Posted by: Liz Massey | January 14, 2010

Surf’s Up: Top Creativity Links for January 14, 2010

Photo courtesy SXC.

It seems almost everyone thinks about making New Year’s resolutions, and one of mine has been to put my link posts on a diet. The goal is to avoid giving you, the reader, info-indigestion, and make it more likely that you’ll be able to act on the linked information.

This year, I’ll alternate between this slimmer version of the traditional Surf’s Up link post, and something I call “Surf’s Up, Condensed,” in which I’ll list a series of links with a minimum of commentary, as I do when I include “bonus links” at the end of my regular posts.

Enjoy the new format and please pass along links from the creative blogosphere that you think deserve more attention.

Why small actions are more important than big plans

This is a post by Warren Berger on the intriguing GlimmerSite about the importance of taking ownership of problems (or ideas) in order to be a designer, or do anything truly transformative.

Berger notes that it’s common for a designer, or any creative person, really, to get stuck in the “isn’t this a great idea?” or “why are things like this?” stage:

“Often people get caught up in a lot of throat clearing and engine revving before ever taking action. Or as designer/inventor Mark Noonan observes from his own experience, ‘People are always saying, “Why doesn’t somebody do this or make that,” but it doesn’t go any further. It’s just a rant.’ A person becomes a designer, says Noonan, when they make the decision to act on a problem. ‘Instead of just asking a question, you have to take ownership of it.’”

One way to avoid endlessly preparing to create, instead of actually creating, is to have a process for approaching design issues or challenges. Berger’s blog is an extension of a book, Glimmer, that he did on principles of transformative design, as promulgated by Bruce Mau, IDEO’s Tim Brown and others. In the post he mentions design processes used by Mau and Stanford’s George Kembel, which include phases that cover researching a problem via empathic connection with the environment in question, framing challenges and generating ideas, developing rough prototypes and refining them as feedback is received.

No matter one’s discipline, a process such as this can help a creative person jump in and get started, Berger says.

“What we non-designers can take away from this is that there is a proven process for getting past the initial difficulty of starting something. And you can jump in anywhere in the process to get it going.

“We may not have a corporate research budget, but anyone can learn a lot from simple observation of what people do and say. ‘Framing’ for us takes the form of taking the time to ask yourself a series of ‘what if’ and ‘how’ questions. It’s amazing how quickly those build towards something. And ‘prototyping’ doesn’t mean a highly polished version of something, but rather a rough draft or sketch—something that gives you and others a thing to react to. And then you go back and refine.”

Overall, this post is a nice reminder that a framework or system can help jump-start your imagination when all else fails. Rather than encouraging formulaic thinking, it allows you to find your way through a new, bewildering challenge and devise tools/systems/products that address it in innovative ways.

Climbing Mt. Story: How to Survive the Creative Journey

Larry Brooks of Storyfix recently did a guest post over at Write to Done and used an apt parable to explain how different storytellers work. It definitely has applications beyond writing.

Once upon a time, Brooks tells us, there were three mountain climbers: The Planner, The Organic Climber and The Hybrid Climber.

The Planner, as you might expect, knew all the rules of climbing and had spent a lot of time mentally planning and “climbing” her route. The Organic Climber was a little more, um, in the moment about the ascent:

“This climber was all about creativity and the experience of discovering what awaited behind every snowy cliff. Heck, if one fell on her head she’d just go back to base camp and start over. Or maybe travel laterally for a while until something vertical opened up.

“Heading out on what she hoped was the path, she didn’t even see the lingering clouds. The ones that shroud the mountain daily. In fact, today she couldn’t even see the summit at all, but hey, it was up there somewhere.”

Finally, there was the Hybrid Climber, who had a plan but was also open to what happened during the climb.

Each climber encountered some success in their individual journey. The Planner, of course, was able to use her expert knowledge and logistical savvy to adapt to conditions on the mountain and reached the summit first. As for the other two …

“The Hybrid Climber got there, too, and not all that long after the planner. He’d taken a few wrong turns, but because he at least knew which direction led to the summit, and where the major crevices and icefalls were hidden, he was able to return to the course – even change course on occasion – all with great success.

“As for the Organic Climber, well, she reached a summit, too. Eventually. But only after trying many things in many ways before discovering what worked for her. And even then, it wasn’t what she’d hoped for…

“…She somehow made it to the top the next day, exhausted and confused. Trouble is, it wasn’t the crest of the mountain at all. She’d taken a wrong turn without even knowing, ending up on top of a big mound of volcanic ash, all the while swearing that this little peak was good enough.”

The moral of the story is obvious, says Brooks, and I agree. Story planning, grounded in a knowledge of the principles of dramatic structure, helps storytellers—whether they use words, images, movement or music—guide a tale to a specific destination and helps readers/audience members want to take this journey with them. “Organic” storytellers use story planning, too, but they tend to do this by creating multiple drafts of the same story, having to start over when they encounter a story element they didn’t foresee at the beginning and can’t find a technique for weaving it into the draft in front of them.

In the end, knowledge of story structure is paramount if a creative person wants their ascent of “Mt. Story” or any other creative mountain to go smoothly. As Brooks puts it:

“The mountain doesn’t care how you climb it. But it’ll kill you in a heartbeat if you do it wrong. Either way, a successful final draft always depends on knowing what that ending will be. Whether you find it on a map or looking through fog along the trail is up to you.”

Bonus Link!

Shoot to Live – What do your photos teach you?

A poignant post by Elizabeth Halford on Digital Photography School blog that discusses photographing one’s everyday life–even when a loved one is sick or dying.

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