There's a fine art to teaching the business

March 8, 2002

It's tough getting art students excited about profit-and-loss accounts, but one day they'll thank you, says Jo Andrews.

Since I gave birth for the first time 19 years ago, the mysteries of nature-versus-nurture arguments have fascinated me. Would our son take after his father, whose passions embraced music and literature, or would my social science genes (economists, accountants and lawyers) be more evident?

As it happened, and quite rightly so, he had an agenda all of his own. From as early as his pre-school years, the ambience of art galleries and theatres mesmerised him. He relentlessly pursued art and drama throughout his school career. For him, the world could be divided quite simply into two distinct categories - artists and "everyone else". He could not understand how I (or indeed anyone) could lecture on anything as unexciting as business and management, while I berated myself for my inability to cast an informed opinion of his creative work.

"What do you think of this?" would be the greeting on my return from work. The combination of an untutored, uncritical eye and a sizeable helping of maternal prejudice meant that everything he and his brother produced was terrific. "It's terrific," I replied.

"You can't possibly know," was the humorous retort. "You know nothing about art."

It was the harsh realities of motherhood (rather than anything studied on my certificate of education) that partly prepared me for the culture shock accompanying my move from the business school to the faculty of art and design. The Birmingham Institute of Art and Design has always considered itself as being at the vanguard of developments across the spectrum of its subject specialisms. Injecting business modules to complement many of its artistic courses precisely indicated to the outside world that the faculty was aware of, and responsive to, its needs.

I pride myself on having an ability to take the mystique out of a subject rather than to confuse issues further, and it was with this self-confidence that I faced the art and design students for their first business lecture.

"We don't need to know about business," declared a youth with green hair and extensive body piercing. "We're artists."

He went on to explain (as my eldest son had done before) that cash-flow statements, profit-and-loss accounts, budgets, strategic plans and balance sheets were words with no place in the artistic vocabulary.

In short, they represented everything "anti-art" - they were stifling, restrictive and inhibited self-expression.

"We should look at business planning," I suggested. "Many of you will set up in business on your own in the future, and you may need financial backing." We then embarked on a journey through business proposals, venture profiling, visual identity and market analysis and orientation. At every stage it had to be relevant to the world of art and design and, above all, pleasing to the eye.

The learning curve for me was very steep. But the more I moved towards understanding the psyche of these creative minds, the easier I found it to straddle the business and art disciplines.

There is much truth in pictures painting 1,000 words, and the illustrations, logos and typographical work that accompanied the business plans I took home to mark were, indeed, a joy to behold. Industry and commerce could learn a lot from this, I thought. I must pass this tip on.

Some time later, as I snatched a moment to view an exhibition at the school of jewellery, there was a tap on my shoulder. "Mrs Andrews?" It was a young man from my course. "I have just completed some work experience, and I had to produce a plan for a new business venture. I now understand why we had to study it, thank you."

I was startled and delighted. "It's difficult to make certain subjects inspiring," I commented, but he seemed pleased. "No really," he insisted. "I can now see why I have to appreciate the constraints I will face. We were given strict deadlines and budgets."

His words once again reminded me of why it was that I chose teaching as a career.

Jo Andrews is the course director for the management design and communication degree at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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