Over the past few years, I’ve studied a field known as arts entrepreneurship. What this means is that I’ve been studying how people perceive and value art, and learned how to start and maintain an effective business in the arts sphere. These practices result in a different business mentality than what I’ve been used to working in technology, and learning how the arts economy works has been incredibly valuable. Over time, I’ve been thinking about how these practices can be applied to the tech industry to let innovative products succeed where traditional business practices would fail.
(A quick side note: When I mention to others that I want to merge the technology and art industries, many people think I’m just referring to industrial design. What I’m talking about isn’t the idea of just bringing more aesthetic value into how products look – it’s about the way you market the product, the way people use it, and the way the value of an item is perceived. It’s more about creative direction and properly manifesting a vision/idea than it is about just creating an item.)
One of the lessons I’ve learned about these two economic spheres is how a product’s value is perceived by the mass market. In both industries, there are two broad categories of target markets: creators and consumers. In art, the creators are the artists themselves, and the consumers are the people who purchase works of art. In technology, software developers largely fill the role of creators, and everybody else who utilizes technology as an end user is a consumer. The arts market generally produces entirely separate products for creators and consumers, while in technology, facets of the same product are presented to the two groups in different ways.
If we look at the creators in both categories, we can see how products are presented differently in each sphere. Products marketed to artists are always presented as a vector through which they can create their art, rather than simply something to play with and try out. This mentality is most obvious in visual art, as the packaging and advertising for products visual artists use are always populated by other pieces of visual art, with less of a focus on the tool itself. In some other arts, the distinction is less apparent (particularly with music, as the end result of a product can be harder to convey without audio), but if you look carefully you can still see these practices taking place in most artistic products.
In technology, the specs of a product are most always presented front and center, and there’s a much clearer mentality of purchasing something to “tinker with” rather than having a clear end goal in mind. Rather than viewing the product as something which serves a clear purpose, tech gadgets are often presented as a collection of cool features with an open platform for development, asking the community of creators to help define an explicit use case for the product rather than portraying a use case front and center.
Now, let’s look at the end consumers for both economies. In the arts, the end product isn’t often a utilitarian item: in other words, people normally don’t go out looking for a painting with a very specific size, color balance, or brush technique (interior designers aside, of course). Instead, sales normally happen when a work’s aesthetic value resonates with someone in the right way, and they decide that they want it. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but there is a very defined contrast in buying patterns when it comes to pieces of art against technology products.
In the tech world, every end product is bought to fill a need. Cell phones are looking to be the fastest and have the longest battery, laptops need to be compact and powerful work stations, and even watches now battle to provide the most relevant information for the best price and form factor. It’s very rare for someone to see a product in passing that they don’t need, and instantly purchase it because it struck them in just the right way. That may be because technology often exists at a higher price point than (popular) art, but it still stands that technological purchases are almost always heavily premeditated and need-based consumer decisions predicated on a heavy weighting of competing options.
Why does this distinction matter? Two words: disruptive technologies.
When innovative products emerge, there often isn’t a predefined use case for them, however revolutionary they may be. Historically, incremental disruptions have taken hold because their manufacturers found a niche use case for them through which they could continue to grow and develop the product until it could meet the needs of a mass market. However, in consumer markets, it’s very difficult to find these niche users and adequately meet their needs when they are set in using their older, more proven technologies that may share much of the same functionality. For this reason, companies with these technologies can greatly benefit from leveraging an artistic/aesthetic method of marketing and positioning their products. Though I hate to fall back on Apple as an example, they have successfully leveraged this thinking multiple times, introducing disruptive products such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, or pretty much anything that begins with a lowercase “i.”
This is just one of the many ways that technology can learn from art. The economies associated with each product class are starkly different, and there are many more lessons that technology could learn from the art world, particularly when it comes to introducing new and innovative products. By merging these two mentalities, we can help to create a world where emerging technologies can let people accomplish consistently greater feats.