Planet (CA)Foster Critical Thinking
Artist in Residence Program
This success story, a little different from our normal format, is an interview with Forest Stearns, Chief Space Artist and Director of the Artist in Residence program at Planet Labs.
Founded in 2010 by a team of ex-NASA scientists, Planet is driven by a mission to image the entire Earth every day, and make global change visible, accessible, and actionable. They are a mission-driven group of engineers, artists, scientist, writers, and professionals dedicated to using space to help life on Earth.
Please share your name, title, and company.
My name is Forest Stearns, I am the Chief Space Artist and Director of the Artist in Residence (AiR) program at Planet Labs. I am by no means the most creative person at Planet, where satellites are manufactured, controlled, downloaded from, photos processed and markets created. Those are all super intense vertices at Planet that require a high level of creative thinking to design and innovate. I am however, a skilled and prolific traditional artist/designer/facilitator who strives to inspire the conversation through the artistic lexicon and activation.
Can you tell us about the Artist in Residence program?
Founded in 2013 with me, Forest Stearns, as the first artist. The program has now hosted 11 artists, of multiple disciplines. Each artist sets up their studio in the heart of the company, and for three months they are fully immersed in the technological and cultural conversation of the company. They direct in discourse with the teams that build spaceships, control the missions, download and analyze the earth imagery data, to the Marketing team that tells the story and the Executives that steer the company.
The goal of instilling the artists in the center of the aerospace/earth imagery company is to inspire creative permission in all the individuals at Planet who work hard every day to create unique and innovative solutions in this rapidly growing market. Artists are inspired by the mission driven conversation of the employees, and in return, the employees are inspired by the traditional art pieces being created alongside them. As the company has grown from a few dozen when I joined to over 500 now, the focus of the company has developed as well. This has inspired the art made by the AiR and the interactions of the employees influence these pieces.
In addition to the artist in residence program, it seems the company also includes illustrations from the employee community on the satellites. Can you talk about this?
Inspired by meeting the mega motivated and hyper intelligent Robbie Schlinger, a Founder of Planet, at an Innovation Endeavors venture capital campout. He is super passionate - I was immediately drawn to work with him so, I asked if I could paint on his satellites. He said yes, and I created large black and white paintings that I would reproduce through laser etching into the sides of each satellite.
That was four years ago; now we have built and launched 250+ satellites. They are all beautifully designed and 98% of them have our community's artwork adorning them. I continue to curate this project and have events where our community gets together at our different offices to make drawings for the spacecrafts.
Talk about engaging with engineers in the process to help inform your thinking and their thinking about creativity and how to look at things in a new way.
This group of technologists are REALLY SMART! And like any type of specialist, they often have blinders on while designing their specific solutions. Adding traditional artists to the conversation creating large impactful pieces is abrupt enough to make any specialist stop and say “WHY” and “HOW”. It breaks the monotony, inspires introspection, and provides needed pause. The dialogs that are exchanged when the audience inquires about process is beautiful. And often the artist will get dragged back to their own desk to have a super technical idea explained. So, each side of the conversation is inspired by the other’s process and practice.
Talk about how partnering with the arts has helped engage your employees.
Designing a space with creative culture in mind inspires everyone. When candidates come visit, seeing the art on the walls, the artists in the common area, the art on the satellites, the mission driven employees all being lively and weird. It all inspires this audience. The employees can choose to get involved, or let the experience be passive. Being a veteran at Planet, I have constantly created events and installations to get people looking and questioning. Creativity drives innovation, so we have given the arts permission to happen in the heart of our company. We are not sterile or hermetic, we are alive with expression and knowledge.
Tell us how partnering with the arts has helped engage the community.
We go past partnering WITH the arts. We ARE the Arts. Planet represents the STEAM concept where all the ideas need to be infused with creativity. [Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Mathematics]. Perhaps it is because Planet is in so many business verticals, we expect diverse people with unique stories and experiences. Engagement is natural when you illuminate the mission driven work
What advice or encouragement would you give to a business interested in partnering with the arts?
If you work in a bubble of technology or viewpoint, the bigger audience / target market will be turned off by your work. If you include a story that touches the human experience, then you will resonate with your audience and you will be sought after. Integrating a more artistic, design-minded story and partnering with organizations that perpetuate this creative spirit will inspire your workforce, and validate your mission in a more well-rounded manner.
What’s been the biggest benefit your company has experienced because of your involvement with the arts?
The art on the satellites, on the walls, on the rockets, on the radomes, on the apparel... It all acts as an entry point for the observer who may not understand the technology. By growing a creative-based-culture, you inspire everyone from the finance team, to the custodians, to the executives, to be comfortable in the process. The value is in the emotional and intellectual bonds created by inspiring curiosity.