Startups are well known for being willing to tinker with fresh and frankly unusual-sounding ideas for improving morale, productivity, and creativity. From those archetypal startup perks, free food and a foosball table, to more outlandish experiments like company-wide international travel or unlimited vacation, tech companies often blaze the way for others, experimenting with ideas that later spread to larger, more established businesses.

Now a handful of tech companies are trying out yet another new idea, according to a fascinating recent article by Tina Amirtha on Quartz -- they're running artist-in-residence programs.

Creativity by proximity

Why spend money to bring in someone to paint, draw, or sculpt on the company's dime and in the company's space? "The tech industry has been sponsoring artist-in-residency programs to tap into artists' creative thinking skills, in the hopes that their engineering teams will learn something new or, at least, that the public will see their products in a new light," report Amirtha.

Adobe is the latest company to jump on the bandwagon, but Facebook, Planet Labs, and Autodesk all have established programs. In some of these cases the goal is not only to get the company's creative juices flowing by sheer proximity to artists, but also to get a better handle on how the firm's products are used. Both Adobe and Autodesk make software used by creative professionals, for example, so while in residence there artists report on their creative processes to help engineers design products to serve this community better.

Mutually assured innovation

A final benefit of the programs mentioned by Amirtha is specific, idea-spurring collaborations between a company's technologists and its on-site artist. She writes of Planet Labs program:

"Forest Stearns, Planet Labs' first artist-in-residence, decided to cover a constellation of the company's satellites with his artwork in 2013. But space posed a unique design constraint on Stearns: solar radiation and extreme environmental temperature shifts would melt and degrade the paint and ink he worked with, making them hazards to the delicate optical hardware in the satellites. So Stearns worked with Planet Labs' engineering team to come up with a technique that etched the artwork from Stearn's illustrated canvases onto the bodies of the satellites with lasers."

The artist-in-residency idea is probably not doable for most smaller businesses, but the principle of drawing inspiration from artistic hobbies and appreciation of art is certainly applicable by any company or person with a technical bent. "A 2008 study in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology showed that compared to other scientists, Nobel Laureates are disproportionately involved in artistic side projects and hobbies," Amirtha points out.

Perhaps something as simple as a team trip to a gallery, a talk by a local artist, or even a company-sponsored book club could help your team think more creatively.

Published on: Nov 2, 2015