the math.  It works for adults too.  Some people can take in a vision best by reading it in a presentation, others internalize it best by being challenged to explain it to another person, and some people find visual images most helpful for representing a vision.

When I was at Stride Rite and leading a big strategic brand overhaul project, codenamed Kid Kahuna, one of the designers took it upon himself to resculpt an old Sesame Street Ernie doll into the Kid Kahuna…complete with new hair, an earring, improved face, and a custom Hawaiian shirt.  It always cracked me up that the toughest exec on our operating team, the one who “had seen it all” took to carrying Kid Kahuna to big meetings.  It was so unexpected to see that burly guy walking in the room with a bright orange-faced doll under his arm.  But hey, it worked for him.  It gave him a friendly handle for the task at hand.

So, that’s why I knew I had to make a sculpture to represent Daily Grommet.  We were setting out to shape a brand with no history, visuals, and the very idea behind the business is an invention.  So I needed to give it form.  I knew the sculpture would have multiple future roles, such as being used in our daily videos, and simply to decorate the walls.  But I also sought something that expressed our values and sensibility, since we are focusing on telling the inside stories of physical products.  The sculpture might have only worked for me, but it turns out that Grommet employee #3, Joanne, found it more useful than I even did.  For her, it transcended creating the brand from simple words to something more tangible.  Joanne says the sculpture represents “Utility, elegance, nature, hand craft, and improbable contrasts.”  That pretty much sums up the products we will celebrate.  The products won’t all be crafted, and they won’t all be elegant, or even useful.  But added all together, that is the quilt we will stitch with our product stories.  The Grommet sculpture is just a starting point.

So we made a second, pretty different and more frou-frou Grommet sculpture.  (I’ll post a picture of it when I find time to figure out my new (re-furbed, actually) Canon digital SLR…believe it or not I am still a film person.)  Meanwhile, Joanne is cooking up a third child-imagery-oriented sculpture.  And we will be asking our (future) community to send us their own sculptures, which–as long as they can hold some grommets (literal or figurative)–we will use in our videos.  Will anyone ever send us such a creation?  Who knows, but I am pretty sure I am going to be put out of the sculpting business one day not too far down the road, by folks far more creative and whimsical and talented than I am.  I can’t wait.

2 Responses to “Art in the office; it’s not just eye candy–it can help you reach real business goals, albeit unconventionally”

  1. Jerry P

    There is no doubt that art at work can help support and further the brand of an organization. It can also be used to help shatter conventions and other barriers that get in the way of organizations realizing their full potential. Many of those barriers are often grounded in the dark side of human nature playing out in the work place – e.g. – gossip, passive aggressive, lack of alignment, etc.


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