How to Make Your Art More Interesting
If we want to get paid for our art, we must make art that others will pay attention to.
The idea of interestingness seems rather subjective, like beauty or even of art itself. If this is true, there may be no purpose in a discussion of, say, what makes something interesting or not (unless you are high or in a high school philosophy class. Or both).
But interestingness is of utmost importance for artists, especially commercial artists, whose art must capture and hold attention for at least a little while. If we are not making images that are interesting, we are making them in vain.
Case in point: when you were scrolling through Instagram this morning, what made you stop for a moment? Which images gave you literal pause? When were you compelled to read the caption? Whatever these were, they were interesting to you.
For all its downsides, Instagram is actually a great proving ground for interestingness of our art. While I think we need to make sure we are posting what we like, not what we hope gets liked, we should also become aware of what will cause others to hold their thumb down just a little longer. Aiming to make our work interesting is an exercise in empathy, in thinking outside ourselves.
They key to making work more interesting is that it considers what might be interesting to someone else. If that seems like a truism, it seems necessary to restate. How often do we see work that seems to be utterly self-involved and completely irrelevant? If we want to capture the attention and appreciation of others with our art, it must matter to them as much as it does to us.
Consider the other sense of the word, interest: “money paid regularly at a particular rate for the use of money lent.” (to quote the dictionary on my Mac). For example, a bank lends us something of value, and in exchange, we pay them interest. The transaction is mutually beneficial. The bank doesn’t just freely spot us some cash—that would put them out of business. And, of course, we wouldn’t just pay a monthly fee for the bank to keep money in its vaults. Now think about the transaction between the artist and the viewer, and imagine the artist is the bank and the viewer is the borrower. The viewer clearly wouldn’t pay attention to the artist to just make work that merely satisfies the whims of said artist. At the same time, the artist might not have any stake in making art that matters to the viewer except that they pay them some attention. (The purpose for this attention of course must go beyond the attention itself—it usually translates to a purchase of some kind, or some kind of longer term leverage position, such as a subscription or a “follow”). When put in these terms, that art is a mutually-beneficial exchange between the artist and the viewer, it should at least make it clear why art should be interesting.
Through this metaphor, we can at least glean that in order for art to be interesting, it needs to benefit the viewer in some way. While of course, this begs the question of how one might go about making their work matter to others, it is a good start in terms of intention. I believe we should all be aiming to make art that matters to others. Art is visual expression, and that more than suggests a communicative function. There is a message, a sender, and a receiver.
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible for art to be interesting but not matter at all to viewers. The answer is yes. Of course art can be shocking, or depressing, or captivating by all manner of negative triggers. But art that is interesting through negative means is theft. It steals our attention without giving something of value back. Almost all click bait is theft. Almost all shock humour is theft. That is why we culturally hold these “art forms” in the lowest regard.
How to Make Your Art More Interesting
Practically speaking, though, I do want to offer some suggestions of how to make your art more interesting. These are principles that guide me in my own work, which I believe have at least helped me garner my modest success as a visual communicator.
- Your art should be easy to describe. We are wired to recognize patterns. When something falls too far outside the patterns we expect, we might miss it altogether. Art that comes too far out of left field will go right over our heads. Sure, you might look at it for a moment or two, but chances are your brain, not up to the task of deciphering its meaning, will move on. While good art offers something more for the viewer, it is always grounded in something recognizable. People should be able to look at your art and describe in few words what they are looking at. Just pulling some examples of work I’ve remembered from this morning’s scroll through my IG feed, I can describe to you the work that I paid attention to: a beautifully hand-lettered series of greeting cards; a logo wherein the letter the negative space in the letter Y was turned into an ice cream cone; a giraffe sculpture made out of folding rulers. These examples were more than these descriptions, but I may not have noticed or been able to remember them if they were hard to describe. That they were grounded in the familiar is how they hooked into my memory.
- Your art should have a creative payoff. While not a technical term, I see this term bandied about in the advertising and design world. Payoff is the “extra” you notice in an image. While an image might be easy to describe, it doesn’t necessarily do much to grab my attention. What was it about those examples cited in the last point that paid off for me as a viewer? For the greeting cards, they were well-crafted. The lettering and overall compositions were pleasing. I loved the simple, bold colour palette they shared. The copywriting (the phrases being lettered) were cute and catchy (“Thought of you today / like I do most days”). For the ice cream Y logo, it was a clever idea, to use the triangle-shaped negative space as the bottom of an ice cream cone. And using negative space like this creates a bit of a visual puzzle to solve. It’s satisfying to participate in the image; my mind is at first confronted with something that seems familiar but not quite. There is a moment of tension. But with a tiny bit of effort, I am rewarded with a sense of relief as I figure out the puzzle. While I did say that a work mustn’t be expected to work too hard to decipher a message, if it’s too on the nose, we might not have a reason to look much deeper into the image. Payoff can come in the form of tiny puzzles like this, but it need not always be clever. Sometimes, like the greeting cards, it just needs to be well made and pleasing to the eye. Another way to add payoff to an image could be in your unique perspective. What personal twist are you adding to an otherwise familiar concept? To make our art more interesting, we start with clear ideas that are easy to describe, and then ask what value we can add to it.
- Your art should be relevant. When considering interestingness, we are thinking about how others will perceive our work. We cannot read minds, but we can identify common points of interest. This doesn’t mean we have to make work that matters to absolutely everybody, but just to our audience. An image’s relevance is almost always relative. The key thing here is to consider who your audience is. Who are you making the art for? Who will or should care? Always make art with an audience in mind. Again, that doesn’t mean we are trying to read others’ minds and make exactly what they want. Nor is there any point in making art that matters to our audience but not to us personally. Art must always be mutually beneficial, which includes both artist and audience. What makes our work more relevant to our audience? In an imaginary Venn diagram, with one circle representing what matters to us and another circle representing what matters to our audience, relevance is where these two overlap. Since we’re using Instagram as our example, why do people follow you? What do they know you for? Most commonly, and especially at first, it will be your friends and family, and they will follow you not for your art but for you. Your posts matter to them because you matter to them. Of course, as commercial artists, we are hoping to matter to people outside our circles as well! Using myself as an example, I know that my audience is largely people looking for insights and inspiration about how to get into illustrating for a living. This is why they follow me, and so a lot of what I share is toward this purpose. While I have the right to express anything I want on my feed, I filter what I share through the lens of why I believe others are following me. So, I don’t post things like family photos or brag about my latest running PRs (I have separate accounts for these!). So how do you know what’s going to be relevant? Know who your audience is, and consider them in what you make and share.
Keep in mind that not all your art has to be interesting. We tend to place disproportionate emphasis on work that gets seen, but some art can be just for us. In which case, our work can be obscure, badly made, and completely irrelevant to everyone besides ourselves.
And in case it seems I am writing only about how to get more likes on Instagram, I want to be clear: Instagram is just a microcosm of the relationship between the artist and their audience. It’s a proving ground for what images get the most measurable attention. It’s not everything, and it’s not a total indicator of the value of your art, and certainly not of you as an artist or human.
At the same time, few of us worry that our personal art, which stays between the pages of our sketchbooks or in storage, will be interesting to others. The question of interestingness is really one of the relationship between artist and audience. For commercial artists, this ultimately boils down to making art that sells! If we want to get paid for our art, we must make art that others will pay attention to.