Monday, December 30, 2013

Value Your Values?

How about one last post to cap off 2013?

Since many of us will be returning to our jobs to either write and/or deliver annual performance appraisals, I thought it a timely subject

Let's get the big idea out of the way first. Yearly performance evaluations are an indescribable waste of time and energy.  If you don't understand why, go read the book Abolishing Performance Appraisals.  I'll include a link in the future.

Regardless, organizations are still addicted to this form of documentation and your employees have been trained to desire report cards since grammar school.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the practice is perpetuated simply because it's what we've always done.

Since relatively few organizations have managed to dispose of them - and kudos to those who have - I thought I'd write a brief post encouraging that managers and leaders alike take the time to think about values

Individual values
Team values
Organization values

If you're lucky, these elects are in alignment.  Unfortunately, I feel that this is still relatively scarce.  

In my experience, most metrics that are applied in annual performance appraisals are standardized, generalized and not consistently relevant.  Here are some examples:

Quality of Work and Productivity are almost always separated metrics.  In reality, These things are intertwined.  So what does that mean when someone does good work but takes  months to do what another employee can do in days - is that acceptable? What if another employee's productivity is very high, creating hundreds of lines of code or dozens of assets, all of which have to be rebuilt by a more competent team member?  In its current form, each employee would receive high marks in one category, low marks in another and ultimately be a failing member of your team. Would he or she understand your values after reviewing their scores?

Here are some other fun ones.  Teamwork.  Professionalism.  Everyone understands what these words mean, but I've rarely encountered two leaders who interpret them consistently. Now couple that with a scoring range, and please tell me how a 3 meaningfully differs from a 4.

So, what should you use instead?  Well, if you can't do away with the practice, It will depend on your organization.  Do you value your values?  Are your teams values understood but you continue to use different metrics for paperwork?  Isn't that a warning sign that something is severely amiss?

If you can, craft a review that uses more meaningful concepts which promote more dialog.

Contribution/Impact - rather than a rote list of what was done, a sincere evaluation of how an individual's contributions impact (or don't) your organization or team as a whole.  Or would you rather discuss a list of widgets and a full tracking sheet?  Do you value "getting things done" or getting done "things?"

Risk - do you value people who are willing to explore, prototype and experiment?  Careful, you have to be the kind of leader who is willing to endure as well as encourage failure.  If you can't, then your team will never stray from the well-worn path of what is already known.  Do you value risk or regimen?

Learning - what would happen if you evaluated growth?  Which is worthy of greater attention, an individual's point in time or the trajectory of a career?  Wouldn't your team benefit from someone who learned how others did their job rather than just incrementally growing in the components of their own?  Do you value cogs or machines?

Teaching.  Holy fuck, now we're talking.  Beyond learning, does your employee take the time to improve others.  Most managers muddle this kind of serious impact by combining it with Teamwork.  Let's get specific.  Do you value shared knowledge or are you destined to fail the bus test?

I could probably go on, but this post is already growing a little long and I'd rather provide food for thought than ladle out the whole buffet.  Here are some starters:
Leadership - evaluate everyone on this, not just Leads and Directors
Culture - is it possible for someone to drive your values, rather than just reflecting them?

Think about this. Think about your values. Then give people feedback based on that. 

And to hell with annual reviews.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

PAX Dev 2013: Art Leadership Forum (Part 2)

Thank you for continuing to read Part 2!

How do you avoid a culture of perceived micromanagement?

One attendee openly expressed their dissatisfaction at feeling micromanaged by their art lead.  Unsurprisingly, this is also a common topic.  A handful of key elements were called out as being instrumental in managing expectations and perceptions.

As mentioned before, it's important to set up scheduled review time.  Surprise inspections (or "seagull management") is a recipe for creating anxiety on the team.  By contrast, having dedicated critique time that is known well in advance is far preferable  Establishing known check-points provides the level of autonomy artists desire while also giving the AD a window for providing input.

Related to autonomy, we also discussed the topic of "task assignment."  If tasks are simply doled out without soliciting input or interest, then artists may feel micromanaged.  Multiple attendees responded with comments that establishing a set of goals and then allowing the team to self-organize their tasks around those goals was far preferable.  This is a form of agile development that encourages more individual responsibility for the tasks as well as the problems that need to be solved within a clear time frame.

One comment that was also given is that junior artists likely require more time and attention than senior developers.  As they are still developing confidence and experience, it is important that the AD spend time giving them individualized feedback on what is successful, what is not and, in both cases, why.  To be clear, it should not just be an endless stream of positive reinforcement and ego boosting.  Rather, a junior artist may simply be in need of more frequent feedback.

In order to provide opportunities for creative freedom, one artist encouraged ADs to have more people involved in the development of the "look & feel" of a project.  Obviously, this can't happen at every stage of a project, but there is merit to the idea that having a broad pool of contributors during the ideation/design stage of a project is worthwhile.  The counterpoint is that the AD still needs to make it clear how the decision will be made (up front) and who will be involved in those final decisions.

The last point shared on avoiding a culture of micromanagement was that the AD needs to ensure that communication is traveling in both directions.  The AD should not simply be issuing orders.  Rather, the AD needs to be open to critique and feedback from team members.  Once open to the feedback, it's even more important that there is a response.  This is yet another example of the leader providing transparency and context behind their decisions.  The ultimate goal is to provide the team with enough information that each person can act on their own with confidence that the choices they make are the correct ones.  This is the most critical component for delegation and for the AD to be able to manager their own time effectively.

Key Takeaway

In order for artists to have autonomy or creative authority, the AD must provide clarity.  After clarity, the artist then needs space in which to work, opportunities to fail and then learn and also an understanding of why something failed or why it succeeded.  Artists need (and expect) feedback, but it needs to happen at a pace that suits their comfort and their seniority, not at some erratic and undetermined pace.  Giving an artist ownership does not mean sacrificing your responsibility as a leader.  It means the opposite.  Your responsibility as a leader does not mean getting others to do what you want.  That's micromanagement.  Your responsibility as a leader is to get others to understand what you want, and giving them the professional freedom to achieve that goal.

How do you train artists to give and take constructive critique?

Professional growth is challenging in the absence of feedback.  However, many artists are not properly trained how to engage in critique.  Therefore, this was the day's final topic: how do artists learn how to take critique and how do you get them engaged in the activity of critiquing towards improvement.

One attendee brought up the concept of the "compliment sandwich" in that a critique is best delivered when framed by positive comments.  This, in turn, was countered by the point that artists deserve honest and direct feedback, not sugar-coated.  Regardless of the approach, there is a fair amount of research which indicates that the critical to positive feedback ratio should be between 1:3 and 1:5.  That is not to say that you need to find more positive things to say when you have critical feedback.  Critical feedback needs to be direct and honest and be delivered promptly.  What the research has shown is that building a long-term relationship with an employee where they understand their positive impact as well as critical development areas does require a higher ratio of meaningful positive feedback in order to prevent a feeling that they aren't valued by their leaders.

A critical component of every critique is context.  What is required?  Why is it required?  What aspect of that-which-is-being-reviewed should be the focus of the critique?  Artists require parameters for a critique, otherwise the critique may target aspects that aren't ready or which perhaps cannot be addressed (due to workflow or technical reasons).

As an aside, if your studio/project uses scrum or other agile update meetings, do NOT use these for critiques.   Scrum meetings should be kept short and focused.  Talk about blockers and provide updates.  If a critique is required, make that the focus of a separate discussion.

Related to the above point, artists need to know what success looks like.  Anyone (artist or not) can look at something and tell you whether they like it or not.  That's purely subjective and is not the point of a critique.  A critique should tell you whether or not something is successful.  Does it look like a concept?  Does it match the mood or the feeling we want the player to have?  Does it communicate the intended purpose?  Does it meet the technical / design requirements?  These are the types of questions to ask.  "Do I like it?" is not the right question to ask.  Feedback should always be actionable and focused on solving a particular problem.

The reason to get artists involved in the critique/feedback loop is to reinforce team cohesion and a sense of shared purpose.  Critique can be a form of positive reinforcement, even if the critique itself is critical.  As a result, a mature and well-managed process can enhance the culture of the team.  However, this still requires that both the art director and the senior staff serve as proper role models during the critique.  This does not mean that critiques must be overly formal or structured.  Rather, this means that the critique consistently focuses on the work and not the creator.

Critiques are good developmental tools for new artists.  They bring artists together and break artists away from their current work, giving them insight into the bigger picture.  Critiques help newer artists to develop a thick skin and encourages a culture of honesty.  It's easy to say something looks cool.  It's easy to give a pat on the back.  By contrast, you really have to think to give an effective critique.

As someone pointed out, there is an equal amount of responsibility on the receiver's end.  Beyond developing the "thick skin," the receiver has to be willing to ask questions.  If they don't understand the critique, the onus is on them to solicit more detailed feedback or to do so more frequently.

That last part of the roundtable focused on the responsibilities of the art director or art lead to ensure that critiques are effective.  For one, there needs to be clear reference points.  Mood boards, key imagery or successful examples are all critical in order for artists to effectively compare and contrast.  These help the artist to understand what success looks like.  Furthermore, clear technical specifications are also a requirement in order for artists to understand what won't function properly.  In addition, it was also noted that sometimes a paintover can communicate the requested change faster than a conversation.  When this is the case, it is the art directors responsibility to identify the need.

A few final comments.  Even with the most effective group critiques, these should not wholly replace dedicated 1-on-1 time with your staff.  Good leaders are always the ones who take the time to learn the team.  Critique time is simply one other avenue in which to familiarize yourself with each artist on your team and by which you can have a positive impact on the culture of your team.

Key Takeaway

Effective critiques can be one of the most influential factors on the culture of your team, so make sure you're doing them right.  Teach artists how to have "an eye for critique" and ensure that they are consistently commenting on the work -- not the artist.  The ultimate goal should be to teach artists to seek out critique from others and know how to filter appropriately.  Your senior staff must be role models for this behavior, or it simply won't become ingrained.

Thanks once more to those who attended the Art Leadership Forum.  Thanks also to those of you who took the time to read this post.  I know it was long, but I hope you found some information that is both worth consideration and can be applied to your team.

PAX Dev 2013: Art Leadership Forum (Part 1)

First of all, I want to say thanks to all of those who attended the forum.  The session was described in my original submission as the "Art Leadership Forum."  However, you can see by the picture from the banner outside the room (below) that it was printed as the "Art Lecture Forum."

This obviously triggered an unusual beginning to the session.  For one, having the word "lecture" in the title was cause for having the room arranged as pictured below:

A very nice room, to be sure.  However, not designed to motivate a roundtable discussion.  Great thanks are owed to the PAX Dev enforcers who were able to quickly rearrange the room by moving tables to the exterior walls and pulling chairs to the center.  Of course, I apologize for the delay this caused to the start of the discussion, but I did appreciate everyone's patience.

This was also a "teachable moment" insofar as leadership requires flexibility and the willingness to adapt the environment in a moment's notice.  Reaction time is critical.

Without further delay, let's move on to the discussion itself.  During the session, I took notes as best as I could.  What follows is my own recollections of what was discussed and the key takeaways that were relevant for attendees.  Also, due to the number of key points, I've also broken this event into two separate blog posts for easier readability (and so you can take a break and come back if you so choose).

I started the session with an open call for Art Directors to share what is one of the current frustrations or one that they have faced in recent months.  The first response centered on:

How does the Art Director manage their own time and limit distractions?  

We refined the question by focusing on specific distractions:
  • Asset Management
While no specific solutions were voiced for this topic, after action reports were that asset management is one those components best delegated to others.  While the AD cannot completely disconnect from asset awareness and structure, the implementation of a dedicated art manager or art producer can greatly alleviate the core burden of this responsibility.
  • Business Cards
In this specific instance, the AD was responsible for the design of the business cards as well as ensuring quality delivery.  Again, delegation of this responsibility was called out as the key solution.  At one studio, the design was managed by the AD, but the delivery and ordering was coordinated by producers.  A unique comment that was thrown out is that one studio turned their business cards into a CCG.  By turning a business component into a game component, they were able to get the whole team involved in the design and encourage interaction through collecting the business cards of others.  Although I'm sure it was a lot of work, this sounded like an effective "silo breaker."

Key Takeaway
The AD is responsible for managing his or her own schedule and implementing or advocating for a structure that allows them to do so.  Structure was called out as a specific tool, wherein the AD clearly carves out parts of their day or their week for each primary duty:
- art direction (critiques with artists and review of content)
- individual engagement (meeting one-on-one with individual artists or department leads depending on size of studio)
- meetings

By preserving time slots for each of these responsibilities, the AD can better find a balance and keep one responsibility from choking-out the others.  Related to the delegation point above, it was also strongly suggested that the ADs "clone themselves."  By that, it was meant that ADs need partners -- individuals they can trust to take on certain responsibilities and with whom they can build a genuine collaborative partnership.

    How do you inspire artists?

    This is a recurring topic at these types of roundtables.

    One attendee expressed that artists need to be involved in the business decisions of their employer.  While, I'm sure they didn't mean that artists should (or would want to) be involved in finance discussions, it does raise the concern that some developers genuinely want insight into areas outside of their department or job description.  Within the realm of a project cycle, certainly artists (and designers and engineers) should be involved in functional game problems or creative challenges.  This boils down to encouraging participation at the project level and providing reasonable transparency at the level of business operations and strategy.

    Another attendee suggested leadership training as an opportunity for engagement.  Certainly, there will be artists who are interested in developing their leadership skill, but you need to figure out who amongst your staff is interested.  For some artists, being sent to leadership development courses would be seen as punishment, not enrichment.

    The topic of constructive critique also came up.  Constructive and functional critique is a prerequisite for an engaged and participatory art staff.  At the same time, delivering constructive critique is a learned skill.  Affecting change at this level is more than simply arranging a time and place, the AD will need to take responsibility for setting the tone of critiques, the context as well as teaching the staff how to effectively critique.  Critique was a popular topic and so I've dedicated a fair portion of the second blog post to this topic.

    Another interesting idea for inspiration was to send non-artists to art classes.  While this may sound a little unintuitive, the idea here is that artists are provided an opportunity to teach others.  In a healthy art culture, artists should be regularly teaching -- sharing ideas, inspiration, tips 'n tricks or discussing new trends.  However, by teaching non-artists, artists create an opportunity for others to learn their vocabulary, understand their values and observe their problem-solving process.

    Related to the previous comment, it was also noted that young artists, who are still evaluating the career paths that are open to them, should be constantly learning.  They should be encouraged to interact with as many artists in as many groups as possible to foster their creativity as well as their understanding of the breadth and depth of the art discipline.  While their immediate work (tasks) may focus on a single need, it's important for them to see that there are options available to them as they mature and develop greater skill.  If possible, help the artist to find a mentor -- someone within the team or company with more experience and who is willing to provide guidance and be a resource for others.

    Ultimately, the most significant factor called out as having impact on the inspiration of artists was clarity.  ADs (and other leaders) need to be explicitly clear with vision, goals and deadlines.  That doesn't mean that some room shouldn't be left for individual creative freedom.  Rather, artists need to understand the outside parameters of that freedom.  Furthermore, it is equally important that when goals/vision/deadlines change, that the artists are made aware and understand why this change has occurred.

    Key Takeaway

    In order to engage artists, the AD must make every reasonable effort to provide transparency and clarity at an individual, project and studio level.  Moreover, the AD should encourage artists to find opportunities to engage and contribute (within reason) in areas outside of their immediate job responsibilities.  Artists must learn how to effectively critique, but also how to teach and how to communicate their ideas in a way which generates interest and response.  Also, help artists to find mentors or peers who can guide them and show them how to improve and how to think about the future of their careers.

    The final two topics can be reviewed in Part 2

    Monday, August 26, 2013

    Embrace the Chaos

    Last week, I posted the following to Facebook:
    My post was motivated by having encountered process breakdowns at both my daughter's school and in my work life.  Nothing terrible, but honest situations where clearly a codified workflow had resulted in a lack of action.

    Most people would probably just label my experiences as "bureaucracy" and then forget the encounter.  Certainly, I was frustrated, but I felt the need to succinctly explain the source of my frustration. My post prompted an interesting exchange as well as further contemplation on my part.  First of all, let me say that having friends who are MUCH smarter than I am is a real treasure.  Second, I know from my experiences as an art lead and art manager, that "process" comes in many forms.

    Reading my post, you might assume that I consider myself an enemy of process or that I advocate against it.  Quite the opposite.  As multiple commentators pointed out, process works in cases where the situation is common, simple and you are in pursuit of repeatable, quality results.  Processes are also very useful in preventing physical injury and ensuring safety standards.

    I forget in which book I initially read this idea.  Regardless, I do agree that Henry Ford's greatest accomplishment was not the automobile but his continued refinement of process.  Ford didn't figure out one way of achieving something and then keep doing that until someone smarter improved the process.  Instead, Ford was fascinated by engineering and material sciences.

    Most people would not think of line-work assembly as creative problem solving.  And, for the most part, they're right.  In this case, Ford's creativity was focused on the macro level, whereas the day-to-day construction simply required a clearly defined process that could be modified as macro level problems were resolved.

    We, in the creative industries, are not so lucky.  We are not trying to make 100 copies of 1 thing.  We're just trying to make that 1 thing -- and make it the best it can be.  Our creativity challenge spans both macro and micro level problem solving.  So, how do we change our mental patterns and escape the feeling of being "stuck" with a problem.

    It is for this reason that I encourage leaders to "embrace the chaos."  Experimentation is good.  It is healthy.  Granted, it is not always practical -- especially when deadlines loom.  However, as we employ the knowledge worker, it is incumbent upon us in leadership roles to ensure that moments of chaos are permitted (and encouraged when it makes sense).  Chaos is the catalyst for the "happy accident."  As with Ford, just because you've found a good process, that doesn't excuse your resistance to seeking out a better one.

    If you're not sure where to begin, here are some starter assignments for the leader at work:
    • Mix up your teams.  Move people around and commit to "ride along" work.  You never know where one piece of institutional knowledge within one group could be of benefit to another.
    • Pass the challenging assignments around.  Every team has its "rock stars" or "up-and-comers."  Don't always rely on the same set of people; you're more likely to always get the same solutions.
    • Personal projects.  All projects experience points of drudgery.  Ensure that, during those times, individuals have side projects which require very little time but provide much-needed mental invigoration.
    • Get out of the office.  Inspiration is a beautiful thing.
    These are all incredibly difficult to accomplish or get approved.  They fly in the face of traditional management practices.  They "break" processes.  And that's kinda the point.  You can't rebuild something to be better unless you're willing to break it down.  Most leaders will resist the risk -- I know I have at times.  But, in a creative environment, this is a philosophy well worth considering.

    Consider some Chaos... even if you're cautious to embrace it.

    Wednesday, July 31, 2013

    Focus on the Fulcrum

    I needed to return from my too-long hiatus from writing before the end of July.  Historically, I tend to take an extended break after the post-GDC writing deluge.  Couple that with changes at my job, and my writing motivation took a hit this past month.

    Anyway, I wanted to keep this post short and simply talk about the fulcrum.  I'm going to assume that readers are fully aware of this simple physics/engineering concept.  If not, all you need to know is that the "lever and fulcrum" is a means by which effort is used to lift proportionally greater loads than is possible through the direct application of effort/force on the load itself.  It is also an apt analogy.

     As a leader, you are constantly faced with seemingly binary decisions, or weighing factors.  Here to, the lever and fulcrum diagram shows how much effort (man-hours, headcount, overtime) is required to raise the load (scope, quality).  The fallacy lie in the fact that too many people focus only on the effort and load.

    If you work in this industry, you are going to find yourself in a meeting where you are trying to find a load balance; look especially for those meetings where none of the solutions look appealing.  It could be any of these topics:
    • Outsourcing to meet production targets
    • Overtime to hit milestone deliverables
    • Additional headcount to backfill against potential attrition.
    Sometimes the load balancing does make sense.  Sometimes it's the only reasonable solution.  Regardless, I challenge each of you to focus on the fulcrum.  By moving the fulcrum, the load can be lifted higher or faster through the application of equal or lesser effort.

    WARNING:  When moving the fulcrum, do NOT then also increase the load (scope, quality expectations, shorter milestone, etc.). That is what we, in the industry, call: "screwing the team."

    So, how do you move the fulcrum?

    First, accept that the electing to move the fulcrum is a long-term play.  When you don't have time, and most teams assume they don't even when they do,  moving the fulcrum seems unreasonable.  The pay out will take time, and the degree to which it pays out is not guaranteed.

    Second, consistent advocacy requires you to understand that moving the fulcrum always pays off.  Yes, that is in direct opposition to the previous sentence.  Here is why.  Moving the fulcrum is a strategic play and may have little to no immediate tactical benefit.  The benefit may not be truly realized until some future project.  However, the effort invested in simply trying to move the fulcrum, will bring greater understanding to why the load balance problem exists in the first place.  Also, if you do not try to move the fulcrum, you will perpetually be stuck trying to balance the load -- and you won't know why.

    Third, conscientiously select what type of fulcrum you're going to move.  There is more than one and it must be used to address the most significant load-balance issue.  I can't say I'd recommend trying lots of different fulcrums at once.  Regardless, here are some fulcrums to consider moving the next time you face difficult load-balance issues.
    • Training / Job Enrichment - diversify staff talent, bring new insights to the problem, employee retention and engagement
    • Internships - fresh talent, new development approaches
    • Tool Improvements / Tech Art expansion - improve the development environment, allow for faster iteration
    • Team mobility - shift staff between projects in the middle of development rather than only at the end
    • GTFO of the office - stop staring at the problem.  get away from it so you can think about it again.  This isn't a fulcrum at all.  This is how you start to figure out whether you need one.

    Focusing on the fulcrum is hard.  The faster a team is moving, the more difficult it is to focus.  You can't see the forest when you spend all day staring at trees. To mix metaphors and butcher them both at the same time: Don't stop chopping wood to sharpen your axe.  Stop chopping wood so you can invent the fucking chainsaw, instead.

     Fulcrum, baby!

    Friday, May 24, 2013

    Metronomes & Analogy

    Check out this video.

    For a full run-down of what's happening and another larger example, check out this article on NPR.

    The Little Metronome That Wouldn't

    Those who've known me for any length of time, know that I like analogies.  Particularly bad ones.  However, breaking down complex ideas or systems by comparing their relationships to other (usually simpler) observable  systems yields surprising results.  It forces the mind into a state where it questions relationships and promotes free-form thinking.

    I had a similar experience when watching this video.  How does it relate to leadership?
    • One viewer could interpret the metronomes eventually synchronicity as a strong analogy for leadership.  The leader could be represented in the flexibility of the surface, allowing each member of the team to find a rhythm that suits the goal/objective.
    • Another viewer could interpret the exact opposite.  They could easily view this as micromanagement.  Has each metronomes individuality been crushed?  Have they been forced into synchronicity rather than being allowed to maintain their own rhythm?
    For my part, I think both judgments are fair.  This is what we call a "sucker's choice."  A strong leader does not simply choose between A & B.  The strong leader recognizes the circumstances that are most effective for the individual, team or project and then weighs their choices.

    Sometimes a consistent cadence is required.

    Sometimes a more chaotic structure will yield the best results.

    In light of the video above, it appears that timing is everything.

    Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    Creative Reading

    Inspiration is a prime / consistent pursuit of every creative individual.  I normally reserve this space (this blog) for my own mental gymnastics.  However, there are also occasions where I simply want to point out what others have done -- especially when they communicate so much better than I.

    While reading both of these books, I recognized that tthey represent a lot of key ideas and questions that all creatives face in their work.  Everyone.  Aspiring professionals and veterans alike.  I wanted to recommend these books, not only for the brilliant ideas they communicate, but also for the moments of mental clarity that they can provide.

    We are frequently so deep in our work that we fail to pull back and appreciate the creative process itself.  Too frequently, the work itself becomes the process, the means by which to do more work.  As an alternative, these books offer a chance to look at your creativity, your process and then allow those elements to influence your work.

    Then again, I realize that not every creative individual enjoys reading.  For those who fit this category, just check out this video.  It's old, but still just as brilliant.

    Monday, April 29, 2013

    GDC 2013: Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable - Day 3

    In light of the fact that the previous two days had been more tightly scripted, I wanted a more loose and open format for our last day.  Therefore, after bringing attendees up to speed on what had transpired during the first two days, I opened the floor to topics of discussion or issues that art leaders were facing currently on their projects.

    The first topic voiced was how to choose a project's art style in pre-production.  Several different responses were offered.
    • Give the art department a chance to prototype and present an art style based on the projects tools and limitations.  This would be a "bottom up" approach to art direction, but which at some point would require the director to decide and then drive consistency.
    • However, one attendee also suggested that in a "bottom up" approach, that you still need a framework or criteria for driving focused critiques.  This is most important if you are allowing broad experimentation but one style may differ wildly from another groups approach
    • Another response focused more on the gameplay.  Define the player experience or key descriptors of the game and use those as the pillars or  upon which to build the art style.
    • Key collaborators was another suggestion.  Given that pre-production is traditionally a smaller-team stage of development, partner your key artists with design directly to prototype visual targets relative to gameplay targets.
    • Another comment related to the previous 2 responses is that there will be a need to define clear gameplay mechanics.  The looser the gameplay design, the broader the art style and those mechanics will need to be refined at relatively the same pace at which the art style focuses.
    • One responder reminded the group to not forget your target audience.  In short, the demographics may play a part in defining the type of art that is appealing or reinforces the player experience.
    • Reference or touchstones (comics, movies, concept art) were also strongly recommended as helping to build consistency in vision.  One positive to this approach is that the art director can set basic guidelines while still allowing for creative input in the development of the art style.
    • Lastly, a very strong comment voiced in the pursuit of developing an art style was to "stand behind your pitch."  This was very interesting.  As most creative directors and leads know, there will be a lot of feedback coming in as the art style develops.  It's unwise to try to appease all parties and continuing to "shift with the wind" may erode the confidence of the art team.  If there is a reason an art style was selected, then you must possess the wherewithal to stand behind that choice (not obstinately, but as an advocate).  This transitions well into the next topic.

    A secondary question was raised at this point.  How to communicate and convince others of the "correctness" once an art style is established?
    • As an art style is established, one of the art leader's key responsibilities is building inspiration on the team.  The process can vary, as outlined above, but it is crucial that the art style be understood by the department and that the artists have confidence in their own ability to make choices in support of the art style.
    • Another challenge facing the art leader is to communicate that the audience for the product supersedes the desires of the art team.  Ideally, the art leader can find a match in styles, but where those two deviate, the art leader needs to make the criteria for the audience perfectly clear to the art department as well as why that criteria is important.
    • In addition, the art leader must possess flexibility as the art style develops.  There is always iteration and refinement to be pursued.  Furthermore, projects change and adaptability is critical, both in order to respond to the change and also in communicating the changes that are forthcoming.

    The next topic was particularly interesting.  How do you build a stronger relationship between artists and designers?
    • One response was that a key component of a strong relationship between Art and Design is a clear accountability and delivery.  In short, this is about building trust within and across both departments.  As each is responsible for supporting the other group, a relatively clear process or milestones for decision making, evaluation and delivery of needs is appropriate and healthy for both departments
    • Likewise, role clarity and expectations should be set for both groups.  Ideally, this is established by leaders from both Design and Art and reinforced through the relationship between those Leads.
    • Persistent communication was also listed as a key factor.  There was some additional discussion surrounding office arrangement or partnering.  In truth, geographical location will play little part in solving the problem if both parties are not committed to collaboration.
    • Autonomy was also mentioned, but not in the sense of isolation nor absolute freedom.  Rather, both groups are deserving of respect for their own expertise and neither group should be chained to the whims of the other.  Again, this is about collaboration or dealing with conflict/disagreement openly -- this is natural in game development as it is in all creative pursuits.
    • It was also recommended that the Leads needs to set priorities for both groups.  These could be the project pillars or simply coming to an agreement on what is a "need" versus what is a "want."  The Leads should also be empowered to work with both groups and encourage them to ask themselves, "Does it fit?"
    • Although this was called out as being difficult in large teams or organizations with many strike teams or pods, there should be consistent effort to break silos between the groups.  Individual contributors will naturally want to focus on their immediate work, but it is important for leaders to ensure that people are getting face time as a group to encourage critique and also to provide broader awareness of what other departments are developing.
    • In this way, Leads should be providing reasonable oversight as well as mentoring their own department on how to give effective critique.  That could be it's own topic for next year; however, we did touch more on artist critique which you can about later in this blog post.
    • Finally, an attendee suggested cross-department learning.  Provide opportunities for each department to undergo some basic training in the tools and processes the other department uses.  The challenge therein lie in meeting this objective despite the rigor of production schedules and milestones.  Two solutions mentioned included 1.) encouraging developers to do this on their own time (lunch / after hours) or 2.) build this level of interaction into your team structure from the inception of the project.

    The next topic.  How does each studio approach artist mentorship and development?
    • At a fundamental level, having Leads or discipline-experienced managers who can perform regular one-on-ones and provide clear career development objectives.
    • Culture was also listed as a key component -- more than management structure.  Make learning part of the culture of your studio.  Establish learning objectives for each individual and for each project.  This requires a measure of "down board" thinking I'm sure, but is well worth it in terms of employee engagement.
    • However, learning cannot be limited to simply individual growth.  It is equally important to bring artists from different disciplines together for peer-to-peer learning and development.  Sharing is the best indicator by which learning (and development mastery) can be measured.  Furthermore, the mixing of these groups can help with breaking down silos between groups as well as projects.
    •  It is equally important, with all this learning, to not forget to team artists where their interests lie.  Growth and development should be married with both talents as well as personal investment, otherwise you risk an unproductive exercise.
    • At the team level, it was strongly encouraged that the art lead or director bring the whole art department together for group critique.  This was suggested as an exercise to promote team vision.  However, there may be a point at which the size of the art department makes this impractical or inefficient.
    • Lastly, at the individual level, artist development was encouraged through allowing individual ownership of the work.  This affords the artist an opportunity to drive ideas within the art style as well have their own creative contributions for their craft discipline.

    The final topic of the day.  How do studios encourage effective art critique?
    • As listed above, cross-discipline critique was listed as healthy.  It enables artists to see their work from a different perspective and perhaps learn from processes or techniques utilized in other areas of art production
    •  One attendee also keenly noted that artists need to be trained in how to "take it" where feedback is concerned.  They need to be mentored on how to be receptive to critical feedback.  It was suggested that the strongest attribute in this regard is that it "requires inquisitiveness."  I found this striking as it succinctly points to the need for the receiver to possess genuine interest both in the opinions of others as well as in the limitations and opportunities for growth within his or her own talents.
    • It was also suggested that building and reinforcing an "open environment" was key in communicating safety.  Artists may not feel comfortable critiquing artists who are more senior unless there is a culture that flattens the structure where critique is concerned.  This also can create a healthy peer-to-peer feedback environment, rather than focusing instead on lead or director-level feedback in isolation.  Where culture is concerned, the most vital ingredient is to ensure a culture of respect -- both for the self and for others.
    • As counterpoint, a "broad audience" approach may be the most effective in the early stages of development, whereas later stages of production may require more tightly reined direction from art leaders.  At the same time, it was suggested in this session that the art direction should find opportunities to take risks.  That is a constant balancing act for all creative leaders.
    • Artists should also have a say in the source of their critique.  In most cases, the artists are likely in a position to know whose help they most need or whose techniques from which they could learn the most.  However, there is still the responsibility of the lead and manager to ensure that "groupthink" or "buddy praise" does not promote an environment of non-critique.
    • In terms of nuts and bolts, it was highly suggested that critical, developmental feedback be focused on factual observations.  Especially in circumstances where an artist is struggling, subjective feedback may provide more distraction and direction.  Instead, focus on providing as much detailed feedback as possible regarding what is observed and why.
    • One attendee pointed out a provocative and insightful comment on art critique itself.  Ultimately, critique isn't only about color choices, polygons and pixels.  At a very high level, critique is about helping another developer to watch out for blind spots and distractions.  In my own mind, blind spots can be thought of asset obsession or whereby an artist focuses so much on the single piece of content that they lose sight of the broader picture.  By comparison, distractions may be considerations that are too broad, and which create paralysis in moving content forward.  Effective critique can be used to help an artist disengage from either scenario.
    •  Briefly, the topic of "unqualified critique" was mentioned.  In this context, unqualified referred to critique coming from outside of the art department.  However, rather than automatically viewed as a negative, this type of critique was encouraged at one studio as a means to drive questions.  If non-artists cannot understand the visuals or suggest different approaches, then this should be a prime catalyst for conversation and interaction.  This relates to the previous comment of requiring "inquisitiveness."  For this studio, a dismissive approach was seen as a limiting factor to their departments' growth.
    • It was also suggested that the art director plays a critical role in encouraging a culture of critique.  Beyond the art lead's specific actions and approaches, one attendee recommended that project art work be posted in the most visible way.  It should be posted publicly and update regularly.  Not only will this motivate discussion, but the art leaders can see who responds and how frequently.  These can be cultural leaders on your team in terms of both advocating for and analyzing the artistic choices of the project.  Find the trend and then leverage the talents and the interest level.

    That last bit of advice was specifically for art leaders -- all of those who attended as well as all of those who may read this blog.
    • You have to make a choice.
    • If it fails, know why.  
    • Keep Learning.
    • If it succeeds, know why.
    • Keep Risking.

    Once more, a special thanks to everyone who participated in the Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable.  I hope to see many of you again next year at the Art Leadership Roundtable.

    Thursday, April 25, 2013

    GDC 2013: Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable - Day 2

    I started the second day's session by posting the notes from Day 1 as well as amending the list to include some of the new items that were discussed in the previous day's session.

    Here it is again:

    Effective Leaders

    Challenging Leaders

    - Listening - Lack of Direction
    - Allow Creative Freedom in Art Direction - Poor Delegation
    - Trust Others - Lack of Awareness
    - Honesty - Red Tape / Bureaucracy
    - Organized - Fickle / Inconsistent
    - Great Final Product - Micromanaging
    - Best Artist - Unresponsive
    - Documentation - Distant / Unavailable
    - Clear Roles & Responsibilities - Distracted
    - Active Communication - Selfish / Seeks Credit for Themselves
    - Knows the Team Strengths - Favoritism
    - Passion for the Project - Bad Artist
    - Vision - Lack of Technical Knowledge
    - Problem Solver
    - Responsible
    - Political / Negotiating
    - Originality

    After sharing the list I asked the attendees to take a moment and see if they could "flip the bit" on any of these attributes.  For example, I shared the comments from the previous session about the "best artist."

    While being the "best artist" certainly carries a high degree of credibility within the art department, that trait does not equate to good leadership skills.  In fact, making your best artist the leader means that you have forfeited their artistic ability.  Furthermore, the "best artist" can prove to be a leadership liability if theyfail to share creative ownership or negotiate with other departments.

    In addition, one attendee from the first session smartly pointed out that the entire list was all about "perception."  He was exactly right.  And that is, in my opinion, the true reason why all art directors in attendance possess traits from both lists.  These traits are perceptual, subject to the individual assessment of others.

    As such, my challenge to that day's audience was which attributes could be misconstrued as a trait on the opposite list.  Here are a few that we discussed:

    • Freedom in Art Direction / Lack of Direction -- There is a constant balancing act between the art director's or art lead's role of defining the vision and allowing artists to have creative contributions within said vision.  Put simply, different artists require (and also prefer) different types of direction.  One can envision a situation where an art director's goal of open contribution could be interpreted as a lack of vision.
    • Organized / Micromanaging -- One can also envision a scenario where a lead's or director's clear sense of priorities and requirements could, on the opposite end of the spectrum, be seen as an attempt to limit or corral the creative contributions of others.  Certainty, in the eye of one viewer could be interpreted as strict limitations by another
    • Clear Roles / Red Tape --  Oftentimes, the art director's primary consideration needs to be to reinforce and support the leadership responsibilities he shares with discipline-specific leads.  Encouraging an artist to solicit feedback from his or her lead beforehand could be misinterpreted as red tape or an over-adherence to process.  Arguably, it could also be seen as a lack of direction.
    • Originality / Lack of Technical Knowledge -- This requires more of a mental stretch, until you consider the cross-department interaction.  An art director may possess a unique vision or style that they want to achieve on a project.  From an engineering or technical perspective, this may appear impractical or risky, which in turn would lead to the assumption that the art director lacks an understanding of technical limitations.
    I propose that there are actually many more partner-groups to be found in the list above.  Rather than enumerate them, I challenge you, the reader, to ponder these lists in greater detail and try to view a scenario from both sides.  Clearly, perception is a driving factor in any such judgments.  Equally clear is the art leader's need to openly communicate the WHY behind their decisions in an effort to reinforce their reasoning and avoid unreasonable labels.

    All of these topics generated a flurry of discussions about centralized vs. decentralized art leadership.  Is it better to have one key person at the top?  Or is it better to have shared ownership a broader structure?  There was no "right" answer, but clearly a lot of different options depending upon the culture of the studio, the project and the team.

    Throughout the discussion, there was much talk of title and of hierarchy.  It was at this point that we added a new word to the list and placed it firmly in the middle.  The new word was "Title."  Where does this belong?  Is it a positive trait or a negative one?

    All attendees seemed to agree that great communication skills was the hallmark of a strong leader, far moreso than simply a title. However, the opinions on titles varied.  Some attendees spoke harshly of titles as driven by need for hierarchy and that hierarchy in general was bad.  Most of the examples voiced were centered on who was allowed to speak to whom as well as instances of "territorialism" on the part of some leaders.  However, not all of the negativity applied to hierarchy was necessarily fair or accurate.

    In short order, we centered on a couple of key tenets.  First, communication and hierarchy are not the same thing, nor are they antonyms.  Hierarchy should not be viewed or applied as a communication structure, but simply as a structure for decision making and perhaps final authority (as well as responsibility for when things go wrong).  Second, titles do not make a good leader, but do confer a level of authority.  Last, there are leaders in every organization, on every team and in every institution who do not possess a title but who do have the influence of a leader.

    It was on that revelation that I posed this question.  Is the name of this roundtable wrong?  Are we starting from the wrong assumption?  The general consensus was:  Yes. 

    As a result, we will be changing the name of the Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable effective next year.  In 2014, assuming the board approves the proposal, this roundtable will be called the "Art Leadership Roundtable."

    Lesson learned.

    Monday, April 22, 2013

    GDC 2013: Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable - Day 1

    Please allow me to first say thank you to all of the great attendees we had at each day of the roundtable.  This year marked an attendance milestone -- we packed 'em in every single day and the CA's had to close the door early for each session.  SRO.  Thank you, all!

    For those who haven't attended previous sessions, the first day is usually used for crowd sourcing continuing topics throughout the conference.  When you get right down to it, 60 minutes goes by FAST!  This makes topic breadth vs. depth a constant balancing act.  However, as moderator, I like selecting a catalyst topic and seeing where the discussion leads.

    For this year's first session, I asked the attendees to describe for me the attributes of "effective leaders" and then (without just providing antonyms) describe the traits of "challenging leaders."  What is also worth noting is that almost every attendee expressed the fact that they had experience working with both types of art leaders over time.

    Here is what was listed.

    Effective Leaders

    Challenging Leaders

    - Listening - Lack of Direction
    - Allow Creative Freedom in Art Direction - Poor Delegation
    - Trust Others - Lack of Awareness
    - Honesty - Red Tape / Bureaucracy
    - Organized - Fickle / Inconsistent
    - Great Final Product - Micromanaging
    - Best Artist - Unresponsive
    - Documentation - Distant / Unavailable
    - Clear Roles & Responsibilities - Distracted
    - Active Communication - Selfish / Seeks Credit for Themselves
    - Knows the Team Strengths - Favoritism
    - Passion for the Project - Bad Artist
    - Vision - Lack of Technical Knowledge

    Once the list was generated, I polled the art directors and art leads in the room.
    • I asked, who among them had all of the effective traits.  No response.
    • I asked, who among them had some of the effective traits, but none of the challenging ones.  No response.
    • I asked, who among them had some of the effective traits AND some of the challenging traits.  All hands in the air.
    Why?  What does that mean?  One attendee suggested that "we're human."  Certainly a valid conclusion.  But more on that later.

    Anyway, once we had the list, we used the second half of the session to begin a loose discussion of some of these topics. I knew that we couldn't cover all of them, but was enthused by the fact that we had created such a diverse list to fuel conversations throughout the remainder of the conference.

    In terms of tone, the rest of the session was very positive and focused on additional traits that had not been listed but which also made for an effective leader.  It should be clearly noted that one attendant smartly identified that (aside from the few comments specific to art), all of these points were just about general leadership rather than specific to art leadership.

    Here were some of the most noteworthy comments from the first session:
    • One technical attendee called out specifically that an effective leader is a good Problem Solver.  Even if he or she cannot solve the problem themselves, someone who is effective at identifying a problem and rallying the solvers around the solution goal
    • Responsible.  In this instance, the individual pointed out that the leader needs to be able to take the heat for failure.  In fact, that need to be on the front line for failure.  A good leader doesn't look to blame the team or deflect their own responsibility upon others.
    • Someone else pointed out that "Best Artist" can actually transition into a state for a bad leader.  As this was one of our key activities for Day 2, I will reserve full context until the next post.  Until then, the key takeaway is that it is better for an art leader to be able to speak "the art language" rather than be the best artist.
    • Politics, interestingly enough, was listed as a positive trait -- despite its inherent negative connotation.  In this instance, politics indicating the art leaders ability to negotiate, to collaborate with other departments, to stand firm for what he or she believes and, at the same time, to shield the team when necessary.
    • Originality was another positive trait.  While originality can be difficult, the goal here was the ability to communicate an exciting vision and rally the team around that vision.
    • Works with other Departments.  An effective art leader is able to process feedback from other departments as well as speak the language of those departments.  In a sense, the leader does not become "territorial" and seek out only those options which are to the benefit of their own department.

    Another brief topic of discussion was the difference between Art Directors and Art Leads.  There were a number of good comments, but many of them seemed contextual and specific to the project or studio.  The important thing to remember was that any organization should be structured to suit themselves rather than to suit the inclusion of specific titles.  This, too, became one of the key points of discussion on a subsequent day.

    Lastly, one attendee shared what I found to be a very interesting observation.  He said that, given the current pace of development and the expectations of new artists, that young developers seemed to think that they were ready for leadership much sooner than previous generations.  If this is so, then a discussion centered on the traits listed above seems well worth having.

    Next:  Day 2 -- where we "flip the bit."

    Thursday, April 4, 2013

    GDC2013: A Survivor's Tale

    I just wanted to write a brief post and say how great it was meeting so many talented and passionate developers at GDC this past week.  Special thanks to everyone who attended the Art Director and Lead Artist Roundtable.  It was a great discussion and I appreciate all of the contributions that were offered.

    Some of you may have hit this site hoping to read the roundtable's daily notes.  Don't worry; I haven't forgotten.  Truth be told, I'm still "recovering" from GDC.  Nevertheless, I'm still committed to having the notes from each day posted to the site before the end of this month.

    Thanks again and hope to see you all at GDC next year ... when we change the roundtable's name to the "Art Leadership Roundtable" ... because titles do not confer leadership.

    Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    PortFAILio: The Art of NOT Getting a Job

    With GDC 2013 around the corner and many students and professionals planning to kick their job search into high gear, I thought it worthwhile to be sharing my own particular flavor of thoughts on job hunting for artists.  While lots of other talented individuals have contributed to this topic in the past, I wanted to add a slightly different "spin."  This is also lifted straight from a presentation I gave to a group of students at Ringling College of Art & Design this past December 2012.

    Disclaimer:  I'm using "portfolio" as a generic term.  I'm not referring only to physical media.  Your portfolio is your website, your forum presence or your profile on any number of art sites.  Your portfolio is your work, regardless of the manner in which it is presented.

    This article is NOT (get it?) about what to include in your portfolio.  Why?  Simply put, there is no strict formula as to what to include and what not to include.  In fact, the types of things one might include varies from studio to studio, from project to project and from position to position.  There are nigh-infinite variables to consider.  And unlike some Mordor-forged ring, there is no "one portfolio to rule them all."

    So, why am I writing this?

    Unlike Roulette, there's no guarantee your ball will find a home.
    I want to improve your odds.  I've been in your shoes and count myself fortunate that I was able to enter the industry when I did.  I started in 1998 and the industry landscape is very different now from how it was then -- not better, not worse, just different.  Regardless, any job seeker needs to understand that the job market is rough, especially for students.  How bad is it?  Let me put it this way, students don't have to compete with each other any more.  With the high turnover rate at publishers and large number of shuttered studios, students now have to compete with professionals - those with real experience and shipped titles to their credit.  In the face of that much adversity, I want to help.  There were a few key individuals who helped me when I was starting out, and now it's my turn.

    Yes, people use to have them, and yes, I used to carry them to interviews.
    Also, I've spent many years reviewing portfolios, sourcing candidates, conducting interviews and .... discarding applications.  Every recruiter you ever meet will tell you that they throw away more applications than they actually consider.  As I mentioned above, the things to include in one's portfolio is wildly subjective.  While I can provide more general pointers, there are plenty of others who have already done so.  What I want to do is point out the "portfolio killers."  These are the most common things applicants do, oftentimes well-meaning, which transform their portfolio into a portFAILio.

    The Dog Shit


    Let's go ahead and get this out of the way first.  Don't put any "dog shit" work in your portfolio.  I don't have to explain why.  More important, you shouldn't be the one making this evaluation either.
    How to Fix:
    Find someone you trust who can also be brutally critical of your work.  No holds barred criticism.  They will call out the dogshit to you and you must excise it with extreme prejudice.  No second thinking, because there are no second chances.

    The Scatter Shot

    Got any hits in that portfolio?
    This is the most common failing of student portfolios.   That was certainly my portfolio's failing, and it continued to be a problem with my portfolio even two years after I had entered the industry.  This is the Jack of All Trades problem, combined with the fact that most students haven't yet built up a library of sample work.  In short, there's a little bit of everything, but none of it is truly exceptional.  This portfolio loses out to the candidate who has really honed a specific skill and has built strength in a key area or two.

    How to Fix:
    Difficult.  Most students are understandably generalists who want or need exposure to a lot of variety before settling on their key focus.  In truth, some don't find their focus until after acquiring some professional experience.  There is nothing wrong with demonstrating breadth in one's portfolio.  But lead with your strength and your passion.  Again, if you can't figure it out, then call up that harshest critic mentioned above and ask them.  Build several solid pieces around this strength demonstrating variety in artistic style.  Assuming they are strong enough, let the "breadth" pieces add flavor to your portfolio but let your strength play center stage.

    The History Teacher

    My brother-in-law.  Yes, an actual history teacher.

    The history teacher's portfolio is much like the Scatter Shot -- lots of samples and not a lot of key strengths.  The History Teacher portfolio is unique in that this candidate wants to show you their ENTIRE BACK CATALOG.  I've seen candidates include things they created in high school.  Their intent, naturally, is to show you, the art lead or hiring manager, how far they've come.  Great.  Can I let you in on something?  Other than your friends and parents, no one gives a shit.  Learning and growing is part of professional development and it is assumed that you are better today than you were yesterday.  The person who may hire you wants to know what you can do NOW not what you could do THEN.  And if your NOW is no better than your THEN, your portfolio won't get you anywhere

    How to Fix:
    Remove the back catalog.  If there is some reason why you think an older image is worth including, it better be fucking amazing.  Keep your portfolio not only to your BEST but also your most recent.  I'll discuss this in greater detail below, but recognize that your portfolio has a shelf life.

    The Cactus Bikini

    I can't believe I found this image.
    Basically, your portfolio is made of the "wrong material."  Now this aspect is subject to some debate by professionals; what I'm giving here is my opinion so I'm going to take a little extra space to explain myself.  Ultimately, I feel that an artist's portfolio should match the company to which they are applying.  For example, if your portfolio is chock full of space marines, it doesn't make sense to send it to the company that only makes fantasy games.  The reverse is also true.

    Now, I've met some students who have told me that their professors tell them not to imitate the work of other games or companies.  Allow me to clarify.  Absolutely do not just clone their work; don't try to just create a copy. 

    How to Fix:
    It is perfectly valid and even recommended that your work appear to be a stylistic match or, even better, build upon the art style that potential employer has already developed. Furthermore, there's one key criteria that will cause most employers to want to set up a phone call after viewing a portfolio. 

    In my case, I ask myself this question:  does this person's work match the work we do.  It is even better if there are samples in that portfolio that look like they're ready to be exported into the next game in that franchise.  Every recruiter or hiring manager wants to find people they know can perform.  It's a simple question of confidence level -- the more aligned the portfolio, the greater the confidence.

    Final note on "wrong material" is this.  I've seen a handful of portfolios that were just ... strange.  The candidate's work clearly indicated some form of personal fetish or attraction to a subculture.  In these cases, the portfolio not only leans far too heavily in a single direction but is also just plain ... awkward.

    The Ancient

    A mummy's portfolio?

    This is an unfortunate scenario, and one to which both professionals and students alike are subject.  This is the condition under which a portfolio has stagnated and fallen behind.  Ours is a fast-paced, technical industry with new artistic techniques developed every year.  One must keep pace.

    Most students' portfolios fail here simply because they come out of school thinking their portfolio is done and then wholly focus on the job hunt.  The job hunt sometimes takes a long time.  In 1998, my job hunt took almost 6 months, to give you a frame of reference.  Aside from the job hunt itself, you have one key goal to complete once you graduate school.  Replace every piece in your portfolio.

    How to Fix:
    It may sound strange, but this is critical.  Regardless of the setting, you probably spent 2 years or 4 years building the portfolio.  The quality of your skills as well as your artistic eye is likely much stronger upon graduation than it was in any of the preceding years.  Not only that, but sometimes student work is hyper-directed by faculty and your work may be too similar to other students'.  You should look to replace each piece with a better piece - one that demonstrates greater talent and greater personal passion.

    A final note:

    Don't disregard presentation quality.  It may sound trite, but I've seen lots of promising work that was poorly lit, poorly composed or just organized in such haphazard fashion that the portfolio itself (rather than the images themselves) sunk the candidate.  Presentation quality strongly indicates whether or not the applicant can "bring it all together."

    When it comes to portfolios:  a mess is a mess.  If you have one, clean it up.  Don't let it become a portFAILio.

    If it were food, make it like this.
    Not this.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2013

    The Author Analogy

    Many years ago, a publishing house realized that it needed to release a new manuscript from one of its then best-selling authors.  Who the author is or what they were working on at the time is unimportant.  What was important is that the publishing house needed the income from this author's next book in order to publish the following year's catalog.  The author in question was a consistent "hit" and ensured that the publishing house could invest in newer (and riskier) manuscripts in the pursuit of new markets/readership.

    The publisher already had agents and editors who supported the author.  At this most critical junction however, the publisher elected to hire a Publishing Manager to oversee progress and assist the author directly.  You see, the publishing house was already concerned.  The author had already been late on the previous two milestones, and this trend would push the publishing date well outside of the desired shelf date.  They felt that having a manager directly integrated into the process would help "pick up the pace."

    The manager they hired possessed an excellent track record for delivering results by deadline.  And while the manager had almost no publishing experience, he understood the financial ramifications of his efforts, and that suited the publishing house even better.

    The author, by comparison, was a little flummoxed by the introduction of a new "writing assistant."  However, he was willing to make accommodations to the publishing house with whom he had experienced years of excellent support and service.

    The manager started by leaving the author to write while the manager analyzed the author's previous works -- his back catalog.  He read them all -- and took notes.  The manager cataloged every measurable component he could identify.  How many characters were in the book?  How many locations?  How many plot twists?  How much character dialog?  How much exposition?  How many chapters were in each book?  How many pages were in each chapter?  How many paragraphs per page?  How many words per paragraph?

    In the end, he validated what the publishing house had already assumed -- at current pace, the manuscript would not be ready for print and on store shelves by the desired release date.  Upset, the publishing house ordered the manager to begin "managing the writing process."  The release date must not slip.

    In response, the manager sat down with the author to lay out the plan for hitting the deadline.  They went over all of the notes and all of the major elements planned for the storyline.  In order to hit their deadline, they had to make cuts.  This was achieved predominantly through targeted scope reduction, much of which was recommended by the manager.

    • "Let's drop the love triangle.  Those take an average of 4-6 chapters to fully develop and that will shave time off the schedule."
    • "The climax should take place in the same location as the opening scene.  You've already described that setting, so you won't have to waste precious time describing it again."
    •  "Near the second act, the protagonist spends a lot of time pondering their relationship with their parents.  It doesn't really advance the story, so we'll put that on hold and add it back in if we finish early."
    • "Notes from the publishing house say that this character from your last book was really popular.  We should add someone like that character and drop one of the other tertiary actors."
    • "The protagonist's dog doesn't play any significant role until the end when it saves the protagonist's life.  Can we just remove the dog now and save ourselves the trouble of having to write about it for the rest of the book?"
    On and on it went.  And with these changes, the author became less excited and less inspired by what they were writing.  Nevertheless, the manager got the schedule "back on track."  The manager was also able to establish a pace-setting goal for the book.  A certain number of paragraphs per hour.  A certain number of pages per day.  A certain number of chapters per week.

    The author soldiered on.  Days went by as the author cranked out page after page after page of brief dialog and minimal exposition and periodic character development -- all out of respect for the manager's and publishing house's wishes.  After all, they were paying for the book in the first place.

    On time, the manuscript was completed.  It was sent off for publication and hit store shelves on the desired date.  Fans of the author flooded to the bookstores to pick up the latest book.  Despite spectacular initial sales fueled largely by the popularity of the author, the book was roundly derided as the worst book of the year.

    The book was rife with shallow characters, a boring plot, uninspiring locales and a stayed and predictable ending.  Critics and fans alike vocally panned the title, which in turn was picked up by multiple media outlets.  A firestorm of equal parts rage and disappointment rained down on the publishing house.  Retail outlets began returning large volumes of books, having been completely unable to sell the large volume of pre-orders they had ordered ahead of time.

    As a result, the publishing house was forced to make severe cuts.  The high cost of returned stock resulted in the publisher not recouping the original advance they had given the author.  This loss also resulted in the publishing house being unable to pursue "high risk" manuscripts from new talent.  Likewise, in an effort to save face publicly, the publisher announced that they would not be publishing any further titles from this author.  Their contracts and their prior long-term relationship was terminated.

    The author.  Whether they wrote again or not is immaterial.  What is important is that the author's public perception was deeply tarnished and their motivation to produce further creative endeavors was largely absent.  The author would be required to find a new publisher and build a new readership, assuming either of those options would be possible.

    The manager.  They were lauded for their success.  The fact that the manuscript was in such a poor state was clearly a failing of the author.  And while the book was not a success, the publishing house was confident that the next big hit would be released soon.  In fact, they would like the manager to meet with this author as soon as possible to ensure that book would be released on time as well....

    Sound familiar?

    So, where did things go wrong?  I'll tell you.  Too frequently in creative industries, the "creativity" is left out of the planning process.  When overt deconstruction (of processes, of patterns, of components) goes too far, it completely occludes if not minimizes the "spark" of creative enterprise.
    The manager might as well have asked the author to type every word in the Oxford Dictionary in order to find out how long it would take to write the book.  Factory line data does not plug into imaginative creation at a 1:1 ratio.

    This is a challenge I put before every leader, every manager and every producer in every creative industry.  Understand that creativity is the core of what do, not the mechanical processes that yield the product.  That is why a goal is more relatable than a task.  That is why a vision is more inspiring than a milestone.  That is why an hour spent thinking is sometimes more valuable than 2 hours spent doing.

    When you plan - plan for creativity.  Plan for experimentation.  Plan for prototyping.  Plan for failure and then plan again for recovery.

    The old adage says hope for the best but plan for the worst.  This doesn't apply to creative enterprise.  For creative enterprise, if you fail to plan for the unexpected (for pure exploration and creativity), then you have created the worst plan.