I recently listened to Kitchen Confidential as read by the author, Anthony Bourdain. One thing that really resonated with me was Bourdain’s obsessive focus on production at various scales, from the home cook to the line cook able to get through a thousand meals on a busy night. On one end is art and everyone likes art, on the other is an industrial process to create something approximating art. What I found magical about the book is that Bourdain found art in the industrial process. This struck me as an analog for design and why I gravitated toward Product Management.
My first office job was in graphic design. I interned at a proposal center at a large government integrator (DC...). My first day, the woman who ran the department gave me a hard time about wearing a tie (DC!?). As a little budding artist, I thought I’d found my people.
My boss’s office was covered in the most amazing hand drawings, lithographs, and paintings. Hundreds of pages of study, landscapes, objects in motion. I’d won a few awards for my graphic work and, though my job was the height of tedium, thought, “Here is a man who will appreciate my fine art portfolio.”
I showed him a video from my portfolio Zip disk, lovingly set to In Circles by Sunny Day Real Estate, and waited.
“Wow!” He said, sitting back with a huge smile on his face. “This is really incredible work, Drew.”
“THANK YOU! That means so much to—“
“Do you want to do this or do you want to make money?”
“Huh?” My heart was now somewhere in my shoes, waiting to see what he would say next before diving further.
“You can make art. Maybe you’ll gain some notoriety, be really famous one day—after you’re dead.” This actually got a lot more graphic with descriptions of basement flop houses in New York and at least one reference that sounded like he’d been friends with Keith Haring. “... or you can be a graphic designer. Have a house in the suburbs, a family, a nice life.”
I was 17. This was pretty devastating.
This was before Jobs’s return, design wasn't really well respected or paid at that point. Walking out of his office, my spiteful little inner voice vowed, “If I'm going to sell out, I'm gonna get a Computer Science degree.” I did and that was the last time I was a paid designer.
Now, many years later, I build and run Design teams as a Product leader. My perspective on design had changed completely, as did the meaning I took from my boss’s advice. I now know happy artists, but more importantly that design isn’t art and teams made up of all artists don’t deliver.
“Art” as delivered through design is a million tiny touches from many hands. Design is enhanced by the constant improvement of the process which produces that work. A design artist delivers work as good as the process will allow and also leads improvement of the process to deliver even better work in the future.
Art is a noun, design is a verb.
I never lost my love of art, but learned to love the industrial process of Design and eventually of Engineering, Sales, Finance, Marketing, ..., and to find creative fulfillment in helping them work better. This is where I felt kinship with Bourdain, who loved food, but elevated the kitchen itself.
ProductBridge helps founders scale their art every day. If this sounds like what you need contact us here or email email@example.com.