Does Creativity Have an ROI?

Noah Scalin, ODU’s Strome College of Business Artist-in-Residence Thinks You Might Be Asking the Wrong Question

by Betsy DiJulio

Art and business may seem like strange bedfellows. But not if you peer between the balance sheets.

According to “The Future of Jobs Report 2023”, published by the World Economic Forum, an NGO for public-private sector collaboration based in Switzerland, creative thinking has risen in the ranks of the most critical skills for workers, earning one of the top two spots. They write:
Analytical thinking and creative thinking remain the most important skills for workers in 2023. Analytical thinking is considered a core skill by more companies than any other skill…Creative thinking, another cognitive skill, ranks second, ahead of three self-efficacy skills: resilience, flexibility and agility; motivation and self-awareness; and curiosity and lifelong learning—in recognition of the importance of workers ability to adapt to disrupted workplaces.

This comes as no surprise to artist, author, and activist Noah Scalin who last August was named the first artist-in-residence at Old Dominion University’s (ODU) Strome College of Business for the 2023-2024 academic year. After all, he has made it his life’s work to help businesses and business schools grow their creative capacity. Scalin was the inaugural artist-in-Residence at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business in 2016. Employees at a constellation of corporations with household names—think Capital One and Coca-Cola or Gap, GE, and Google—have learned through Scalin and Another Limited Rebellion, the consulting firm he co-founded with his sister Mica Scalin in 2001, that becoming more resourceful, adaptable, and resilient, even in uncertain times, are skills that can be learned.

A graduate of NYU’s Tish School of the Arts, Scalin cut his artistic teeth as Art Director for Troma Entertainment and Avirex Clothing while authoring half a dozen books and showing his internationally collected work in numerous museums and galleries, from the Mütter Museum to NYC’s Times Square and the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Noah, who largely lacked a business background, credits his sister with helping him figure out how to teach creativity in corporate spaces. With a BFA from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, Mica launched Showtime Networks’ social media strategy and was one of the first producers hired by NBC Universal Digital Studios, going on to earn certification in Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance from Rutgers University, among other accreditations.

As workers across every field are being challenged to innovate, these siblings have shaped the focus of their firm around helping individuals and businesses of all stripes, including Fortune 500 companies, get “unstuck creatively.” The message is straightforward: “Creativity is a practice, and it’s a simple process. It’s more about taking the time—even small spans of time—but taking them consistently,” says Scalin. His “creative capacity” work with the likes of bankers, software engineers, and tax professionals who, he notes, are considered more linear thinkers, “all need creativity, and are the most transformed by it.”

Borrowing from his own artistic practice, Scalin developed a series of prompts that push and challenge participants to create something new. “The Big Seven” is a free e-book of key creative leadership strategies, while “The Creative Sprint® Card Deck” is a printed set of activities and reflections designed for use with colleagues and clients that’s available for purchase.

Above: Noah Scalin with his display of Pharell Williams. Also Above: Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman to charter a bank in America. James Conway Farley, the first prominent African-American photographer in America.

Above: Noah Scalin with his display of Pharell Williams. Also Above: Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman to charter a bank in America. James Conway Farley, the first prominent African-American photographer in America.

ROI or Return on Investment is a popular profitability metric in the business world. With thousands of satisfied clients, testimonials, and case studies in Another Limited Rebellion’s profit column, people may still ask, “So what is the ROI of increasing my company’s creative capital?” While this may be a fair question, to Scalin, it’s the wrong question because, he says, “Creativity is not an extra something; it’s how you survive.” By way of demonstrating how the ROI mindset is problematic, he draws an analogy in the form of a question: how would you answer, “What is the ROI of electricity?”

At ODU, Scalin will continue the work he began in the fall throughout the spring semester. He asserts that working with students, faculty, and staff through in-person and virtual workshops, classes, and a collaborative art-making project creates varied and inspiring ways of interacting that demonstrate new perspectives for thinking about challenging problems. For Scalin, the arts represent sets of skills that allow individuals “to interact with the world in effective ways.” After all, he notes, “Art classes aren’t necessarily about creating artists, they’re about creating innovative thinkers.”

Of course, traditional business skills still maintain a critical seat at the table, but a new chair has been added for those aptitudes traditionally considered separate from the business world. “Our job,” explains Scalin, “is to convince people that they’re already creative, but that they can grow that creativity.” As Dean Kenneth Kahn puts it, “With our College’s vision being ‘in the business of problem-solving,’ it’s important that business students develop critical thinking skills, which requires looking at problems through different disciplinary lenses. An artist-in-residence helps our students to look at problems from an arts perspective, which is not usual for a business school but which is important for getting business students to think creatively and critically.”

For last semester’s art project, Scalin collaborated with members of the ODU business school community to create a temporary large scale anamorphic clothing installation in the atrium of Constant Hall. Anamorphic art requires that the viewer occupy a particular vantage point in order to see an image that is otherwise distorted, unrecognizable, or both. In this case, what appeared like a pile of discarded clothing from most points of view became a realistic portrait of Pharell Williams, a homegrown art and business phenom in the music and apparel industries, thereby teaching the value of perspective, process, and product. Once disassembled, the clothing was donated via Big Blue’s Closet to those in need of a stepped-up sartorial statement to help them gain a fashionable foot in the door as they interview for jobs in an increasingly competitive market.
On the artist side of the equation, Scalin asserts that there is much to be gained from working with businesses. In his case, not only does he earn an income traveling to destinations and encountering people he would not have otherwise, but he finds it “really satisfying to bring this (work) to people and see the lightbulb go off.”

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