The art we all hope to make

Adele. You’ve heard her, right? Evidently I live under a rock, because until last Christmas, I hadn’t. I’d heard of her. A generic celebrity out there in the pantheon. I wasn’t paying attention.

Mid-December, NBC broadcast a portion of Adele’s performance at Radio City Music Hall, her first full concert in four years. I tuned in. Lights low, Jimmy Fallon’s rousing intro, spotlight on, curtain up, and there she is. Still as a statue. No strutting, posing, dabbing, twerking. Fully clothed. A pretty smile for the audience, and then with her voice she begins moving the earth.

And I’m thinking, OMG. What are these tears doing in my eyes?

Seven billion people in the world, and there in my room I quietly become the seven billionth Adele fan.

How does this happen?

Art is a universal language and a great mystery. The musical arts, the performance arts, the visual arts speak in the language of goosebumps, tears, wonder, joy, with words or without, across time and borders. We’ve all felt it.

Story is how we experience life and share it with others, and there is no other way. Data — this storm is the third-wettest since November — is all noise and no signal, and pointless. We’re wet. Story is what matters — love, connection, the yearning of hearts. It’s why we live. It’s why we labor. It’s why we gather, and share, and dream. Story captivates, fulfills, changes us.

Adele has a special gift, of course, but she’s not otherwise different from you and me. Art and story are ours, too, if we can only find them.

Last Thursday I arrived to speak at an offsite retreat of several hundred LinkedIn marketing and communications pros, who have recently been organized into a single entity under Shannon Stubo and had flown into San Francisco from literally around the world. LinkedIn acquired Lynda.com only nine months ago, and this was my first live event, and what caught my eye immediately were the supergraphics on the mezzanine. The work of VP Nick Bartle, who arrived at LinkedIn six months ago from Apple, they’re part of the new “You’re closer than you think” campaign, which formally rolled out in a 30-second ad during the Academy Awards last Sunday night.

Evidently this is how they do things at companies the size of Apple and LinkedIn, but it was new to me; I’ve always wanted but never seen design of this caliber at a conference, much less an in-house meeting. Have a look.

Below, in the hallway (!) at the entrance to the St. Francis Hotel Grand Ballroom. The astronaut poster is at least eleven feet tall:

Five magnificent panels in the refreshment area (not even the main room!):

Outside the door to my session:

This work is exceptional, not just for its design but that it’s here at all, its sole purpose being to inspire those charged with taking the LinkedIn vision forth into the world. I ditched the first several minutes of my talk just to comment, because it embodies everything that design strives to be — beautiful, simple, clear, inspirational, and aspirational. It has the power to move you and thereby change you, and through you to change others, and through others the world.

It’s the art we all hope to make.

What’s here? Art, working. This can’t be forced but must be felt. Try coming up with marketing images for a global professional network. If you envision handshakes, flow charts, and talk bubbles, you’re thinking with your left brain, rational and controlling. The best you’ll get is a drawing and probably an argument from those who are in left brain too (“Change the blue to green, and move that line over there”).

Art happens more organically. In this case it arose from . . .

Story. NASA last year was looking for a new astronaut and had approached LinkedIn for help. LinkedIn’s data revealed that three million members — an astonishing, exciting number — met NASA’s qualifications, and the research team soon realized that millions of others qualified for similar “moonshot” opportunities in all walks of life. With LinkedIn positioned to make the connections, the idea that “you’re closer than you think” was no longer wishful thinking but obvious and true, and it became the theme.

How to picture this? Here, too, it’s easy to go all left brain and try to make things obvious for the viewer: “Three million people are qualified to be astronauts, so let LinkedIn connect you to your dream, too!” — accompanied by pictures of astronauts or doctors or whatever. But that would be trying to make art operate like words do, which it can’t. Worse, it’s a false promise — “We will do this for you.” If you have to explain the punchline, your joke’s not funny.

Instead, Bartle’s team tapped into our imagination. We’ve all dreamed of what it’s like to go into space — NASA’s brought us the pictures! Use those familiar images — real astronauts, real space hardware, the real moon. Add in a single line of type, “You’re closer than you think,” the company logo, and stop.

The result is simple, beautiful, and fantastic. Our response is visceral. Note that you have no urge to change the typeface, rearrange the layout, make the logo bigger. You totally believe what’s here. That’s design, working at a high level. It’s design, really, at its best.

Everyone wants design like this — you, the client, the audience. We all love being moved. It’s why we work. It’s what we strive for on every project. If the art is elusive, it’s because we haven’t yet found the story, haven’t connected to the truth of the thing, haven’t let it speak. We rush and push and exert control, but art doesn’t respond to that. Breathe. Release the grip. Take the time. Be authentic. Strive until you find it. Let the art work. Stop short and nothing much happens. Get there, and you move the earth.