Tuesday, October 1, 2013

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


    1. Good job Keith! This was one of my favourite "talks" at PAX Dev that I went to.