Amazon's Expressions Program Helps Employees Brush Up on Creativity

'Whether it’s problem solving for a client or thinking of the next big thing, this is a place to try new things'
AMAZON STUDIO. Members of Amazon’s creative program pictured in the Expressions lab, from left: Tim Detweiler, program manager; Jennifer Tucker, Paint and Meditate class instructor; and Joseph Steininger, program coordinator.

This article appears in the June 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription. Inc., for better or worse, has reshaped the Seattle skyline since the company set up shop in the city. More than 40 Amazon-owned structures now dot the urban landscape, built to house an ever-growing number of employees. As these properties sprang up, forging a new identity for the cityscape, their interior spaces remained nondescript, blank canvases.

“There was almost too much blank space,” says spokesperson Lara Hirschfield, who noticed workers hammering posters, signs and other art onto the walls.

In 2012, when the company partnered with students at Cornish College of the Arts to paint a concrete lobby floor in the style of various rugs, an idea was born. The project became the inspiration for the company’s creative program, Expressions. The program gives Amazon employees access to art classes. Its Expressions Art Lab is an in-house studio that hosts an artist-in-residence and workshops.

“The whole idea was to give employees a tool, a mechanism, a place for teams who wanted to root their identity in their new campus and new space,” Hirschfield says.

Resident glass artist Carol Milne in the studio across from the Expressions lab

Hirschfield, who oversees Expressions and other cultural programs at Amazon, estimates that more than 4,500 — that’s more than 10 percent — of the company’s Seattle employees take part in the program. This includes experiences such as employee-led felting or needlepoint classes, and fine arts study such as painting and sculpture led by instructors from Gage Academy of Art and the Pratt Fine Arts Center.

Employees looking for inspiration during the day can take a break and stop by the Expressions lab in the Doppler Building at Seventh and Virginia, and work on a puzzle, learn 3-D printing or silk-screen T-shirts. They can eat lunch while watching one of the program’s artists-in-residence at work in a glass-walled studio across from the lab. If they can’t make it to Doppler, they can grab a crafting kit, such as for making snow globes or string art, from a mobile art cart.

There’s a practical upside to Amazon’s efforts to nurture employee creativity: One of its core leadership principles is “learn and be curious.” Some of it has to do with the mental stimulation that comes with a change of scenery, or how encountering a different way of thinking can provide an opportunity to consider new perspectives.

“Much of what happens here is a process; you don’t just stumble on the next thing,” says Hirschfield, who notes that mental and creative outlets are helpful for employees working through complex problems.

It’s also a creative way to engage employees. A study by TechnologyAdvice found that 56 percent of respondents to a nationwide survey said perks were very or moderately important in evaluating a job, and the same number said they would trade a salary increase for certain perks.

Supplies at the ready for Amazon’s many art classes

Tim Detweiler, former director of South Lake Union gallery MadArt and the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, helps things run smoothly as Expressions’ program manager, a role he’s held for more than two years. Among his various duties, he organizes regular field trips to local museums and galleries, including the Seattle Art Museum and the Frye Art Museum; works with local arts organization Shunpike to select the four annual artists-in-residence; and leads various art expeditions, such as an employee-painted mural project in the kids’ rooms at Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that operates a Seattle homeless shelter with which Amazon has partnered.

Detweiler says he enjoys “helping [employees] get back into their hands … [and] I love the potential of Amazon getting out and doing some things in the community.”

Joseph Steininger, Expressions’ program coordinator, also is a hand-cut stencil and spray-paint artist who works from Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts in Pioneer Square. He helps Detweiler with the day-to-day operations of the program.

“One of the great things I have found in this job is that when I want to try something, they’re very open to it,” Steininger says. “When I wanted to offer a pickling class, Tim was like, ‘Go for it.’”

Recently, the Expressions team rolled out other classes, such as improv comedy and gnocchi making. The food classes in particular have been so popular that there is a plan to eventually launch a food-focused creative program, Expressions Kitchen.

“Whether it’s problem solving for a client or thinking of the next big thing, this is a place to try new things,” says Jennifer Tucker, a company program manager, artist and yoga instructor who leads Expressions’ monthly Paint and Meditate class. “Creativity and curiosity play in everything we do.”

The Amazon Symphony Orchestra performing at its holiday concert in December 2018

Room 302 in the Doppler Building is much like any other conference room in any other downtown glass box: whiteboards, folding walls, black stacking chairs. But most such meeting rooms aren’t filled, as this one is on this Tuesday evening in February, with several dozen music stands, each bearing a sticker with the initials ASO undergirded by a very familiar yellow smiling arrow.

And most such meeting rooms don’t include 60 or so musicians, instruments warmed up and ready, taking their first crack at Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. But this is the rehearsal space for the Amazon Symphony Orchestra (ASO), a volunteer group of employees who meet two hours weekly to explore a side of their creativity that doesn’t have a 9-to-5 outlet.

Music director Hsing-Hui Hsu, an Amazon software development engineer who was a clarinet performance major at Rice University, says the creative outlet and change of pace also are a chance to “meet people from other parts of the company and socialize over a common interest that isn’t work.”

And for a company that employs so many people from overseas, the ASO offers a welcoming embrace. Hsu recalls one player telling her, “This really helped me settle more into Seattle.”

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