By J.D. Booth
Jan. 31, 2013
At least one artist, decidedly uninspired by what’s on the walls of America’s places of business, is doing more than complaining about what might be described as a bland landscape when it comes to inspiring great work.
Indeed, Hugh MacLeod, creator of gapingvoid.com is busy helping to create environments where workers can be exposed to quite the opposite of uninspired.
The artist/cartoonist, who was born in Boston but considers himself half-Texan, half-Scottish, began a career drawing as a student at the University of Texas, a time where he also did a stint as a cartoonist for the Austin Chronicle.
Today he has quite a story, one that has seen “plastic” and eschewed it in the best way he knows how-replacing it with art that jumpstarts conversations, generates debate, and yes, inspires.
MacLeod is the creative side of an art-focused business he and partner Jason Korman continue to run in an effort to change the world, at least when it comes to business art.
But first a little background.
Having graduated from the University of Texas, MacLeod headed to Chicago, “padding around” the advertising world and, in his own words, “not being very successful.”
What beckoned was New York City, arguably (or at least in 1997) the advertising capital of the world.
Between then and 2001, when MacLeod moved back to his native U.K. (his father is Scottish, his mother from Boston), the artist began drawing cartoons on the back of business cards, the idea being “to convey my existential New York experience.”
In the U.K., he became one of the first cartoon bloggers, using what was then an entirely new media to “hawk myself out to the marketing consultants.”
Just being able to articulate the business imperative of putting food on the table and a roof over his head seems almost counter to how others might envision the “starving artist” mentality, but MacLeod seems to be able to stride the two worlds with aplomb.
In fact, he might just be out to create an entirely new world, one where the inspiration engendered by his art actually makes a difference in conversation, thinking and subsequent action-and that people making money is very much an OK thing.
It’s a concept that sits quite nicely with MacLeod, who is able to command hundreds for original prints of his work and thousands for original commissions.
Yet he also sees his work as fulfilling a mission.
“It’s a mission to bring new light to where life is,” he says.
But like the movie stars who are able to climb up to top dollar on the list of casting directors, getting to that point in MacLeod’s career hasn’t necessarily been like the express elevator in office towers where his beguiling work is displayed for employees to muse upon.
He admits that at least in the beginning of his career, especially in New York where he would doodle on those business cards, one of the inspirations for his art was the “existential angst-those uneasy things in people’s lives.”
Korman connected with MacLeod in 2004 while both were in the U.K.
“It was often stuff that was funny, ironic, and about universal truth,” says Korman, referring to one cartoon that’s tagged: “We need to talk. After that, you need to shut up.”
Thought provoking? Disruptive? Oh yeah.
MacLeod describes himself as an evangelist for the media he’s embraced, with some of his converts being the Fortune 500 companies like Dell, Intel, Hewlett Packard and VW where his art does more than “make pretty” on corporate walls.
Again, the mention of existential angst.
“What if I fail or die? Fear and dread. It’s at the heart of a lot of businesses, where circumventing that fear is important,” says MacLeod, whose disdain for anything “plastic” comes through loud and clear.
“I try to make the language of business a wee bit more human and intense,” he adds, at least a hint of a Scottish brogue sneaking into the conversation. “We aren’t plastic at the end of the day.”
When Korman and MacLeod got together, it was in the context of the wine business and the two began having “a completely new kind of conversation about wine.”
Putting together a series of self-organized dinners, the two were something akin to pioneers in a particular form of social media.
Korman had been devouring blogs at the time and says he could see the quantum shift in communication, a wave that gapingvoid began to ride in the period between 2005-7, when the blog was typically among the top 100 blogs online.
“We began gaining a huge corporate following,” says Korman. “There were lots of requests, and lots of commission work.”
Today, MacLeod appears to be unspoiled with the very much-wanted attention, something he didn’t necessarily set out to attract. Still, he’s nonetheless appreciative.
One example: a last day of the year e-mail to the roughly 48,000 subscribers of his gapingvoid blog, gently invited them to “spread the word.”
“Whatever our respective walks of life, we are all bound together by some common beliefs about human potential and making the impossible, possible. In 2013, I would like to grow and bring us together in new and different ways,” wrote MacLeod.
Even as MacLeod and Korman progressively grow their presence in the world of business art, they acknowledge the challenges a distinctly different approach is bound to generate.
“To start with, it’s because the style is different,” says Korman. “It’s not the expected manner of communication with companies, the conservative, marketing guy approach. And some see that as risky.”
MacLeod says just the opposite is true.
“The real risk is doing the same thing as everyone else is doing, spending your money and not getting anything back from it.”
But when MacLeod is able to have people “get it,” amazing things begin to happen.
“Someone will say, ‘I didn’t realize you could do that,’ referring to a brainstorming session of thought provoking process, it shows the ultimate power of the work.”
The art is also something of a slow burn.
“Someone told me it doesn’t always immediately hit him,” says MacLeod. “But when it does, it’s like a time bomb.”
The gapingvoid.com partners do acknowledge that not all uses of the art are “authorized,” although the firm has adopted a Creative Commons license that permits non-commercial use.
“If you’re at home, you can print it out and stick it on your desk,” says Korman.
At the same time, they say that with popularity comes the risk that not everyone is going to want to reward the artist for his work.
“We know there are about 25,000 presentations out there with our stuff in them,” notes Korman. “And we get about 200 requests a year.”
Continuing the conversation
MacLeod is doing more about changing the world of business than simply (if it can be called simply) drawing some of the most striking visual statements.
He’s also contributing to a series of ongoing conversations, perhaps piggybacking on thoughts about creativity and how it integrates with life.
Consider for example the “HughTrain Manifesto,” thoughts from the cartoonist on life, marketing that might best be described as “thought starters.”
One example: “All products are conversations.”
Both MacLeod and Korman are determined to keep the ball rolling as interest in the work grows.
One example of the popularity of gapingvoid and MacLeod in particular has come from Mass.-based Babson College, an independent not-for-profit school that focuses on entrepreneurship. Babson created a partnership with the artist after President Lou Schlesinger “discovered” MacLeod’s work online.
“The cartoons make statements, spark conversations, and inspire action. They help us communicate our belief in the power of entrepreneurship in organizations of all shapes and sizes,” says Schlesinger.
And then there’s the story of the Blue Monster, which MacLeod created for some Microsoft employees he’d met while in the U.K.
In something of an “underground” effort, an unnamed Microsoft manager there adopted the Blue Monster creation, to the point where a “reserve” run of white wine began generating something of a viral campaign to breathe life into a workforce that didn’t always feel appreciated.
Perhaps predictably, “the brand police shut it down,” notes Korman.
But that hasn’t stopped gapingvoid from continuing to stir things up in the corporate world.
And with the challenges Microsoft seems to be having lately among European Union investigators, the Blue Monster might make something of resurgence after all.
“It’s a weird and wonderful thing,” says MacLeod. “You never know where it’s going to wind up.”