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Original author: 
C. Edwards

Last week, comment sections across the creative community were set ablaze by the Harvard Business Review’s article “Seven Rules for Managing Creative People”, a list of instructions that described the general personality of creative employees with such choice words as “arrogant,” “bipolar” and “psychopathic.”

The article inspired so much vitriol from the online creative community that HBR has since changed its title to “Seven Rules For Managing Creative-But-Difficult People,” clarifying that, “Its intent is to discuss a small subset of people who happen to be both creative and difficult to work with; not to imply that all creative people are difficult.”

For those managers out there too busy corralling their unruly ‘creatives’ to read the entire piece, here are the original 7 rules in a nutshell (if you are a creative, please avert your eyes):

  1. Spoil them and let them fail
  2. Surround them by semi-boring people
  3. Only involve them in meaningful work
  4. Don’t pressure them
  5. Pay them Poorly
  6. Surprise Them
  7. Make them feel important

Along with updating the article title, HBR has also amended what is arguably the most egregious of the rules to: “#5. Don’t Overpay Them,” which seems especially scandalous considering the amount of creative individuals working through freelance and contract positions without benefits and health insurance. The author of the piece (pictured left), Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (@DrTCP) has also attempted to elaborate on this subject via Twitter: Save for a few tweets like the one above and one that states “…it represents my professional opinion, which is informed by science and practice,” Dr. Chamorro has, perhaps wisely, said little about the article since it was published. Cartoon Brew reached out to him for comment, but at the time of this writing, he had not responded to our interview requests.

The rest of the Internet has been anything but silent though, and there have been a multitude of responses to the article that raise some well thought out conclusions for the disenfranchised creative individual.

For those seeking to maintain the “us” vs. “them” divide, there’s Lancer Creative Services eye-for-an-eye response, “Seven Rules or Putting up with Management”, which includes advice like “Accept that they don’t get us” and “Remember that Money is everything to them”.

Stevie Moore of Studiospectre takes a more empowered stance, seeing the mere knowledge of the directives as just another tool in the creative professional’s arsenal:

“I think this is a good example of how, of the internet and social networking’s double edge can actually work in our favor. By publishing that, the author is just arming us with knowledge and evidence to ensure a future where creatives have equal roles in the industry, which I dare say all of us here feel is best.”

Cennydd Bowles of AListApart.com finds a more egalitarian view that benefits more than just “creatives” and “non-creatives”:

“The premise that underpins this and many similar articles is that creativity is a binary property: some people are blessed (or cursed) with it, others aren’t…Thankfully, the premise is flawed. Creativity is not a binary ability but a muscle that needs exercise… everyone has creative capacity.”

And indie filmmaker David O’Reilly, who recently directed an episode of Adventure Time, provides a painfully succinct response to the entire editorial debacle, aimed directly at the author himself:

However, there are still a couple of fundamental questions getting buried beneath all of the hurt feelings and defensive misunderstandings that make up a lion’s share of the response. Questions like: In today’s professional landscape, what defines a “creative”? And where exactly would these suggestions even be considered by management as viable options rather than ignored for potential risks to the bottom line?

(Typical artist photo via Shutterstock)

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“So, you do nothing all day.”

That’s how many people would respond to someone who says they spend the day with a pen or pencil in their hand. It’s often considered an empty practice, a waste of time. They’re seen as an empty mind puttering along with the busy work of scribbling.

But for us designers and artists, drawing pictures all day is integral to our process and to who we are as creative people, and despite the idea that those who doodle waste time, we still get our work done. So, then, why are those of us who draw pictures all day even tempted to think that someone who is doodling or drawing pictures in a meeting or lecture is not paying attention?

What does it mean to be a doodler, to draw pictures all day? Why do we doodle? Most of all, what does it mean to our work? It turns out that the simple act of scribbling on a page helps us think, remember and learn.

What Does It Mean To Doodle?

The dictionary defines “doodle” as a verb (“scribble absentmindedly”) and as a noun (“a rough drawing made absentmindedly”). It also offers the origins of the word “doodler” as “a noun denoting a fool, later as a verb in the sense ‘make a fool of, cheat.’”

But the author Sunni Brown offers my favorite definition of “doodle” in her TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!”:

“In the 17th century, a doodle was a simpleton or a fool, as in “Yankee Doodle.” In the 18th century, it became a verb, and it meant to swindle or ridicule or to make fun of someone. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt politician. And today, we have what is perhaps our most offensive definition, at least to me, which is the following: “To doodle officially means to dawdle, to dilly dally, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks, to do something of little value, substance or import and,” my personal favorite, “to do nothing.” No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It is no wonder, then, why most people do not have great expectations of those who “draw pictures all day.” Or perhaps they are inclined to think that those who draw pictures all day are not highly intellectual and are tempted to say to them condescendingly, “Go and draw some of your pictures.” As designers, many of us have heard such comments, or at least felt them implied, simply because we think, express or do things differently.

Why Do We Doodle?

Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. It is part of their process of understanding what’s around them. They draw not just what they see, but how they view the world. The drawing or doodle of a child is not necessarily an attempt to reflect reality, but rather an attempt to communicate their understanding of it. This is no surprise because playing, trial and error, is a child’s primary method of learning. A child is not concerned with the impressions that others get based on their drawings or mistakes.

An Example of a doodle
An example of a doodle.

Their constant drawing, picture-making and doodling is a child’s way of expressing their ideas and showing their perceptions in visual form. It comes from a need to give physical form to one’s thoughts. Similarly, an adult doodles in order to visualize the ideas in their head so that they can interact with those ideas.

Visual Learners

According to Linda Silverman, director of both the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center and author of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, 37% of the population are visual learners. If so many people learn better visually, we can expect, then, that some of them learn better by putting a speech, lecture or meeting into visual and tangible form through pictures or doodles, rather than by being provided with pictures or doodles (which would be the product of another person’s mind).

37% of the population are visual learners

Humans have always had a desire to visually represent what’s in their minds and memory and to communicate those ideas with others. Early cave paintings were a means of interacting with others, allowing an idea or mental image to move from one person’s mind to another’s. The purpose of visual language has always been to communicate ideas to others.

Secondly, we doodle because our brain is designed to empathize with the world around us. According to Carol Jeffers, professor at California State University, our brains are wired to respond to, interact with, imitate and mirror behavior. In an article she wrote, she explains the recent research into “mirror neurons” which help us understand and empathize with the world around us.

A cave painting
Cave paintings were our first means of communicating ideas to others.

Think of it this way. When you’re at an art gallery and find a painting that intrigues you, what is your first reaction? You want to touch it, don’t you? I thought so.

When I was a ballroom dancer, I used to sit and watch those who I considered to be great dancers, tracing their forms in space with my index finger as a way to commit them to memory. I used to go to galleries and museums and, at a distance, trace the lines and forms that I saw in the paintings and designs. I did this out of curiosity and a desire to physically record what I saw to memory.

Nearly 100 years ago, Maria Montessori discovered the link between physical touch and movement and learning in children. Montessori education teaches children to trace the letters of the alphabet with their index finger as a way to commit their shapes to memory. My son used to trace forms that he found interesting in space. It’s safe to say, then, that we doodle to visually commit to memory a concept that we want to both empathize and interact with.

An experiment conducted by Jackie Andrade, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, demonstrated the positive effect that doodling has on memory retention. In the experiment, 40 people were given a simple set of instructions to take RSVP information over the phone from people going to a party. The group of 40 was divided in two. One group of 20 was told to doodle (limited to shading in order not to emphasize the quality of the doodles), and the other 20 would not doodle.

The doodlers recalled 29% more information.

Doodling a lightbulb
Doodling helps us retain information.

The study showed that doodling helps the brain to focus. It keeps the mind from wandering away from whatever is happening, whether it’s a lecture, reading or conference talk.

Still, we have become bored with learning.

Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, Joseph D. Novak argues that this is because we have been taught to memorize but not to evaluate the information being given to us. In many traditional settings, the pattern is simple and dull: sit, receive and memorize. Many traditional educational systems do not encourage active engagement with the material. Doodling, drawing and even making diagrams helps us not only engage with the material, but also identify the underlying structure of the argument, while also connecting concepts in a tactile and visual way. Jesse Berg, president of The Visual Leap, pointed out to me in a conversation that doodling is a multisensory activity. While our hand is creating what might seem to be random pictures, our brain is processing the stimuli that’s running through it.

Many of us are the product of traditional schooling, in which we were made to numbingly memorize dates and facts, and many of us continue this pattern later in life. While some of us were avid doodlers (I used to fill the backs of my notebooks with pictures and draw on desks with a pencil during class), some of us stopped at high school, others in college and others once we settled into a job. At some point during the education process, doodling was discouraged. Teachers most likely viewed it as a sign of inattentiveness and disrespect. After hard preparation, educators want nothing more than unwavering attention to their lectures. The irony is that, according to Andrade’s study, doodlers pay more attention to the words of educators than we think.

In her TED talk, Sunny Brown goes on to explain the benefits of doodling and even offers an alternative to the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary:

“Doodling is really to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think. That is why millions of people doodle. Here’s another interesting truth about the doodle: People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts. We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

How Can Designers Use This To Their Benefit?

As designers, we have a unique advantage when it comes to doodling. We don’t just doodle to keep our minds focused — we also deliberately sketch ideas in order to problem solve and to get immediate feedback from clients and peers. Designers such as Craighton Berman and Eva-Lotta Lamm are two of the biggest proponents of the “sketchnotating” movement. Berman states that sketchnotating “forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea — all in real time.”

In 2009, I came across a book titled The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Roam is a business strategist and founder of Digital Roam, a management-consulting firm that uses visual thinking to solve complex problems. He uses a simple approach to solving problems visually. Every idea is run through five basic questions to encourage engaged thinking and to ensure a meaningful meeting. The process takes the acronym SQVI^. S is for simple or elaborate, Q is for qualitative or quantitative, V is for vision or execution, I is for individual or comparison, and ^ is for change or status quo. These simple choices are worked through with simple doodles in order to better understand the problem and find a solution. In his book, Roam says:

“What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.”

After discovering Roam’s book, I decided to doodle again. Once a prolific doodler and drawer, I had become inactive in lectures and similar settings, often forgetting what was said. Taking notes felt too cumbersome, and I often missed words and ideas. I decided to give doodling another shot. Instead of focusing on specifics, I would focus on concepts, key words and ideas.

Since 2011, I have been actively promoting doodling in my design classes, making a deal with my students, saying to them, “Doodle to your heart’s content, but in return I want you to doodle the content of my lectures.” They are skeptical at first, but they soon realize that doodling is better than having a quiz. I reap the benefits of doodling, and by allowing them to doodle — with the requirement that it be based on the class’ content — they become more informed of the topic and they engage in more meaningful conversations about design.

A sketchbook
A designer’s best friend: a sketchpad.

The typographic novices in my classes naturally start to apply the principles of visual hierarchy and organization, grouping ideas either by importance or by category. They will group ideas with lines, boxes, marks and more. Headings and lecture titles might be made larger, more ornate or bolder, and key concepts might be visually punctuated. It is fascinating how natural and almost second-nature the idea of visual hierarchy is to all of us. The learning curve of typography is steep for some of us, but doodling and sketchnotating really makes it easier to grasp. Below are some doodles by students in my classes.

Introduction to Typography lecture doodle by Alisa Roberts
Doodle by Alisa Roberts from my “Introduction to Typography” course.

By picking out concepts, ideas and topics, the students start to establish a hierarchy by making visual groupings and start to use visual punctuation. By the time I assign work on typographic hierarchy, the sketches tend to show more astuteness. Transferring these sketches to the computer is a challenge for those new to typography, but once they naturally understand the relationships in what they are doing, they start to make smarter design decisions.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Doodle by Aubrie Lamb from my “Identity and Branding” course.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Another by Aubrie Lamb from the same course.

As we have seen, doodling has many benefits, beyond what designers as visual communicators and problem solvers use it for. Doodling also helps our brain function and process data. Those of us who doodle should do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. We are in good company. Historically, doodlers have included presidents, business moguls and accomplished writers. Designer, educator and speaker Jason Santa Maria says this:

“Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.”

Doodling, drawing pictures and sketchnotating are about using visual skills to solve problems, to understand our world and to respond effectively. So, what are you waiting for? Doodle!

Further Reading

Unless otherwise stated, images are from Stock.XCHNG.

(al) (il)

© Alma Hoffmann for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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I really liked Clay Shirky's essay on the relationship between physical space and creativity. It's one of those classic, Shirkian riffs that includes a bunch of seemingly glib and merely clever ideas and culminates with a thing that ties it all together and makes you realize that a bunch of stuff you've been taking for granted is REALLY important and a bit weird.

In this video of his talk at PSFK CONFERENCE NYC, Clay Shirky talks about the work of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. After working there as an assistant professor for almost ten years, Shirky describes five student projects that he thinks are pushing the creative boundaries - from interface design to how people cluster to build new work. At the end of the talk, the technology thought-leader compares creatives as members of a philharmonic orchestra and wonders if any rules can be drawn from looking at such an ensemble.

Clay Shirky: What I Learned About Creativity By Watching Creatives

(Thanks, Avi!)

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Manga Artist Yusuke Murata Creates the Most Innovative Comic You’ll See This Week

Right now: click the link and view the whole thing. Two minutes of your life, and you won’t be sorry! This isn’t some fancy digital touchscreen iPad app thinga-ma-jiggie. This is pencil and paper, light and shadow, and pure inventiveness. Bravo! 

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Milton Glaser on the fear of failure

On the occasion of a recent graduate show students from Berghs School of Communication in Sweden have conducted a series of interviews with some very bright people about the fear of failure. Predictably, many responded with the old adage: “Embrace failure.”

While undoubtably true, that idea requires some translation in order to make into one’s personal practice and to most students it seems tremendously unhelpful. So Milton Glaser’s comments stand out by going far beyond simple encouragement. Instead he outlines an excellent argument for why the fear of failure leads to stagnation: If you only do what you’ve already proven to be good at, in the future you will always be asked to do that type of specialized service. As a result creative development ceases and rot sets in.

All creatives develop their own arsenal of tried-and-tested tricks. I’m certainly guilty of that. But I am always most impressed by people who take chances with their work and trust their instincts. I am also most pleased by my own projects when I feel they go beyond what I already know. So I for one think Mr.Glaser’s advice is damn good advice.

Make sure to watch the whole thing, it’s some of the most useful 7 minutes and 30 seconds you’ll spend this week…

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““The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and somthing else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.””

- Chuck Close (via sandyhong & @emilycarroll)

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Robert Moses Beach iPhone

Lately, I’ve been hit with the photography bug. It usually happens to me once a year. It goes something like this: I get the bug, I research cameras for a week, I buy an expensive camera, I use it non-stop for a few months, the bug goes away, I sell the camera.

I’m a gear head, so when I become obsessed with something I immediately try to find all the best gear that I can get my hands on. It’s good because I get to learn and experience new things, but it’s also bad on my wallet. And when it comes to photo gear, there’s no stopping me.

Until recently.

After countless cameras, and years of searching for the perfect camera that would push my photos to the next level, I’m now a firm believer that the best camera is the camera that you have with you. Yes, a Hasselblad H4D-60 will blow any other camera away, but you don’t see many people in street with a $42,000 camera hanging from their necks.

I hated lugging around a big ass body, with a big ass lens and a hood attached to it. That was the primary reason why I would stop shooting: I didn’t want to carry around all that stuff. I used to carry around a Hasselblad 503, with a prism and metal hood. The damn thing weighted a ton—and it sure captured some amazing photos—but after a few hours of carrying it, I wanted to throw it in the garbage. I hated that feeling because it ruined the moment and eventually led me to feel unmotivated. The tool was getting in the way of my creativity.

Now I just shoot with my iPhone 4. I already carry it around, and the built-in camera is pretty damn good. When I see an interesting shot, I just pull it out and snap a photo. The joy and spontaneity of shooting is instantly back. I would love it if Apple added some advanced features to the camera app—like shutter and aperture control—and I do miss me some depth of field, but overall the phone produces some fine images.

I think I’ve achieved some good results with this little camera. I took the photo to the left with my iPhone. This guy did a fashion shoot with an iPhone 3GS. Granted, he used a great lighting system, but the images are still impressive. Check out these folks who took a great looking shot with a Canon Powershot SD630 and some basic lighting. Professional fashion photographer Terry Richardson does entire shoots with a Yashica T4 point and shoot and the photos look great.

Don’t get me wrong, it is much easier to produce a great photo with high-end camera. That’s why it’s even more impressive when a great photo is taken with a lower-end one. The talent truly shines in that case.

My point is, in any creative field, the tool isn’t important. It’s what’s behind the tool that counts. So, don’t stress about getting a Canon 1Ds Mark III or the latest version of Photoshop. Just create.      

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