Unlike every other class in high school, I remember art class being completely self-directed. Yes, in English I could choose which book I wrote a 3-page report on and in History I could choose whether or not I paid attention at all, but it was art where I felt I could wholly and completely pursue my interests. The medium, subject matter, and technique were all up to me. With one caveat – I had to write a proposal and Mrs. Topdahl needed to approve it.
The proposal had to include a brief description of the project, a timeline, and 3 goals and their corresponding measures of success. These were the metrics determining my grade. The goals were frequently things I continually struggled with: improved use of color, improved craftsmanship, more accurate depictions of human figures. As a teenager, I’m sure I wrote in some softballs from time to time. Mrs. Topdahl knew if I wasn’t challenging myself, reject the proposal, and send me back to re-write it. I remember spending entire class periods working on proposals. Once the proposal was approved, I’d get to work acquiring materials and scheduling milestones. We’d have check-ins throughout the defined timeline to discuss project status, which aspects of the project were working and which I needed help with. But mostly, from acquiring project materials through to final presentation, I’d work autonomously towards the defined goals.
While the proposals defined what a successful end state looked like, they never defined exactly how to arrive there. There was still plenty of room to explore the heart of the project and discover something both delightfully significant and significantly delightful. This is still art after all. Not every project was a resounding success. Some were complete messes.
Either way, by the next class period, I was drafting another proposal.
That was nearly a quarter century ago.
Before I drafted the proposal for a design internship.
Before I earned a BFA.
Before I went out on my own.
Before I read anything by Alan Weiss.
Looking back on the hundreds of professional projects I’ve worked on, the successful ones have 3 things in common:
- The client and I partnered in outlining the project’s goals, agreed on the proposal, then I worked autonomously.
- Determining how to achieve the goals was up to my experience and expertise – not included in the proposal.
- They had nothing to do with my use of color or depictions of the human figure.
Thanks to my high school art teacher, Mrs. Topdahl, for teaching 16-year old me how to be an independent professional.