Finding Success as an Artist in Technology

By BrainStation May 23, 2019

Are you an artist or creative wondering how to make things work in a fast-changing, tech-dominated world?  You’re not alone. The good news is that the increasing importance of design means there is more room for great artists in the tech world than ever before.

Lauralee Sheehan
Lauralee Sheehan

One such example is Lauralee Sheehan, the Founder and CEO of Digital 55, a creative collective that builds digital interactive products and learning experiences. A natural-born artist in a range of disciplines, she got her start in film and music before eventually transitioning into the digital space.

We sat down with Sheehan to learn more about her career journey.

BrainStation: Can you tell us more about your background leading up to the launch of your business?

Sheehan: I took my undergrad in English and began working in the tech space before ever having any formal training in the industry. I had worked in film for a couple of years (my father is in the film industry), thinking film was the only real option to be in both creative and tech, which at the time, it kind of was.

Then, I moved to the music industry. I worked at HMV and for SOCAN, and started my own record label and played in a band. I got into the digital space because, at the time, everything was evolving into digital. I taught myself video editing and digital design by creating different band assets (posters, banners, branding) and motion graphic videos, and I started learning about experience design to go with our live shows.

During those days, I started working for a non-profit doing digital design and began building digital learning products using design thinking before I even knew what it was. This was a huge moment for me in terms of working in tech but also being able to be incredibly creative and essentially carving out a new career path.

How did you start your own company?

I had always been that person that started small businesses on the side even when I had a “day job.” I had my own record label, started a lifestyle brand, and eventually founded my digital agency, building up my client roster through smaller freelance projects. I always had this inkling that I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Eventually, I had been working at a digital learning agency, but I didn’t feel that the amount of thought and creativity that went into the products was being valued by leadership, and the importance of the intersection between creative and tech was understood.

They ended up going bankrupt and during that process, I knew it was my moment. I knew that I was onto something. I got pushed off the cliff, in a sense, but I had built up so much confidence in my work and my creative approach to digital and how valuable it was.

Many clients followed me as I moved Digital 55 into full-time operations, so it was kind of a launching pad for me to jump 100 percent into entrepreneurship. It’s been one year now of full-time operations and I have worked with about 15 clients from major companies, including government agencies, not-for-profits, and private companies.

How has your art background helped you in your career?

It has been critical. When I was going to school, art was a weird thing to be in, but it has truly defined my whole digital career.

Lauralee Sheehan
Lauralee Sheehan

I’m able to think about things differently. I am more exploratory; it’s a part of my whole mindset. I’m a bit of a rebel and having an artistic background helps you stand out from the crowd. Technical skills can often be learned but not everybody has that creative lens. You can take that unique perspective and run with it.

There are creative ways to think about digital that differentiates you from others and it can make the difference between you and someone else who can do the same thing, but not at that sophisticated and conceptual level. You can give clients something special that sets you apart from the crowd.

More and more, people are turning to artistic approaches in business. It’s becoming more and more valuable: more collaboration, more iteration, and more agile, which is new and super important from a strategic level.

So when your parents tell you not to get an art degree: it’s not true anymore!

What is the difference between art and design?

Historically, design was always at the end of projects to make things look cool, but there is so much thinking that goes into the concept, product, or experience. How can you tie those together?

It’s not just a color palette, not just about making things look “pretty”, but visualizing and designing a whole experience. To be able to put together concepts, design content, and think about things creatively — that’s where design is going now. There used to be a static way that people thought about design and creative. Now, there is so much depth when you talk about designing something.

Design thinking, for instance, is an approach that helps create depth of experience. It is human-centered and involves solving problems and thinking about how someone is going to feel and interact with content in a meaningful way. You have to remove yourself from it. It means doing research, discovery, concepting, iterating, beta, etc. and thinking about collaboration, strategy, and deployment. So, an artist may be stronger and more comfortable working within that model and integrating new thinking into a project, be it design, tech, or business.

What roles are available to artists now?

There are so many cool and interesting roles now, like designing for sustainability, content design, service design, immersive reality. There is creative direction or art direction across the board. Design has changed how technical you have to be. There are so many different ways to get involved in the concept or the product depending on what interests you.

A big one is graphic and visual design, which is always a part of every project. The skills you gain from graphic design can be transferred to work in motion graphics, interactive design, and user experience, which is a highly in-demand field that includes all aspects of a user’s interaction with a company, product, or digital experience.

What advice would you give to young artists in terms of breaking into the field and finding work in tech?

Network. This can be hard and doesn’t always seem helpful in the moment, but is really, really important.

Iterate on your portfolio and online presence constantly.

Advocate for yourself in a meaningful way (especially women!). If you think you should get a raise or title change or want to secure that new client, make sure to highlight the value you are bringing to the table. Do some research on the industry and pull stats, data, and qualitative stories that speak to the valuation you bring.

And most importantly:

Learn as much as you can. Invest in your learning, your expertise, and perspective. Try to think of everything as a learning experience. Even if you see a film for fun, that is a learning experience when thinking about design, how to tell stories, or how to create an experience.