I have been working in the visual arts and design industries for a while and I have learned many things about my successful colleagues. While each of these successful professionals are unique in their own way, there are a few invariable traits that are common amongst them. One of these traits is a secret super power that they possess that elevates them from non-working to working professional. This power unlocks doors to client projects, grant funding, patronage, and professional respect. I am going to unveil this secret super power to you in this article.
Ever heard of the term, “the best kept secret?” It is usually used in reference to some amazing thing that no one knows about for some reason. Being an educator or incredibly talented people, I encounter many of these “best kept” types over and over again. Often, these people languish in obscurity until they become so frustrated that they either quit or they learn the secret super power they need to break out of their obscurity. You would think, at this point, I am talking about self-promotion. I’m not.
One of the things I encourage my students to do is to emulate the masters. Regardless of the area of study they are working on, there is going to be a master artist or designer who is worthy of emulation. The key word here is emulation. I never ask my students to imitate. I make a personal connotative distinction between these two. It is my own connotation, so I always need to define it carefully. For me, imitation is superficial. We often describe things as cheap imitations of an original. Emulation is more intimate and special for me. We can find examples of software emulators that strive to re-create an experience of a game or an entire computer system. To emulate something suggests that great care has gone into understanding the original on multiple levels and significant effort has been made to achieve the same or surpass it. When I ask my students to emulate a masterwork, I am asking them to not just understand how the master accomplished their work, but delve deeper into why they made the choices they made. I want my students to explore original work of their own that adapts the master’s styles and techniques and make them their own. So, is the ability to emulate masterpieces they secret super power? Nope. We are getting there though.
What is this secret? What is the one common thing that successful artists and designers manage to accomplish that others seem incapable of doing? Communicate. You might think this is too simple, or too obvious to be a secret super power, but it is true. I have seen brilliantly talented people wither on the vine because despite all they amazing talents, they just could not communicate. I am not talking about the communication via their work; we all understand that artists and designers communicate via their chosen discipline. I am specifically referring to the skill involved in describing their ideas and their work in either verbal or written form. Most visual creatives sit somewhere on the introverted spectrum so the more common form of communication takes on a writing form. There are some who are more extroverted and prefer to communicate in the oral medium. Then, there are others who excel in both. Ultimately, successful artists and designers who can communicate well, in spoken or written form, win.
This secret super power is so significant that it will enhance those with mediocre skills and talents. A highly skilled and talented creative who can not communicate will be trumped by a less skilled and talented creative who can. Being really awesome at your craft is good but it isn’t good enough. Successful creatives know this and learn to be excellent communicators. This is their secret super power that keeps them winning.
So, if you want to be successful at your chosen discipline, learn to communicate about it. Learn to talk about your work either in spoken or written form, or both. Learn to communicate in ways that the people who will pay for or buy your work will understand. Artists who want grant funding must learn to speak the terminology that the adjudicators will understand and respect.
Communication is a two-part power. Yes, the obvious communication skill of sending your ideas via talking or writing. There is an equally important communication skill that is receiving information. Observing or listening is key to any kind of good communication. You might have the most glorious idea in the world, but if the patron or client is asking for something different, your glorious idea is going to be like a world famous opera star singing an aria at a rock concert; completely inappropriate.
Communication is a two-way street. Those who master both ways of communication become sought after professionals. Mastery of a discipline allows for more and more advanced understanding of the work and greater and greater refinement of the intended audience.
What about innovation? What about the masters who produced works that defied typical audience conventions? Surprisingly, these occur when the mastery of communications is achieved. What is different is the way that the artist or designer interpreted what they saw or heard. Despite an apparent shunning of client or patron influence, an artist will often pay close attention to their environment and their community as they work. Listening isn’t always about hearing the words a person is speaking. Learning to interpret what is being said or observed is crucial to successful communication.
So, there you have it. The secret super power that all designers and artists have is an well developed ability to communicate. It is that simple. It is also incredibly difficult to master. Do yourself a favour. Learn to write well, speak well, observe well, listen well, and interpret well. Your future self will thank you.