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Credit: Rob Dobi / Sébastien Thibault / Judith Rudd / Mimi Phan / iStock

Ideas Made to Matter

Design

2023, illustrated

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Generative AI exploded onto the scene this year and brought with it many questions about the future of illustration, so much so that a poison pill was invented to prevent art from being used in AI training data.

One thing that remains clear, however, is the ability of human artists to connect with audiences on an emotional level, embedding their unique experiences and personal perspectives into their art. At Ideas Made to Matter, we turn to artists to help convey complex management ideas and transform content into visually compelling narratives. Here are seven staff members’ favorite illustrations from 2023.

Credit: Rob Dobi

How Olive Garden and IHOP build relationships across income classes

No other art brought me as much joy as this larger-than-life stack of pancakes with the perfect dollop of butter and the exorbitant amount of overflowing maple syrup. The pancakes are reminiscent of the ones even my newly immigrated Vietnamese dad would occasionally treat me to at IHOP throughout my childhood.

Masterfully illustrated by Rob Dobi, the art features a diverse mix of people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and races surrounding the pancakes-turned-table. It captures the ability of food to bring people together. And it illuminates the answer to the question MIT Sloan associate professor Nathan Wilmers asked in his study: Where do people from different economic levels come together?

“Indeed, the most socioeconomically diverse places in America are not public institutions, like schools and parks, but affordable chain restaurants,” Wilmers and his co-authors write. The study found that people in the richest and poorest U.S. neighborhoods are the most isolated when it comes to their social interactions with each other, but when these two groups do mix, it’s likely to be at casual, affordable restaurants like IHOP, Olive Garden, and Chili’s.

In a year where generative AI, war, and turmoil dominated the headlines and art, this illustration was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s an art director’s dream to be able to create such a fantastical illustration and hopefully this one brings a sense of warm nostalgia, too. — Mimi Phan, associate editorial art director

Credit: Mimi Phan / Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

How to draft a letter to a workplace harasser

When associate art director Mimi Phan and news writer Meredith Somers revealed their image choice for our article on drafting a letter to a workplace harasser, I was deeply moved. The image is incredibly simple — a black background with two writing utensils and the word “stop” written in light red. However, as a digital marketer, I know that a good image is one that can grab attention and tell a story without any other context. 

In the article, adjunct professor Mary Rowe says so eloquently, “Many people who experience harassment and bullying at work feel they have no options. Some are willing to speak up to the offender, and some will use the formal grievance channels available to them. But many are confused, hurt, and afraid.”

As a woman who sometimes struggles to set boundaries, this image and article are welcome reminders that “Stop” and “No” are complete sentences.  — Kristina DeMichele, assistant director, digital marketing

Credit: Paul Campbell / iStock

4 workplace barriers for women and how to dismantle them

2023 was tough, but there were some bright spots, particularly around female representation on screen (hi, Barbie!) and on stage (with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé headlining the two highest-grossing summer concert tours). Appropriately, my favorite piece of art this year also features a female icon: Medusa, the mythical monster with snakes for hair and a gaze that could turn you to stone.

Associate art director Mimi Phan and I brainstormed various ways to illustrate my article about dismantling gender bias and demonstrating allyship for women in the workplace. Medusa was a human girl who’d been seduced by the Greek god Poseidon in a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. According to the myth, Athena was so angry at the violation, she punished Medusa — not Poseidon — by turning her hair into snakes. “Athena would be the opposite of an ally which is going deep! And I just realized the stripes remind me of a traffic sign/caution sign which go well with ‘barrier’ in the title,” Mimi said. Later, I got another message from Mimi after she tested the image: “LOOKS AMAZING.” I couldn’t agree more. — Meredith Somers, news writer

Credit: Sébastien Thibault

Workers with less experience gain the most from generative AI

2023 was the year of generative AI. Since ChatGPT was released at the end of 2022, the promises and perils of the technology have been the topic of headlines, discourse, and many of the emails arriving in my inbox.

Some early research about generative AI in the workplace by MIT Sloan associate professor Danielle Li, MIT Sloan PhD candidate Lindsey Raymond, and Stanford University professor Erik Brynjolfsson, PhD ’91, has been one guidepost as we navigate this new territory. Studying agents at a call center, the researchers found that workers who were less skilled at their jobs benefited the most from an AI conversational assistant. The workers were upskilled, not replaced, by the technology.

In the art accompanying the article, Sébastian Thibault depicted someone in business attire offering a handshake to a giant head made of circuits. It’s a fitting image for research that looks at how people can work with — and even benefit from — generative AI. It’s also a fitting image for 2024 as humans come face to virtual face with a new technology that is likely to bring massive change and disruption, good and bad. — Sara Brown, senior news editor and writer

Credit: Rob Dobi

How generative AI can boost highly skilled workers’ productivity

As noted, 2023 was the year generative AI was suddenly inescapable, with workers at every tier of the organization wondering how the technology would affect — or replace — their jobs. How helpful, then, to have MIT Sloan professor Kate Kellogg and co-researchers articulate two different behavioral styles that knowledge workers might adopt when interacting with AI — embodied by a cyborg (shoutout to Kylo Ren) and a centaur (insert reference to your preferred YA fantasy series or Greek myth here).

Cyborg behavior describes users who “intertwine their efforts with AI at the very frontier of [its] capabilities. This strategy might manifest as alternating responsibilities at the subtask level, such as initiating a sentence for the AI to complete or working in tandem with the AI,” the researchers write in their paper.

Centaur behavior occurs when users “switch between AI and human tasks” based on their determination of what tasks are best suited for human intervention and which ones can be handled by AI.

Illustrator Rob Dobi captures this duality in striking fashion, with the cool-blue cyborg and passionate centaur working intently in tandem to keep the wheels turning — a pragmatic depiction of disruptive technology that isn’t always portrayed in such an optimistic light. — Tracy Mayor, senior associate director, editorial

Credit: Judith Rudd

Why female STEM PhDs are less likely to become new inventors

One of the best books about science this year was “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science,” Kate Zernike’s account of pervasive gender bias and gender inequity at MIT in the late 20th century. While the book’s depictions of discrimination are detailed, one important takeaway is that inequity resides in every corner of a lab.

So it was revealing, though not surprising, to read about research from MIT Sloan associate dean Fiona Murray and Copenhagen Business School associate professor Mercedes Delgado that shows that female PhD students are less likely than their male counterparts to be trained by advisers who have received numerous patents. That matters because PhD students trained by “inventor advisers” are significantly more likely to receive patents themselves.

In one sense, a woman affected by bias isn’t alone in her experience: Murray and Delgado’s research examined the careers of 185,000 PhD graduates. But Judith Rudd’s illustration of a woman working with a microscope, set against a flat, empty background suggests the lack of support felt and experienced every day by many women working in the sciences. This could be biologist Nancy Hopkins throughout much of her career: hardworking, focused, and left out. — Zach Church, director, editorial and digital content

Credit: Mimi Phan / JoZtar / iStock

How continuous learning keeps leaders relevant in the age of AI

In today’s fast-paced digital workplace, keeping up with rapid technological change is a must. Continuous education has become the norm as employees are expected to adapt to a landscape that’s constantly evolving. This is becoming even more essential as workers increasingly face the prospect of having to distinguish themselves and their skills from what artificial intelligence can do. “Take the time to really double down on learning, because that’s what is going to keep us different [from] the machines,” said Vanessa Tanicien, director of client success at LifeLabs Learning, at this year’s EmTech Next conference.

This idea of “hyperadaptability” is illustrated by none other than the chameleon, an animal defined by its ability to change itself to fit in with the surrounding environment. The vibrant blue and pink colors highlight what can sometimes feel like a stark contrast between the familiar knowledge of the past and the cutting-edge innovations of the future. All the while, our unruffled chameleon friend plods along with its judgmental side-eye as if to say, “Keep up.” — Devon Maloney, associate director, digital marketing