Hilary Austen: Artistry Unleashed Panel

Yesterday, at the urging of my boss and his boss, I fled school immediately after my last class.  After changing pants (I’d spilled coffee on them), I drove down to the station, and took the next available train into New York City.  From Grand Central, I walked over to the Thompson Reuters building at 3 Times Square, rode the elevator to the 30th floor, and heard Hilary Austen speak as part of a discussion on creativity, integrative thinking, and design thinking.

Eventually, I’ll review the book, but I wanted to talk first about the panel discussion — because the four panelists said a number of things that speak to the challenges of reforming schools and the pleasures of teaching in private schools. The panelists were Hilary Austen, the author of this new book Artistry Unleashed (amazon); Claudia Kotchka, formerly of Proctor & Gamble; Michael Beirut of Pentagram (a design firm, not a coven); and Roger Martin as moderator, the dean of the Rotman School of Management.

They said a number of things in the course of the talk, but it astonished me that no one ever said what Design Thinking means.  I’ll say more about this at the end of this entry, because I think they’re missing something huge, and it cuts to the heart of what we do as educators.  More below the cut, because this is over 1000 words at this point.

First, in this panel discussion there was a great deal of verbiage about how there are serious problems in American business today because the business world performs quantitative analysis of the most minute details of daily life, in order to sell us the next big thing… but that there is little attention paid to qualitative appreciation in business.  At one point, Claudia Kotchka joked aboutthe Proctor & Gamble people she worked with.  She said that she said to them, “You P&G people hate that people have emotions.”  She went on to say that we miss so much when looking only at the data.  The data would be great on P&G product after P&G product, but the product when brought to market would bomb — because it was all numbers driven, without any real heart or soul behind its existence.

Michael Bierut highlighted this point.  His training was as a graphic designer.  He amuses his children on long drives by naming the typefaces that appear on highway billboards as they drive by.  He has no functioning math skills, he said, above algebra; reading his company’s balance sheet is a real stretch for his math skills.  “Some people know wine vintages, some people are happy to let the sommelier choose, some want to be jerks and brag about the vintages and vineyards they know but then send the wine back.”  In every case, though, in order to understand that process, one has to be initiated into the language of wine-drinking.  There are, if you will, “terms of art” that allow one to talk to someone else effectively about wine — its smells, its tastes, how it hangs on the side of a good wineglass, and so forth.

Hilary Austen herself was careful to say that she was not a quantitative-analysis-basher.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t important. It’s just that it is (as she said) “easier to figure out costs than appreciate beauty.”  She echoed Michael’s point, that language is media-specific: we can’t talk about architecture without knowing terms for various architectural features; we can’t know wine without knowing the difference between dry and sweet, nose and body; and so forth.  The challenge, she said, is that analytic-logical skills are transferrable across disciplines, but qualitative-analytical skills are not, usually.  Qualitative appreciation skills aren’t transferrable.  They can be transferred at one level, the broadest or highest level, but not at the detail level of what designers call the ‘deep dive’ — the nitty-gritty detail of typeface and color and image in graphic design; the vernacular of concrete and marble and mahogany in interior design; the vintages of grapes in wine.

There was a discussion of the Aeron Chair, which became a status symbol in Silicon Valley during the dot.com bubble, in which Herman Miller and his colleagues designed a chair which catered to the physics and ergonomics of the human body — but the chair didn’t appear beautiful by any of the normal standards.  It wasn’t padded, it wasn’t made out of fancy materials.  Miller and his colleagues had to educate their customers about its comfort and ergonomic beauty, almost one customer at a time.  It became a different kind of status symbol in California’s software companies because that process of teaching customers to appreciate the design of something was part of the culture of the emerging Silicon Valley culture.


Hilary Austen went on to point out that “Sustainability doesn’t seem to be a quantitative process.” Problems are beautiful, she said, and solutions are beautiful, but not because they fit the budget or the numerical process.  The bigger a problem, the more fun it is to try to solve.  She gave the example of a hundred paintings of sunflowers — relevant to our school, given that we both plant sunflowers and harvest the seeds, AND use them as a painting subject in the meantime.  You wouldn’t want 100 paintings of sunflowers that all looked the same — you’d want 100 paintings of sunflowers that each achieved a specific and developing vision of an artist who was mastering technique while also developing a sensibility or methodology unique to him or her as an artist.


Michael Bierut talked about the value of surprise as part of the design methodology.  He gave an example of a teacher, a very serious designer, who gave his students a standard problem every year.  “Design a 12′ by 12′ cube.”  There were no other instructions.  The students had the freedom to imagine what it was built of, how it was built, what purpose it served, and all the rest of it.  A lot of students struggled with this assignment because it was so completely open-ended.  But everyone had to do it, not knowing how they would be graded or what purpose the cube would serve or anything about it.

At this point in my notes, Michael said something and I didn’t write down what he said. I wrote down what Mark Twain said a century ago:

It isn’t what you know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know that just aint so.

Hilary jumped back in after this — the discussion was pretty free-wheeling — and mentioned the example of the physician who discovered that ulcers are bacterial.  He proved this by drinking a beaker-ful of the bacteria in front the ulcer-doctors who insisted he was wrong; the doctor developed ulcers within 72 hours, and cured them with antibiotics within a week.  It demonstrated that the non-specialist doctor was right, and his specialist colleagues were wrong.  “Innovation”, she said, “is not a predictive, pre-planned event.”  You can’t know where the next big idea is going to come from, or which ones are going to catch on.

Michael added to this that people want surprise and differentiation, but then often choose things that are very close to the existing norm.  They want surprise and differentiation within a specific realm or envelope of consistency or tradition — to which I’d add, what Stephen Mouzon calls the Classical Vernacular at the heart of the Original Green.

Organizational Questions

How do we make room for artistry within organizations?

Claudia spoke first on this, by saying that you have to get people in the office (or in the school) comfortable with the idea that artistry is included in the process.  You have to bring everyone and everything with you on the conversation.  If necessary, conduct field research — take your staff and your community (and your parents) on a field trip to the grocery store, or the art supply store, or anywhere, so they can see the end products (or the raw materials).

Hilary Austen said that as institutions get better at certain things, they get less better at everything else that doesn’t fit the mission.  Obviously this applies to our schools — the more they’re required to adhere to the standards set in standardized testing, the better they get at producing students that know how to pass standardized tests.  There’s a constant tension, she added, between the forces of conservation, which want to keep things the same; and the forces of disruption, which want change and newness.  It’s that problem of the classical vernacular again, in a different form.  Or to borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, it’s the Granfaloon against the karass. A granfaloon, you may recall, is a bureaucracy which is called into existence to solve a problem, but then perpetuates that problem as a way of retaining their jobs.  The karass, meanwhile, is the ad hocracy that comes together to solve a problem, solves it, and then dissolves again.  Hilary is describing this problem for businesses, but it’s really true for our schools too:  the more STEM education we provide, the less effective and soulful our schools are becoming.  We’re becoming the granfaloon that solves standardized testing in math and formal language skills, but ignores everything else our society needs to succeed.

My notes got a little muddled at this point, but Michael and Claudia talked in different ways about how most artists develop a style or technique, and stick with it.  “Georges Seurat did that thing with the little dots, and Mondrian did all those squares and colors, and neither really did anything else significant.  It’s hard to be as consistently revolutionary as Picasso.”  Our moderator, Roger Martin, pointed out that Stephen Covey, of Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, admitted that he had no idea how to train yourself to be a Level Five Leader — he could train you up to level Four, but he hadn’t any idea how to will yourself into being someone so completely spectacular.


Michael said something that particularly resonated with me, though. He was asked how he hired the kinds of talent his design firm needed, and he more or less said that he didn’t. They tended to hire designers who were already fully-formed — who had a stchtick or technique or methodology.  They hired very few designers at Pentagram who they then trained into their particular style. Instead, the unique power of Pentagram’s design capabilities and their continual freshness had to do with the skills of the particular people they had on staff at the time, from the firm’s founding in 1971 until today.

This struck me hard.  At most schools, the tendency is to arrive, and then to stay, and stay, and stay, and stay, and stay.  In most public schools, pensions are non-transferrable.  If you leave one school to move to another in the same district, your pension takes a cut.  If you leave for another district, it takes a bigger cut.  If you don’t stay long enough, you might not be fully vested in the pension fund.  So functionally, there’s a huge risk in jumping ship, and most people don’t.  So the school’s culture tends to remain highly stable over a long time.  Design firms tend not to be that stable, or that’s what it sounds like.

So it seems to me that if schools want to institute a major reform, one thing they could do is make it easier for teachers to move school to school, or even provide encouragement to mix it up on a regular basis.  In the 1800s, the Methodists had a similar goal for their pastors and congregations, and regularly shuffled pastors every three years — while maintaining a common pension fund for all their employees.


And now things began to devolve and get confused. The panelists were getting tired, most of the questions were a little disjointed, and we were getting near the end of the allotted time.  Michael Bierut talked about one of his successes, where he was working on a project for United Airlines.  The hundred or so people working on this project, at United and in Michael’s firm, had become so insulated from the real world that they had forgotten there were real-world consequences for their decision-making process.

So Michael produced two very real-looking photographs.  They showed newspaper articles in the typeface of the Wall Street Journal, printed on newsprint.  One article had the headline, “United’s new low-cost program soars!”  The other said, “United’s new low-cost program flops” The surprise and the “magic” of these two articles had the desired effect: reminded that their decisions had a real-world consequence for real people with lives and souls and emotions, the team buckled down and got their program accomplished.  Neither article had ever appeared in print, but everyone knew what a WSJ article looked like, felt like, sounded like… and they knew that there was $5 million riding on their choices and actions, and that the press would have an outside opinion beyond their control.


The panel had a very low opinion of the kids coming out of American high schools, and a very low opinion of us as teachers.  The emphasis was on self-education.  The panelists seemed to regard the fundamentals they learned in grade schools — reading, writing, arithmetic — as not particularly important compared with the higher-order critical thinking skills they use to earn money.  They may not be wrong.

At the same time, though, there was deep worry that the things they cared about — artisanship, and artistry — were vanishing from school curriculums.  How do you put these things back in?  Without these things, and with JUST teaching to the standardized examinations, we are moving in the same direction as our big competitors in the world. Thanks to Karl Fisch, we already know that China has more kids in the top 25% of performance than North America has kids. We’re not going to outcompete them on producing standardized kids, really.

Roger Martin made a strong appeal to us, to close out the discussion, by asking us the audience to think about the reform of education.  Our schools cannot be just standardized-test-passing factories.  We have to perform as teachers and business leaders to teach many processes and projects and ways of thinking to students, not just the few that are actually tested.

The Hidden Message

About 2400 words ago, I said that I thought there was a strong current to this talk about design thinking that was never spoken aloud, but that underlay everything said by the panelists or asked from the audience.  As I always do at the start of a lecture, I wrote that word at the top of my first page of notes, to see whether that word would be said by anyone at any point during the lecture.

That word did not appear.

But what Hilary and Michael and Claudia and Roger were talking about, even if they didn’t call it this, was AESTHETICS.

The concept of Aesthetics in the Western world is Greek in origin, and it resided in the idea that there was an ideal beauty toward which all reality endeavored to find its way back.  To illustrate this, we can look back twenty-five hundred years or so ago, when Socrates said, “The Best is the Enemy of the Good.” Yesterday, I heard this again in this discussion of the problem of beauty and artistry, against quantitative analysis.  The numbers can be all right, and can suggest a best course of action.  But the Good course of action must take into account the human soul.  Number can tell you what a human being OUGHT to look like, but only the skillful sculptor can produce an image which is both properly proportioned and attuned to the realities of human emotional reality.  The skill to be that sculptor, or architect, or builder, or graphic designer, do not develop in a vacuum.  We cannot teach the numeric and analytical skills separate from the artistic and artisanal skills that will allow students to practice making beautiful things.

All the same, human soul responds to beauty, and while some definitions of beauty change, there are others which resonate deeply to many cultures and times.   The American engineer F. Buckminster Fuller is reported to have said, “I never consider beauty when trying to find a solution to a given problem.  But if the solution I find is not beautiful, it is the wrong one.”  One of the world’s first interior designers, William Morris, said, “have nothing in your houses you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

So the implementation of a design curriculum is about teaching aesthetics.  That means teaching students about beauty — how to recognize it… and how to make it.

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