Parting with tradition may yield fresh greatness

This post from Patty O'Mara-Croft, the usually quieter half of Visual Congruence:

As a full-time educator and part-time advisor to this business on design issues, I am sometimes asked how I promote creative, out-of-the-box thinking. I'm always seeking new ways to help others be more creative and thoughtful in their compositions, including how to effectively break the traditional "rules" of art and design. For instance, if students are drawing portraits that involve mapping the proportions of the face, I may require that my charges use a non-traditional color scheme to render their drawings, or that they abstract the images by applying an interesting Photoshop filter (we used the stained glass option recently) that then becomes their guide.

When students are forced to let go of preconceived notions of what something is supposed to look like, they often create surprisingly well-conceived compositions that adhere more to the principles of good design and less to an adolescent sense of what looks “good” -- a perspective which too often translates into a rather dull attempt to recreate the photographically realistic.

Perhaps we can all learn something from this exercise. Perhaps our own preconceptions of the direction an innovation should take limit the range of options possible. Instead, maybe we need to approach a solution from a different perspective so that we might see it most clearly, and can then come up with the most creative ideas. Consider this: You are charged with planning a function to entertain and impress visiting clients. Do you stick with the traditional, to play it safe and reduce the risks you may offend? A steak dinner, a couple of cocktails and some polite conversation? Or could you move beyond the norm, and try something that might get the creative juices flowing for discussion later? What about a gallery tour? An urban scavenger hunt? A performance of Blue Man Group? Might not inspiration grow out of thinking about things from a different approach? Out of seeing the world through a slightly different lens?

Ask yourself, and others in your circle, to pose and answer unusual questions. What would this look like in a different color, shape or texture? Will looking at it from different angles tell us anything new? Will different people see different things? Before you let yourself apply limiting thoughts, really try to abandon what is in favor of what, in a world without boundaries, could be.

My students seem to enjoy projects that break the mold of what is literal in pursuit of what is compelling, and often love the results that come from doing something out of the norm. If everyone in the working world could be happy with their work assignments, in part because their creativity was put into play, wouldn't we all reap richer rewards from our work?


Visualizing what we read and hear

Last night, I settled into a rerun of Law and Order. If you’re not a regular of this show, please consider this – it is perhaps the master of using metaphorical one-liners to hammer a point home. Last night was a stellar example. Halfway into the show, the Assistant D.A. was debating innocence and guilt with opposing counsel. At one point, the defense attorney suggested that the prosecutor was trying too hard to pin a rape and murder on a parent or sibling. His comment:

“Are you going to keep shaking the family tree until a pervert falls out?”

This statement immediately spawned a visual in my mind, albeit a bizarre and mildly unsettling one, and one unlikely to have direct business relevance. The immediate relevance, though, is secondary to the importance of letting your mind translate what it reads and hears into what it can see. Let your mind’s eye explore the image created by a comment; you can connect the dots of broader applications later on.

Whenever I experience one of these moments, where a character says something visually provocative, I write notes in a book I keep close at hand for this purpose. I record who made the comment, and in what context. In some instances, I’ll even quickly doodle out the picture that comes to mind, without any concern for quality. The key is to preserve the thought. For example:

As anal retentive as all of this sounds, this book becomes an invaluable reference whenever I’m struggling to come up with a thought. Even if the specific metaphor is not appropriate for my present need, the simple act of starting up the metaphor machine seems to get the juices flowing. Here are other notes in my book:

From Law & Order – the D.A. challenges the suggestion that the prosecution keep mum with the media on a high-profile case: “No comment? Are you trying to chum the waters?”

From Life is Sweet – a mother reacts to a daughter’s assertion that she’s entirely unloved: “Well, that’s a bit sweeping, isn’t it?”

From Frasier – speaking to a colleague about sharing some implement the other had used: “Not if you skipped it to me across a pool of disinfectant.”

From The 40 Year Old Virgin – a daughter’s keening over her mother’s rules gets on the star’s nerves: “She sounds like a teakettle.”

Practicing this technique will not only help you come up with good visual metaphors to use in communication, it will also help you think about the captions that accompany those graphics. Imagine how powerful your communications will be if you reinforce the visual messages with very active, creative words.

If you’re interested in this concept, try a Google search using the keywords, “visual words”. Some very interesting material emerges. For example, Medical News Today carries a story that talks about how visual words can influence perception of smells. Research suggests pleasant words influence olfactory regions of the brain to perceive odors as pleasant. In one example they share, subjects were exposed to the smell of cheddar cheese at the same time as being shown signs that said first “cheddar cheese” and then “body odor.” They found that people had a more positive impression of the smell with the former sign than with the latter. Go figure.

More on sources of creative inspiration in future posts; in the meantime, keep your mind's eye open.


Today's happy (Tufte) moment

Today's happy moment for me came during a visit to edwardtufte.com. Regarding his new book, Beautiful Evidence (a beautiful title):

"I have completed Beautiful Evidence, except for the index and a few loose ends. We are currently proofing some difficult images on press, negotiating with printers, planning the order for paper and binding, and working through other production issues. Probably the major threats to breaking the schedule will be in color-correcting images and in importing some paper used in one section of the book. We should have books in mid-April."

I shook Mr. Tufte's hand while attending one his seminars (worth every penny and more), and acted like I was meeting a movie star. I would like to borrow his brain for the rest of my life.

If, by some chance, you are unfamiliar with Edward Tufte, he is a Yale professor who is widely regarded as the Michael Jordan of the information design world (or the Jakob Nielsen of the information design world, if you like). He is the author of Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. For intellectual books, they manage to never be plodding or boring -- if you've never read them, they get my "two thumbs way up" rating.


Empathetic computers -- a shallower Hal?

ZDNet (Roland Piquepaille) shares the story of the Fraunhofer Institute's Emotions in Speech project, in which experts are working on computers that can interpret human emotions. Cameras, image analysis and gloves that record heartbeat, breathing rate, blood pressure and skin temperature are all a part of the system. Researchers note that many of us take out our frustrations on our computers, and hope this solution will provide information that will again make us friends with the technology. When this finds its way into my system, I hope they will equip it with the means to leave the room when it irritates me.

Christian Peter, a key player in the project, has prepared a white paper on the approach.


Pulling wisdom out of pooh

I'm a lover of quotations. Just as a well-conceived image can set a stalled creative mind in motion, so too can thoughtful prose clear away stubborn mental cobwebs. One quote has stuck with me as a personal favorite for a very long time, because I think it perfectly encapsulates the challenge each of us faces from time to time.

"HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. " -- AA Milne, Winnie the Pooh


Just another pic in the wall

One of the joys of being a visual communicator is that, as your passion and skills evolve, you start to see interesting, sometimes unusual patterns in everyday things. It's like cloudwatching on steroids, a hypersensitivity not only to what a thing looks like, but also what it reminds one of. This encompasses the obvious -- road signs, icons, floor plans, and the like -- along with the not-so-obvious -- the branches of trees, cracks in dried mud, a flock of birds. The world is rich in imagery and the roots of metaphor. At its most dramatic, the experience is not unlike a dream, or a series of "aha" moments. And yep -- it all goes down without hallucinogens.

It seems only natural and logical, then, that the universe of angles, lines, colors and textures would concentrate its magic in the sanctum sanctorum of deep thought -- the main floor bathroom of our house. The previous owners of our home (and, by extension, this bathroom) opted for sponge painting as part of the design. One evening, I found myself looking more closely at the various globs and blobs, and convinced myself I could see several weakly defined "faces" amid the chaos. On my next visit, I brought a pencil, and lightly traced the first image that jumped out at me. Then I traced another, and another. After Patty enquired why I had been in the bathroom for 45 minutes, I showed her what I had done. To my surprise, she too began seeing faces amid the paint, and she too began tracing (and doing so in a more professional way than I could ever hope for myself.)

It wasn't long before the kids saw the scribbles and begged to add their own. Other family members left their mark. Finally, friends and neighbors started to make sure a pencil was available before they would answer nature's call. In short order, our bathroom had become a mural of pencil marks, all based on the patterns each of us saw amid the paint. In a strange way, the act of creating graffiti promoted an odd (and oddly inspiring) sense of community.

All of this is, admittedly, kinda queer, and I'm not even sure why I'm dragging you into our bathroom. Perhaps I'm hoping that there are kindred spirits out there who are finding creative inspiration in the most unusual of places, and that there are other odd but inspiring stories you might share.

Musing among cans, boxes, bags & pouches

For weeks, my wife Patty has begged me to bring some structure to two particularly daunting shelving units of groceries in our basement. For weeks, I've intended to do just that. A week or so ago, she switched to Plan B -- ask two of our children to tackle the job. Out of respect for the kids' creativity and intellect, she didn't set a lot of parameters, other than to insist all items find their way off the floor. We sat back with smiles, hopeful that peaches and fruit cocktail, pasta and rice side dishes, and myriad other buried items would at last be married with their appropriate counterparts.

Here's the end result of the kids' work:

Yes, there are still items on the floor, and yes, there are items actually dangling off the shelves. Creative, no?

After some reflection, my wife has returned to Plan A, and I have returned to my ambition to get around to this within the next few weeks--unless a viable Plan C emerges. Unbeknownst to my wife, the whole process got me thinking again about how people approach organizing diverse information (or boxes of Hamburger Helper), and about how we might each approach the same task in an entirely different way.

When I work with a client to establish their web site taxonomy, or to create a process or strategy map, I need to consider both how the organization wants that information to be structured and how individual employees will be most receptive to that information. To succeed, I need to turn off my preconceived notions of how I would process that data, and instead find the most logical sequence for that time and that audience. So, if I am helping to plan a site architecture, I need to understand the goals for the effort, how other information is structured, how this information is currently structured, what options exist for reorganizing information and as much else I can glean about the organization and its specific needs. How many of these types of questions do you think the kids asked in facing their challenge?

Think for a moment how you might order the contents of my shelves. Some of you might arrange by type of container -- cans, bottles, boxes and pouches could each have their own shelf. You might arrange by the contents of the package -- vegetables in one section, fruit in another, and so on with soup, prepared meals and the like. If you're a real control freak, you might group the items by the meals you hope to create with them -- if you do, though, you've got way too much time on your hands. You may order them by the meal they are most likely to support -- syrup and corned beef hash in a breakfast section? Or, if you're feeling really adventurous, you could organize the items the ways my sons did -- chaos, anyone? The bottom line is this -- the only way you could know what would work for me is to make sure you ask questions. If you don't ask the questions, your system may not serve my needs any better than my sons' system did.

Sometimes, your questions should extend beyond the immediate environment. For example, should some of the items be discarded or given away? Should some be moved to the upstairs pantry, so they are closer at hand and therefore more likely to be used? Should we stock up on more items that will make these items more appealing? Would a jar of gravy help move mashed potatoes more quickly? Should we create a written inventory of items, and match that item with a grocery list, so we know exactly what we have at any given point in time? How else might a more holistic view reduce future challenges?

Consultants are guilty, at times, of proposing their own best solution, instead of asking the probing questions about what works best for the client. In the field of visual communication, this is a risky presumption. If you send out a message that the audience is unprepared to receive, your message will likely be lost, no matter how much finesse you applied to its creation. If you organize the information in a way that does not put the most appropriate messages up front, the overall message may be hopelessly muddled. Suppose you are introducing a new sales compensation program; if you put the wrong information up front and push important details to the "back of the shelf", you run a very real risk of creating a full-blown morale issue. You need to ask questions, and then ask questions about the answers you receive, until you have a pretty clear picture of what will work. It's still true that if you assume, you make an...well, you get the idea.

Incidentally, I plan to organize the items on the shelves by their appropriateness to my lifestyle at this point in time. I'm trying to lose weight and get in better shape, so the whole grains and low-fat ingredients will occupy a different shelf than the refined goods. Would you have guessed that? Probably not. If you bought more groceries six months from now, could you be sure that the system hadn't changed? Again, probably not. That's why we cannot afford to guess, especially when questions can provide such a wealth of information.

Does anyone have a Plan C for me?



Try the future on for size

Welcome to the first-ever posting to my blog, the Visual Congruence Creativity Zone. I chose this name because I hope this little corner of the Web will evolve into a preferred venue for meetings of minds. I am a profound believer in the power of human creativity and artistic potential. I also believe that communication, when fueled by the full force of creativity, can marry excitement with education. And I am an avid proponent of the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." I'd have to believe this -- I make my living by creating maps that make people act. Please visit Visual Congruence (www.visualcongruence.com) to see more.

I should apologize in advance for rough edges as I start to lay the foundation for this little community. As I write this, I have the book Blog Marketing (by Jeremy Wright) open next to me, for both inspiration and instruction. I've read about 1/3 of it, and it inspired me to take this first plunge -- how's that for an endorsement? I share this with you as my subtle way of asking for your patience. This blog may look different from time to time, as I try new things. I may post several times in one day, and may then wait a week or more before posting, depending on my schedule and on how quickly and completely ideas evolve.

Thanks for visiting. Please don't be a stranger. I love sharing ideas with people, and will do my best to respond to questions asked and opinions shared. Recently, I read a line that stuck with me, although I cannot remember the source -- it said, "Step into the future and try it on for size." This is what I hope we will accomplish here...will you join me?

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