Innovation Through Art

By: Dennis Smith

There are lots of books available on innovation. There are formalized processes and approaches. Training classes. Many, many things to ‘prime the mind’ to a state of innovation. Is that all? Is that the only route to being innovative at work, and really, the underlying notion of being creative?

In my day-to-day work I am fortunate to focus on innovation efforts. Sometimes the work is about process. Sometimes it’s about project management of that process. But luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to be creative.

I grew up with a healthy influence of art in my life. Generally speaking quite a few family members are quite talented at a few different mediums. This certainly informed my choices to pursue art then, as well as now, as a hobby.

The hobby got put to the side given demands of work, family and other hobbies like running. But a few years ago I rediscovered the joy of painting. What started as an opportunity to spend some quiet time in the evening has spread into an on-going opportunity to challenge myself, learn, take chances and ultimately increase the quality of my work – especially in regards to attempting to be innovative.

How so? What I’ve found, through my art are some key things:

  • Creativity has no limit – not a set amount, not finite. I don’t get exhausted composing new pieces to paint and working those pieces.
  • A painting is never done – it just gets abandoned. Someone told me that is a Picasso quote. Not sure if that’s true, but the message is.
  • Things never work out like you think they will – slight variation in brushes, paints, surfaces – those things have ripple effects on the outcome. Sometimes good, sometimes bad – but something new happens
Not into painting? Try sketching. Here's a quick sketch I did on a flight to San Diego (where I got to see Athena West 8.0!)

Not into painting? Try sketching. Here’s a quick sketch I did on a flight to San Diego (where I got to see Athena West 8.0!)

So what does this mean for my work? How does it apply? Does it?

Yes – my return to art has opened the aperture on what I see as possible. Why? How did that come about?

  • I’m much more willing to take chances – I dove back into art with faint memories of the tools, the techniques, etc. But I didn’t care – this was just a hobby, for me, on my own terms. So I start from that basis and just ‘go for it’ not worried about outcome. Along with that attitude I also post everything I do – good, bad, indifferent – on Facebook. I open up to a wider audience. Sure I get some off the obligatory likes and encouraging comments. But I also get some good reactions – especially over time as some of my FB friends have recognized I’m not looking for validation, rather I’m looking to share my art and let them react as they want. This is risky. It can bruise the ego (but for the most part is has been encouraging).
  • Every opportunity at work presents an opportunity to grow in my craft. This is the same as art. I have learned that sketching a subject ten times, painting it three times, etc. will result in variations in the product. The quality goes up with those iterations. It certainly creates an appreciation for iteration and adaptation. But it also creates a thread I can trace backwards – to see where improvements occurred, where the ‘a-ha’ moments were found, where a realization of what isn’t working presented itself.
  • I’m free of the ideas and product – in short I’m completely comfortable tossing a piece in the fire. For one thing I have produced so much art work that it needs to go somewhere! But seriously, I don’t marry myself to any one piece, regardless of time and effort. Practice over time lets me move on to something else much more easily – recognizing the quality of a piece isn’t a reflection of the quality of me is important. Super important for being secure and self-aware (both of potential and limitations).

Overall I’d strongly encourage pursuit of an art – it could be painting, sculpting, woodwork, quilting and on and on. But find some outlet for creative expression – you won’t run out of creative energy and that endless expenditure will build confidence in other ideas as well as your presentation of them.

Dennis Smith is a member of the Design Thinking Corps at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. His background is in User Experience Design.

There are loads of Athena Events coming up! If you’re in the San Diego, Groton or Yokosuka areas, connect with us if you want to be a part of our upcoming events! Connect with us on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s