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."

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