Making Concepts Tangible: The Role of an Arts Background in Business

Ontario College of Art and Design

In a recent article, James Martin profiled people with fine arts backgrounds who have leveraged their training in the arts in the world of business. It is not merely a case of these folks “being creative” (although that does not deny this aspect of their skill set) but an equally important ability, that of conveying to others in words, pictures or prototypes new concepts and ideas that others might otherwise find hard to understand, appreciate or get excited about.

…businesses looking to become innovators might even consider hiring an MFA instead of an MBA.

Robert Dimitrieff is the vice-president and general manager of Ontario-based Niagara Energy Products, which makes customized components for the energy and petro-chemical sectors around the world. Mr. Dimitrieff is also an amateur pilot, a former artillery gunner with the Canadian Forces Reserves and, yes, a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

In art school, he created large installation sculptures in Halifax and Christchurch, New Zealand, casting his creations in aluminum and bronze and honing his steel welding skills. As a business leader, though, he says the most formative aspect of his NSCAD education was the studio critique.

“All of the courses in theory and technical skill were less important than having my finished work critiqued on a regular basis by my peers and faculty,” says Mr. Dimitrieff, who also has an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. At NSCAD, he recalls having to learn how to receive “harsh and difficult criticism” of artwork that he’d spent hundreds of hours crafting.

He learned how to dish it out, too. “And then we’d all have to use those critiques to improve our work and make our practices stronger. It helped me to learn to separate myself from my work, and to not let ego get in the way of perfecting the work itself – and I’ve found that in business this is a skill that is not as common as one might think.”

He tries to bring that studio critique environment to Niagara Energy, where he encourages collective debate on new ideas and concepts.

Mr. Dimitrieff says he’ll toil over an idea for, say, pipe fittings for a nuclear reactor. He’ll draw sketches. He’ll build models. Whatever it takes “to make the idea or solution as perfect as I can.” As soon as he shares this precious darling with his management team, he issues an order: “Tell me what’s wrong with this.” And they do.

Knowing his ideas are going to be subjected to this critical gantlet, he says, forces him to “make a better stab at any idea I think has potential.” The ideas brought to the group are stronger, and the ideas that actually survive the process are especially robust, and improved by the group input. (My observation is that the critique approach is very similar to the findings that suggests pure uncritical brainstorming might not be as effective as the critique approach. Please see: The problem with brainstorming.)

“The more we do this, the better my team gets at finding something wrong with the ideas,” he says. “It makes everything I do better than if I were to just do it on my own.”

Outside the art world, he says, people are defensive of their ideas to the point where it is difficult to improve them. “Rather than hear the criticism and using it to improve, the focus is on defending one’s position at all cost.”

For David Dobson, director of business development for Victoria-based StarFish Medical, art school gives him a simple business edge: “It changed the way I think.”

Mr. Dobson is an alumnus of the Ontario College of Art and Design University. He’s also a graduate of the Queen’s University Executive Business Program. He believes his OCAD studies – he started fine art before moving into design studies – helps him bridge those two worlds by translating right-brain ideas into left-brain products.

Once a month, Mr. Dobson travels to Toronto, where he meets with researchers at universities, hospitals and places such as the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation centre.

“I deal with very, very smart people,” he says. “Medical doctors, physicists, biomedical engineers. Often these very bright people have ideas that have potential use in treating some kind of illness, but they haven’t figured out how to commercialize that science into a product. They might have a proof of principle model, but they haven’t been able to conceptualize the design element.”

The researchers have the technology, but they may not know what to do with it. That, Mr. Dobson says, is where StarFish comes in. The company’s designers sit in on surgeries and procedures, thinking about where a new product could fit into the workflow, and what role it would play. The result: devices that do anything from testing the quality of prosthetic heart valves to analyzing blood platelets to killing toenail fungus using high intensity light.

“One of the benefits of a design background in business development is you know how to effectively communicate abstract information,” Mr. Dobson says. “I’m not selling a physical product, I’m selling an intangible thing: I’m selling the ability for us to solve a customer’s problems, which sometimes they can’t even define. I have to communicate value that’s not all that tangible up front.

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