Brand Union

Insight Culture

Brand School / Life is Good

Greg Spielberg

April 13 2016

How a 22-year-old apparel company helped employees find their inner artist

The 22-year-old apparel company Life is Good sells a particular kind of brand: optimism. Based in Boston and distributed in 4,500 stores worldwide, their clothing and accessories are embellished with quotes like “All Together Now,” “Positive,” and, of course “Life is Good.” It’s a fitting outlook in an era of intentional, human-centered mindfulness. Life is Good wants you to wear your emotions on your sleeve, and they don’t mind employees doing the same around their headquarters. Keen to abate what inevitably becomes dull office life, the brand collaborated with limeSHIFT—a startup team of MIT Sloan grads taking the lessons from the art world and applying them to corporate life—for a pilot engagement. limeSHIFT member and public artist Yazmany Arboleda was tapped to create living installations and foster an ongoing sense of engagement in the space.

We chatted with Colleen Clark, Life is Good’s Director of Optimistic People, about the ambitious, culture-deepening program designed to help employees find their inner artist.

What does culture mean to you?

Culture is not concrete. It changes as constantly and as quickly as something like conversation changes. I’m known for saying, “the conversation is the culture.” It’s as simple as this: Stop complaining about what’s not perfect and start talking about how we can fix it. What if we did land that one retailer as an account? You change the conversation and people become creative, stop complaining and start brainstorming. What limeSHIFT did was gave us a way to change the conversation.

How is the experience going?

Full of surprises – which is the way art should be (if you let it be art). It’s probably not smart, or the best outcome, to have a picture in your head of what’s going to happen. At first, the project was a little bit ridiculed. Some of the more reserved members of the team thought, “Oh this a fluffy teambuilding HR thing.” Or, “Ugh.” Or, “I’m too busy for fun.”

What does the reaction, “fluffy,” mean to you?

I think it’s a mash-up of two human emotions: Reluctance to be vulnerable and fear of the unknown. People don’t like that feeling. You know the playground game of going from bar to bar, letting go of your backhand just when you’re reaching for the next bar? Your stomach’s not quite sure of where you’re going. It’s the same feeling when you’re asked to sing karaoke, or speak in front of other people. The feeling you get when you’re moved away from the role you define for yourself. Well, limeSHIFT did that in a big way. They made discomfort more comfortable.

How do you transform a culture that fears vulnerability?

The innovation curve is everywhere. It’s here too. Culture is something that people talk a lot about, but if you ask people to define it, you’re going to get a lot of different views. The culture world is also still volatile. When you talk to a founder, CEO, head of marketing, and you say, “We’re going to assess your culture, and transform it for you,” that’s a sensitive trigger. Why not say, “Discover your culture.” Or, “Find the hidden value in your culture.” Or, “You haven’t had the time to fertilize your culture.” Saying “transform” makes it feel like something that’s going to be done to them.

So does art help develop vulnerability?

It’s about curiosity—creating a space of not knowing. Then, not only tolerating that space, but welcoming it. Becoming friends with it. When you throw art in the middle of a business, there’s this immediate sense of, “What do you mean?! What does that look like? What are artists going to do here?” Everyone already knows exactly what legal, product, marketing teams do. Artists create a space that no one in a functional role can do. At the very least, they create this curiosity. It’s hard for busy people to feel curious—and even harder for people with responsibilities and key performance indicators to be curious. When an artist parachutes in, you’re curious—even if you’re not an early adopter. This is a place where curiosity can develop easier.

"It’s about curiosity—creating a space of not knowing."

What’s the intent then in creating curiosity?

People engage in the space in a very new way. They’re being asked questions about their experience in the building, like “Where do you feel warmer or happier or more social?” It’s not a topic that you normally get to talk about at work. There’s no functional leader in a small company that’s asking, “How do you feel in a space?” It’s not on anybody’s to-do list.

Yazmany senses energy, light, discomfort. He’s like a Native American water finder. He says, “What if we put a living thing [like some trees] there?” He says, “It’s interesting that you walk out of the elevator on the main floor and the space doesn’t say anything about your company.” He creates awareness of the irritation areas. It’s guided curiosity—guided introspection. Now conversations are opening people’s minds about interacting with the space. One thing that came out of those conversations was that no one felt privacy in the space. There’s nowhere to go to get away for a few minutes.

It’s fitting that curiosity led to new discoveries within a familiar space. Was that the intent?

I think we’re still experiencing the result. Yazmany brought no motive, and his art is still a work in progress. That blank spot outside the elevator will become a community creation. To solve the privacy issue (of not having any space to go by yourself), we’re going to build a living wall. A living room, actually, made of living materials. Each new employee with get a new plant and we’ll place them in pots our teammates paint. The painting will be a community project. The living room will create a natural divider, but it will also be a demonstration of caring and paying attention. Part of our unwritten cultural ethos is “What you focus on will grow.” The living room will spark conversation like, “Greg, your plant is looking pretty dry. Want me to water it for you? Want me to show you how to prune?” The lesson is that curiosity and vulnerability should be permanent elements of the work place. As permanent as the vines growing up our walls, and as easy to shape.

Plants, drawings … water finding. The critic in me wonders whether this is the most efficient way to run a business.

Ten years ago, it would have been harder for someone in my role to come back with a slam dunk answer. But, now science is my best friend. No one questions someone working out, doing yoga, meditating, taking a walk during “work time.” Ten years ago, it would have been frowned upon, but now all of those things are expected in a healthy, progressive business. We ask companies we might want to work for, “What’s your fitness program?” I see art as the next frontier. The next question is, “What’s your art program? What do you guys create together, what’s your creative muse?” It’ll be, “Hey I’m making a decision about which company to go with—what do you do to spark my curiosity?”