In becoming an artist, you develop a signature style: a way of creating a photograph that identifies it as yours. A viewer looks at a photograph and concludes, “yes, this is Jonah’s work.” It’s like a fingerprint.
Apparently, this signature style, also transferred at work, to my spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations.
“I want this to be clearer. Can you do Jonah’s style?”
And the person would then come by my office and ask, “Jonah, how do I make this better?”
About two years ago, I started giving a talk on How to Improve Spreadsheets Using Art Principles. I’ve given this talk several times now and people are always fascinated. “It’s a revelation!” one recent participant exclaimed.
Just the other day, a colleague asked if I can give the talk in July. “We want to understand the thought process on how you create spreadsheets. It’s not so much the formulas or the analysis part, but how you put it together so that people understand?”
It’s actually quite cool when I think about it: an unrelated and unanticipated benefit of art school. Who would have thought?
I’m just now backtracking how this happened (one of the purposes of this blog). What part of the art education was useful for my day job? Definitely a major part of it is knowing the building blocks of art: dot, line, shape, color, texture, line, shape, form, and space. There’s also the principles of design like balance, harmony, unity contrast, emphasis, repetition, proportion, perspective rhythm, movement.
That’s what I want to share with you. The more I work with this artist mindset, the more I’m convinced that you don’t have to be an actual artist to think like one at work.
Will it make your work better? Yes, I think so. But be ready though. Most of the time people will not really notice the difference. And that’s ok since -you- know there is a difference. That’s the most important thing anyways - that you know. People will not notice until they face a really bad spreadsheet or powerpoint presentation, where they can’t understand what is being presented. They will then say, “I don’t understand this. Can you do Jonah’s style?”
When this happens, the first words out of your mouth should not be “well it’s because of art principles.” First, people are always skeptical of art. They think it’s background, extraneous and fluff. When in fact, art is really about capturing the essence of something (yes, even the data in a spreadsheet). So it’s about reducing things to its truest form.
So back to signature style. That’s the art word to impress your artist boyfriend.
Quick what’s Ansel Adams’ signature style?
His signature style is exquisite printing of black and white landscape images of the American West. He invented the Zone system: a way of adjusting contrast in a print from the deepest blacks to the whitest whites of images—making the resulting prints have more depth and clarity. I saw actual prints a long time ago at the Christie’s auction house (where the starting bid for one Ansel Adams print was 100K). His images are something to behold. You can see a slideshow of his images here.
Quick what’s Damien Hirst’s signature style?
Monumental, controversial, and in-your-face works exploring themes like death. He was just in the news recently with his sunken treasure work at the Venice Biennale.
So the next time you’re at a gallery, art show, or museum, use the word “signature style” in conversation while looking at an artist’s work.
“What is his signature style?”
“Does he have a signature style?”
And watch your artist boyfriend smile and think, “Hmm, where did he learn that from?”