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How artists can help shake-up business thinking

Taking our inspiration from museums to boardrooms, to stretch your lateral thinking muscle.


I once shared the famous tale of Airbnb enlisting Pixar writers to inspire their travel experience design with a playwright friend. His reaction, as I recall, was something between indignation and intrigue: “I'm always amazed by Big Business's ability to harness and exploit creative minds”.

Moralistic notions aside, his conclusion made me wonder: how much “harnessing of creative minds” is really happening in business?

Teams and leaders frequently turn to well-known case studies for inspiration, to learn from companies that have successfully solved a similar problem, or to just “steal with glee”.

Need to highlight the value of lots of consumer data? Let’s think about how Netflix might do this.
Need to lock your consumers into an ecosystem offer? Apple would do this well.
Driving a culture of innovation is the key? Let’s look at Microsoft’s recent reinvention.

And so on.

“Lateral thinking” (which is what this technique is called) is proven and effective.
But the same usual suspects tend to come up. Which means the same outcomes also come out, over and over again.

As innovation experts, our role is to break that loop. Go beyond the obvious, where original thinking and creative gold lie. One of our tricks is to let go of the business lens, to find inspiration and applicability in the least expected fields.

So in this issue, we help you train and stretch that lateral thinking muscle with some museum to boardroom inspiration —

Force relevance, like Ai WeiWei

At a time when most artists look at AI with a mixture of fear and contempt, Chinese political dissident Ai WeiWei set out to embrace the new technology and upend his entire process to collaborate with the machine.

In his 81 questions to AI, he masterfully uses his art and the new technology to elevate the debate on the role of humans and machine in art.

He starts with what feels like a provocation; explaining his choice as the only logical evolution of the artistic process:
“If it takes AI a second to do it, that only means what [artists] have learned is meaningless. I’m sure if Picasso or Matisse were still alive they would quit their job. It’d be just impossible for them to still think the same way.”

But by putting our role as humans front and center (asking the right questions!), the piece operates as a hopeful statement on the eternal role of the artist. “If humans will ever be liberated, it will be because we ask the right questions, not provide the right answers”, Ai said.

It’s a total reframe on current thinking that jolts us back into a feeling of relevance and ultimately takes away the power of the machines, as well as our anguish to be replaced by them.

So, how can you create a reframe that annihilates the competition?
What if you collaborated with what threatens you most?
How might you let go of your existing processes to raise your purpose?

Experiment with tireless re-invention, like Matisse

Today, Matisse is widely celebrated for “painting with scissors”: the breakthrough new art form he created that led to his vibrant cut-outs.
However, he didn't embark on this revolutionary phase until the last 15 years of his life.

In his early 60s, Matisse had already achieved international fame as a painter, and many believed his best work was behind him. Motivated by his rivalry with Picasso and feeling bored with his own creations, he made a pivotal decision to challenge himself.
'No more odalisques, you'll see!', he defiantly wrote to his wife.

Determined to shake things up, he embarked on a transformative two-year journey, barely picking up a paintbrush. Matisse embraced a reinvention diet that involved global travels from Tahiti to New York, seeking the company of fellow artists like Gauguin. He adopted a rigorous rowing regimen for physical fitness and tirelessly experimented with new materials and scales.

By the decade's end, his tireless endeavours paid off. Matisse had pioneered the breakthrough cut-outs that would define his legacy.

What if your best work was still to come?
What would your reinvention diet look like?
What previous held processes can you cast aside in your new phase?

Boldly confront orthodoxies, like Anni Albers

Anni Albers in her studio
For decades, woven textiles were dismissed by the art world, relegated to the sidelines as mere hobby crafts, deemed inferior to painting and sculpture. And it was often women who first explored textiles as a medium for self-expression, given their prevalence in domestic settings.

In 1965, Albers embarked on a mission to defy the conventions of the art world through her ground-breaking work, 'On Textile.' In this meticulously researched masterpiece, she delves into the historical roots of textile art and presents a compelling argument for the legitimacy of her chosen medium. Albers eloquently illustrates the transformative power of tackling design challenges by hand, shedding light on the creative breakthroughs that emerge from the weavers’ approach.

Albers emerged as a trailblazer, elevating textile weaving to the esteemed status of art.

Now, how might you follow in Albers' footsteps and confront the orthodoxies within your own industry?

Steph Renucci

Steph is the MD & Founder of UNPITCHD: the innovation agency for changemakers.
We give you the tools, the skills and the team to make change happen.
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