The HeART of Design Business is a five-part series that addresses the tensions artists feel when they face the creativity-sapping realities of running a business. Part one dealt with matters of money and finances, part two with measuring time, part three with marketing, part four with managing growth, and in this final installment we’ll get to the heart of hearts—our deepest motives for doing what we do, and the ways in which our hearts can betray us.
What gets you up out of bed in the morning? What fuels your day (besides coffee)? What keeps you going day after day, week after week, year after year? Obviously there are the necessities: we work for food, clothing, and to pay our mortgages. But necessities are not the only thing that motivates us. We want more out of our work. We want our work to be interesting; we want it to be successful; we want it to be satisfying; and we want it to be meaningful.
The Artist’s Relationship to the Work
Artists’ relationships to their work is more complicated than most. Everyone struggles to some degree with work life, sometimes finding it satisfying, and sometimes bitter toil. But artists engage in their work differently than other professional practices. They put more of themselves, more of their heart, into their work than is typical of other professions.
If you want to test this idea just compare the average design firm’s website with that of any other small service business. One contrast you’re likely to find is that the average accountant’s, or lawyer’s, or carpenter’s website will emphasize their work product. They very rarely emphasize their own experience in doing the work. Design websites, on the other hand, often feature the firm’s culture, their love for the creativity, and their belief in the goodness of doing their work. They feature their experience in working, as much as they do the work product itself. This contrast points out how artists relate to their work not merely as a product or service to be offered, but as something more, something deeper, something more meaningful in itself. Designers are artists. Accountants produce tax returns.
How you relate to you work, as an artist, is more complex than most. It has deeper roots, because it is connected to your artistic identity and purpose. This series has addressed heart issues designers face with respect to money, minutes, marketing, and management—but now we’re getting down to the deepest motivations of the creative heart.
We’re heading into deep waters! When we looked at each of the other four areas, our goal was tom look past the tactical business issues and consider the way that artists uniquely engage these business realities. Any business owner might struggle with balance sheets, cash flow, time management, sales, and employee problems. But the artist as business owner faces these challenges with an added struggle. On top of the basic business complexities, artists carry an extra burden from how they relate to their work. Art somehow feels different from other forms of employment—from other business models.
Getting To The Heart of the Matter
If you study art history you’ll find that art, down through the ages, has always reflected thought. Some argue that artists create new ways of thinking and looking at the world, and no doubt they do. Thoughts and ideas, and their expressions in the arts, have a way of mutually reinforcing and sharpening each other. But whether art drives ideas, or is being driven by them, there is a tight connection between ideas and art. Art, in a sense, is visual philosophy.
One difference between art and formal philosophy is that the artist is typically working in a creatively instinctive way whereas philosophers engage ideas cognitively as they evaluate them with logical precision. Artists are more like wind chimes whose music is influenced by the direction and strength of the air flowing around them. But they are not merely acted upon. They bring their own vision, expression, and personality into the music, thus pushing forward ideas, in ways that enable others to experience them and reflect on them.
Artists are engaged in the pursuit of ideas and their meanings, just as philosophers are. Now fine artists are more self-conscious about this aspect of their work. Designers, though not as intensely philosophical about their work as fine artists, are still artists after all, and so they bring an artist’s self-reflective engagement into all their work. So even though you may be producing an annual report, you engage in that work in a way that strives for meaning—even when the product may not, in the scheme of things, seem to have all that much meaning in itself. I don’t think accountants approach their tax returns with this same kind of angst.
Is This Artistic Angst a Problem or a Gift?
We cannot and should not seek to remove this inner striving for artistic meaning, this angst, from the creative process. If we did, we would cripple the very process that produces great and beautiful works of art. However, the problem with striving after meaning in our work is that meaning is extremely elusive. So elusive that most artists and designers end up punting on the whole effort, and settle for something more attainable. They drop the objective pursuit of meaning in favor of the subjective. They settle for what their work means to them. If we can’t capture the capital “M” Meaning in our work, we settle for “what it means to me.” Problem is, even the pursuit of personal meaning is elusive, and so our striving continues.
Angst in Owning a Design Practice
Now designers don’t show up for work every day tied up in gordian knots of artistic angst. But every designer I’ve ever met can relate to these tensions at some level. And it does affect how we engage our work. For the designer in their studio this is primarily an internal experience. But when the designer has to function as a business owner, these tensions can manifest themselves in unhelpful ways. For them, they not only have to deal with the fundamental complexities and difficulties of business, they also have to contend with that angst, which usually reacts negatively when facing to non-creative tasks. Where is the pursuit and expression of meaning in balance sheets? Sometimes this creative drive for meaning can distract the design firm owner completely, causing them to neglect business fundamentals entirely. That never ends well. How can we control this angst without losing creative ambition, or going insane and cutting off our left ear?
Coming to Terms with Creative Angst
In part four on the HeART of management, I briefly included a link to the DiSC profile. I recommend these reports, and I use them regularly in my consulting. Their usefulness is in how they make us self aware about our work tendencies and temperaments. They can predict the kinds of tasks, or work situations, that will be best suited to our natures or that will challenge our weak spots. A DiSC report doesn’t fix anything, but it can help us by predicting those circumstances under which we will need to work harder to adapt. Unfortunately, the DiSC profile does not measure creative angst.
Since we don’t have a DiSC report for angst, the best we can do is recognize that we all face it to some extent. This self awareness can help us overcome the resistance we might feel when we face our non-creative business tasks.
If you can anticipate that the striving artist inside you will consider tracking down a miscatagorized expense in a P&L to be like swallowing creative cyanide, maybe you can quiet it down long enough to complete that necessary task. If you can acknowledge to yourself that narrowing your marketing position may feel like you’re stifling creative freedom, perhaps you can overcome that fear for the greater good of your business. If you can slow down the artistic treadmill long enough to think through whether hiring another employee really meets your long term goals, you may be able to avoid future troubles.
Part of being an artist involves striving for the elusive meaning of your work. But if you can tame the beast of artistic angst, and quiet the turmoil, you may find that you’re closer to “the meaning” than you thought. After all, what leads to the most lasting and settled experiences of joy and satisfaction in your work? Does it come from striving or from rest? In my experience striving only begets more striving. But rest can enable you to experience the many enjoyable aspects of your work that surround you every day—aspects that striving and angst can make us blind to. Resting from inner strife can unlock much joy in your work. If we can focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be, and curtail this striving for meaning, we may find that we can engage in all our work, whether it’s a brochure or a balance sheet, and find joy and satisfaction in it.
I named my consultancy “Rewarding Toil” because I want to help owners of design practices overcome the creative tensions they wrestle with in their work. The business aspects of design–cash flow, client conflicts, marketing fatigue, employee problems–can make joy in work even more scarce. Rewarding Toil exists not only to train designers in the fundamentals of running a business. It aims for something deeper–to restore the elusive enjoyment of work–to more fully reward their toil.
Learn more from Eric Holter in his webinar:
The HeART of Design Business
Tuesday, October 20th, 2015
6:30 pm – 8:00 pm EST
Fees: $12 RISD Alumni, CE Students + Public, Free for RISD Students