A Business Degree for Designers

In recent years, a handful of new programs have been launched that meld the worlds of art and business. The two have a lot to learn from each other

"My son, my son," wrote Paul Cezanne's father, a banker, to his painter son, "think of the future. One dies with genius, and one eats with money.&qquot; Bridging the gap between creativity and business sense is no easier today than 150 years ago. But a growing number of independent art schools are making a welcome stab at it. These schools recently have begun offering business degrees, at the undergraduate and master's levels, for students seeking to work in corporate management.

For instance, both the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Fla. (since 2008) and Parsons the New School for Design in New York City (since 2004) offer four-year undergraduate degree programs in design and management. The programs take a mix of liberal arts, studio art, and business courses (including accounting, economics, finance, marketing, psychology of marketing, statistics, strategic planning, and entrepreneurship) towards a Bachelor of Arts degree that will put them in a position to manage a design firm, work as an administrator at a museum, or find employment in the for-profit realm.

Most other art school business degree programs are at the master's level (California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Pratt Institute in New York City, Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago). These programs are aimed primarily at designers who have hit a job ceiling at their current companies. They seek to be hired in upper-level positions or become more successful in their current roles, but they need to be able to articulate the value of their skills in a way that management can understand.

In large measure, these are the messages designers are seeking to communicate: Innovation and creativity need to be incorporated into every aspect of business rather than isolated from key decision-making; design is not just a picture of something to be made or something that is purely tactical (a logo, for instance), but an integral part of a long-term strategy that needs to be integrated into overall planning.

Expanding the Definition of Design

What these new programs are emphasizing is that design has a broader meaning than is traditionally understood. For example, students at the dual-degree Master of Design/MBA program of the Illinois Institute of Technology design not just the waiting room at a hospital but the intake process and the "emotional experience of being in a hospital,&qquot; according to a school spokesperson. Design thinking evaluates the context in which design decisions affect products and services used by consumers.

It has been difficult for designers to convince their peers in management that they have something to offer, because in the past they have lacked an understanding of the language, processes, and concerns of their business peers. These new programs are endowing designers with these tools.

These art school business programs also have grown out of the recognition that people with only business backgrounds don't understand how to work with creative types. Artists, for example, don't always work in a linear fashion, they don't want to send e-mails to people down the hall, and they may not understand that every day past deadline means losing money.

For artists, managers and management are just as mysterious. Artists are generally unschooled in how to manage an organization. In the design and entertainment fields, the result is that corporations and artists are often butting heads—a left brain vs. right brain thing. A manager who understands both worlds is more likely to understand the value of a well-run business while providing artists freedom and a flexible environment.

Distinguishing these art school programs from business programs taught at other colleges and universities is a studio-based learning environment. In the art school programs, students often work in teams, rather than individually, and their papers are not simply handed in and graded—as they might be in a traditional business school—but discussed and evaluated in a class critique.

That's the way students in, say, painting classes at art schools are assessed, and it is closer to how people actually work in the corporate sphere. Designers, artists, and architects learn to handle criticism as a way to improve their work, while those who have never had this experience tend to view constructive comments as negative feedback. Artists and designers learn to go into the process knowing that their work won't be—and can't be—perfect the first time. This is a process that leads to better innovation.

Additionally, art schools take a more hands-on approach—making and doing on three dimensions—than is often the case at traditional business schools, where students create plans using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Art school business students also learn computer applications, but they also are able to build prototypes of their solutions in more innovative ways than PowerPoint decks.

The ideal graduate of these art school business degree programs can think visually and communicate in the language of business. Monsieur Cezanne, your son may now live as a genius—and eat with money.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on artist career development including The Business of Being an Artist. He has written for various periodicals, including ARTnews, American Artist, Barron's, and The Wall Street Journal.

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