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the creativity gap

Robert Dimitrieff uses techniques he learned studying sculpture and fine art as vice-president and general manager of Niagara Energy Products, a company that makes containers for nuclear fuel. He is seen here in the company's warehouse, with the inner liners of unfinished dry storage containers for spent nuclear fuel.Sheryl Nadler

The image of an artist slaving at a desk or on an assembly line inevitably invokes two words: day job. We think of Tom Thomson sweating away his days in front of an iron foundry furnace instead of creating his haunting paintings of Algonquin Park. Or post-impressionist Henri Rousseau punching the clock as a tax collector.

But is an artist in the office simply one of life's small cruelties? Not necessarily. In fact, businesses looking to become innovators might even consider hiring an MFA instead of an MBA.

Robert Dimitrieff is the vice-president and general manager of Ontario-based Niagara Energy Products, which makes customized components for the energy and petro-chemical sectors around the world. Mr. Dimitrieff is also an amateur pilot, a former artillery gunner with the Canadian Forces Reserves and, yes, a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

In art school, he created large installation sculptures in Halifax and Christchurch, New Zealand, casting his creations in aluminum and bronze and honing his steel welding skills. As a business leader, though, he says the most formative aspect of his NSCAD education was the studio critique.

"All of the courses in theory and technical skill were less important than having my finished work critiqued on a regular basis by my peers and faculty," says Mr. Dimitrieff, who also has an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. At NSCAD, he recalls having to learn how to receive "harsh and difficult criticism" of artwork that he'd spent hundreds of hours crafting.

He learned how to dish it out, too. "And then we'd all have to use those critiques to improve our work and make our practices stronger. It helped me to learn to separate myself from my work, and to not let ego get in the way of perfecting the work itself – and I've found that in business this is a skill that is not as common as one might think."

He tries to bring that studio critique environment to Niagara Energy, where he encourages collective debate on new ideas and concepts.

Mr. Dimitrieff says he'll toil over an idea for, say, pipe fittings for a nuclear reactor. He'll draw sketches. He'll build models. Whatever it takes "to make the idea or solution as perfect as I can." As soon as he shares this precious darling with his management team, he issues an order: "Tell me what's wrong with this." And they do.

Knowing his ideas are going to be subjected to this critical gantlet, he says, forces him to "make a better stab at any idea I think has potential." The ideas brought to the group are stronger, and the ideas that actually survive the process are especially robust, and improved by the group input.

"The more we do this, the better my team gets at finding something wrong with the ideas," he says. "It makes everything I do better than if I were to just do it on my own."

Outside the art world, he says, people are defensive of their ideas to the point where it is difficult to improve them. "Rather than hear the criticism and using it to improve, the focus is on defending one's position at all cost."

For David Dobson, director of business development for Victoria-based StarFish Medical, art school gives him a simple business edge: "It changed the way I think."

Mr. Dobson is an alumnus of the Ontario College of Art and Design University. He's also a graduate of the Queen's University Executive Business Program. He believes his OCADU studies – he started fine art before moving into design studies – helps him bridge those two worlds by translating right-brain ideas into left-brain products.

Once a month, Mr. Dobson travels to Toronto, where he meets with researchers at universities, hospitals and places such as the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation centre.

"I deal with very, very smart people," he says. "Medical doctors, physicists, biomedical engineers. Often these very bright people have ideas that have potential use in treating some kind of illness, but they haven't figured out how to commercialize that science into a product. They might have a proof of principle model, but they haven't been able to conceptualize the design element."

The researchers have the technology, but they may not know what to do with it. That, Mr. Dobson says, is where StarFish comes in. The company's designers sit in on surgeries and procedures, thinking about where a new product could fit into the workflow, and what role it would play. The result: devices that do anything from testing the quality of prosthetic heart valves to analyzing blood platelets to killing toenail fungus using high intensity light.

"One of the benefits of a design background in business development is you know how to effectively communicate abstract information," Mr. Dobson says. "I'm not selling a physical product, I'm selling an intangible thing: I'm selling the ability for us to solve a customer's problems, which sometimes they can't even define. I have to communicate value that's not all that tangible up front.

"Going to OCAD was invaluable for teaching me how to think broadly and then funnel a lot of ideas down into a better idea, a better option for a customer."

Even the volatile automobile industry stands to benefit from a fine arts education. This spring, the Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co. Inc. announced it was no longer developing its much-ballyhooed electric car. Instead, it was concentrating on perfecting a high-performance ceramic battery. The move from auto maker to auto parts raised a few eyebrows, as did the news that ZENN had secured $2-million in new funding for this curveball.

For ZENN founder Ian Clifford, who majored in photography at NSCAD, it's all about maintaining a vision but being flexible in how you make it happen.

At age 18, Mr. Clifford apprenticed with Ansel Adams, the American environmentalist and artist famous for his black and white photographs of rugged landscapes. "He had just been exposed to digital imaging and he saw the entire world of photography changing under his feet," Mr. Clifford says. "It excited him like a child! I have tried to always bring that level of creative wonder and excitement into my work."

"Most of my business associates think I'm nuts," he adds, "but they are amused enough by me to stick with me and see things through."

Special to The Globe and Mail