Artists and technicians

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting


…So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove
Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.
Michael Donaghy, ‘Machines’, collected in Shibboleth (1988)

Consider the cyclist and her bicycle. Each needs the other. The bicycle can balance on its own, but only for a second. The rider can walk or run to her destination, but it’s much slower than cycling. The rider controls the bicycle, which carries the rider; they move and balance as a unit.

Although there is no one word for ‘a bike and its rider’, they clearly form a single entity. Borrowing from Zen, we might say they are ‘not two and not one’, or ‘both two and one’.

The rider and her bicycle are a good metaphor for the creative roles I call ‘artist’ and ‘technician’. The two work together to make something beautiful or effective in a particular cultural context: the artist creates, while the technician refines and develops. Real-world artist/technician pairings include writer and editor; musician and record producer; designer and creative director.

Here are some more ways to frame the contrast between them:

Artist Technician
Make new Make better
Self-expression Self-discipline
Why not? Why?
Could Should
Divergent Convergent
Lateral Literal
Blue sky Grounded
Emotion Reason
Imagine We can work it out

The artist and the technician are in contrast, but not necessarily conflict. They can’t work together unless they understand each other. Like Yin and Yang, each contains a little of the other, which helps them see.

At the extremes

Both artist and technician are essential for a successful project. With too many artists, or too much ‘art’, the project will have bags of energy but no direction. Many wonderful ideas will be had, but none will be fully honed and developed. If a way forward is found, there will be little sense of why it’s been chosen. Interactions may degenerate, either into an uncritical love-in or unreasoned bitching. The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ is a good example of this sort of enterprise.

On the other hand, if things get too technical, the project will founder for want of vision. Everything will be about improving what exists today, instead of creating for tomorrow. Detailed information and analysis will proliferate, but making a decision may seem, paradoxically, more difficult. Interactions will focus on the ‘how’ without ever considering the ‘why’. The fortunes of Apple in its dark times without Steve Jobs exemplify what happens when technicians take charge.

Fluid roles

Sometimes, artist and technician roles are very clearly pegged to jobs. For example, in advertising agencies, creative directors help to guide and mentor their (usually more junior) creatives, giving them the ‘pushback’ and encouragement they need to develop and refine their ideas.

At other times, artist and technician are fluid, with different people playing the roles at different times. For example, as a freelance writer, I might be working with a sole trader who’s never done any marketing before. Often, my first or worst creative idea is a huge step forward from where they are, so I am the artist. But because they know their business so well, they may come back with something better, which I must then critique and improve as a technician. Dancing around the problem, we swap roles on a dime as the occasion demands.

Hats for the storm

That sort of thing is OK as long as it’s fairly bounded. But things can get out of hand when more people are involved. In the process aptly termed ‘brainstorming’, everybody is free to throw out ideas, or shoot them down. Without ground rules and thick skins, it’s a recipe for hurtful, unproductive chaos.

A more thoughtful approach was proposed by Edward de Bono with his six thinking hats – particular states that we can adopt in order to develop, evaluate and refine ideas. Some of these (creativity, emotion) are clearly aligned with the artist role, while others (information, bad points judgement, good points judgement) are closer to the technician. Whether ‘worn’ by one person thinking something through or rotated around the members of a meeting, the six hats give structure and balance to the interaction between artist and technician.

How it works for me

When I’m actually writing, I do a similar ‘hat-swapping’ routine, constantly flipping between my inner writer and my inner editor. Because I’m a natural technician, I find conquering the blank page very hard. I’l do anything – Tweet, get coffee, wash up – to put off the creation of a new, empty Word document that must somehow become somebody’s website or advert.

As soon as I have some words down, I immediately start fiddling about with them, editing them into shape. Ridiculously, I’ll find myself trying to write a perfect draft, in sequence, from scratch. So I have to force myself to be divergent, getting down half-formed ideas that I can sharpen up later.

Changing venue, either by switching to pad and pencil or just starting out of the window, can be very helpful. In the same way, printing out a draft for a read-through signals a definite shift from artist to technician mode – although I still might have to switch back if what I’ve got suddenly seems inadequate.

Strengthen your weaker hand

In my view, becoming a better freelancer means developing your less-favoured side, whether artist or technician.

If you’re a natural artist, you may need to develop your skills in self-editing and self-criticism, learning to filter out weaker work. Letting go of your hard-won ideas is tough, which is why it’s summed up in the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ – but it’s essential. You also need to understand that technicians want the same thing as you – great work – but arrive at it via a different route. And you need to remember that criticism is about improving the work, not a personal attack.

If you’re a natural technician, like me, you need to give creative people the space they need to create. That means being tactful and intelligent about the timing and presentation of feedback. If required to come up with ideas, you need to remember that they don’t have to be right first time, and that success may lie on the far side of failure.

And both artists and technicians need to appreciate how much they need each other. We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do, and if we do it together, our work can only be stronger.

  • bike


22nd June 2012


Another way to look at it might be right brain v left brain thinking? Right brain is the artist in you while left brain is the technician.

12th July 2012

Tracey Dooley

Good post.

I tend to flip between being an ‘artist’ and a ‘technician’, depending on the subject matter and the weather (I seem to be more creative when it’s sunny “” don’t know why; extra endorphin release?!).

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