‘You’re letting them choose? No no no no. Are you crazy? Seriously Mo – stop making it hard for yourself.’
I was showing some of my creative buddies the individually collaged inside flaps of my Working From Home books, and explaining my grand scheme of laying them all out for the revised revised book release party I was planning that weekend.
‘And then they can pick their own artwork to go with it…’
‘Seriously?? Insane. What if they all want the same ones? Don’t do it.’
And they were absolutely right. It was indeed much more effort. But I did it anyway, because that’s what felt right for the books. Result? Magic. And a salient reminder of one of the most fundamental and most often ignored principles of both art and good design:
The art is always in the engagement – not in the artifact.
It’s the experience that creates the value.
It doesn’t matter how genius that artifact may be, or how proud of it we are. In the end, Harry Potter is just words on a page, the Mona Lisa pigment on board, the iPad some slick engineering, the Change Plan a clever deck. They are just artifacts – until people engage with them and ‘complete’ them, as Jerry Maguire would have it.
In this case, when I was forced by the raging lurgy to cancel my planned celebration at the Manly Art Gallery, I decided to have the celebration at home, with the house set up as an art gallery showing off the work featured in the book. It’s called Working From Home, after all. We could only have a few people wandering through at a time, so I got to chat and answer questions about the work, and most of all, see what people connected with and how. Utterly fascinating.
First of all, seeing what different folks were drawn to made me realise how much I tended to project my own biases onto others’ preferences, and what a mistake that was.
They often fell in love with my least favourite pieces and left some of my favourites languishing. And getting to chat about what they were attracted/indifferent to and why also gave me much deeper insights as to who they are as humans and ironically let me connect with my own work in a different way. Feedback – however uncomfortable it can be – is a beautiful thing.
AND (hugely important for me) this group debunked my preconception – formed by previous experience – that people didn’t value collage, which is probably the medium I love most. They do! Which is making me completely rethink my next project.
But the real treat was watching people choose their books and artworks, which turned out to be much more akin to a dating or adoption process than a simple purchase. They’d look at and stroke the various collages, deciding which one they connected with most or most reflected where they were at the time. Then, having chosen, nearly every, single person picked up ‘their book’, held it to their chest like a teddy bear, then went back to have another look at the originals of the works featured within, carrying their talisman with them.
They didn’t buy ‘a book’. They chose ‘their book’, and the experience made it meaningful and thus made it art.
It was the act of choosing that realised the potential value of the artifact. It’s a collaboration, not a solo act.
This isn’t news, of course. Businesses in all industries have been designing customised customer experiences for years. We convince toddlers to get dressed quickly by letting them choose their outfits (power ranger PJs with tutus for the win) and encourage teenagers to plan family holiday itineraries. It’s why we use design thinking. So we know this.
Which is why I find it staggering how many organisations consistently bypass this step in the name of efficiency and expedience, preferring to design, say, the transformation program, on behalf of people being ‘transformed’ (so much easier to control the process and outcome with only a few qualified people making decisions) then just hit the masses with a ‘benefits list’ to make sure they know why they should ‘buy in’ and ‘get on the bus’ so they can all ‘work together’ to ‘realise potential’, ‘create value’ and ‘drive results’. Blech.
That’s marketing. It’s certainly not good design. It’s definitely not art. And it rarely, if ever, works as intended.
So, how much do your outcomes depend on other people?
If ‘a lot’, then how are you going to engage them? What experience are you designing? How do they get to collaborate and play? In other words…
Instead of making artifacts, how are you making art?