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The Art of Letter Writing, Art and More

Back to Basics

Issue 82, Nov 17, 2022

How often have we been reminded to get back to basics?  We live in an overprogrammed, overcommunicated, overstimulated world. Recently several cultural threads caught our attention, and when combined, remind us of how the basics in art and culture can have a positive effect on ourselves, our workplace, the organizational community, and society writ large in counterpoint to high-tech. Although we have been seduced to worship technology over the past few decades, there is much to be said for balancing science with the humanities.

Take Five Senses

We often write, including in our book The Truth About Transformation, about the power stimuli have on our subconscious mind, which in turn influences how our conscious mind feels, how we act, communicate, and respond. External sensory stimuli that we touch, see, smell, taste or hear can immediately take us back to the past and evoke the emotions of those moments in time. They can warm our hearts, make us hungry, clear our minds to thinking about a problem or challenge, initiate our creativity and cause us to feel the necessity to reciprocate.

We often forget, overlook or are too busy to take a momentary pause to consider how we are being sensorially influenced and why.

  • Sight: Does a stark white room make us feel comfortable … or does our active imagination immediately cause us to look around to see if we are in a straitjacket?
  • Communication: When write a note to ourselves do we notice our day-to-day vocabulary has suffered when a word or phrase we are seeking is only remembered by the acronym or emoji we use in text?
  • Sound: Do we recognize how we are suddenly in a good mood or become melancholy when we hear a certain song or type of music?
  • Overload: Do we feel a necessity or compulsion to engage with the hundreds of impersonal (acting as personalized) emails we get in a day?

So here goes with a few provocative ideas that can improve the outlooks and aspirations of your workforce. And these ideas are quite simply going back to the future with small moments of beauty.

Reclaiming Lost Arts

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A note that you wrote by hand in pen and ink. Have you become dependent on clever electronic cards? Animated and emoji-laden emails and texts? We advocate reclaiming the art of writing letters by hand with words you choose that matter. Writing is the power of words that stay, and this is especially true in the workplace. Instead of thanking co-workers with gifs, take the time to write a note. As reported in Axios, thank-you notes matter. “Rob Nichols, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association shared, ‘Just got back from an international banking conference in Sydney and mailed off 12 notes today.’”

We’re not recommending this as a prosaic exercise. This is the real deal, and there are actually businesses that help individuals master the art of writing. IgnitePOST states that “real pen and ink handwritten notes and cards help you cut through the digital noise to delight customers.” They have tapped into this by helping people “generate perfectly-timed handwritten notes that boost customer engagementprevent churn, and increase sales.” We’re not suggesting that everyone runs to a professional letter-writing service, but the fact that it exists speaks to a renaissance in slowing down and communicating with a personal touch.

David Wachs, founder of Handwritten takes it a step further. As reported in Inc., he says people have become detached from work, friends and “your products.” He adds, “People need to know now, more than ever, that they matter – even in a business context.” His perspective is that traditional mass communication isn’t doing the trick. “Personalized digital communication isn’t working, either. You might think that by sending your customers a ‘we’re thinking of you’ email, you’re pulling their heart strings. According to Campaign Monitor, however, while email open rates did increase during Covid, they remain quite low–around 21%. What’s more, click-through rates are less than 3%. That means even if your customers open your email, it’s not driving many of them into your sales funnel.”

He says printed letters are a low performer, too, and suffer from a response rate of about 4%, according to Direct Marketing News. Instead, he proposes that putting pen to paper and writing a handwritten note has a much higher open rate. “Surprisingly, the average American receives only 10 pieces of handwritten mail each year. It’s not surprising, therefore, that handwritten mailings have very high open rates. In fact, some estimates place open rates for these personalized missives at an almost shocking 98%.”

To reemphasize the point, handwritten notes break through the excess of junk mail and automated electronic communications, and “express an investment in time. It shows you took five or more minutes to sit down and devote your attention to the recipient. “The card is the gift. Your customer feels seen and heard, and you get serious ROI from a customer incentive that required little upfront cost,” says Wachs. In other words, handwritten notes give customers a personalized experience to reverse the fact that modern organizations have “trained the customer to expect a tailored experience in the online world but have largely neglected the offline world. Handwritten notes can fill this gap and can be an invaluable tool for your brand,” adds Wachs.

We concur and urge you to consider taking the time to really personalize, customize your communications with stakeholders. Let us add the halo effects of handwritten notes. The recipient benefits because of the rarity of receiving such notes/cards, and the recognition that the writer has taken time to write the note by hand (not one of those digitally produced handwritten notes).

As a result, the recipient subconsciously feels a necessity to reciprocate. Whether that is to write a note in return, fulfill a favor asked by the writer, or do something special for the writer at some point in the future. Where did the instinct to reciprocate come from? Our genetic programming and our overall need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. If you follow the process, you might see the value of handwritten communications as a highly successful sales tactic. Create the indebtedness, wave the wand, and trigger a new sale.

Small Moments of Beauty

We’re returning to the office, some full-time. There is a transitional shock resulting from having been working in familiar, well-loved surroundings that make us feel good to an often sterile, utilitarian environment in a modern workplace. Research from British recruitment company Robert Walters found that 54% of white-collar participants said that their workplaces have become “unrecognizable” in the last 12 months, citing the high staff turnover, spotty office presence due to remote and hybrid work, and lack of camaraderie and team social events as chief reasons.

Let’s unpack a few selected pointers about the emotional and psychological impact of workplace design. This is not a comprehensive analysis, but rather a few interesting ideas that we at 2040 have observed among our clients.

First, color can play into a sense of well-being. It’s an interesting exercise to consider color theory when transforming a workplace. Although there are design businesses devoted to color theory, here are a few practical examples. In terms of the most commonly shared primary colors, red is powerful, stimulating, and dramatic, triggering emotions of warmth, energy and urgency. Blue represents integrity, professionalism, and success, eliciting calm, trust, and security. Green is natural, ethical, and affluent with associated emotions of confidence, safety, and relaxation. Yellow connotes playfulness, youthfulness, and intellect, and promotes optimism, cheer, and competence. Next tier color orange is connected to stimulus, aggression, and adventure spurring emotions of communication, sociability, and responsibility. And then there’s purple with characteristics of intuition, sophistication, and being soothing which promotes calm, creativity and imagination. Pink is feminine, tranquil, and loving with emotions of love, romance, and sincerity. Grey is neutral, formal, and traditional emoting a sense of uplifting, balance, and security. And black is luxurious, creative, and formal, with emotions of strength, attitude, and power.

Color theory can operate equally effectively as design elements in a workspace and in designing marketing communications and branding. The point here is to be aware of how color can affect workers in a space and how your brand affects stakeholders in your communications.

Let’s stick with the physical workplace. With all the investment in designing open spaces and community-building workplaces, a recent Perspectus Global survey reports, more than 40% of respondents agree that their workplace was “designed poorly.” What’s an effective fix? The study reports that for 69% of participants, having “interesting and visually striking art” at the workplace contributes to their wellbeing.

We’re not recommending that organizations go out and buy up collections of affordable office art as a knee-jerk reaction. Artist-teacher Rhea Nayyar states that “While it may be nice to have a beautiful impressionistic painting in the breakroom, we should be cautious about companies ‘art-washing’ the workplace to feign investment in employee wellbeing.”

Albert Ho, creative lead at One Workplace adds that “Artwork can be strategically installed and displayed. Whether or not teams discuss the pieces, the art instills specific emotional responses.” In fact, “Art serves as an incredible medium to communicate organizational culture. For example, featuring pieces from artists in minority groups can help communicate a company’s connection to diversity and inclusivity. Or showing works centered around nature might help demonstrate an organization’s commitment to the environment. These are constant, powerful, and emotional reminders of what a company holds true, helping individuals feel more connected and united with their teams and leaders.”

We advocate the importance of giving workers opportunities to pause and reflect by looking at art. Ho adds, “According to recent studies and surveys, art in the workplace has more benefits and positive impact at work than we originally thought. In particular artwork has shown to promote wellbeing, stimulate productivity and creativity, and support connection, community, and culture in workplaces that invested in incorporating art into their spaces.”

There’s evidence to back up this claim. A study from Exeter University’s School of Psychology reports overwhelming support for the positive impacts of art and its effects on emotional and cognitive well-being. The survey shows that 78% of respondents agree that artwork helps reduce stress, 64% agree that artwork helps increase creativity and innovation, and 77% agree that artwork helps encourage expression of opinions. Drilling down there are gender difference that we will leave you speculate about: 92% of female respondents stated that art affects their general wellbeing in the workplace, with 71% of male respondents in agreement.

Ho adds artwork in the workplace can be viewed as a “positive distraction, prompting rituals like self-reflection and impromptu socialization. When looking at art as a stimulant, surveys have shown that viewers looking at artwork process information more effectively and share ideas and opinions more openly and freely. Being able to process faster and share more freely, while not measurable on a spreadsheet, ultimately contribute to an organization’s ability to innovate.”

As a provocative last word on the subject, technology has a play in validating the emotional and psychological effects of art. In a recent symposium at the Helix Center in New York, Dr. Nikos Salingaros, Professor of Mathematics and Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio stated unequivocally that the purpose of art is to elicit wellbeing. That’s a debate for another time, but to support his thesis, fellow panelist Peter Gloor, research scientist at the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management reported that a wearable sensometer, similar to a smartwatch, is in development to measure response to art within nanoseconds after observing a piece of art. The device instantly reports whether the observer feels happy or uncomfortable, thereby identifying an unconscious measure of art and its role in well-being. This could be a godsend to those responsible for selecting office art.

Final Note

Music deserves a mention as well. Most would agree that music may be the most powerful tool of all to elicit an emotional and psychological response. We remember where we were and what we were doing when we hear familiar music. Research has shown that the brain stores away musical information in unexpected ways. We can listen to just a few seconds of music, and they can lodge in the brain and resurface as an earworm. And our brain can play musical tricks on us: if we sit very quietly listening to a piece of music, our brains can register the same response as if we ourselves were singing and dancing. And the music we listened to as teenagers and young adults remain among our strongest memories of the past. Hearing those songs can transport us back in an instant – maybe not to a perfectly clear memory of the experience itself, but to the feelings that accompanied it. If a song lodged in one’s mind when something wonderful or exciting happened, it releases intense happiness, even if we can’t remember quite why. Equally, if we hear a song that we first heard when a sad thing happened, then on hearing that song again, a feeling of sadness or pathos will return.

And that connection to memory has power for organizations if they use music for sonic branding. Or, more creatively if their workforce creates a playlist for each other and clients that represent the emotions their brand elicits.


We don’t spend time thinking intellectually as much as we could because tech does it for us. One could argue that we are losing touch with ourselves, and how we could influence the world to create value and a positive environment. So, pause for a moment and consider the external stimuli, whether situational, auditory, sensory, or environmental, and note how you react, feel, and recognize how you are influenced. We encourage you to experience the value that you can create with your own written words; how art can inspire, provoke, and expand your horizons; how music can soothe and how all of these arts can improve a workplace, or an entire organization seeking to change or transform.

Get “The Truth about Transformation”

The Truth about Transformation Book Cover ImageThe 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail?  They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor.  We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.

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