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.

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