What art taught me about business

What art taught me about business


Back in 2010, I attended a Sculpture Marathon at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture. I worked hard at the studio into the night without any goals – I simply wanted to understand art. My teacher Bruce Gagnier was a skillful master who knew how to penetrate a student’s consciousness. And he so influenced mine that what I learnt continues to impact my work years later, beyond the studio and into the business world.

Here’s what I learnt.

Think Plasticity. Plastic consciousness in art is the ability to see depth and perspective – not the flattened images that we think they should be. For example, when we see a table, we never ever see a rectangular structure but our mind keeps telling us it’s one. What we actually see is a more angular, elongated structure with disproportionate edges based on where we are standing. Study Van Gogh’s classic Bedroom in Arles – why does the bed look monstrously bigger than the chair? Our mind will tell us that this is stupid. But in reality this is how Van Gogh’s eyes must’ve seen from where he was sitting.

Just like our computers, we are over-educated. Plastic consciousness – for business purposes, let’s call it seeing things as they are, is a very primitive skill but we seem to have lost it during our evolution.

The idea is to learn to observe what’s in front of us without the damage of our educated minds.

Space is a dialogue. In painting, an object is formed not just by itself but by the space around it. Space is the dialogue between two objects. The environment pushes and shapes the object and the object changes the environment forever.

In business, we can work all we want to sell the hard way. But we can also pause and change the environment surrounding the sale. Simply making the space around the object more conducive to buying will change the perspective of the object that’s itching to be sold.

Change your clay if you have to. I worked for hours one day on a bust of clay. Bruce quietly came from behind and crushed it with a plank of wood. I was annoyed, though I suppressed it (you really can’t get upset with Bruce). He said, you can’t build a sculpture with this kind of clay for how many ever hours you try – change the clay.

We sometimes struggle with the wrong clay in our teams, with our tools. Sometimes, it’s best to accept that our clay is of the wrong kind and simply change it.

Don’t fake it. There was this other time when I vigorously squeezed my clay around creating what – I really don’t know. Bruce walked with hands behind his back and said, don’t fake it. Then he continued, do it for the right reasons – the art itself is what matters, the rest is BS.

We sometimes struggle for the wrong reasons – there’s the career, the position, the politics, the ego, the car, the mortgage, the network, the net worth. None of that really is work. Don’t fake it. Work itself is the reason – everything else is well BS.

Always be in sketch mode. We are always in a hurry to finish up. When we finish something that’s what it is – finished. In Regenesis, the authors write that our genome is older than our oldest ancestor and yet fresher than a newborn baby and has covered the planet with descendants a billion times a billion times a billion over (10^27). Nature never finishes up – it’s always in sketch mode. Cells routinely die everyday to create new cells.

The only work I did that Bruce ever liked was what I thought was completely incomplete. He said, always be in sketch mode. In product development, we always aim for completion. We need to ship. We are interested in the other things that follow shipping. But sketch-mode allows us to get the fundamental form right. And when we know that we’ll never finish, we’ll be a little humble about what our product can do because there will always be more to do.

There are no morals. There are are no morals in art. There’s no right art or wrong art. What’s right for someone is wrong for another. It’s the same with product design. If we ignore everyone else’s morals and simply focus on our own then we have some chance of creating something unique that will achieve its moment of truth. Not from someone else’s point of view and not even from your rational brain’s point of view but something deeper for which we require no justification.

When we build things this way, it’s more truthful, more correct and it creates harmony inside and some how others will also perceive this congruity.


After the Studio school, I seem to toggle between two primary states of existence – interesting and boring. A business or a product or job or work of art can be either interesting or boring. Anything interesting has some chance of a truthful existence. Everything else is…well, a compromise.

Originally published on LinkedIn,  by Praveen Suthrum, President & Co-Founder, NextServices. 

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