Article by Silja Suntola – Xamk University

Defining credits in our traditional educational system lays much on the tradition of science. It correlates strongly with the amount and level of knowledge a person can master and apply in a given subject. When we move from science to art and creativity, defining and assessing becomes almost impossible.

There are no fixed, measurable parameters, and success is frequently evaluated through the opinions of the observer or user. Knowledge of how to play an instrument has little to do with the skill to play it, and even technical skill alone only gets you so far. Listeners seek for the personal interpretation and emotion the performance might evoke.

We can try to study the question from the perspective of value. For something to be of value, it needs to be useful for something. Or as definitions of innovation like “successful exploitations of new ideas that are novel and useful”, and “to make a meaningful impact in a market or society”. Brushing aside the buck for a minute, we are left with questions of understanding what “meaningful impact on society” is for us.

Art by nature bears with it the question of “why”, rather than “what” and “how”. We come back to the more obscure parts of life, and existential questions of humanity.

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” Nancy J. Adler

Defining soft skills

Defining creativity as a skill is like a bar of soap. The moment you think you have a grasp of it, it slips away.

The basic elements of the arts are present each and every moment in our everyday lives. We see, hear, smell and feel the physical world around us, interpreting the information we receive through our senses in our minds. Some of this flow of information on different levels is conscious, but much of it is unconscious. But it continuously and profoundly effects how we understand, and hence act and interact in this world.

Our awareness and perception of reality is a combination of both sides of the brain, where the left one is in command of our so-called rational thinking, and the other one of information coming in through our senses (spatial, kinetic, auditory, visual etc.). We all use both sides of our brain simultaneously. We sense the world around us through our senses and interpret this information into what we call reality.

So for the purposes to get forward reflect on some key elements that we consider key soft skill, but deter from claiming absolute truths. We will inspect creative soft skills from  three perspectives: technical-, people- and learning skills. These categories overlap, are dependent on each other, and weakness in one reflects easily in the outcome of the others.

Technical skills

With technical skills we refer not to skills utilizing technology, but the skill of mastering key skills, tools and techniques related to different forms of art, that can be applied to the development of any sector.

One key horizontal skill is that of conveying and communicating different kinds of information, thoughts as well as expressions and abstract concepts and intangible ideas. We are not limited to words, numbers or other symbols that are used for conveying rational information. We can think of this through the lenses of different forms of art.

Performing arts

  • Music and sound in different contexts convey emotions, stories or can arouse physical responses or activity. Sound are constantly present in our everyday lives, and have a huge effect on us even when we are not aware of it. Music psychology and therapy offer interesting insights to different effects and how they can be used.

Our taste in music (and other forms of art) correlate highly with a number of our other life-style choices from the types of food we prefer to how we dress. There is much untapped potential in understanding customer-behavior and consumption patterns through the arts. 

  • Theatre and dance combine different ways to convey stories and emotions, impressions and expressions through different means from bodily communications, music and sound to storytelling and performed imaginaries. Costumes, props and stage scenery are used to enhance the effects.

Some creative skills that can be derived: bodily or multi-sensory communications, performance and presentation skills, sound as effects, creating atmospheres, steering movement or behavior and understanding the effects of these.

Visual arts

  • Drawing, painting and other visual representation of imaginary

Some creative skills that can be derived: Visual skills and visualization in different contexts from systems, (complex) information, experiences, feelings. Use of colors, symbols and shapes. Understanding impact of visual imaginary, for example through study of art movements from renaissance, romanticism and art noveau to impressionism and expressionism. Developing skills in conveying abstract ideas, concepts or complex information through visualization.

According to research, when a person is simultaneously presented with information in visual and in written form, he/she tends to automatically “believe” the visual information in case the information is contradictory. In visual form, the information is also absorbed immediately, whereas the written information has to first be read and “made sense of” through thinking.

Crafts and creative spaces

  • Crafts from pottery to sculpture are in the essence “creating and building something with your hands”. The color, design and material used can represent symbolic meanings or simply portray aesthetic qualities and preferences. In addition to direct technical skills, working to mold designs and shapes physically with one’s hands can support conceptual thinking.
  • Architecture and interior design evolve around the spatial element, combining skills in construction and engineering with practical and aesthetic considerations.
  • Design in itself refers to the core skills derived from creating and building physical objects and spaces and applying to different contexts from single objects to industrial processes to managing innovation processes, thinking and leadership.

Service design is a good example of taking the core elements from design and applying them to the development of a service process, something that happens in the context of time. Hence service design frequently “borrows” concepts from theatre & performing arts, including using elements like “stage” and “back-stage” as well as “acting” out service processes in order to empathically understand the user-experiences.

Content production (in digital medias)

Digital technologies have added totally new dimensions through enabling artistic content to be created and used through means and in ways never before available. Visual, auditory, drama and storytelling skills can amount to video games, animations or films as well as interactive websites or digital studios where almost anybody can produce artistic content from fiction to non-fiction. New digital art tools can produce spaces and simulations of reality (or imagination, or a mix of them), through which we can visualize and imagine, rehearse and test different aspects of life. Digital technology has enabled new instruments and creative contents, many of which have become to exist through a symbiotic co-creation process between arts & technology.


Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty and taste, closely related to the philosophy of art. If we regard science as the “what” and “how” of life, and art as the “why” – aesthetics can provoke interesting thinking to the timeless elements of the arts that resonate with the deeper, existential questions of mankind.

People skills

We will study people skills in two parts: 1) From knowing oneself to leading oneself 2) Building meaningful relations and shared goals.

From knowing oneself to leading oneself

Knowing ourselves is a mission of a lifetime, quite literally. We may think we know ourselves, at least until something unexpected happens again, and our self-image is disrupted once again. We will be contempt to state that awareness is the key to self-development. Practicing ones awareness is almost like moving the invisible boundaries between who you think you are and who you could be in the world.

Art itself can be a powerful tool for building and practicing awaress, reflection and learning. To some it may be merely staring at a painting and letting it evoke levels of awareness we don’t “have time” for in our busy days, listening to music or dancing. To others it can be getting in touch with their feelings through playing, improvising or drawing – alone or together with others.

Mindfulness, yoga, different meditation techniques are not new, and they are presented in most self-help books and courses focused on personal development, for good reason. They are tools with which we can sharpen our most critical instrument – ourselves, through clarifying our own understanding of ourselves underneath the different layers of our personality.

“Johari’s window” provides a useful framework for this (created in the 1950’s by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham). It is a tool to help understand how we perceive and hence interpret reality in relation to how it is perceived by others. 

From personal to professional “me”

If someone asked you “who you are?” what would you answer? Most of us would choose one of the roles we have in our lives. Besides these roles we have characteristic traits and personalities that reflect and affect how we choose to live our lives. Our lifestyle, values, beliefs and preferences reflect the deeper sense of who we are, or at least think we are.

In the business world we are accustomed to viewing each other through what we call our professional roles, and tend to assess skills and expertise through a fairly technical framework. We assess clearly identifiable skills and areas of expertise along with degrees and academic accomplishments. Personal characteristics or traits are not always considered appropriate for the office. A professional should keep his/her personal life separate from work.

It is often different with artists. An artist’s personality is often a key ingredient of his/her performance, or at least the skill of utilizing different personality traits to his/her work. It’s rather personality than technical expertise that makes up for what we call charisma or clout.

Being an actress, I’ve always been estranged by the idea of a separate personal and professional me. Leaving for an audition from home, thinking of the character I’m about to audition, for I can only get to my performance through reflecting him/her through my own persona. Venu Dhupa

Personality characters and traits have been studied as part of psychology and educational science. Two related theories are Jungian archetypes and Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence, that offer their own perspectives to personal characteristics and traits. Applications of these theories have been used widely also in human resource management and career counseling.

Social skills

Social skills are invaluable in today’s networked society. There are few, if any, jobs that a person can do alone – unless one has chosen a life of the hermit. Whether we talk of personal lives with family and friends, our work or how local, national or global communities drive groups of people to work together for common goals – how we interact with people around us does matter. Most of what we do involves other people, in one way or the other. The more we want to accomplish, the more people we usually need to work with us.

Leading creative people and processes

Our western work culture is in many ways currently very individualistic. We tend to assess and measure work performance through individual performance rather than his/her skills in boosting the performance of colleagues. Perhaps annual evaluation discussions at work should focus not just on your individual accomplishments, but on how you were enhancing the performance of your co-workers?

It has also become increasingly popular in management theory to look at the processes of management through the lenses of art and creative processes. For instance studying shared leadership through that of a jazz band or bodily communications through the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Inspecting the role of emotions in organizations through theatre.

Is there a point to try to measure or assess people skills? Perhaps as long as we change the perspective to the question from an individual to that of a larger entity. Think of those small daily things we can do to ignite inspiration, insight or get that “last –minute-push” to get the job done for ourselves and those around us. What we say and how we act can have groundbreaking consequences in the good and bad.

Learning skills

What we mean with learning skills in the end is the ability for transformation, and make transformation happen within and around us? Can we do, say or act in a way that will change the course of time through who we are and how we act and behave for what is meaningful?

Curious minds want to know

It is not a coincidence, that the word “play” is part of art vocabulary, referring a theatre “play”, or “playing” an instrument. The word “playfulness” refers to trying something out, without taking it too seriously if it doesn’t work out. Something very crucial to the creative, iterative process of learning. Playing out different scenarios and picturing possible outcomes can be a process for thinking and ones again unveiling the things that are meaningful and worth pursuing.

But thinking or learning through “playing around” can be a problem in our knowledge-driven work-life, where we are supposed to have a clear plan and knowledge of the end result before even beginning the work. This is certainly not the case in most creative endeavors, where we are not always able to precisely describe the result beforehand, as the process itself is a way of getting to the real root of the problem and hence finding solutions and a final outcome.

Combining “an end-result that is difficult to clearly determine” with an operating environment that’s overflowing with information and change is even more challenging. Work itself seldom consists of clear tasks, but is increasingly the skill to constantly identify the pertinent questions that most need to be solved at any given time.

To make matters worse, we humans have a strong tendency to adapt. Different circumstances start to seem “normal” to us amazingly quickly, and the realms of what we even consider possible decrease. We tend to feel a sense of safety with things we can predict, whether it is realistic or not. If we think of learning as transformation, it frequently involves first giving up the existing patterns of thought of doing, along with resistance to change. As we are predisposed to safeguard the known we might feel angry, offended or just overall hurt. No wonder many artists describe themselves as rebels, who get the urge to break generally accepted norms or patterns of behavior.

Creative work is like navigating between known and unknown coordinates. We want to explore, but still find our way back in the end. So we practice sailing, as the more experience we have sailing, the further from known coordinates we have the courage to go. Returning home we still have the task of explaining what we experienced to people who haven’t experienced it, or at least try to make understandable why it might or might not be worth going there. Or we can at least pose the question to whether it becomes reality only when other people acknowledge it.

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a sound? Seeing the forest for the trees

Keeping sight of the forest for the trees is a core challenge in this kind of environment, as we can waste disastrous amounts of time, energy and resources by focusing on the wrong tree.

Being efficient isn’t about the amount of work as much as it is about being able to identify and focus on what is meaningful. In a creative process, we can’t always know the exact end result, as it only emerges through deep understanding of the real problem and the iterative process of doing. We have to train the ability to constantly assess if what we are working is really pertinent, ensuring that we are working on the right tree to begin with.

A painter regularly steps back from his/her painting, to assess what he/she is working on is in harmony with the whole. Likewise a conductor of a symphony orchestra has to constantly listen to the sound of the orchestra, how it plays together with each player unconsciously reacting to the performance of the other for a harmonic end result.

T-shaped thinking is a term used in design, and it refers to possessing deep knowledge in one core area (the vertical line in the T) along with more shallow knowledge on a number of subjects (the horizontal line in the T). In a society where thinking across cultural, geographical or disciplinary silos is desperately needed, we once again need skillsets that can master combining specific and general skillsets as well as complementary character traits. Combining skillsets and especially people is becoming the new creative skill in itself.

A conductor distinguishes each instrument while listening to the whole composition both rhythmically (left side of the brain) and harmonically (left side of the brain). Just like a music producer does that when mixing a song at the studio, balancing numerous instruments (tracks) into the final mix. Performing these kinds of creative tasks is like practicing one’s awareness of the detail and the whole concretely.

 Crediting is acknowledging

Can creativity be measured? If creativity is the outcome of the right brain hemisphere, how can we use tools of the left hemisphere to judge it? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder, or the paying customer in one end?

There is an inherent challenge when it comes to assessing creative skills. Even if we consent to restricting assessing to the technical art-based skills, in the end they always do need the creative content created by the human beings.

Assessing is certainly not easy, as we all walk through life with our own, personal perception of what the world is like, and who we are. But if I had to leave you with one word to think about it would be respect. Respect to ourselves and others for having the courage to recognize and work with what we don’t know. Not knowing makes us feel fragile and insecure in a world where experts and specialists are supposed to know and have the answers. Artists are often sensitive people, who despite surrounding turbulences are drawn to understand and depict the unknown even at personal cost. Giving credit and respect for that does matter, or as Abraham Joshua Heschel said:

 “What we can’t comprehend by analyzes, we become aware of in awe.”

Silja Suntola (MMus/Arts Management, BM) is musician, writer and project manager. She is passionate about furthering discussion and understanding of what we can learn from arts and culture for the development of any sector, from daily practices to different levels of policy making. She currently works at Xamk University of Applied Sciences at the Creative Industries Research Unit in South-Eastern Finland.