Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 14, The Mind at Odds

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the creative process. The last couple of shows, we gave attention to the creative mind. We spoke about the mental patnership of our conscious and unconscious levels of awareness, and also about the priority of loosening up and having fun. Along these lines, we reasoned that if creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves, then we need to seek out ways to have fun. First, as a means of conditioning ours minds for idea-production, and, second, as a way to noodle around and to sandbox our project and uncover possibilities. Creative play allows us to wrap our heads around the subject matter and continue to feed those mental partners.

Today, we'll speak some more about the creative mind by introducing some related concepts.

Now, most of us have heard at least a little bit about the whole left brain vs. right brain thing. This is a theory or model that says that there are differences in cognition between the left and right hemispheres of our brains. And, in fact, there is a physical separation, called the longitudinal fissure, if we must know, which creates two hemispheres, joined together by the corpus callosum. And this accounts for that walnut-like appearance, where we plainly see two halves making up the whole. And while they're physically very similar in appearance, ostensibly just mirror images of each other, they've actually got some distinct functions. And so we've come to associate the hemishperes with different mental tasks. This is called lateralization. And it tells us that mental tasks are not shared equally, but that they're handled by one hemisphere or the other, whereas others appear to be bi-lateral, or a shared.

But in keeping with the broad statements that have influenced creative theory, the left brain is said to be adept at logical, linear, analytical tasks, while the right brain is the hemisphere of creativity, intuition, the ability to discern shapes and patterns, among other things. When this mind model first came to the fore, it immediately became popular with creativity theorists because it seemed to provide a scientific explanation for the problems that artists and other creatives encounter. Popular books, like Betty Edwards's Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain, are good examples of teaching that's latched on to this concept, promising us methods to harness the hemispheres and control creativity.

It's safe to say that early presentations of the model are now considered somewhat quaint or overly broad in their simplicity and have since been updated with more nuanced explanations. But the basic idea is not in dispute.There are differences between the hemispheres. We know this from research and from brain scans and the study of stroke victims, and the like. So, for creatives, it's still useful to think in terms of left brain / right brain, at least as a helpful metaphor. It's a model that reminds us that there are complementary parts of our mind that we've got to coordinate, so that we minimize conflict, and so that we don't short circuit our productivity.

This hemisphere stuff is similar in some ways to that Freudian business about id, and ego, and super-ego, which says that ideas are produced by the unconscious id and then screened by the ego and superego. Our id or creative unconscious is like an uninhibited child within us, a source of raw creativity, akin to the creative, right hemisphere function. But it's counter-balanced by the rational, finger-wagging, "adult" part of us, which is more in line with that logical left brain function. Now, I've made a mixed up soup of these theories, but there is this bit of overlap. And our experience affirms the basic truth of it all. We get frustrated with our spouse for not being "spontaneous," always having to be the practical one. Or maybe we're the practical, logical one, carping about the other being frivolous and never planning for tomorrow. But even closer to home is that we've got this dialogue going on in our own heads. We hear two voices, debating whether to purchase that little "extra" or not. In our projects, it shows up as the paralysis of analysis stifling our creative impulses. Sometimes we even hear people who are hip to the theories say things like, "I'm very left brained," or "she's so right-brained."

But I think we can sort of meld these ideas together and use them like this: If there's a part of us that can be likened to a creative wild-child within us, then why not let it loose for a while and see what happens? If we're graphic designers, why not allow ourselves to lay down a lot of visual ideas all at once? If we're novelists, why not do that 60,000-word dash, never looking back, to a completed first draft? If we permit ourselves to loosen up and run in this way, we know we're going to produce a lot of material. So, how come we have so much trouble doing this? Why do we say, like Oscar Wilde, "I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out."? The answer should be obvious by now. It's because we're short circuting ourselves. That inner child is being silenced by the inner adult, whose motto apparently is "children should be seen and not heard." Or we've got the left brain conflicting with the right brain. The id doing battle with the super ego. Pick your metaphor.

To quote Anne Lamott, "The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, 'Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten by more rational, grown up means.

Likewise, as a designer, you want to loosen up and have fun, as we suggested in the last episode. Adopt the attitude, "It doesn't matter, I'm just playing," and noodle around. Let yourself go. Ban thoughts of "But this isn't any good" before you cripple yourself with your own logic.

But we'll pick up on more of this subject in the next show. If you'd like to check out some of the references I made today, please look up the shownotes at, where I've included hyperlinked footnotes. Music is by Thanks again for listening. I look forward to having you back next time.


(In the interest of time, I've posted the transcript only. Hyperlinked footnotes coming soon.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 13, The Mind at Play

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Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the nature of the creative process, and the things we can do to get a handle on it. Last time, we spoke about the creative mind. We described how the conscious and the unconscious parts of our minds work together to help us solve problems and combine elements into ideas. And we likened this mental partnership to making a stew, or building a compost heap. And this is to say that, in our normal, conscious state, we gather the raw materials of our project. Then, over the course of time, this stuff is processed by our unconscious mind. Eventually, this stew of materials will be useful to us. But we need time - time enough for our unconscious to do its work. Because it's on this deeper level, the part of us that dreams, that our mind forms the connections that lead to ideas.

The German Philosopher, Helmholtz,(1) summarized the process in three parts. First, a Preparation Phase, where we gather materials, followed by Incubation, when our unconscious does its unseen work, followed by Illumination, when (quote) "happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration" (unquote). Illumination is that pregnant moment when solutions come forth, the moment we here about in famous anecdotes: Archimedes Eureka moment.(2) Or J.K. Rowling(3) envisioning the entire basis for the Harry Potter books while riding on the train. And, obviously, this is the state we want to be in all the time, if we can help it. So, how can we?

Jack Foster, in How to Get Ideas, lays down the same basic process, but spends the bulk of his book offering ways to condition our minds for it. First and foremost, and above all else, his advice is to have fun. He writes, "It's not by chance that I list having fun as my first suggestion on how to get your mind into idea-condition. Indeed, in my experience it might well be the most important one. Here's why: Usually in creative departments of advertising agencies a writer and an art director work together as a team on a project. In some departments and occasionally in the ones that I headed, three or four teams work on the same project. When that happened in my departments, I always knew which team would come up with the best ideas, the best ads, the best television commercials, the best billboards. It was the team that was having the most fun. The ones with frowns and furrowed brows rarely got anything good. The ones smiling and laughing almost always did. Were they enjoying themselves because they were coming up with ideas? Or were they coming up with ideas because they were enjoying themselves? The latter. No question about it. After all, you know it's true with everything else - people who enjoy what they're doing, do it better. So why wouldn't it be true with people who have to come up with ideas?" (end of quotation). (4)

Or as Carl Jung said, "Creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves."(5)

So, my advice is that you should find ways to play and keep things light. We've got work to do, of course, but we can still adopt a playful seriousness. Or to think in terms of serious play. It's when we're uptight and anal, that we experience a kind of creative constipation. Maybe that accounts for the furrowed brow that Jack Foster was talking about. But, then again, I was just quoting Jung, not Freud, so I'll just move on to some practical suggestions.

1. Play with your materials.
Loosen up and relax and adopt an attitude of "it doesn't matter, I'm just playing." Give yourself permission to just noodle around with things, and see what happens, what shape things take. Forget about rules for a while and just play in the sandbox of ideas.

2. Play with co-workers.
Depending on your office culture, this doesn't have to mean three-legged races down the hallways. But engage in reparte, play with words, joke around, banter, send weird emails, all that stuff. When we ignite that goofy dynamic, and strive to up the ante with each other, we can come up with all kinds of good and unexpected stuff. But the big idea is that you're keeping it fun with each other. There's nothing more deadly to creativity than a miserable team.

3. Play with your subject matter.
Even make fun of the project, make a parody out of it, think of extreme things you would never really do. Pretend you're the creative team at Saturday Night Live and do a total mockery of a mock up. Will you be able to use any of this material? Maybe, Maybe not. It depends on how much irreverance your client can tolerate. But at least you're thinking outside the box. You're bracketing the subject with a broader spectrum of ideas, ranging from the conservative to the outright absurd.

There's lots of other suggestions I can make along these lines, but before it devolves into stuff like holding pajama day at the office, I'll offer one last point.

4. Having fun with ideas means not getting precious about ideas.
As much as we've been giving attention to the subject, we shouldn't think of ideas as precious or rare. True, some are stronger than others, and truly world shaking ideas don't come along every day, but it's not this class of ideas that we work with every day. And there's a difference between defending a core idea and building a temple around them.(6) If you're getting too precious and protective about ideas, it's probably because you're not coming up with enough of them. Especially, in a team setting, you want to be willing to throw your idea way if someone's got a better one. Think quantity, not quality at first. The quality will come. The cream will rise to the top. But only if you fill the bucket first.

Well, that'll have to do for today. I want to thank you again for tuning in and especially for the encouraging feedback I've received. And if you're just joining us, and you're enjoing this series, please consider letting your voice be heard in the form of a vote at podcast alley, or a comment at iTunes. And don't forget to click that subscribe button. The show is free, and you'll be automatically be alerted to new episodes. But, again I truly thank you for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.





4. Foster, Jack, How to Get Ideas, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996


6. This phraseology of "building a temple around ideas" comes from a recent episode of KCRW's The Treatment, in which Elvis Mitchell interviews Tony Gilroy. Gilroy speaks about collaborating with film directors and "trading up" to better ideas by exchanging them with each other. Get the episode here.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 12, The Creative Mind

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We live in a create-on-demand world, and, whether you're a graphic designer or a college student working on a writing assignment, or a podcaster trying to come up with his next episode, the question is the same. How can we gain some control of the creative process, so that our minds and imaginations are productive when we need them to be?

As we established last time, creativity is a process. It's often slippery and disorderly, and we can make huges messes along the way, but it IS a process. And AS a process, it consists of steps and actions - practical things we can DO to encourage our productivity. And this ought to encourage us, since we can be proactive in our creativity, rather than passively wait around for ideas to just happen to us.

We also spoke about ideas, because we need ideas, large and small, to get us through our project. But we demystified the subject by explaining that ideas aren't of otherworldy origin, or the domain of the supercreative, but simply new combinations of old elements. Ideas feel fresh because we've made a new juxtaposition of things. So, the trick is to find relationships between these old elements, and put them together in interesting ways to create a new effect or perspective. This is a bit like our reaction when we see people get together. We know our friend, John. We know our friend, Susan. But then they hook up and become a new idea, called John-and-Susan, and it changes our perspective. There's a new dynamic, a combined effect that's different than when they were apart. In the realm of music, someone took rhythm and blues and put it together with country to create a new idea in music, which we know as rock 'n' roll. In the realm of graphic design, Saul Bass(1) took our old fashioned idea of what a movie poster was, and married it to a graphic, modernistic sensibility, and influenced generations of designers as a result. On an every day level, our design compositions are merely new arrangements of the familiar elements of design. It's their organization and layout, the combinations we come up with, that makes them feel like either a new idea or a cliche.

And just a word about cliches. In the realm of ideas, cliches represent the stale side of the spectrum. Cliches are trite, worn out ideas. We've seen or heard them so many times that they've lost their impact. Designers still embrace them, though, because they are so familiar and they communicate so instantly. But smart designers put a fresh spin on the cliche. They add a twist, they augment a cliche with another element, until they've cast the old idea in a new light, making it a somewhat new idea. So if you're frustrated by all the cliches you seem to generate, no need to fret. Just use them as a starting point toward something new.

But returning to the original question about how we sieze control of creativity, its helpful to understand a bit about how that thinking organ between our ears works. After all, creativity is a work of imagination, it's a process of the mind. So, if we can gain some insight into how our minds work, then we can work with it, rather than forcing matters.

Now, there are theories or models about how the mind works. One model describes the mind in terms of its conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious mind represents our wakeful state or level of awareness. But the unconscious mind operates below the level of our normal awareness. It is the part of us that dreams and sorts out the stimuli we receive on our conscious level.

But in the interest of keeping things straightforward and practical, we can think of it this way: As we receive stimuli from the world around us, and as we collect the raw materials of our project, our unconscious mind goes to work on them at a deeper level. It's like we're putting together a stew, and placing it on the backburner of our brains. In the course of time, we consciously toss more things into the pot, where they sit and simmer. What's interesting thing is that we can we can decide to stop thinking about our project, yet our unconcscious mind is still working on it. This should set us at ease in the knowledge that there's a solution waiting to emerge, we just need to gather materials and give it time. This technique is also called composting, which is a nice image for the way our mind converts raw materials into a rich and fertile source for us to draw from.

I believe this is why procrastination is common among creatives, and shouldn't necessarily be thought of us as a bad thing. Because if the unconscious requires to time to do its thing, then it stands to reason that a project can be started too early. Hence, that blank page syndrome I mentioned in the last episode. We may be creatively blocked because the ingredients in our mental stew pot need time to coalesce. The compost heap needs to go through the chemical changes that will make those raw materials useful to us.

But to wrap things up for today, we've identified the first practical thing we can do. And that's to collect those raw materials. We do this in addition to the information gathering we've done with our client. These raw materials are what James Webb Young describes as "specific knowledge about products and people, and general knowledge about life and events."(2) And in light of this discussion about how our minds work, we've got excellent motivation to do so, because we realize that it's not a dry research exercise. It's a strategic, creative tactic. It's a way to set our unconscious mind on the problem early, so it can do its unseen work, sorting out elements and forming connections, so it can supply us with the ideas and solutions that we'll need later.

But that's it for today. I'll be posting show notes and references at my webpage, which is Music is by If you're finding this series helpful, I welcome your feedback in the form of a comment at iTunes or a vote at podcast alley. Well, I thank you again for your support, and for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. Saul Bass On The Web

2. James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, McGraw-Hill, 2003

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