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February 07 2014


Smashing Book #4: Behind The Scenes


If you’re a graphic designer, you will often have to work with off-the-shelf material created by others — for instance, combining ready-to-use fonts with images from a photographer or stock website. Also, you’ll often have to follow the branding already developed by someone else. It’s OK; it’s a part of the job, and you shouldn’t be bothered by it.

But the part of a project that almost every graphic designer likes and is proud of the most is something that you can do from scratch, something that you have control over and can sign off on confidently: illustration. It’s why I love illustration projects so much. You can show your individuality in every detail and create every stroke of the artwork, trusting your vision and fully exercising your skills.

Given this love of mine, it’s no surprise that I took on illustration duties for the Smashing Book #4 without hesitation, despite it being quite a large and lengthy project (20 illustrations). I pulled myself together and started working, promising to myself that no matter how hard it turned out to be, I would find the time and internal resources to complete the project.

I’m very keen on the traditional way of drawing — by hand, using paper, pencil, watercolors and so on. Of course, I’m not against using computers when necessary — especially nowadays, when we have drawing tablets and pens and all of that other digital stuff that mimics hand-drawn work. But it seems to me that there is still no substitute for the charm of a well thought out and elaborate handmade drawing.

My process for transforming illustrations into vector files is a little complicated and sometimes long, but it’s the only way to capture my drawings down to the smallest details. Retracing every line of the illustration as a curve using the Pen tool (in Adobe Illustrator, in my case), I am able to really feel every line and make the drawing as close to perfect as possible.

I began each of the 20 illustrations with many ugly sketches, trying to grab hold of an idea. I’m not able to think first and draw after. The two processes are one for me: I draw while thinking. I’ll waste piles of paper and use any surface at hand to capture an idea that suddenly comes to me. Reviewing the sketches now, I’m intrigued by the evolution of the ideas and the birth of the characters.

Looking for ideas. (View large version)

(View large version)

The evolution of a character from start to finish. (View large version)

Then, I made detailed drawings in pencil, which became the prototypes of the vector images. The more developed the drawing, the easier it was to create a vector image. When the pencil drawings were ready, I scanned or photographed them, and then painted with the usual brushes in Photoshop. These were the prototypes that I submitted for approval.

To color the sketches, I’ll choose one of the basic brushes with a sharp edge and just paint over the scanned image on a new layer. “Multiply” mode is on for this layer to make the texture of the drawing visible. Then, I’ll create one more layer for shadows (with “Multiply” mode enabled again).

Adding color to the sketch. (View large version)

This is a fast and easy way to estimate the color spectrum of the final illustrations (I’ll sometimes do several color sketches). I sent the colored sketches to the Smashing team for approval of the direction and concept of the illustrations.

The colored sketches retain a kind of watercolor effect. I love that this quality can be achieved so easily.

The colored sketches. (View large version)

Once the sketches are approved, I start the most important part of the work. I paste each scanned pencil drawing into an Illustrator file and trace it. I’ll put the pencilled prototype on the bottom layer and lock it. Then, I’ll look at my illustration carefully and divide it in my mind into several areas, creating a separate layer for each area. Working with layers is very convenient if the image is complicated and has many small details.

(View large version)

You can lock or hide layers that you are not working on to focus on the areas that you are. From the screenshot below, it is obvious that every kite will have layers and that the background will have several layers. I also separated each animal into different layers; for example, one layer for the body, one for the head (usually including the eyes and nose) and one for the limbs (legs, wings and so on).

Creating separate layers. (View large version)

There is no trick to tracing an image by hand. Just take the Pen tool and trace the contours of the sketch. I usually choose a bright color to mark off the contours well. The process is boring, but once you’re skilled at it, it doesn’t take much time. It can almost be meditative, sitting and calmly tracing element after element as your thoughts drift away.

The outlining process. (View large version)

I’ll usually use the Live Paint Bucket tool to divide a shape into several color areas. I draw lines that will be the borders between colors, and then select the group of shapes and enable the Live Paint Bucket tool . By clicking on each shape with the tool, I can assign a unique color to it. By the way, if you use colors from the swatches, you can find the appropriate tool by clicking the left and right arrows.

Using the Live Paint Bucket tool. (View large version)

If an element of the illustration doesn’t have a defined shape and needs a bit of improvisation, then I’ll use the Blob brush . Working with this brush on a drawing tablet is a real pleasure.

You can configure the settings of the Blob brush by double-clicking in the Tools panel. I’ll usually set it to the biggest brush to make the pressure of the pen as sensitive as possible. With several assured brush strokes, I’ll draw the background and the bushes, using random colors according to my feeling and then choosing more appropriate colors later. I’ll also draw the branches of the bushes with the Blob brush. If I need to correct the shape, I’ll usually use the Erase tool.

Using the Blob Brush tool. (View large version)

Here’s a tip if you ever have to transform a regular line into a ribbon flapping in the wind. I’ll use the Width tool to make the stroke weight variable. Using this tool, select the dot on the line where the stroke weight is to be changed, and drag the auxiliary lines until the ribbon looks the way you want.

Creating a ribbon from a line with the Width tool. (View large version)

Now, the image is ready for coloring. Yes, it looks weird without colors. But you need just a few minutes to fill in the shapes and get the image close to being complete. To complete the kite image, I added some small flowers on the bushes with petals flying up into the wind (using the Blob brush). I also added shadows using Multiply mode.

The outlined and finished illustrations. (View large version)

The technical work was not the hardest part for me. I’ll often spend much more time on sketching and developing the ideas. Now that the Smashing Book #4 is complete, I can say that the most difficult part was devising a “plot” for each chapter title. When I got the plan for the book and read the titles, I was at a loss.

Some of the titles are quite conceptual, suggesting obvious metaphors. But others are concrete and related to code, and those were hard to illustrate (especially with cute animals). When my imagination gave up, the guys from the Smashing team were ready to pitch in some inspiring ideas. So, this creative project was genuinely collaborate, and I think we were on the same wavelength.

Smashing Book #4, a new book for front-end designers and developers.

I believe both parties have taken only positive emotions from the project. Holding this hefty book now in my hands, I would have done some things differently — I’m never completely satisfied with my own work. Overall, though, I’m happy with the result.

So, enjoy the Smashing Book #4. It contains so much useful stuff. (Believe me, I know.)

(al, il, ea)

© Anna Shuvalova for Smashing Magazine, 2014.

October 10 2013


Hand-Sketching: Things You Didn’t Know Your Doodles Could Accomplish


Is sketching by hand more than a nostalgic activity? How is paper any different from a screen, especially when hardware is becoming more and more sophisticated? Is improving your hand-sketching skills really worthwhile when high-tech software is advancing every day? What difference can a pencil possibly make?

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about hand-sketching these days. Some absolutely hate the thought of putting their ideas to paper because they can’t draw to save their lives. Others couldn’t imagine their creativity surviving without it. Love it or hate it, there’s much more to a sketchbook than old-school charm.

Final Sketch

Here’s the thing. From personal experience, I know that sketching on paper has something powerful about it that takes my designs to the next level. I’ve spent hours in front of both computer screens and sketchpads, and something about the latter always keeps me going longer, thinking more clearly, progressing further and designing better.

To understand why hand-sketching makes such a difference for me and many designers I know, I did some research. Here’s what I found.

External Memory: Take A Load Off Your Mind, Literally

Cognitive psychologists have been studying the impact of sketching on brain functioning for years, and with good reason: Putting ideas to paper is a powerful way to extend one’s memory. Back in 1972, Allen Newell and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon studied long-term memory, short-term memory and — here’s where it gets interesting — “external” memory. They argued that representations such as diagrams and sketches serve our external memory and reduce the burden that we experience when recalling ideas and problem-solving.

Flexibility: Hand-Sketching Improves Your Ability To Restructure Ideas

Consider your initial idea for a project. At this point, it exists only in your mind. All of a sudden, you start giving it (physical) shape in what Jill Larkin and Herbert Simon call “external representations.” You’re basically pulling the idea from your mind and recording it somehow. As long as the idea is in your mind, the number of changes and improvements you can mentally process is limited. Your idea won’t get anywhere unless you manipulate and enhance it.

External memory aids, such as sketches and diagrams, can help us overcome the limited capacity of our short- and long-term memories.

Here’s where hand-sketching saves the day: It enables us to externalize our mental images and achieve something that Ilse Verstijnen calls “restructuring.” Verstijnen works in the Psychological Laboratory at the University of Utrecht and has coauthored several articles about the relationship between imagery, perception and sketching.

Restructuring transforms one configuration into another, and in scientific studies, advanced hand-sketchers score highest at restructuring when they are allowed to sketch. In an experiment by Verstijnen, sketchers were shown to be better than non-sketchers at modifying their initial ideas and coming up with novel changes.

Because of our brain’s limited processing capacity, externalizing our ideas on paper makes it easier to restructure them, transforming the initial structure into a new one.

Another study by researcher Zafer Bilda and his group at Bilkent University in Turkey compared designers’ cognitive processes when sketching on paper versus using software. The study identifies several significant differences: Designers who used paper changed their goals and intentions more frequently and engaged in a higher number of cognitive actions. Changing goals and intentions while sketching is vital because it enables you to pivot your initial idea and to be versatile in your approach.

Interestingly, these results may have less to do with the way we are wired than with the way we have been educated. Can you remember how you first learned to draw, how all of your design courses required physical sketchbooks? That’s right, most of us learned to sketch on paper — and this might actually have affected the way our brain deals with it.

Here comes another buzzword, from our friends in behavioral psychology: conditioning. If paper was one of the first creative stimuli in your life (to the point that, as soon as you saw a blank sheet, you felt the urge to scribble), then it should come as no surprise that your sketching behavior is different on paper than on screen. Regardless of your philosophy of human behavior, we can all agree on one thing: paper has been around far longer than the digital screen.

Don’t get me wrong: Developers of digital sketching devices out there are definitely raising their game and making the lives of many designers easier in exciting, innovative ways. Manufacturers are making the lighting, size and weight of tablets feel unbelievably similar to paper. They’ve come up with ways to make graphic tablets sensitive to stylus pressure and be capable of digitizing paper sketches instantly. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, we can expect better digital sketching experiences. WACOM, a graphic tablet manufacturer, invites sketchers to tag their creations on Twitter with the #madewithwacom hash tag.

Serendipity: Happy Accidents From Unfinished Strokes

When was the last time you sketched a perfect image? It’s safe to say that most of us do not aim for perfection with a pencil and sketchbook. And that is exactly what makes a pencil stroke different from a vector.

Jonathan Fish and Stephen Scrivener authored “Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition,” in which they introduce the idea that “indeterminacies in Leonardo’s sketches elicit mental imagery because automatic mental recognition mechanisms attempt to complete the missing parts and match precepts to memory images.”

Hand-sketching results in inconclusive strokes that open new doors to creativity.

Consider every time you’ve left unfinished strokes, gray ideas over top solid shapes, quick side queries, blank spaces, wobbly lines and figures. Happens all the time, right? These indeterminacies, or “flaws,” which reflect our indecision, are great pointers to new design directions. We lose these when we opt for pixel perfection.

Group Thinking: Connecting Brains Via Sketches

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, led by Remko van der Lugt, observed four idea-generation meetings in which participants used one technique that involved writing and another one that involved sketching. They concluded that sketching stimulates group creativity by enabling individuals to reinterpret their own ideas further and to facilitate other people’s access to those ideas once they are brought to the table.

Collaborating with others in generating concepts is easier when we share sketches that are flexible, unsettled and, thus, full of possibilities.

Not only does hand-sketching improve the idea-generation process, but it provides an effective, visual language that makes it easier for others to understand, comment on and integrate your ideas. This might be even more important in cross-cultural groups, for whom visual sketches can bridge gaps of understanding.

Effectiveness: Better Design Outcomes

Does sketching like a maniac guarantee a better design? The easy answer is no. The subtler answer is that, in certain circumstances, sketching like a mad person could result in a better design. Yes, you read that right.

A useful design mantra is, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found a thousand sketches that don’t work.”

I ran into this idea while reading one of Maria C. Yang’s studies. She tracked the sketches of a group of engineering students in the idea-generation phase and measured the results according to their final grades and their performance in a contest. She found that the number of concepts that students generated, as evidenced by their sketches, correlated to better design outcomes as long as two things held true: first, the sketches included dimensions and, secondly, the sketches that were significantly tied to the outcome were generated in the first quarter of the cycle (i.e. they were early sketches).

Concentration: Ready, Set, Sketch!

Were you ever in the middle of a major design breakthrough and then were suddenly interrupted? Concentration is key for designers because the creative process is anything but straightforward. The process requires a strong and rare connection between our thoughts, hands and source of inspiration. Its rarity is, indeed, the reason why some of us don’t sleep.

Well, that and deadlines.

There is evidence that sketching aids concentration. Jackie Andrade, of the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology, tested whether doodling correlated to higher levels of concentration among 40 participants, who tested while taking a telephone call. While we can define doodling as aimlessly sketching patterns and figures unrelated to the primary task, her discovery that it can reduce daydreaming, increase concentration and curb boredom is fascinating.

This helps to explain why some of us find value in carrying our sketchbooks everywhere, pulling them out in the least expected places and in the middle of completely unrelated events.

To recap, sketching stimulates us to a comfortable level — enough to keep us awake, concentrated and engaged. As if this weren’t enough, other studies have found that subjects who consume information on paper were significantly less stressed and tired than those who use screens. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg argued that those who were looking at screens may have been more exhausted because of the “dual-task effect.”

It makes sense. When using a computer, you have to not only complete the task itself, but also figure out your way around the hardware and software. For those of us who learned to sketch on paper, this learning curve feels a lot like stress. For those who are comfortable with graphic tablets and other sophisticated input devices, stress is probably not an issue.

Montessori education encourages children to learn concepts with all five senses.

Some believe that we reach deeper levels of concentration and develop richer concepts when our own hands are the hardware. Regina Rowland, who teaches the “Idea Visualization” course at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has a unique perspective on the matter:

What I noticed when we moved into the digital world was that exercises all started to look the same. All of a sudden, everybody was designing in Photoshop and the quality of the work started changing dramatically. Before, exercises had a character that was unique in each person. I don’t want to ditch digital; there’s stuff in digital that we could never do by hand. But I do think that when you learn how to experience the world in its visual form, you realize that it is important to have a real, multi-sensorial experience and not an abstracted version of the experience.

With digital, you are looking at a screen with 2-D shapes and no interaction. I’ve realized that students who go into a sensorial experience with letters and shapes learn better than those who abstract them.

Now, there are nerves in the tips of your fingers, and I believe that when people draw with their hands it makes a different impression in the brain. There are references to this idea in Montessori education: It is through sensorial experiences that you form structures in your brain, and therefore all their activities and teaching tools are things that children have to do with their fingers.

Talent: Enhancing The Graphic Library In Your Mind

What happens when you continually draw and connect symbols as you sketch? What happens when your brain tries to recall shapes that are appropriate to the idea you are trying to externalize? It isn’t hard to see that the better you become at translating imagery from your mind to paper, the more visual resources you will have to draw on and the easier it will be to retrieve them in the future.

Ian Storer, who lectures in the Department of Design and Technology at Loughborough University, came up with this idea of a “graphical library” that designers can combine and restructure to generate concepts. He states in his paper that “creative sketching and designing requires a body of knowledge to base new ideas upon.”

Would I like to nurture a powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Hand-sketching forces you to access and cultivate a unique visual library in your mind. As much as I love computers, the Internet and the almighty search engine, would I like to nurture a more powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Problem-Solving: Unlock Solutions With Visual Synthesis

It is fair to say that most of the problems we face as designers are confounding, fuzzy, indeterminate — the types of problems that common logic stumbles on.

I dare anyone to try to solve these types of problems using only simple paragraphs of text. Writing falls short for most design problems. Jonathan Fish explains this brilliantly in his article “Cognitive Catalysis: Sketches for a Time-Lagged Brain.” He compares our design problems to trees whose trunk and branches are vague or abstract descriptions and whose leaves are images that represent “depictive concrete thought.”

Jonathan Fish explains that our design problems are like trees whose trunk and branches are abstract (usually textual) descriptions and whose leaves are concrete depictions (i.e. images). Most design solutions aim to reconcile these.

He goes on to explain that when you try to solve a design problem that is full of uncertainties, “both description and depiction are interdependent.”

Niall Seery and his colleagues at the University of Limerick propose the best definition of sketching that I’ve ever read:

“Sketching is a sense-making tool which supports the synthesis of visual imagery.”

Ready to improve your flexibility, serendipity, group thinking, effectiveness, concentration, talent and problem-solving? The eight benefits we’ve covered here may be just a few sketches away!

(al ea il)

© Laura Busche for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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August 28 2013


On Creative Leadership


I have spent nearly a decade experimenting with a single goal in mind: to create scalable, predictably insightful, inspirational environments. I have led creative teams in these environments, and I’m currently doing it as the Director of Web Interface and Development at Astonish (a digital marketing company in Rhode Island, US).

It hasn’t been easy, because forcing inspiration is impossible. You have to use finesse and let it come to you. What follows is what I’ve found to help my team and me harness inspiration effectively.

Accessing Your Creativity …In The Shower

It’s 4:30 in the morning. The sun is starting to smear pink across the sky, and I’m in bed, working. Laying in bed in the dark is comfortable, but it’s hardly a working environment. Yet, I am solving problems. At this moment, I am more connected with my subconscious (the most creative part of my brain) than I will be at any other time today.

I have been practicing this combined meditation and creative thinking for several months now. It has been a hugely beneficial experiment, which started early one morning in the shower. Ever have a great idea in the shower? I have had hundreds, and I now know why.

Your morning shower is a breeding ground for ideas and sparks of inspiration. When you stumble into the shower shortly after you wake, you’re able to relax and, because you’re still tired, you’re able to reconnect with your subconscious. I’ve found this state to be so helpful in solving problems that I’ve had to devise ways to take notes on the shower wall.

The relaxed state of your morning shower helps you to reconnect with your subconscious. (Image source: Simon Law)

My wife is constantly surprised to find product diagrams, flow charts, code and wireframes written in soap, kids shower crayons and anything else I can find. I’ve even considered painting the walls with idea paint, to have a bit more creativity.

I’m sure you’ve had a spark of inspiration or maybe just a moment of clear insight in the shower. I’ve asked many people about their creative abilities during their morning routine, and the answers always support my assumption. The reason? It’s because your insight, inspiration and creative abilities were always there; they’re just more accessible in that relaxed state because you are not grasping for them.


You see, the harder you grasp to be creative, the more easily it slips through your fingers. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to sit down at work and just flip on the creative switch? Do you find yourself intentionally distracting yourself? Browsing Amazon, reading your news feed and skimming Facebook are all ways to indirectly access your creative abilities. Sometimes it’s important to turn off your desire to be creative and just let it come to you.

Artists depiction of the right and left brain.
Distraction-free environments help our brains to “take our minds off the problem” just long enough to get the answer we’re looking for. (Image source: TZA)

John Kounios of Drexel University studies the brain and looks for scientific explanations for the delivery of insight. In one study, Kounios asked subjects to solve puzzles while undergoing a brain scan. He found that insight, or the inspiration needed to solve a problem, comes from the visual cortex. However, in the time leading up to a puzzle being displayed on the screen, the subjects’ brain activity was around the temporal lobe. As Kounios explains in his TED talk:

“This is the mind turning in on itself. This is the mind disengaging from the world. This empowers a person to imagine new and different ways to transfer reality, creatively, into something better.”

Our brain looks for a distraction-free environment to get inspired. This might seem a bit contradictory to what I just said. Believe it or not, your intentional distraction (Amazon and Facebook) can help to relax your brain and “take your mind off the problem” just long enough to get the answer you’re looking for.

Managing A Team

This creates an interesting situation for individuals in a corporate environment. Small studios and agencies usually respect and understand the creative process a bit more. I’ve known a lot of directors who understand the need for a little distraction at work, even if they don’t really know why it works.

When it comes to managing a team of creatives, you have to balance finesse and creative leadership. In fact, I like to eliminate the word “manage” altogether. Take a Web designer. A Web designer already needs to manage their time, creative process, projects, clients and more. Isn’t that enough management already?

If you have the right people on your team, they shouldn’t need to be managed — they need leadership. They need someone to pull them to an answer, not push them. If you trust your team, they’ll come through for you. However, they’ll do a much better job of it if they enjoy their work and are trusted to work openly when they want to. Why restrict your team? Why force them to work the way you want them to or even when you want them to?

Trust and good leadership can steer your team to enjoy their work and do a much better job. (Image source:

This notion that a creative team should have working hours, such as 9:00 to 5:00, baffles me. Sure, I get it: Your accounts team answers the phone during that time. Well, the fact is that they don’t need to be inspired to answer the phone. And yes, motivation and inspiration are very different.

Work With The Grain, Not Against It

An extremely talented designer and front-end developer named Jeff is on my Web development team. Jeff commutes 30 miles to and from work every day. Having a set schedule from 9:00 to 5:00 would require Jeff to get up earlier every morning to fight traffic for over an hour. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic and getting frustrated by the people around him doesn’t exactly scream “distraction-free moments of inspiration.”

Having the freedom to arrive at work around 9:30 or 10:00 cuts Jeff’s commute by over 25 minutes. Does this mean that Jeff works less? Absolutely not! Not only does Jeff make up his time, but he also works smarter. And because his day starts off with way less stress, he’s even more likely to enjoy his work and stick around to get the job done.

This is just one example; there are hundreds. Some people like to listen to music while they work; others play Netflix in the background. Sometimes a good meeting can get a team in the right mindset; other times, they just want to be left alone. Lead people with respect and trust and you’ll get so much more out of them. Not to mention that you’ll learn whether they are the right fit for your team.

There is no better way to make the cream rise to the top than by letting it sit for a while. If you keep stirring it, you’ll never get it to settle.

“Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light”

As a leader of creatives, your job is to provide an insight-sparking, inspirational environment, while guarding against distraction.

The creatives on my team work smart and fast. They do this because they are in touch with their brains’ ability to perform different tasks. At 4:30 in the morning, I might be working on a problem that I went to bed with. You might work on a coding problem at 11:00 pm until about the time I wake up. We are all different; the important thing is to know why and how we are different.

I get to know my team and work closely with everyone on it. They all have different needs and like to be communicated with differently. At the same time, they all enjoy working on different types of projects at different times.

Each member of my team has an inspiration schedule, a time when they know they are more likely to be creative. During those times, there are no meetings, distractions or interruptions. This is their time to increase their working memory, to build, to design and to solve problems.

Being a leader, my job is to help them understand what this time means for them and to fight anyone who jeopardizes it. Don’t dismiss this point. It is vital to the clients, products and team that your creatives have the time to do their job right. Remember that they will get the job done either way, because you trust them to come through. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that they have time during the day to do it, when they have allocated time to do it, rather than bombard them with meetings and problems?

Finding And Feeding Inspiration

It’s as if the sky parts and a divine entity comes down and delivers the answer directly into your brain. Understanding where inspiration comes from or how you’ve solved the problem isn’t easy, but at that point you don’t care because you’re off and running.

In 2013, learning code, understanding design patterns and analyzing data are extremely easy. Our tools, documentation and frameworks are accessible and ubiquitous. What’s both rare and stubborn is a great imagination. The concept of “thinking outside the box” is based on the idea of being creative with knowledge.

Imagination is vital, but without inspiration, it can lie dormant. If imagination is the playground, then inspiration is the gravity that pulls you down the slide, bounces you on the seesaw or propels you on the swing. Without inspiration, imagination is as pointless as a slide in outer space. It’s the powerful force behind creation.

Harnessing inspiration is almost impossible. Yet, we can cultivate ideas by finding patterns in our moments of inspiration. We’ve already talked about relaxation, daily schedules and the link to your subconscious. What about your mood and other factors that play into it?


I love music. In fact, music is the only thing I love more than food. Music comes in so many different forms, is readily available and is creative in itself. I bet you already know that different types of music have different effects on people. Some types help you to concentrate, while others make you want to get up and dance; some types help you to relax, while others keep you up all night.

I remember my science teacher in school telling me that listening to classical music helps mice navigate a maze faster than listening to heavy metal. Is this really true?

Remember when we talked about John Kounios and brain activity around the temporal lobe? Well, that temporal lobe is in charge of receiving auditory signals, such as from music. When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. This, and the fact that music has a direct correlation to increased amounts of dopamine and adrenaline, means you can have a direct and significant emotional response to the right type of music.

When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. (Image source:

Classical music is very rhythmic and, oddly enough, predictable. Classical also usually has a slower tempo, less than 60 beats per minute, whereas pop and jazz have unpredictable variances in tone and rhythm and often a much faster tempo.

Why is this important? Remember that the more opportunities your brain has to turn in on itself, away from distraction, the greater the chance of finding insight. Classical music lends itself to a distraction-free environment and provides relaxation, which the brain enjoys. You’re favorite Coldplay song might trigger a powerful emotional response, but that type of music is actually better saved for menial tasks. Upbeat pop music can help you stay on track by distracting you from what you are doing, which is helpful when you’re inputting data and answering emails.

Vinod Menon, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has written an interesting article on the subject. In the paper, Menon writes about music’s effect on the brain during an MRI. To simplify, the brain performs better when predictable patterns are in the music. During sudden breaks in the sound, the brain reacts to check on what’s happening. Your brain turns its attention back to the music, rather than stays on what you were concentrating on.

Experiment with this theory on your own. I have found Italian opera to be particularly conducive to creative thinking. Take some time today to create a short playlist on Spotify. Add five to eight of the top-ranked classical pieces, then drop in an AC/DC song. Shuffle the playlist, and then try to focus on a task. I bet you won’t even consciously hear the classical music (once you get into the groove), but when “Highway to Hell” comes on, you’ll be pulled away from what you’re working on, as if waking from a great dream.


Controlling a playlist is easy, but one thing science may never solve is how to control the weather. And what has the human race done for thousands of years when it can’t control something? We try to understand it, which helps us control our response to it.

The things in this world that affect our brain are absolutely amazing. For example, even subconsciously, wet and rainy weather will depress us, while beautiful sunny days will make us happy. So, if we have a big creative deadline and the forecast calls for rain, we must be screwed, right? Wrong.

As Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales puts it:

“It seems counter-intuitive but a little bit of sadness turns out to be a good thing.”

You see, memory is actually more active and accessible during periods of sadness. Forgas studies the brain and the weather’s effect on it. He found, surprisingly, that subjects retain more information on rainy gloomy days than subjects who are asked the same things on beautiful sunny days. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer attributes this as the reason why some tortured artists are so amazing at what they do.

Memory, especially our working memory, is vital to the creative process.

Human RAM

Random access memory (RAM) is a computer’s ability to access data without (for lack of a better explanation) having to dig for it. The human brain works like this, too. Our RAM is called working memory. This working memory directly correlates to our ability to be creative and unique.

If you want to redesign the interface of a Web form, what’s the first thing you do? You go onto the Web, trying to find something. Can you guess what you’re not finding? Inspiration. You’re building a working memory. Whether you know it or not, your brain is retaining everything you see. And your ability to access it randomly later is the working memory in action. The more you see, the more your brain can hold.

I am not a scientist, but I suspect that this is one of the reasons why you have that moment of insight during your morning shower. You try so hard during the day to solve a problem; you’re trying to force the answer by researching and scouring the Internet. During that time, your brain is retaining all that information. Later that night, during REM sleep, your brain catalogs everything it’s seen.

I propose that your mind, tapped into the subconscious during deep sleep while recounting the day’s working memory, is able to solve the problem for you. It’s only after you wake — during that morning routine — that you’re able to access it. This is why forcing inspiration, while impossible, does reap positive results.

Finely Tuned Problem-Solving Sessions

We’ve learned that you can’t force inspiration, and, although we try to control our environment, doing so is hard as well because so much plays into it. The problem is that sometimes you have to be inspirational on the fly. Well, practice makes perfect.

Last summer, I read an article by Seth Godin titled “Impresarios.” In the article, Godin talks about how impresarios “weave together resources and opportunities and put on a show.” This gave me an idea, and I will forever be in Godin’s debt because I am now my own version of an impresario. An impresario is someone who organizes and often finances concerts, plays and theatrical productions. In my case, I organize brainstorming events.

Every month, my team and I enter our planning room for at least three hours. We lock the doors, opening it only for pizza and beer deliveries. Our mission is to solve one problem. In past sessions, we have redesigned the user interface that powers our systems, solved marketing problems by “remarketing,” and found new and creative ways to present information. The role of an impresario has had such a direct and positive impact on the way we do business that I am now introducing the role to every team in our 100+ person company.

Why does having an impresario work? Well, certain rules guide the team to moments of insight:

  1. Identify a very specific problem to solve, and stay focused.
  2. Provide the necessary tools to spark inspiration (white boards, markers, paper, etc.).
  3. Be technology-agnostic! Don’t worry about how you will solve the problem; focus only on the why.
  4. There are no wrong answers; some are just better than others.
  5. Celebrate failures.

My team looks forward to their time spent locked up together because it gives us an opportunity to be creative in front of each other. Support their ideas, and help them grow. Don’t force your opinions and thoughts. If the group is moving in the wrong direction, ask them questions until they find the right path.

Celebrating Failures

Admitting defeat is one thing; celebrating it an entirely other. Only good can come from openness and honesty. We all learn from our own mistakes, but if you don’t share yours, how can I learn from it? Celebrating failures and realizing that “missing the target” isn’t a bad thing will help your team to grow, recover and build things faster.

At the end of the process, my team always has something to show for it. On occasion, we have realized that the problem we set out to solve was the wrong problem to focus on. We failed to find a solution because there was no reason to find one. That in itself was the solution, and presenting the outcome of the session to our company helped us to refocus.

The only failure I’m not comfortable with is the failure to try.

In Retrospect

I’ve found a groove. I go to bed, thinking hard about a problem, and fall asleep trying to solve it. Waking early in the morning and refocusing my efforts brings the solution closer to my consciousness. I’ll often get to work quite early, continually working on the problem. Then, when I feel my creativity beginning to slip, I’ll hit the gym.

Getting my energy level up, increasing my adrenaline and getting my mind off the topic help to realign my thoughts. Then, I hit the sauna for a good 20 minutes. Nothing like 80 °C heat in a quiet room and with eyes closed to restart that relaxed, creative meditation. Then, I head back to work.

Keep in mind that we all have our own ways of getting our minds off topic, and later realigning our thoughts — and making things better. (Image source:

I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue this schedule over time, nor do I expect you to follow it. Right now, I’m treating this as an experiment, and it’s proving to be highly fruitful.

Here are the big take-aways from my experience:

  • Respect your teammates and their periods of inspiration.
  • Protect your team from the day’s distractions and interruptions.
  • Deliver freedom as a gift. You’ll see boundless gains in creativity from the team.
  • Try to more deeply understand your brain and its ability to be affected by its environment.
  • And, of course, celebrate your failures!


Please feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.

(al) (il) (ea)

© Jesse Friedman for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

April 13 2013


Instant Inspiration:, a Brand-new Search Engine for Designers Sparks Your Creativity The Homepage

Did your muses sneak out the back-door without even leaving a message on the bathroom mirror? Didn't you just have this wonderful idea for this next web project? No? I thought so. When the only thing running properly is your nose and the only sparks flying burn your skin, it is high time you visited This new search engine is here to serve you inspiration in packages tailored to your needs.

March 19 2013


What's Your Comic About?: Communicating Complex Ideas With Comics


Comics are known to be one of the most powerful communication tools, and are a unique way to communicate — using both image and text to effectively demonstrate time, function, and emotion.

Today’s article is an excerpt from Kevin Cheng’s “See What I Mean” — a book that walks you step by step through the process of using comics to communicate, and providing examples from industry leaders who have already adopted this method. Enjoy!

When creating a product or feature, you undergo a product development process. For example, you might start by interviewing some existing customers or by running focus groups. You might create business and functional requirements that describe what you need. Then, when you’re ready, you begin designing and developing and iterating on the product.

Or perhaps you prefer to define products by first building a prototype, bypassing formal requirements. Everyone has their own preferred process. The process you follow and how strictly you adhere to it depend on the circumstances.

The same could be said of creating a comic: there isn’t one correct way to go about it.

The Comic Creation Process

I’ll present a process that includes all of the steps involved in creating a comic for a product, but it’s just one of many approaches. The more practiced you are at it, the better you will be at knowing which steps to spend the most time on and which steps you can combine or skip over entirely.

Intro 4.2
Multiple steps are involved in creating a comic for your product. Full view.

The process of creating a comic for your product can be broken down into the following steps. For larger projects, you might feel the need to create multiple comics that represent different personas and use cases. In the case of the comics we made for Yahoo, we created a total of three comics. Each comic represented very different use cases that resonated with different participants. The goal was to be representative, not comprehensive.

  1. Decide what your comic is about.
    Before creating the comic, you need to decide why you’re using comics and what to include in the story. What features do you want to highlight or, more importantly, which features can be excluded from the story? Who is the product for, and who will be reading the comic? The output from this step should be a few bullet points of things you want to highlight. If you were planning an essay or presentation, this would be the equivalent of writing the thesis or main talking points. This step is what we’ll talk about in detail in this chapter.
  2. Write the story.
    Once you’ve decided which aspects to highlight in the comic, the next step is to create a script. Just as a movie starts from the scripting phase, we’ll define the comic in words first before drawing the comic. The purpose of this step is to define the progression of the story. If the first step was to define the thesis, then this step would be to define the outline. You’ll define the characters in the comic, the settings of the story, and the dialogue that will be spoken either by narration or by the characters.
  3. Lay out the comic.
    Even when the story has been defined, a lot of decisions still need to be made about the composition of the comic. Just as photographers, filmmakers and painters must decide what parts of a scene to capture, each panel in a comic has to be carefully planned. Do you want to show the building they’re in? Should you show a close-up of the product? How much, if any, of the interface should you show? I’ve talked about how comics are powerful for representing movement and time. If comics are sequential art, then part of the process is deciding how to sequence the story in such a way that readers can follow it.
  4. Draw and refine the comic.
    Once you have prepared the basic sequencing and layout, you can put the finishing touches on the comic. I’ll cover some additional tips and tricks to augment the basic drawing techniques covered in Chapter 3, “You Don’t Need to Be an Artist.” A lot of tools also exist to make comic creation easier. I’ll share a range of resources, including drawing software and layout templates, to make the process of creating comics even faster.

Figure 4.1
The comic creation process.

To illustrate each of these steps more clearly, I’ll use an example and create a comic from start to finish. The example is a real product, but, to my knowledge, its maker hasn’t used comics in its product development or marketing. So, let’s pretend we’ve been asked to create a comic for it.

The Example: Square

Square is a little physical card reader that you can plug into the headphone jack of an Android phone, iPhone or iPad.

Figure 4.2
The Square credit card reader.

After plugging it in, you can accept payments from any major credit card with minimal set-up. It’s currently used by small businesses, coffee shops, street food carts, people selling items on Craigslist, people running garage sales and many others. This card-reading device and its associated software are free, but each time you run a transaction, a flat rate is charged to the merchant.

Square is an appropriate example for a number of reasons. First, the product spans many platforms, including mobile devices, tablets and a website. Secondly, the product has many use cases and personas, which is probably the case for many of your products. Finally, clear real-world interactions can be associated with the story of Square’s usage.

If you’d like more information on Square, you can look up the product on the official website. It’s worth mentioning that the founder of Square is also a cofounder of Twitter, where I used to work. However, my use of the product as this book’s example is done without any consultation or inside knowledge. We’ll go into detail with this example soon and continue doing so for the next few chapters.

Now that we have an example to work with, let’s start the first step of the comic creation process by answering the question, What’s the comic about?

Answering this question can be tricky. Instead of approaching it as one broad and vague question, breaking it down into a few logical steps might be easier. Once you have addressed these, narrowing down your comic’s story should be much easier.

  1. Define the goals of your comic.
    What do you want to get out of it? What is the next step you want the reader to take after reading the comic?
  2. Decide on the length of your comic.
    The length will dictate how much detail you can afford and how precise your messaging needs to be.
  3. Identify the audience of your comic.
    Your story may change depending on the audience’s level of expertise and the context in which the comic is delivered.
  4. Select a representative use case.
    Think of a scenario that shows off your product well. Once you’ve found that, the scenario will naturally help you narrow down the features to highlight.

The Goals Of Your Comic

Before thinking about what should go into the comic, start with what you want it to accomplish. If you know what actions you hope to inspire through the comic, then you can design the comic towards that goal. When Google decided to create its comic for Google Chrome, it had a clear goal in mind. It didn’t want people to focus on comparing features between browsers; instead, it wanted readers to gain an understanding of its technical motivations for building a Web browser from scratch.

The goal of the comic may vary, depending on whether it’s for a product that already exists. When using comics to describe products that haven’t yet been built, the goals may be centered on understanding and sponsorship. The comics we created at Yahoo were used to validate our product vision with potential users as well as with management. Our goal was to get feedback on how useful the product ideas were and to get support from management to start building the product as described in the comic.

Sometimes, the goal can be completely measurable. At Raptr, we used a comic on the home page to describe the product. Our goal was to help visitors understand our product, but we were also hoping to inspire a particular action: user sign-ups. Similarly, because Square is a product that’s already in the market, the goal of our fictitious comic should be to help merchants understand why it’s useful and, ultimately, to have them sign up to receive a Square device.

Defining the goal of your comic is a crucial step, but it shouldn’t be that difficult. If you’ve already decided to create a comic, chances are you have some idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish from it.

The Length Of Your Comic

After deciding what your comic is about, the next important factor to determine is how long the comic will be, because you need to know how much room you have to work with. I recommend a very short comic (three to eight panels) to illustrate an idea. At that length, it’s easy to consume, yet contains enough information for both internal and external communication. The comic should fit on the home page of a website, on a postcard or in an email to your team.

However, there are plenty of examples of longer comics. The Google Chrome comic was over 30 pages and fairly technical in nature.

Figure 4.4
A copy of the Google Chrome comic book.

Even at that length, it was much more digestible than a detailed white paper, and it had just the right balance for readability. The comic was available online, but it was also distributed in physical form to key developers and industry experts.

As a way to connect to its Japanese audience, the US Navy created a full manga (a Japanese form of comic book) in both English and Japanese to explain why its aircraft carrier would need to be docked in Japan for several months.

Figure 4.5
Manga for the US Navy’s USS Washington.

Given the widespread acceptance of manga as a medium for any topic, this seems like a great way for the US Navy to connect with its audience. A lot of people were interested in the carrier, so publicizing the comic wasn’t difficult. Many local and online press outlets wrote articles about the comic. When the book was released, there was a line around the block to get a copy!

Another proponent of long-form comics is Adobe’s Evangeline Haughey, who had been trying to find creative ways to encourage team members to read her user research reports and decided to spice up one of her reports by presenting it in comic book form. The comic was a handful of pages, and she printed it as a booklet, complete with a mock comic-book cover illustrated by her colleague Julie Meridian.

Figure 4.6
Adobe’s comic book cover.

One commonality among these examples of long-form comics is that they all feature a physical component to their distribution. If your ideas are complex or lengthy, consider a longer comic, but also think about ways to distribute physical copies. It’s surprising how hard it is not to read a copy of a comic that’s in your hand!

Long comics aren’t always appropriate, however. Akoha, a startup that uses trading cards to encourage good deeds, tried to use comics to explain its services in an innovative way. Unfortunately, it was a multi-page comic that few visited when coming to Akoha’s home page. By contrast, many companies, including Nectar, have used very simple three-panel comics on their home pages. These comics are easy to consume and immediately explain the product.

Figure 4.7
Akoha’s multi-page comic versus Nectar’s three-panel comic.

I love constraints. We’ve all witnessed their power. Presentations are constrained by time, and reports by number of pages. In film, the editing process is crucial to ensuring that a movie stays under a certain number of minutes. This process culls scenes that do not add depth to the story. These constraints may seem artificial, but you’ll find that they’re helpful because they force you to be creative and thoughtful. By constraining a comic to between three to eight panels, you’re forced to think about what features are most important to convey.

The Audience Of Your Comic

Aside from length, the Google Chrome and US Navy comics share something else in common. Both demonstrate a clear understanding of their audience and tailor the stories specifically to them. In the case of Google Chrome, the audience was technical enough to care about browser performance and engineering. With that in mind, Google was able to tell stories about JavaScript processing and browser caching.

The US Navy’s understanding of its audience — Japanese residents of Yokosuka — determined the format of its messaging. In fact, it was so successful in that campaign that people lined up around the street to get a copy of the manga. Who your audience is, where they’re from and what they know will influence the contents and delivery of your story.

Let’s say someone asked you, “How do I get to the nearest post office?” What would you say? Maybe something like:

“Turn left at the first light. Keep going until the stop sign, and then make a right on Main Street.”

These directions seem pretty straightforward. But what if you knew the person who was asking you? Let’s say it’s your cousin Joseph, who is a bit navigationally challenged. Then, you could give a few more details.

“Turn left at the first light, where the blue gas station is. Keep going — you’ll pass that playground we used to play at — and make a right when you see our old high school.”

What you’re doing is offering the right level of detail based on the person you are communicating the information to. We scope our conversations based on context and audience all the time without even realizing it. If you had answered the question in painstaking detail, it would be more like this:

“Insert your key into the ignition; turn it once until you feel the engine starting. Before you back out of the garage, make sure to check all your mirrors for any people or vehicles…”

… and so on. We don’t go into this level of detail because we implicitly understand and account for the audience’s level of expertise.

This consideration is important and yet insufficient. Beyond expertise level, we also need to consider the audience’s context. In the last example, I assumed that the person would be driving. But they might be a cyclist or a pedestrian. A cyclist would want to know the grade of the street; a pedestrian won’t care about one-way streets; and a driver wouldn’t be able to drive down stairs.

Let’s consider a business context. In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman discusses the concept of mental models — how people view a system. Norman uses a camera as an example. If you were to ask an engineer how a camera works, you might get an explanation of light, aperture and shutter speed. The comic for such an explanation might look like this:

Figure 4.9
How a camera works.

If you were to ask a layperson how a camera works, they might explain how to turn it on, how to focus and how to upload a picture. Then the comic might look like this:

Figure 4.10
How a camera works to a layperson.

Both of these comics are correct. They simply differ based on the expertise of the audience and the context of what the audience hopes to learn from the story. If you know your audience, you’ll have a much better idea of what your story should be and how to frame it. We can apply these considerations to our Square example, too. Square’s audience is merchants who have trouble receiving credit-card payments and might find Square useful.

The merchants need to own a smartphone, so they will presumably be reasonably tech-savvy. At the same time, they will only care that the device is easy to use and secure, and would be unlikely to understand (or care about) the detailed technical workings of the hardware.

Selecting A Representative Use Case

You now know who you want to read your comic and their context. The next step is to find a story that will help your readers understand why they should care! To accomplish this, find a use case that resonates with them and that addresses their problems. You may be telling the story of a problem that they didn’t even realize they had.

When Apple launched its video-conferencing application, FaceTime, people already had many competing and compelling products they could use. Skype, Google Talk and even Apple’s own iChat have free video-chat and even video-conferencing capabilities. One important distinction was that FaceTime is on a phone rather than a computer — but, given that you still had to be connected to a Wi-Fi network, this portability was limited.

Apple didn’t explain FaceTime’s differentiation through a list of features. Instead, it aired a series of short advertisements that showcased powerful human use cases — scenarios such as a father traveling abroad and conferencing with his family, and grandparents seeing their grandchild for the first time. Are these scenarios unique to FaceTime? Certainly not, but they were compelling and helped the viewer understand why the feature was important to them.

intro04-021 (1)
Find a use case that resonates with your readers addresses their problems.

Let’s go back to Square. What kind of use cases could we use for Square? Let’s list a few use cases for which we think Square would best help solve a problem.

  • Trade show,
  • Selling large items on Craigslist,
  • Coffee shop,
  • Garage sale,
  • Small merchant,
  • Food stand,
  • Massage therapist,
  • Musician.

Notice the commonality in these use cases? In each case, the user typically does not have an easy means of accepting credit-card payments but needs to do so or else lose business. For some, such as the coffee shop and small merchant, the user has an established business. For other use cases, such as the garage sale and the items on Craigslist, the individual would need to accept credit cards on occasion.

Still others are in the goods and services business, providing their service in varied locations such as conferences, craft fairs and people’s homes. Two themes arise from looking at these use cases: the advantage of Square’s mobility, and the ease of access to a credit-card payment system. Conceivably, we could create just one comic about the mobile use case, and it would naturally also describe the easy credit-card payment system.

However, if we were actually creating these for Square, having a separate comic for merchants would be beneficial, lest they think, “Well, that’s nice, but my shop doesn’t move around, so I don’t need a mobile solution.” For the purpose of this example, let’s create a comic for the use case of selling books at trade shows and conferences. Which of Square’s features should we highlight?

Perhaps listing all of the features would be useful:

  • Free app on iPhone, iPad and Android;
  • Free card reader that plugs into the mobile device’s headphone jack;
  • Accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover;
  • Purchasers can use their finger or a stylus to sign on the phone or iPad;
  • If the card can’t be read, there’s an option to enter the number manually;
  • The card reader, website and mobile applications are well designed.
  • Money received is deposited daily to your bank account;
  • A flat fee of 2.75% is charged for all transactions;
  • The purchaser can get a receipt by email or SMS;
  • The vendor does not have to commit to a contract to order the device or to use the service;
  • From the website, the vendor can track all invoices;
  • All transactions are secure;
  • Access to full reports on what has been sold;
  • Regular customers can set up a tab.

Yikes! Those are a lot of features to include in a story. How will we create a comic that captures all of these points in only three to eight panels? We have more bullet points than panels! Luckily, we have a use case now to help us narrow down which features to highlight and which are less important. One important aspect is that the device plugs into popular mobile devices and accepts all major credit cards.

Whether you need to highlight the cost of the device (free) is debatable. You could argue that the comic is meant to get the reader interested enough to investigate, and you could subsequently explain the details in another medium. However, as we’ll see later, incorporating the cost into the dialogue is easy enough. Some details we can skip in the comic are the schedule for depositing money received, the fees and the lack of a contract.

All of these elements are important selling points for the product, but remember the questions that the comic should answer: “What is this, and why should I care?” Can you imagine if iPhone commercials talked about two-year contracts or even the cost of the phone?


Summing up, here are the features that seem most important to highlight for the mobile payment use case we’re addressing:

  • Free app on iPhone, iPad and Android;
  • Free card reader that plugs into the mobile device’s headphone jack;
  • Card reader accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover;
  • Purchasers can use their finger or a stylus to sign on the phone or iPad;
  • The purchaser can get a receipt by email or SMS;
  • From the website, the vendor can track all invoices.

This list seems much more manageable. Can you see the story crystallizing?

We’ve decided that the goal of the comic is to get merchants to understand Square and to sign up for one. The audience for the comic is merchants who are technologically savvy. The problem we’ll address is the sale of goods at trade shows and conferences, with no easy way to accept credit cards. We’ll narrow the story to a person who wants to sell books at a conference. (As it turns out, Rosenfeld Media, the publisher of this very book, now uses Square to sell its books at conferences!)

We have finally narrowed down the feature list to just over a handful. Now we know what the story is about.

Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Kevin Cheng and Karen Corbett for providing us with this book excerpt (the entire book is available here). If you’re also interested in having your work featured on Smashing Magazine and in the Smashing Library, feel free to contact us anytime!

(al) (ea) (il)

© The Smashing Team for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

December 03 2012


Greenpeace Crowdsources Activism (Again) with Shell Oil Ad Contest

In this guest op-ed Alec Lynch, the founder and CEO of DesignCrowd, a design crowdsourcing website, argues that political groups like Greenpeace are increasingly relying on the creative power of  online ‘crowds’ to drive activity and create media awareness around their agenda.

Crowdsourcing design is a proven way to generate creative ideas – from logo design to t-shirt design – and now, in an innovative twist, Greenpeace are applying crowdsourcing to environmental activism by asking people to enter an’ad contest’ for Shell Oil via a spoof website Greenpeace’s campaign has generated hundreds of entries and a firestorm on social media.

Here are some of the funnier and more popular advertisements created by the crowd:

Example Shell Oil Crowdsourced Advertisement

Example Shell Oil Crowdsourced Advertisement

Example Shell Oil Crowdsourced Advertisement

Example Shell Oil Crowdsourced Advertisement

Example Shell Oil Crowdsourced Advertisement

It’s not the first time Greenpeace have used crowdsourcing to target an oil company. In 2010, Greenpeace ran a logo design contest to re-design BP’s logo (shortly after the BP Oil Spill) with hilarious results and a big social media impact. Thus, the current Shell Oil ad contest appears to be Greenpeace’s second attempt at crowdsourcing and (given the success they’ve achieved) probably not their last.

It’s unclear what Shell can do in response. It’s probably less an issue related to crowdsourcing and more of a legal question related to using a logo or brand to ridicule that brand (i.e. whether the crowd created these or Greenpeace it doesn’t matter – as soon as they’re published and become popular, Shell will get upset).

What is clear is that the power of the crowd to act fast and generate creative ideas is compelling. While the message is serious, some of the entries are downright funny. It will be interesting to see how the Greenpeace crowdsourcing initiative plays out (while the site be taken down or not). In the meantime, crowdsourcing remains a powerful tool for a range of organisations from small business and big brands to non-profits and activists. Brands and businesses should consider using professional crowdsourcing websites and services (such as DesignCrowd) to manage their crowdsourcing initiatives.

September 03 2012


Changing Perspective: A New Look At Old Problems // Approach to innovative solutions


Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

– Albert Einstein

There is an old story of blind men and an elephant. The blind men all meet and are asked to describe the elephant. One says that an elephant is long and skinny like a snake. The other says that the first doesn’t know what he is talking about and says an elephant is like the trunk of a tree, round and thick. The third says they are both wrong, that an elephant is wide and circular like a giant disc.

In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and collaborate to “see” the full elephant. When a sighted man walks by and sees the elephant, they also learn they are blind.

It doesn’t take us very long to figure out that each of the men is talking about a different part of the elephant (trunk, leg and ear, respectively). The men are blind, so they fail to take in the whole elephant. Because their experience was limited to a certain part of the elephant, they assumed that the elephant was the part they could see. One could only feel that the elephant was a trunk, so he thought it was like a snake.

Blind Men And Elephant

Being a creative is often like being a blind person. We are dealing with a problem that we cannot see. We talk about it, we look at it, and then we try to solve it understanding only the parts that we can see. The problem is that we can get in a rut and start seeing the same problem and offering the same solution. What happens, though, when, either by choice or by circumstance, we need to come up with new solutions? What happens when we need to innovate? Innovation by its very nature entails coming up with a new approach to an old problem.

To come up with a new approach to an old problem, we often need to look at the problem differently. If we do the same things, we will get the same results. If we use our same bag of tricks, we will end up with the same magic show. In my experience, when a new solution was required, the best thing I could do (whether I was stuck or not) was to change my perspective on the problem. This could mean looking at new visuals, asking different questions or simply refining my language. Once you have explored new angles of a problem, be they visual, functional or strategic, you will often see something new, which will set you off on the road to creativity and true innovation. When all you see is the ear and leg, you usually just need the trunk to complete your view of the elephant.

A Little Neuropsychology

To answer the question of how a different perspective leads to a creative solution, we need to understand a little neuropsychology and what happens in the brain when you are solving a problem. According to Jonah Leherer in his book Imagine, the “A-ha” moment is essentially an abstract connection that the right brain makes between two disparate ideas. History has countless stories of people having amazingly innovative ideas from seemingly insignificant events. One of my favorites is the story of how Robert Sherman came up with the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” when his son came home from school one day after having his blood taken (they had given him a cube of sugar). Another story is Newton theorizing about gravity after an apple dropped on his head, or Archimedes and the bathtub, and on and on. Some event triggers an idea and the brain makes a connection to creatively solve the problem.

How does this process work? When you are faced with a puzzle, be it visual or functional, you solve it by first running through all of your usual solutions that are obvious — such as the e-commerce layout that you have used a million times, design patterns that you know, the button style that you love, the font that always works, etc. You first engage your left brain by recalling the obvious tried and true solutions. Sometimes these ideas work, sometimes they don’t. As soon as your left brain has exhausted all ideas that don’t work, you get frustrated and you hit the wall. The wall is the inability of your left brain to create new connections from your old ideas. You are unable to connect the old ideas with fresh ones, to find different solutions with the same methods. The only way to get unstuck is to try to see the problem in a new way.

At the point of total frustration, your right brain engages. Your right brain solves problems with images. Once the left brain has gotten out of the way in total frustration, your right brain is able to freely associate in the language that it knows: pictures. Then, it hits — the connection is made, and all of a sudden, like magic, you are off and running, and everything falls into place. What you have just done is create a new connection in your brain, literally.

It usually happens at the most unlikely of times — when a participant in a research session says something that tips you off, or when your spouse shows you something, or when a friend tells you of a frustration and how they solved it. It comes unexpectedly, and two different objects are connected to create something new. Ultimately, most of the research and strategy phase is simply there to create these “A-ha” moments, which we then execute on once we reach the concepting phase.

How To Gain New Perspective

Below are a few of the tricks I have learned to inspire creative thought and to look at problems differently in order to help the brain create connections. While the first few suggestions are mainly for visual design, I find all of these useful for figuring out feature sets and defining scope, and they are completely appropriate for UX and visual designers alike.

Print Out Visuals

Printing a bunch of stuff and throwing it up on a wall is the single best way to see a new solution to your problem. Recognizing patterns is much easier when you are able to see visuals in close proximity than when relying on memory. Print-outs laid out in close proximity help the brain to make connections and generate ideas instead of merely retaining information.

What to print out? Two things in particular help: competitors and inspiration.


For competitors, if you are working on a product detail page for an e-commerce website, pick out 10 to 15 product pages from competitors and print them out on 11 × 17-inch paper, and look for things that work well. Also, observe things that do not work well. Your competitors have done you the good service of trying ideas before you, and you get to test drive their websites and evaluate their ideas without putting in months of development. Group together methods and design ideas that work well for competitors — and note your findings. There will also be a lot of failures to learn from, so note those as well. Seeing what is wrong on other websites could cause you to try something completely new. Seeing the cliches will free you from those tired ideas and allow your brain to run free on different ideas. Even if you are not in “competition” with anybody else, find the nearest verticals and you will make connections faster.

For inspiration, take 10 to 15 pages with various UI elements, print out the pages, cut out the pieces that you want to use, and put them on a board. Record your ideas on sticky notes, After doing this, you will start to see patterns, which you can use to visualize a solution. If you have done this and you are still stuck, put up some other relevant inspiration — be it a vibe, a similar layout or a design pattern — and see what happens. Just keep printing stuff out and rearranging it until you see something. When printing out inspiration, include some things that are totally different from what you saw in competitors to avoid copying what they did.

Refine Your Language

People often describe the same thing using different language. Individuals will get attached to the words they use to describe a problem, and then the group will get stuck on semantics. This is especially true when defining new products and features. We’ll often use a different word or two, and then everything will freeze. It could be the language used to describe user instructions, or it could be the label for a button. It could also be your names for particular objects in your project or particular attributes of those objects. Language is incredibly powerful. As visual designers, we might not be as tuned into it as we need to be, and we’ll shrug it off as the domain of copywriters. But copy and visuals are intertwined so intricately that separating one from the other in Web design is impossible.

So, we need to make sure we’ve got exactly the right language, and we need to experiment. Start by changing the language on the page or refining the instructions. Additionally, you could labels things that did not previously have labels or update existing labels.

If you are working with a copywriter, get them involved in refining any language issues you have with the website. They will be a fabulous source of ideas on language, product terminology and refining instructions.

Language can also block teams. Using different words or phrases for the same thing, especially when working on products that don’t yet exist, can lead to internal confusion. Using different terminology will divide a team rather than unify it. So, having team members define their use of words could help. If you step back and take a deep breath, you might find that you have already solved the problem and just needed to clarify the language in order for everyone to see it.

Ask Different Questions

If you are stuck, it is probably because you need an answer. Trouble is, you might not be asking the right question. If you ask the same question over and over, you will most likely get the same answer. So, how do you rephrase the question or ask a new question to gain new insight?

Sometimes the problem is visual. Something in the layout is distracting or causing it not to work, so you need to address a different part of the layout. The root of the problem might be not the element you are working on but the surrounding elements. Here are a few things to try:

  • Delete or remove other items on the art board and see what happens. This could reveal a solution to the problem.
  • Try an illustration instead of a photo.
  • Change colors.
  • Break the grid.
  • Emphasize different parts of the page.
  • Try a whole new approach to the navigation, not just a new menu bar.

Document Data in a New Way

On a project I was on, we were having trouble pinpointing how to compare feature sets between products. We had several options but kept going around in circles debating on the right direction. Finally, I found a new way to display the comparisons and tried it out as an experiment. Wham! It showed the information in a new way that made sense to the team, and we all got it. So if you are working with data, how can you display or visualize the data in a new way? Could you look at new parameters? Could you reformat your deliverables? Looking at the data in different formats enables you to see new things.

Competitive Analysis
The magical data visualization: overlaying rankings of competitors based on key opportunities.

Analyze Something New

With there being so many techniques and models to display data, exhausting the entire bag of tricks in every project is impossible. If you are looking to see the problem differently, put the problem in a new model: a storyboard, a mental model, a new analytics report, perhaps even changing the format of the data. You will see different things with different models. It will add more detail to the strategy and help you understand the design challenge in the big picture, helping you discover new risks and solutions. Adding data models could also help the business’ decision-makers and team members uncover crucial risks earlier in the process.

Zoom Out to the Next Largest Context

Looking at the big picture can also lead to a new way of seeing the problem. When a problem is very specific, look at how it fits into the next largest context. In product or Web design, this could mean storyboarding how the app or website is to be used, including the location and psychographics of the user and what they are trying to accomplish. Better understanding how the business works might also help. Understanding design in the context of how the app fits into the big picture of the business can help you refine the strategy and eliminate options to arrive at a solution more quickly.

Zooming out sometimes helps me realize that I am asking the wrong question. If you are asking how your problem (say, one about a feature set or product requirements) fits into the big picture, you might find that the big picture is not big enough and has to be expanded (such as by revising the strategy or the user flow). Perhaps the feature set or product requirements don’t make sense because you haven’t zoomed out wide enough and don’t understand the product in context. Once you look at it in the big picture, your entire team might realize that its approach is wrong — or perhaps right!

Final Thoughts

When approaching your next project, try to build in new ways to look at the problem. We’ve explored just a few here. You could also try new project workflows (such as lean or agile) or new tools (such as eye-tracking or usability tests or different software) or new music or whatever.

Going back to our story of the blind men, where is your team blind? Where can you look to make this elephant a little clearer. Design work is very much about feeling your way around and imagining the elephant. By looking at different dimensions (data, competitors, inspiration, language, context), you are able to see a problem more three-dimensionally. No design challenge is so simple that it lacks additional facets for exploration. You might just find the “A-ha” moment you were looking for or discover a major innovation as Newton did or uncover something small that allows you to focus and prioritize your team.

Remember, if you do the same thing, you will usually get the same results. Conversely, if you try new techniques, you may never go back.


© Stuart Silverstein for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

August 24 2012


The Designer Will Make It Pretty // A Matter of Aesthetics


I am sure that my day job as a designer has a lot of similarities to that of the entire Smashing community. I create wireframes, mockups and concepts. I craft HTML and CSS using methods that I hope are fluid and adaptive. At the same time, my coworkers and I serve over 100 clients and 13 million users on a single platform.

Each client has the ability to design their website as they see fit, but we have an unbalanced ratio of designers to clients. I do not have the luxury in my day-to-day work of spending months working through a design process as part of a client’s implementation. However, this scenario of limited time hardly strikes me as rare among my design peers.

Because of these constraints, I hear a phrase quite often that many designers would compare to nails on a chalkboard. The people I work with who do not handle the design side of our platform will often tell clients, “The designer will make it look pretty.” Now, “it” could refer to a lot of things: a log-in form, maybe a simple button, or the entire website. When content is raw, unformatted or confusing to the user, it gets sent to the design department so that it can come out the other end “pretty.”

The result of my design process.
The result of my design process.

Web designers hate this perspective. We consider what we do to be far more important than decorating sloppy content and returning it in a timely fashion. Many of us would argue that our real job is to make content accessible, flexible, easy to use and easy to work with. The real value in design comes from what you can’t see or what you don’t appreciate; it comes from all of the trouble that you don’t have because we fixed it ahead of time. Thank goodness we know better: if we just made things pretty, all of our work would be in vain.

Why Designers Hate “Pretty” Design

Professional designers don’t make things pretty because it’s beneath us. Your visual acceptance of our work is the result of careful decision-making built around grid systems, perfect ratios, color theory, typography and—no, I won’t make your logo bigger—white space. The practice of simply decorating is something we used to do when we were just getting started down this career path. We used to make pretty things in Photoshop to kill time in class or to tinker with a new tool or technique. We have since moved on to bigger and better things.

Image source: Mike Rohde
Image source: Mike Rohde.

Yes, the design community has graduated from the pretty principle to less visual but supposedly more impactful measures. The technology of the present enables us to reach a higher plateau, and we are a bunch of people who refuse to settle for good being good enough, and that includes making something pretty. Right?

Embrace The Pretty

Anyone who feels they have left pretty and supposedly meaningless things behind is wrong. Leaving behind the idea of making your work appealing to the eye is to leave behind real value. Aesthetics are no petty trick for the uninspired. Quite the opposite, really.

Our great human minds come preprogrammed with many incredible default behaviors that automate complex decision processes. One such behavior is to be drawn to attractive things. Of course, this isn’t news. We prefer to spend our lives with companions who we are attracted to, we want pretty spaces to live and work in, and we invest our time and money into these things to make them look good. However, this hidden pattern in our behavior can account for much more than these obvious attraction-driven actions.

Attraction works surprisingly well not just by direct preference but by association, too. Take, for example, something that we see on a daily basis. The process of selling products with attractive models or celebrities may come across as a lazy method of advertising, perhaps by a marketing team that is slacking off. But despite its transparency, this method remains an effective way to pass attributes that we generally associate with attractive people onto a completely unrelated product.

This comes to light in a study performed on two groups of males who were shown the same car advertisement, the only difference being the inclusion of a pretty woman alongside the car. The group that was shown the car with the woman not only rated the car as faster, better designed and more valuable, but when they were confronted about the influence of the attractive woman, nearly all of the subjects denied that it played a role in their judgment of the car.

How does all of this relate to Web design? Like so many things, it comes back to the content. Content is the most important element of a website, and how a user reacts to that content or recalls it later can be heavily influenced by its surrounding. The most obvious example is our judgment of credible information.

News Story Comparison

In the example above, you can see an article surrounded by distracting advertisements on the right. Crushed into leftover space or given no regard for good typography seems less important or even less factual to us than one that excels in all of these categories—even if the words are exactly the same. To the reader, it is clear that the time spent crafting an article into a beautiful experience indicates that it has higher value and more legitimacy. But the benefits don’t stop at the paragraph level. The entire experience of a website can be enhanced with an eye for beauty. I’ll even show you how.

The Laws of Attraction

The process of booking a place to stay on vacation or a trip has been completely transformed by the Internet. To be completely honest, I’m in my 20s, so I don’t really know what people did to book places to stay before the Internet, but it had to be terrible. Today we have dozens of options for finding deals on hotels, resorts, apartments and beyond. From the variety of choices out there, patterns have emerged in the process of finding places to stay. Every website out there starts with the basics: destination, arrival and departure dates, and guests. This is a good pattern, and it generally serves our best interests, but oh, the difference that design can make.

Airbnb website

Airbnb has established an impressive level of popularity in a short time among travelers looking for an experience outside of the standard hotel room. This is in no small part due to the emphasis it has placed on design. When you visit the Airbnb website, its entire mission is revealed to you in an instant. Large vibrant images bleed through the background, showing some hand-picked potential destinations.

These careful selections serve several purposes. First, it becomes immediately clear that we are dealing with something beyond the drab hotel experience. Secondly, it’s no coincidence that the destinations that enter and leave your peripheral vision are so gorgeous. Let’s take a moment to compare this experience to another website that offers a similar set of features.

Vacation Rentals By Owner

Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) helps you accomplish a goal similar to that of Airbnb’s users, which is to book destinations with individual owners. Honestly, VRBO does not make this process difficult, and its inclusion here is not meant to imply “Never do this.” The steps are the same (destination, arrival and departure dates, guests, etc.), and its design does not hinder the user from completing this process. However, the difference in experience between the two websites is drastic.

The primary difference is that Airbnb has done a wonderful job of presenting its primary content (the places) beautifully. The large pictures of the very pretty places gets us excited about our trip and about the sort of unique residences we could stay in. Because of the pretty things we immediately see on Airbnb’s home page, our entire experience is enhanced. Even if the process of booking a place to stay is no harder or easier on Airbnb, more people are likely to come back or share this resource with their friends because of the positive and memorable influence of the pretty images and interface. The unique style of Airbnb translates into measurable results in the form of a noticeably lower reliance on search traffic and a higher percentage of direct and repeat traffic.

The Industrial Age Is Over

There was a time when design was a secondary consideration for the products we used and the services we enjoyed. This mostly came about during the Industrial Revolution, and it could be argued that we relived a similar mentality through the Information Age. Both of these eras share a common theme of production on a large and affordable scale. We found ourselves constantly inventing a new mouse trap, except that it didn’t have to be a better mouse trap if it could be a cheaper one. So long as your table, automobile, computer software or thermostat had a utility and was affordable, it was good enough.

Nest Thermostat

If you have the pleasure of living in a developed country, it should be obvious to you that times have changed and this no longer applies. Why did the Nest thermostat make such a huge splash online? Because finally we have a device that can automatically control the temperature in our home? For years we have longed for something that allows us to regulate the temperature where we live! Sorry, but we’ve had these things. In fact, hundreds of these things exist. But that’s precisely why Nest took off: it was the same thing done again but with real design this time.

Sure, it’s important that the Nest makes it easy to program the temperature in your house, which is an element of “good design” in the sense that designers love. The controls are simple, and it’s super-easy to understand, read and use. I would argue, though, that all of this is secondary to the fact that the Nest looks really cool. Perhaps you would scoff at the statement that looking cool is more important than being easy to use. But the fact is that this thermostat will spend most of its life not being touched and not being interacted with in any way. It’s a thermostat, so what will people do with it almost 100% of the time? They’ll look at it.

We see this in industries beyond home décor. It wasn’t long ago that the US automotive industry was in a nose dive for the crapper. This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise because the industry was built on Henry Ford’s principle of mass production on a cheap, repeating, large scale. As the world moved away from affordable necessities to desirable luxuries, the car industry needed to move with it or go broke. In the early 2000s, automotive juggernaut General Motors rehired Robert Lutz, the man who would rewrite the script on how GM made cars. Lutz ditched the industrial mentality of GM and started to imbue his own opinion of cars, saying, “I believe very deeply in the automobile as an art form.” Since then, GM has transitioned from manufacturing cars to designing them.

Looking around, you can see that making things pretty is going from being an afterthought to being an integral part of our lives. We have reached the point where making something affordable yet high in quality is second-nature. Look no further than the content we curate in our social media profiles today to get a prime example of the difference design makes.

The Internet is becoming a culture of hoarding; with Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and websites like Dribbble and 500px, a premium has been put on building a digital collection of things. We share the food we eat, the places we go, the clothes we want to buy and the gadgets we love. Often the primary requirement for sharing these things with our social networks is that they stand out visually. They need to be unique, stylish and well designed… they need to be pretty. As discussed earlier, all of these qualities build a connection between who we are and the products we love. In order to create a product or website of extraordinary value to the millions of digital curators out there, we need to invest in aesthetics that reflect well on those same users.

Put Pretty Into Practice

The landscape of the Web is not so different from that of thermostats or cars. If anything, its resources are over-abundant. Any task you might want to accomplish online either has been done thousands of times or can be easily duplicated after the fact. When users have limitless options and limited time, design is the deciding factor in what makes one experience more worthwhile than another. So, don’t cringe when “pretty” is included as a design requirement, because it should always be. When we make a design pretty, we are deliberately basing our design choices on aesthetic value. A pretty design has a visceral impact on the user and prompts an emotional response.

Designers who ignore the potential impact of prettiness on their work are at risk of being surpassed by peers who share their skill set but who appreciate the role of beauty. Pretty design isn’t just for Dribbble. Your clients, customers and users all stand to gain a lot from that extra coat of paint. A user’s personality can be imbued, however slightly, by the work done by a designer merely by association. I implore you to keep work from leaving your desk until you have had time to make it pretty.

Additional Reading


© Jason Gross for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

August 19 2012


A Clever Theft – Steal Inspiration Everywhere

Steal like an artist. Some of you might remember the huge attention Austin Kelon’s article got. If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, quick, close your windows and read it, Steal Like an Artist and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me. The original article managed to reach millions of readers and a lot of people regard it as a must read for any creative. So do I. What’s more, the post has expanded into a book and, guess what, you can buy it on Amazon.

I’m not going to repeat the things Austin talks about. You should read them yourself and make your own decisions. I’ve pondered these stealing and creativity things for a while. Nothing is original. I agree with that. But then you start to think. And the thing I figured out is that I don’t care. I don’t care if there is something original left in this world or there isn’t. Why should I care? I’ll keep doing what’s right for me and pursue growth and success.

There’s this one quote I have had in my head for some time now, it’s a quote from an article by photographer Eric Kim, Bad Street Photographers Copy, Good Street Photographers Steal.

Style isn’t something aesthetic

He states that style is something you discover rather than learn. Style is much much more about how you see the world, than aesthetics. He applies this to photography, but I believe it can be applied to something bigger. To life, and again, what he promotes to do this is stealing. Stealing ideas, stealing inspiration.

That’s why I decided to come up with this article (scribble to be precise). This is what you and I face everyday. Stealing sounds awful doesn’t it? You experience something everyday. Even if you’re staying in all day. No matter if it’s a lonely walk by the seashore, conversation over a beer or beautiful sky at night. Inspiration is everywhere.

I don’t think inspiration is even the right word. It’s a bit worn out these days. Look at this design, go to this play, listen to that album. It’s simple and not that simple at the same time. I believe that every experience you have somehow stays in your subconscious (and I didn’t even misspell this). There’s one nice little word I like. Satori. Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment, meaning “understanding”. I know nothing about Buddhism and I certainly cannot claim that I truly understand the meaning of this word. Yet I know something about being true to yourself and I’ll presume that I’ve truly felt these moments of enlightenment. They’re probably thousands of miles away from the true satori moment but they do work for me. And that is what matters.

You are what you keep around you. You are what you read, what you see, who you meet. Maybe even what you eat. The more you collect, the stronger you’ll be. Random conversations, dreams and little snippets of life. Try to absorb everything. A good way of recollecting everything is by writing a diary. I’m, for example, trying to take a picture everyday.

Ok, enough talking. Check out what I’ve prepared for you.


On Defining Success

Adii Pienaars’ thoughts on success. Can success be defined? Is success only related to wealth? Find out other people opinions and think about yourself.

Vision Without Obstruction: What We Learn From Steve Jobs

“Jobs didn’t “think different” just for the sake of it, he just refused to conform to traditional expectations and limitations.” Learn how to keep your vision clear without obstructions. Let no obstacles slow you down.

Robert Frank – “If An Artist Doesn’t Take Risks, Then It’s Not Worth It.”

An exclusive interview with American photographer Robert Frank. Read about the book “The Americans”, photography and most importantly why artists should take risks and go further.

The Generosity Of Criticism

“We expect judgment from each other but when it comes to critique, we take offense.” Thumbs up/down culture doesn’t accomplish anything. It takes something more to say a good critique, you have to make a contribution to other people.

I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art

“They are in the process of spending three minutes looking at a photograph of a woman they don’t know sitting on a chair. Can you imagine how quickly they’d be skipping over this photo if it was in their mum’s holiday snaps?” What do you think of postmodernism art? Some think this article is just a coarse way of getting attention yet I believe it’s straight on topic and hits people on profound issues they don’t want to delve into.


Photoblog Awards 2011

The finalists and winners of the 2011 Photoblog Awards have been announced. This is a great place to wander in late evenings.

52 Weeks of the Street Photography Now Project


photo by Jo Wallace

“The Street Photography Now Community (SPNC) is the continuation of the Street Photography Now Project (SPNP), a collaboration between The Photographers’ Gallery, London and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, authors of Street Photography Now (Thames & Hudson).  Its aim was to build a global community of photographers exploring the rewards and challenges of documenting public life,

The SPNP ran on Flickr for 52 weeks from October 2010 to September 2011.  Weekly instructions were given by established photographers written to inspire fresh ways of looking at and documenting the world we live in. Participants had to shoot street photography every week and upload their best shot to the instruction group.”

#The50 Things Every Creative Should Know


“#the50 is the first fully-Tweetable primer for graduating creatives. #the50 addresses the most common concerns held by graduating creatives and aims to bridge the gap between art college and the professional world. Each piece of advice has been written within 140 characters and features a consistent hash-tag, making them easy to share across Twitter.”

My Modern Metropolis


My Modern Met is where art enthusiasts and trendspotters connect over creative ideas. Beautiful photography, incredible art and clever design.



fucknfilthy is a clothing brand and they’ve also got a great blog.


Michael Wolff – Is this a good time for creativity?

isthisagoodtime addresses questions to proficient people starting with “is this a good time?” Find out what American author and journalist Michael Wolff has to say about creativity.

Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

“As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication – and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.” Aren’t you tired of seeing people constantly having their phone in hand and refreshing their Twitter feed? Learn why it’s important to learn to be alone.

Austin Kleon – “Steal Like a Writer” at WMC Fest 2012

Previously mentioned, Austin Kleon gives a talk about stealing like a writer. “No matter what your discipline, it’s hard to get any good work done without clear, straightforward communication. Simply put, being a good writer makes you better at your job. Using a few school supplies, a little visual thinking, and a whole lot of creative theft, this talk will help get you started on the way towards becoming a wordsmith.”

50 Days For Dilla (Vol. 1)


“In dedication to the late James Dewitt Yancey better known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, beat-smith Ta-ku has produced a track each day for 50 days; each song embodying the very recognizable essence of the “Dilla sound” so cherished by fans far and wide, showcasing Ta-ku’s eclectic production prowess.” Good music is always appreciated.

Torgny – “I Came Here”

Great music with great visualization. Check out the whole trilogy here.


“Second Nature” A Documentary Film About Janne Saario

Second Nature is a 20-minute documentary on Element team rider and budding landscape architect, Janne Saario of Finland.

The short film allows a glimpse of Saario’s thoughts and dreams, which float between design, art and skateboarding. Though it also reveals the important concurrence of post-industrial areas, sustainable concepts and natural environments, and unfolds the demanding obligation, towards today’s generation and those to come, to create positive and inspiring, local communities.


“The digital revolution of the last decade has unleashed creativity and talent in an unprecedented way, with unlimited opportunities. But does democratized culture mean better art or is true talent instead drowned out? This is the question addressed by PressPausePlay, a documentary film containing interviews with some of the world’s most influential creators of the digital era. ”

The creative and art worlds we used to know is gone. We’ve destroyed the old world and its order. But we’re not in the new world yet. We don’t know what’s next for us.

Une Fille Comme Les Autres

Brilliant example of how an advertisement should look.

The Dreamers


The Dreamers, a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, tells the story of enigmatic French twins and their American friend in Paris during the 60s. They share love for movies, friendship and marvelous intimacy.

The Street Aesthetic of New York City

New York is like the Mecca for street photographers. This video includes recordings from both Manhattan and Brooklyn trying to capture the culture and everyday life of native New Yorkers.



This is the list of things that have inspired me and now you can read into my soul. We all live so far from each other that’s why I have to limit this article with things that can be found on the internet. But remember that inspiration is everywhere. Learn to be a thief. A clever thief.

I’d love to hear your comments on this kind of inspiration article. I can pitch you an idea – each week you guys send us tweets about interesting and creative things you’ve found, no matter if it’s a website, an article, or a photograph of a funny cat you saw that day, and we’ll wrap them up and put them into an article so everyone can see. What do you say?

August 14 2012


Creating A Lasting Impression


We can all agree that the work we do should inform, should be appropriate to the client and their audience and should, of course, look good. But there’s a fourth attribute worth aiming for: creating a lasting impression.

Visual memory is fascinating — we often use it without realizing. If, for example, you ask someone how many rooms they have in their home, before answering, most will walk through each room in their mind’s eye (possibly even with their eyes closed to aid concentration), adding up as they go. If graphic designers can tap into the benefits of this phenomenon, providing visual triggers to keep the subject matter of their work fresh in the audience’s memories, they will surely enjoy advantages.

Categorically describing what makes a design memorable is almost impossible. As with many other aspects of graphics and typography, general principles rather than absolute rules apply. However, aspects of dynamism and the unusual and unexpected more often than not play a significant role in memorable designs. Not all visual mnemonics can be described as being aesthetically pleasing; some designs might be deliberately shocking or provocative in order to be talked about and remembered.

A wide range of variables can affect the probability of a lasting impression, although very often luck, coincidence or timing helps. Striking color combinations, arresting images and clever use of typography and language can be helpful, too, but what captures an audience’s imagination and stays with them is frequently more complicated and possibly linked to the element of surprise. This article brings together a collection of memorable projects and try to identify how designers have made them unforgettable.

Creating Basic Memories

Professor Bruce Brown of the University of Brighton in the UK is an expert in visual memory. He describes letterforms as “meaningless signs, specifically designed to help us construct permanent memories for otherwise meaningless sounds so being the simplest and most powerful mnemonic system devised.” For most of us, learning the alphabet is part of our early lives and helps us to establish communication skills; in our early years, we work on the connection between signs, symbols and sounds until they are secured in our memory to be retrieved at will and in any order.

We become experts in using these tools to help recover ideas from our memories, bringing them together to create meaning. The importance of this phenomena must not be underestimated, and Professor Brown puts it well when he says:

“Without the ability to create memories we would perceive no more than each disjointed second of our isolated existences; we would have no language, no alphabet, no discourse, no identity and no culture.”

Witty And Shocking Designs That Leave A Lasting Impression

There’s no doubt that information wrapped in a witty or shocking package is hard to forget, and the following examples are typical. Not only does the memory of them linger, but they’re often so powerful that you’ll want to share them with friends.

“All Eyes On You” by Britzpetermann

All Eyes on You.
“All Eyes on You”, a moving window display by Britzpetermann, Bonn, Germany. (View video)

About this project:

Schau, a series of interactive window displays by Britzpetermann, includes a window packed with large roving eyeballs. Each eye follows passers by in a strangely spooky manner that is not easily forgotten.

Why is this design memorable?

Eyes have a powerful significance, which always draw the viewer strongly into an image. So, being confronted by an array of giant eyeballs that seem to be dismembered and floating in space will certainly be very memorable. However, when the eyes appear to make active contact with you personally, following your every move, as if responding not only to your actions but perhaps to your every thought, then they become truly unforgettable.

“Hand Made Type” by Tien-Min Liao

Hand Made Type, by Taiwanese designer/illustrator Tien-Min Liao.

Hand Made Type, by Taiwanese designer/illustrator Tien-Min Liao.
“Hand Made Type” by Taiwanese designer and illustrator Tien-Min Liao. (View video)

About this project:

“Hand Made Type” is an animated project that shows hand-drawn uppercase letters painted on hands, speedily and subtly converting to their lowercase equivalents in fluid movements.

Why is this design memorable?

This project has such an unusual concept and is fascinating to watch. Looking at the detail in these clever animations, we find ourselves flexing our fingers and trying to mimic Tien-Min Liao’s careful movements. We are all able to use our hands in very expressive ways, and the combination of type and hands together is extremely powerful and, therefore, difficult to forget. We are also left wanting to know more: Where did this amazing idea come from, and how long did it take to achieve these marvellous results?

“Chaumont Poster” by Sagmeister

Poster by Sagmeister Inc. for their exhibit at Chaumont 2004-5.
(Large version)

Sagmeister's letter-teeth as used in the Chaumont poster.
Poster by Sagmeister for its exhibit at Chaumont 2004-5.

About this project:

This poster by Stefan Sagmeister (the “king” of highly mnemonic design) contains a number of disturbing images that are very hard to forget. Letterforms that appear to have been extruded from human flesh, people with intertwined body parts, and teeth that appear to have been cut into letters and numbers — all of these create shock responses.

Why is this design memorable?

We defy anyone to look at Sagmeister’s typographic front teeth and not run their tongue over their own teeth to check that they are all still complete.

There is something innately fascinating about the human body. We are all very familiar with the curves, creases, surfaces and details of our own physique, but being presented with surprising, even shocking, close-up detail of some of the hidden areas of another person’s anatomy can be irresistibly captivating.

Ad for “Concordia Children’s Services”

About this project:

In this ad by Young and Rubicam for Concordia Children’s Services in the Philippines, the question is asked, “If you don’t help feed them, who will?” The advertisement shows babies feeding from a sow like piglets and is intended to shock its audience into appreciating the dreadful plight of the many abandoned babies in Manila.

Why is this design memorable?

Seeing numerous babies in the extraordinary situation of feeding from a pig is initially very arresting and shocking; but for us, the totally unhygienic environment is what really makes us squirm. In most societies, whether rich or poor, babies are treasured, cosseted, loved and kept distant from grime and germs; in this image, the newborns are shown fending for themselves. They are pictured grovelling in the mud and competing with each to feed. We defy anyone not to have a physical response to this ad and hold it in their mind’s eye for a long time.

When Movement And Interaction Make Designs Addictive

The designs showcased in this section have a compulsive quality about them. The imagery is fascinating and appealing, but the interactive nature of each example makes it hard to resist and highly memorable.

“Karlo Jurina Selbstgespräche” by Britzpetermann

Karlo Jurina Selbstgespräche by Britzpetermann
Still shots don’t do this project justice. View a behind the scenes video on Vimeo, or visit the website yourself!

About this project:

Interaction and movement in response to outside stimuli are two aspects that can make Web design really memorable and enjoyable. This album visualization for Karlo Jurina Selbstgespräche by Britzpetermann is truly breathtaking.

Why is this design memorable?

Throughout each of the 15 tracks, a precise movement of carefully positioned, colorful symbols highlights every individual note, causing you to almost believe that you could be, or are, playing every stunning note yourself. The melodies of Jurina’s beautiful acoustic guitar will resonate from your computer, while the arrangement of over 300 bright, individual and precisely ordered marks will seem to breath from your screen in response to the rhythm of the composition.

The idea of the personal response to the subtleties of sound and rhythm is what comes to the fore with this project, leaving you not only with a strong yet surprisingly subtle visual interpretation of music, but also the strangely satisfying idea that your own personal responses and movements could play a role in creating this wonderful sound.

Try out Selbstgespräche for yourself.

“Hidden Heroes” by Grimm Gallun Holtappels

Hidden Heroes.

Hidden Heroes.
The award-winning “Hidden Heroes” online exhibit, designed by Grimm Gallun Holtappels.

About this project:

Who has not at some point looked down at one of the myriad of products that make everyday life easier and thought, “Wow, that’s clever. What a simple memorable design.” The Hidden Heroes online exhibit, designed by Grimm Gallun Holtappels, pays homage to the zipper, the paperclip and many other such items.

Why is this design memorable?

Interaction with the exhibit is highly pleasurable because it stimulates several of the five senses. The design is beautiful and colorfully pleasing to the eye, while every action of the mouse creates a satisfying response and amusingly memorable sound that transports you right back to personal memories of using a particular Hidden Hero. Our favorite is the Flipflop, designed by Bernd D. Hummel around 1960; great noise — it transports us to sunny days and sand between our toes!

You can experience your own Hidden Hero, too!

Website of “Grimm Gallun Holtappels”

Grimm Gallun Holtappels's Website

Grimm Gallun Holtappels's Website

Grimm Gallun Holtappels's Website
The lively and addictive website of Grimm Gallun Holtappels.

About this project:

Grimm Gallun Holtappels has created an almost addictive experience on its own website. By showing us around its office space, we are allowed to shuffle through a trail of files that fly through bright white rooms, giving off pleasingly subtle page-turning noises. Each file selected then speedily transports us to a new workspace and converts to a two-part three-dimensional box that can be rotated in different directions to reveal different details.

Why is this design memorable?

Experiencing the pleasures of moving through this online 3-D environment is very personal and mnemonic. Looking at the office space, we are aware of the depth of field and of other rooms existing in the distance. The ability to turn and twist the three-dimensional boxes, revealing different planes and detail, is very reminiscent of experiencing and interacting with the intriguing puzzles and other captivating games of our childhood. For us, one of the most memorable and subtle aspects of this design is the constant gentle movement of the website, seeming to rise and fall as if in time with our breath, emphasizing the personal and sensory nature of this viewing experience.

Enjoy your interaction on the Grimm Gallun Holtappels website.

When Use Of Unexpected Materials Takes Your Breath Away

In this section, we highlight design examples that involve totally unexpected materials, plus extraordinary dexterity and commitment on the part of the designers. It is impossible not to be amazed by the workmanship that went into these venerable pieces, and one cannot help but get a lasting impression.

“Banana Wall” by Sagmeister

Sagmeister’s Banana Wall.

Sagmeister’s Banana Wall.

Sagmeister’s Banana Wall.

Sagmeister’s Banana Wall.

Sagmeister’s Banana Wall.
The various stages of Sagmeister’s “Banana Wall” for Deitch Projects.

About this project:

Certain examples of highly memorable design not only stay with us, but make us think, “I wish I had thought of that.” It is amazing to consider the dexterity needed to produce this huge design spectacle, in which the designer selected unusual materials for their capacity to ripen and change color. Green fruit is used to create border patterns, rules and letterforms that spell out “self confidence produces fine results” while yellow bananas create a contrasting background.

Why is this design memorable?

This project confronts us with piles of fast-ripening bananas, and the slightly infuriating fast-ripening aspect of this popular fruit is used to amazing affect by Stefan Sagmeister. All of us have experienced bananas ripening more quickly than we would like, but how many of us have thought to use the change in color of 10,000 pieces of fruit to creative affect? It’s a great example of pushing something so common to the extreme, and it creates a memorable and unique experience. The clever, meaningful link between Sagmeister’s quote and the color change is also a powerful metaphor. As Stefan Sagmeister says:

“After a number of days, the green bananas turned yellow, too, and the type disappeared. When the yellow background bananas turned brown, the type (and the self-confidence) appeared again, only to go away when all bananas turned brown.”

“Obsessions Make My Life Worse And Work Better” by Sagmeister

Obsessions Make My Life Worse and Work Better, created by Sagmeister Inc. using thousands of coins

Obsessions Make My Life Worse and Work Better’ created by Sagmeister Inc. using thousands of coins

Obsessions Make My Life Worse and Work Better’ created by Sagmeister Inc. using thousands of coins

Obsessions Make My Life Worse and Work Better’ created by Sagmeister Inc. using thousands of coins
“Obsessions Make My Life Worse and Work Better” created by Sagmeister using thousands of coins.

About this project:

The subject of this piece by Stefan Sagmeister perhaps helps to explain the attention to detail in his other designs in this section. “Obsessions make my life worse and work better” at first glance appears to be a typographic design involving copper-colored letterforms that are elaborately embellished with floral decoration. However, upon closer inspection, this project makes highly unexpected and mnemonic use of materials. This time, small coins have been carefully and precisely arranged across a paving-slab grid structure.

Why is this design memorable?

As with the other designs in this section, the dexterity and patience necessary to produce this result is breathtaking. The vulnerability of this design is also plainly evident. The work is executed outside in a public space and is open to being disturbed by the weather and visitors. In fact, during the first night after completion, a local resident spotted passers by removing a souvenir coin or two and called the police. Unfortunately, the authorities responded quite dramatically, sweeping up all of the coins into black bin bags — supposedly to secure the work! We can hardly believe what it must have felt like to discover the blank space, and a part of remembering this piece is being able to identify with this experience.

“The Comedy Carpet” in Blackpool, UK

The Comedy Carpet located in Blackpool, UK

The Comedy Carpet located in Blackpool, UK
“The Comedy Carpet” located in Blackpool, UK.

About this project:

Many of the other mnemonic works in this section are made of materials that give them a fragility and vulnerability that make them mind-blowing, almost literally. However, The Comedy Carpet by Gordon Young and Why Not Associates involves the memorable and amazing use of materials in a different way.

The carpet, a typographic work on an extraordinary scale, is a celebration of comedy, and it references more than 1000 comedians and comedy writers. The design itself takes its inspiration from traditional music-hall posters; it features songs, jokes and catchphrases in granite letters, carefully embedded in a concrete layer and displayed in carpet form in front of Blackpool Tower on England’s northwest coast. Described by its creators as “A remarkable homage to those who have made the nation laugh, it’s also a stage for popular entertainment that celebrates entertainment itself.”

Why is this design memorable?

The answer to this question is the mixture of high-quality design, amazing manufacture, grandness of scale and outdoor setting.

The making of this extraordinary carpet certainly helps make the product itself so memorable. At first sight, the letterforms seem painted, but each of the 16,000 30-millimeter characters were cut by the carpet team in a workshop specially established for this project. For us, having the chance to walk on this beautifully constructed carpet of type makes for an unforgettable experience.

Executing this typographic detail at such a momentous scale in a famous outdoor environment is quite remarkable. Of course, those who understand English and recognize the comedians will enjoy another highly memorable feature: humor. Like the other works in this section, the Comedy Carpet turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, making it larger than life and totally immersive.

Using Color And Composition As Visual Triggers

Cleverly chosen colors and careful composition have the power to make a design distinctive and striking. The works in this section demonstrate a number of ways in which color and composition can have great impact and linger in the mind.

“Elephant Magazine” by Studio8 Design

Pages from Elephant Magazine

Pages from Elephant Magazine

Pages from Elephant Magazine

Pages from Elephant Magazine
Elephant magazine demonstrates a compositional dynamic that is highly memorable.

About this project:

Elephant magazine by Studio 8 without a doubt uses color, image and composition to effect, but the London-based design company’s skill with composition is what prompted us to focus on this magazine.

Why is this design memorable?

Elegant typography, including text with a lightness of touch, is carefully arranged on pages, with letterforms headings used in unexpected ways to create beautiful imagery and dynamic spaces. Careful and precise alignment helps to bring the details together, fixing your attention on what is important, while leaving a pleasurable lasting impression that is sure to have you looking out for other issues.

“Maps” by Paula Scher

Paula Scher's Maps

Paula Scher's Maps

Paula Scher's Maps

Paula Scher's Maps

Paula Scher's Maps
Paula Scher’s Maps has an amazing interplay of color and pattern.

About this project:

In the 1990s, Pentagram’s Paula Scher began painting colorful maps with incredible layered detail. Her creations use hand-painted type to show countries, cities, oceans and districts, as well as cultural connections, in compelling patterns.

Maps is published by Princeton Architectural Press and highlights 39 of Scher’s captivating works in great detail. Many sections are shown in full size, and the cover features a 3 × 2-foot poster of “World Trade” painted in 2010.

Why is this design memorable?

Compositions are packed with a huge amount of colored hand-lettering that overlays and interacts in an exciting way. Even without reading the words, the imagery is unforgettable, as the incredible detail, layering, color, composition and subject matter draw you into the depths of each work. As with many of the other designs in this article, the question springs to mind, “How did she do it?”


No doubt, many other examples could have been highlighted in this article, and hopefully you have been stimulated to recall favorites of your own. The dictionary says that a mnemonic design is intended to aid or improve the memory, which suggests that designers can never be sure of the impact their work will have.

Although we have categorized the works in order to tease out a number of common design decisions, an integral part of remembering a work involves such things as our personal experiences, culture and history and significant moments in our life. Designers can do their best to create fantastic designs and provide triggers that unlock memories, but having total control over whether an impression is lasting is impossible.

Related Links

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© Carolyn Knight, Jessica Glaser for Smashing Magazine, 2012.


60 Mind-blowing Advertisements That Will Boost Your Creativity

Love it or hate it, advertisements are all around us. Those times when you had to be horrified by those ugly banners in newspapers are gone. The classic ways of advertising are not working anymore. In order for an ad to be successful it has to resemble an “ad” as little as possible. Interaction with customers, experiments, installations etc. are taking over the world of advertisements. That’s why along with creative print advertisements (which are equally awesome), we’ve also collected some videos with next level advertising. Continue reading and check out these 60 mind-blowing advertisements to satisfy your urge for creativity.

1. Choose Later


2. The German Crafts: The Craftsmen’s Boobs


3. Prudence Neon Condoms


4. Crossword Bookstores, Audio books


5. Heineken –  The Switch

6. Fast vs. Fast

7. The Walrus: Read Something Else


8. Daikin: Poker


9. PETA –  Death Bet


10. Mercedes-Benz: Multicontour Seat


11. Visionlab Prescription Glasses: Lease Contract


12. Getty Images: Shark


13. Volkswagen Trucks: Supermarket


14. Go Outside Magazine: Mouse


15. Mercedes Night View Assist: Child


16. booksTALK Audiobooks


17. Austria Solar – Annual Report

18. DNA Project: Cape Town Station Activation

19. Playboy Magazine: Hands


20. Lexus GS: Drive By


21. Patit: Chili


22. Toyota FJ Cruiser 4×4


23. DB Export Dry: The Wine List


24. Ô Fiô Bier Bar: Real date


25. Beijing Sports Radio: Boxing


26. Queen Bee Salon & Spa


27. Fundacion Padre Hurtado: Drunk


28. Lifestyle YOU, Wife Swap Australia


29. FF English School: Sheep, ship, chip


30. Skoda Superb: Domino


31. 3M Privacy Filter: For your eyes only


32. Coopers: Life After Dark


33. Belair Health Club: Truths


34. Kinderhilfe West Afrika Children’s Aid


35. B&B Hotels


36. Amstel Lager: The Boxer

37. Protex Antibacterial Hand Sanitizer


38. Vinyl Exchange


39. 3M Lint Roller


40. New York International Latino Film Festival


41. Adidas Benelux: Ajax Players Gave Their Fans A Surprise They Won’t Forget

42. Quit Smoking


43. Watta Pure Water


44. DirecTV: Questions

45. LEGO® Life of George

46. Close up – Kissdemic

47. Meat Pack: Hijack

48. BarBla: Responsible Sip

49. Twix: Ideologies

50. New Lexus GS Hybrid – 120 Heartbeats

51. MINI: MINI Horn

52. Google Play Test #0923: Balloons

53. Volkswagen: Alarm Clocks

54. Knorr Quick – Ping Pong

55. Red Tomato Pizza: VIP Fridge Magnet

56. Wise Up English School


57. Taco Bell: Discovering Bethel, Alaska

58. Lung Cancer Alliance


59. Kalnapilis: Mouse


60. Arçelik: Autologic Washing Machine


What do you think of these creative advertisements? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

August 03 2012


“I Draw Pictures All Day”


“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.

July 18 2012


Bolster Your Inspiration Level with These Easy Tips

Like most creative professionals, web designers rely on inspiration to be productive. Yet, sometimes finding the right inspiration for a project can seem like an impossible task.

In this post, I’ll provide nine easy tips to help you bolster your creativity. (I’ve tried to list the less common ways of finding inspiration–the ones that people rarely mention.) If you liked this post, you may also like these additional posts on creativity from Freelance Folder:

9 Sources of Inspiration

Here are nine methods you can use to bolster your inspiration. If your creativity needs a bit of help, try one or more of these ideas:

  1. Pay attention to details. We are surrounded by things that can stimulate creativity, but most people fail to really notice the things around them.  However, I’ve noticed that most truly creative people are different. Most actually do notice their surroundings. If you’re a creative and you’re in the habit of ignoring where you are and the things around you, it’s time to make a change. Make a conscious decision to take notice of details.
  2. Make mistakes. Perfectionism can kill creativity. So, go ahead and get sloppy. Allow yourself to create something that’s less than your best as a starting point. At least you’ll have something to fix…or you may find that you don’t use the your “messy” work at all, but that letting yourself get sloppy leads to something else that you really can use. This can be great way to jump start your creativity if you’re stuck.
  3. Don’t push yourself (or do). You probably already know whether you work well under pressure. For many creatives, being under pressure causes their creativity to shut down. If this is you, take a break and let yourself relax so that you can recharge. Others, however, do their best work when they are under pressure. If this is you, you may want to push yourself a little harder to find your creative inspiration.
  4. Change the scenery. A change of location can be a great way to get your creative juices flowing. If you’re in your office, go outside. If you’re outside, go for a drive. If you’re working out of your house, try working from the coffee shop for a day. Well, you get the idea… Some of my best ideas have come when I switch up my routine and I’ve heard other creative people say the same thing.
  5. Don’t be afraid of the man-made. Those of us who rely on creativity to earn our livings have become very accustomed to hearing advice about turning to nature for inspiration. While it’s true that nature can be inspirational, so can man-made objects. Look for unique patterns and textures in man-made structures such as skyscrapers, roadways, bridges, and even road signs.
  6. Really look at automobiles. We are what we drive. There are so many different styles of cars available today, that it’s mind-boggling. Look around and notice the various shapes, colors, and sizes. You’ll be surprised at what you see. Even a parking lot can be a bonanza of inspiration. But don’t stop with passenger vehicles. You can find inspiration by looking at other vehicles such as trucks, motorcycles, scooters, and so on.
  7. Think about people. One of the best uses of design is when a designer takes something that’s very functional or even utilitarian and makes it also beautiful. Look around you and think about how everyday objects can be beautified–then go out and do it. Make something ordinary into something spectacular.
  8. Take a peek at the ideas of others. New tools like Pinterest, which is a public online bulletin board system that lets users share their favorite things, can also be a great source of inspiration. Another way to peek at the ideas of others is to browse through online photos or portfolios. (Be sure to only use these online sources as inspiration for your own completely original designs.)
  9. File ideas for later use. If you’ve been applying some of the methods above, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself with more ideas than you can use at any given time. Don’t let those extra ideas go to waste. Make yourself an idea file that you can refer to in the future when you feel stuck for ideas.

Your Turn

Where do you turn for inspiration? Share your sources of inspiration in the comments.

Image by daniel jaeger

July 03 2011


Everything Is A Remix: Copying Is How We Learn

Great three part (the fourth part is also coming soon) video series documenting past inventions and highlighting how everything we create is solely a derivative of the past and helps us to understand, learn and foster creativity.

June 15 2011


Why the Starving Artist No Longer Exists

Every artist knows that the path to success is largely rocky and unpaved; filled with obstacles and challenges along the way. If you are a struggling artist, you may have felt abandoned by your family and friends occasionally. You might have been discouraged by others who called you foolish or immature. You might have been told to grow up and get a real job. But your creative soul knows there’s more to just getting a safe job and being just like everybody else.

Let’s admit it. Being an ‘artist’ is not the most practical career choice to make. It’s highly unpredictable, and you need a certain degree of luck to be able to break through. Choosing to be an artist seems like voluntary poverty. And in these hard economic times we are facing today,being an ‘artists’ seems all the more impractical, if not a stupid career path to take.

It is in this world of consumerism where people are taught to go corporate and look down upon artists and creative souls. We are all aware of the ‘starving artist’ archetype. That’s how society sees anyone who is ‘unconventionally creative’. You’re doomed to become starving artists unless you give up your artistic aspirations.

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg (Image by Wiki)

Where did the ‘Starving Artist’ Stereotype come from?

The ‘Starving Artist’ evokes a romantic and mysterious feeling around it. The image evokes stories of the past; of artists, sculptors, musicians and actors who chose to live a life of poverty to pursue their dreams of success. It particularly evokes memories during the 18th Romanticism period. You can imagine young, enthusiastic men from the countryside dreaming to be artists who moved to the city and find themselves living the Bohemian lifestyle.

Even our greatest artists in history did not escape the fate of the Starving Artist. The Bohemian lifestyle—or unconventional living in the company of people with similar interests for artistic pursuits—is a common lifestyle chosen by artists then and today. Most did not see fame and fortune during their lifetime, only to have their works become worth millions of dollars after they passed away. One example is the great Vincent Van Gogh. Now, he is considered to be a true genius in art. Van Gogh’s works are worth a fortune now but during his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one single painting–to his own brother.

Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Starry Night' is estimated to be worth more than US $100 million (although it is not for sale)

These legendary artists must have had found their fate funny when they died–all the sacrifices they made were never reaped and enjoyed. They can only look down from the afterlife and see how they’re valued and revered now. But if you think about it, maybe it wasn’t because the great artists weren’t given the chance to succeed. Or it wasn’t because these geniuses were just jinxed. In fact, most of the great artists of our history have poor financial sense. They prefer to squander their money with booze, drugs and women. Some were even economically foolish people with no plan or direction in life.

The Starving Artist vs. the Sell out

Because of how literature and popular media portrayed artists, the artists themselves were made to believe that they should lead a life of poverty. They hold on to this notion that art made from the impoverished article is superior from that of a well-off artist. But I beg to differ.

Image by Chicagoist

First of all, the ‘Path of the Starving Artist’ leads artists to a path that isn’t helpful, to themselves and to their careers. Poverty doesn’t always equate to better art. Knowing yourself and mastering your technique leads to better art; and poverty is only a distraction. Yes, the Starving Artist is a Myth! There are already plenty of artists that lived comfortably because of their art.  Rembrandt was very successful in his time. So was Charles Dickens and Andy Warhol. Of course it’s more tempting to romanticize stories of failure, like the stories of Van Gogh and Mozart.

But on the other side of the spectrum, one can be in danger of becoming a ‘sellout’. Most artists dread becoming a sellout more than being a starving artist. Being a sell out is a term used within the artist group only; labeling those who are believed to have sold their artistic beliefs and aesthetics to have outward success.

But artists must not feel guilty to make a fortune from their art. You are not selling out because you’re making money–artists still need to eat, after all.

Job and Business Opportunities for Artists

Today, choosing the creative career path doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of poverty. Despite the recession, you can still find tons of jobs in the industry. It is time to debunk the ‘starving artist’ myth and believe that you can earn a decent income over a job or business that you will love.

Here are just a few fine arts-related jobs that you might want to consider:

  • Graphic and Web Design – These artists create most of their art in front of the computer, doing layout, color manipulation, post-processing and design to meet the client’s needs. Graphic and web designers will mostly create logos, website layouts, animation, online and magazine ads, etc. You can make a starting income of around US $40,000 a year. While you don’t really need formal education to be a successful web and graphic designer, having a bachelor’s degree in design can be a great advantage.
  • Video Game Design – Video game design is undoubtedly one of the best jobs in the world. Depending on your department, you get to develop the characters, story, gameplay and even music. One can earn as much as US $100,000 by doing something as cool as video game design. Most companies look for applicants with a degree in animation and video game design.

Image by How Stuff Works

  • Copywriting - If you’re good with writing but still haven’t finished your own novel masterpiece, you can get by through copywriting. Creative writing is big, as companies are constantly looking for writers to write content that’s interesting and concise. You can earn around US $60,000 to US $90,000 in copywriting. Having a degree in liberal arts, communications and journalism will greatly help with this endeavor.

These are just a few of the career paths a creative-minded individual can consider. Of course, you can go freelance and not have to be associated with a particular design company. Better yet, you can be your own boss and start your own business. People innately love art; and they are always willing to pay for anything new and beautiful. The belief that art and business don’t mix comes from the same idiot that created the starving artist myth.

April 27 2011


Adding Constraints May Boost Your Creativity

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In 2003, acclaimed filmmaker Lars Von Trier challenged his idol Jorgen Leth to recreate his 1967 masterpiece The Perfect Human. Not only was he to recreate one of his best films ever, but he was to do it five times, each time being limited with a new more challenging list of constraints than the time before. They documented this torturous challenge in a fantastic film entitled The Five Obstructions. In this film we see a man fighting with his surroundings, resources, and even his own creative limits to reach a goal through constraints that seem all but impossible to achieve. The result? Unbelievable resourcefulness and creativity – And six amazing films!

Now, just to get this out of the way, this post is NOT about how art has to be a struggle or torture or anything like that. All I’m saying is that it’s easy to look at the suffering part and ignore the amazing result. Constraints, restrictions, guidelines, whatever you call them – they tend to get a bad wrap; they’re always associated with negativity. It doesn’t have to be that way! There’s no rule stating that the process of applying constraints to achieve a higher quality of art has to be unpleasant. Constraints are, in my opinion, a secret weapon that we can use to give ourselves a little creative boost when we need to take things to the next level.

The Benefits of Constraints

Constraints offer up a lot of benefits. Most of you illustrators/designers are familiar with scenarios like this (especially as kids) – “Hey, you’re good at art! Draw me something!” Ok, what? “I don’t know…something awesome!” And at times, it doesn’t get much better in the professional world. Lets say the owner of a paper store comes to you and says, “I’d like you to help us rebrand and appeal to a younger audience” immediately followed by a blank look of expectancy. You’re thinking… geez, thanks for the direction…as you scramble to come up with something brilliant.

It’s easy in these moments to recognize the value of creative constraints. Boundaries help us decide how to start a design and determine where it’s appropriate to go from there. Adding constraints can narrow down a prompt and open your mind’s eye at the same time. For example a request can easily go from “appealing to a younger audience” and become “I want you to capture the attention of a younger audience passionate about do-it-yourself projects and who appreciate good design” simply by adding a few constraints; young, diy, and “good design”. Immediately, you have direction…or at least more than you did. Even though something like “good design” is about as relative as you can get, you can start to look at what’s popular on craft and diy blogs and get a sense for what that audience finds visually appealing, adding those sources to what’s already happening in your brain.

Constraints can also determine the style and technique we use. Every art form has it’s own set of rules that it follows, setting it apart from the rest. For instance, a sonnet consists of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter and must follow one of several standard rhyming schemes. These are the rules of the game when it comes to writing a sonnet. As a reader or critic you know a sonnet is good by how well it copes with these constraints. Whereas a writer will use the limitations of a sonnet to challenge themselves to greater poetic heights by channeling their inspiration into a difficult mold.

In design it can be a bit more difficult to practice this discipline since there are not a mere 3 rules to designing a website. However, we can grow and mature as artists and designers by systematically applying different sets of constraints on our own work, challenging ourselves to take our craft in new directions while providing instant direction to projects where there previously was little to none.

Try It!

Here are a list of some fun constraints you might want to try out. Keep in mind that on a client project you need to fit your added constraints inside the ones they’ve already given you. But if the problem is that you don’t have much direction to start with, then that shouldn’t be too difficult.

  • Try using as few images as possible, create the client’s desired effect with color, layout, and text.
  • Instead of starting with a grid in mind…try a diamond shape.
  • Challenge yourself to use design elements that reference as many of your favorite designers as possible in one site.
  • If you’re making an industry specific website, research that industry’s history and incorporate shapes, colors, or principles of that industry into your design.

    ex: Your client is an architecture firm. Try incorporating elements in your design that are representative of their major works to date or of works that have paved the way for their particular “school” of architectural design in the past.

  • Find and use fonts/typefaces you’ve never used before. Or, use only fonts/typefaces you create yourself.
  • OR, you can even get meta on this shit and add a constraint that says you must have at least 20 constraints!

Remember, the goal here is to boost creativity resulting in a better final product. So don’t torture yourself. If it’s not working, try something else. This can be really fun if you build your constraints around things you find interesting or that challenge you. The whole point of this is to help, not to harm. This may not be for everyone. No matter what your opinion though, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below :)

February 25 2011


Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!

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 in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!  in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!  in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!

As many people who work in a creative field like design and development may already know, sometimes our clients just do not understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. The boundaries that we are seeking to push are not ones they approve of for their project, so our creative ideas get backburnered until we can find an appropriate project as well as an agreeable client where you can flex these creative muscles freely. In fact, the standard business processes, especially the ones we allow ourselves to be strapped into, tend to work against us in this aspect.

Allow me to elaborate. For most creatives, the most genuine and innovative ideas can often come without provocation. Which is unfortunate, because that tends to relegate these ideas to one of two categories. The personal project category that we get to whenever we find the time to break away from our work plates to snack on something different. Or to the professional project pool where we wait on that client who will allow us the freedom to incorporate this idea into their project. At other times, the ideas we have tend to be in response to the client, their business or something they have laid down — some sort of foundation — for us to build upon. These ideas are somewhat prompted.

Aces in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Don’t just wait for the aces! Image by fitzsean

Now this is not to say that the prompted ideas are any less potent or powerful than the ones that we arrived at alone, only that the ones we get to by ourselves tend to be more imaginative and exciting in our eyes as those are the ones we feel unencumbered by the clients rules or specs. Which also means that they are the ones that we get to work less on due to the fact that we have to pay the bills, and in most cases, that means some kind of compromise on the part of the creative mind. We can say that we think outside the box on every project, but we have to admit that when a client comes to us, they have one or two ideas in the bucket ready and those specs can be considered somewhat of a box that we must work in.

That Is Just How Business Works

Now I know that there are some who are scratching their heads, knowing that this is just the way how business works, and they are confused at to what exactly we are asking them to consider. And yes, we understand that this is the standard way by which this game is played. Businesses have needs — they turn to other experts or specialists to have these needs met. They explain exactly what it is they are looking for, and the experts comply, delivering the experience that hopefully surpasses the client’s expectations. But what if we could change the standard rules of gameplay here on a much wider scale, affording this much freer approach to any designer or developer who wished to truly work unhindered.

Think-outisde-the-box2 in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Think outside the box! Image by west.m

Just a quick note: this article is not trying to say that working with all clients is a dull, innovation adjacent venture, or even trying to say that you will never have to work under these more standard rules of gameplay. But we usually have ideas of our own — ideas that we would love to see through without having to compromise or consult with a client or anyone else for that matter to approve what we are doing.

Think of it like the difference in a movie director working independently on a film rather than working for a major studio. They have much more freedom to make the film as they see fit, without any interference from above. For a while this was an approach that not many designers or developers have thought to not be feasible, but that is all changing.

Thanks, by and large, to the avenues being created by and granted access to by the Web.

The Game Changer

Before now, and in some ways still, we have always had to take our ideas to someone else in order to help us make them happen. We had to reach beyond ourselves to find those with the means and know-hows to reach further than we had access in order to get our idea out to the masses and have it connect with the audience. Essentially, we had to sell our idea to someone else in order to get distribution and manufacturing. However, the Web is granting creatives the chances to write their own opportunities, and make things happen for themselves, without having to depend on someone else.

Understanding that the term “sellout” tends to carry negative connotations, but what I mean is that we have to pitch the idea and someone has to buy in order for it to happen. When they buy, that tends to put them in the controlling seat. They hold the final say over the outcome of the project, or even where the project ends up. For some creatives, that compromise alone can take a lot of the fun and excitement out of the equation. But without those buyers, the project would tend to remain an unrealized effort. So there has been an underlying coercion for creatives to play the game and compromise their ideas when necessary in order to connect with the masses.

Strategic-game in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Plan your game – several moves ahead. Image by DoubleM2

Enter the Web, and services like Kickstarter, communities like YouTube and Vimeo, and suddenly the middle men that we needed to make our innovative ideas a reality, are not as much of a necessity as they once were. There is a great article by Ryan Carson that highlighted two examples of just how those in creative fields who are no longer waiting for opportunity to knock, instead create those opportunities for themselves. And in these cases, what remains important is that they remain the ones calling the shots.

Now I know there are those who think that this is approach is a complete waste of time. However, already today there are creatives who are just as equally excited about this evolved approach which allows them to completely take the reigns of their creative projects. So below we have taken a look at both the benefits offered and challenges posed by this new gameplay structure to help better see what exactly this approach means and entails.

The Benefits

First, we are going to look at the pros to taking charge of our creations and marching forward with them on our own as the masters of our own destiny. If you are one of those who is on the fence about this whole issue, or even if you are standing firmly against it, perhaps this section will have you rethinking things and getting you to come down on the side for it.


This has already been mentioned in the article; however, given its weight, it deserves a deeper examination of just what makes it so important. For most of us in the design and development fields, we have had to work with a client whose lack of understanding of the field can negatively impact the resulting project once their uncompromising input has been implemented. This can hugely effect our resulting takeaway and perspective with which we begin to view our chosen fields. Especially, if we find project after project that comes with compromise after compromise. This can effectively end up sapping our excitement and stifling our creative energy.

Defining-targets-differently in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
You’re your own boss and choose your own target. Image by

Another side effect these compromises can have is that we end up having to lose some truly innovative element of the project because of the client’s wishes, and our work can somewhat reflect a staleness on our parts as a result. When users see the final design and interact with it, they only see the compromised end result. They do not see the processes or the decisions and conditions that ultimately led to a creation that could essentially be much less than its potential. And it is this end result that is looked upon as the limits of our abilities. Client’s input is useful and necessary, but sometimes it’s not exactly what is best for our users. And yes, design is not art, but a medium for delivering messages across, but as designers we are often quite restricted by the decisions made for us, not with us.

But when we are the one who is calling all of the shots, our creative energy can flow freely, and our imaginations are subject to no one’s approval or standards. And there are those who would say that using a service like Kickstarter, where you outline a project and potential investors commit to contributions to fund your creative venture, does not put you in the driver’s seat per se, as you are still having to “sell” your idea. However, the big difference is that the sponsors and investors you get via Kickstarter do not expect to be able to provide some kind of creative input. You are the one in control.

This also means that you are the one in control of the timeline for when and if the project sees the light of day. This can be key, as there are times in the design and development fields when those elements are out of our hands and they end up derailing the project far from its potential or intended destinations. There are times when we work so hard on a project and have put so much into it until we have molded it to what we feel is perfection, only to turn it over and have it altered or never see the light of day. Consequently, there are times when we feel (for whatever reason) that a project just will not come together and should be abandoned, but we can’t drop it, so the end result is a sub-par product that nobody is actually happy with. In this field of play, those calls are all ours.

In Short:

  • You have to deal with less compromises that sap your enthusiasm and excitement for both the project and your field.
  • Your reputation does not suffer from compromises the client forced us to make.
  • You do not have to worry about outside interference, our imagination is not subject to approval.
  • Your project outcome is completely in your hands, and your hands alone.

Time and Money Saver

It may seem like somewhat of a contradiction that this approach could actually save time and money, but when you look at the first example of designer Frank Chimero and his design book that he now can completely finance via Kickstarter, you can see how this approach can do just that. More often than not, in order to get a book published and distributed within what is commonly seen as the mainstream, you would first have to spend weeks, possibly months, writing and rewriting both the outline for the book and the book proposal (not to mention the numerous e-mails, phone calls and meetings with possible publishers). All of which is done without any guarantee of being published and distributed.

Kickstarter in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Frank Chimero’s project “The Shape of Design” on Kickstarter.

In the end, all of the time that is taken to write up these proposals and outlines for the books take away from the time we spend on billable work. And in some cases, the entire book or some parts of it must first be written before we are able to get any interest from publishers or distributors. So that time has to be accounted for as well. But by harnessing the Web and social media, we can now find the means to publish and distribute the book on our own — without consuming much time and often the costly process of seeking out and involving the proverbial middle men in the project. For instance, Smashing Magazine produces printed books independently, without the middle man, and so can you.

This is a big step forward, and helps to connect the potential investors directly to the creative individuals, without the compromised hands of the mainstream middle men getting into the project, which simply feels more conducive to innovation. Compromised decisions can end up hurting the project’s potential. This can also mean that we will end up with less forced input which can lead to time consuming revision after time consuming revision which could end up compromising the overall impact of the message. Which might further translate into lost sales. Therefore, we can see huge savings in both time and costs by opting for this new paradigm.

In Short:

  • We can save a lot of time, which tends to equal money, in both the initial and final project stages via this route.
  • Taps potential investors directly into the source of ideas, without any agendas or middle men getting in the way.

Smoother Sailing in the Client Pool

Now, one possible benefit that we could see spring forth from this approach is the higher chances of landing dream clients. This may seem a bit far fetched, but if there were more designers and developers writing their own opportunities and launching their own projects then that is going to create interest in the client pool, right? Essentially, going the route, you can effectively choose between working on a client’s project or creating your own which you could put in your portfolio or even gain some exposure with and consequently connect with some potential clients.

Besides, since you are engaging your heart and soul into your project, you are more likely to produce a remarkable product — a product that will help you gain new insights, learn new creative fields and leave a mark in the design community. You can also create a well-respected name for yourself. And it’s certainly worth trying.


One of the biggest problems that anyone working in any creative field faces, is the undervaluing of their time and talents. This can come either in the guise of those who simply do not see the value of what we do, or in the form of those who capitalize on our creativity without having contributed to the creative process in any way. Whatever form it may take, it means that someone is profiting off of your creativity.

Now, there are cases when there is a service attached to it that we could not handle ourselves. Back in the day, distribution was one of the main incentives that creative persons had to aligning themselves with this model in which they create the product, and do not get to see the majority of the profits from the project. Designers and developers have been signing on with company that provided them with the space and tools they need to do the work for years because of the sheer cost it saves them. Only to sacrifice shares of the profits from their work, not to mention the ability to do the work that they necessarily want the way they want it. But again, this is not the only paradigm on the market anymore.

You want to organize a design conference and sell tickets for it? There are services for you. You’d like to build up a shop from ground up? Again, there are tools for you. You don’t have to rely on anybody, but instead you can just put together everything you need and leverage the potential of social media to back up your projects.

Natasha in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Natasha Westcoat creates live online paintings. She saves herself the percentages that galleries, art dealers and online intermediaries, might charge if she sold the work through them.

With no middle men to have to share the profits with, this new approach can also allow us to get the bulk of the revenues generated from the projects that we have created. In the example provided in Ryan’s article, Natasha Westcoat’s live online paintings, not only does she save herself the time and effort of seeking a gallery show to find buyers, she saves herself the percentages that galleries, art dealers and online intermediaries, might charge if she sold the work through them. Here, she controls the profits. So it is exciting to see that the old profit share piggyback model is not the only path in which designers and developers find themselves in these days given the reach and access afforded to them by the Web.

In Short:

  • With this new model, the person who is generating and creating the idea is the one who will reap the majority of the rewards from their work, as it should be.
  • No longer do we have to share the majority of our profits with those who offer us services that help spread the word — not create it.
  • With the middle men gone, the revenues can be more evenly and fairly distributed.

The Challenges

Anyone who is seriously considering taking on the “independent” route, needs to understand that there might be some challenges in the road ahead. These are serious considerations that should be made before moving forward.

Weight of the World

Most of the time that we take on a project, there are going to be some elements of that cause us some bit of stress. Be it the timeline, those we are working with or compromises made. But we tend to be somewhat compartmentalized in the project and therefore our stress levels tend to be as well. If there is stress involved in the project, we can bet that we are only experiencing a fraction of that stress through the buffers provided by the numerous rungs in the ladder above us. Also, because we are usually stacked somewhere in a hierarchy, the instigators of the stress are somewhat abstracts to us. For example, if we are working with a big company, we tend to not have to interact with the client or public directly, it is done through a series of intermediaries. So when they are upset, we get hints of that, but not necessarily the brunt of it.

A-pints-a-pound-the-world-around in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
No matter where, the burden is the same. Image by Kristian Bjornard

This is not the case when we are stepping up as the masters of our projects. We have no buffers or barriers which allow us to compartmentalize any of it. We are baring the full weight of this world on our shoulders, and are not shielded from the reactions of the public. It all rests on us. Every cog in the process, from creation to marketing, from production to distribution is our responsibility. Either we have to handle it ourselves, or we have to find the right people to put into those roles to ensure that it all goes smoothly and according to plan. If it doesn’t, the blame will fall on you and your reputation — no one else’s. Also, we need to makke certain decisions that we don’t necessarily know much about: e.g. if you decide to print a book, what about fulfillment and support?

This can admittedly be a terrifying step to take, especially when you have never worked through all aspects of the project process before. If you are not strong in marketing, or have never actually overseen the production step by step, doing these tasks for the first time can seem overwhelming. And it is easy to see why many would rather play it safer instead of working on a more demanding and involved approach. For many of us, no benefit is enough to willingly accept the entire weight of the project on our shoulders.

In Short:

  • If you pick the “independent” route, you are responsible for everything, and you alone will own each of the project’s successes and failures.
  • No matter where your strengths are lacking, you have to find ways to fill those gaps and pick up that slack to ensure the project succeeds.
  • You have no buffers to the reactions and fallouts from the project — you have to deal with it all directly.

Confidence Factor

Another consideration that must be understood is that you are not selling the idea alone, you are also promoting yourself. Which is where confidence comes into play pretty heavily. It is easy to have faith in an idea and be able to get others to sign on and ascribe to that idea through the confidence that you are reflecting in it. However, when you are the head of the pyramid, it is not just faith in the idea that all parties involved need, everybody needs to have faith in the main person behind it.

That faith in oneself is harder to project with enough confidence to necessarily have others clamoring at your heels wanting to throw in on the proverbial backing bandwagon. And given that many of us might not be used to having to promote ourselves and effectively market ourselves in order to make a project happen, this could be a necessary adjustment. It is one thing to effectively market ourselves into a job, where we are pitted against other individuals, but in this case, we are marketing ourselves against an entire, well, market. It is not just about the idea, but about our ability to make it real. Whereas now we are competing with what can be seen as more financially stable companies, not just the ideas they are pitching.

As part of a company, when we go forth with an idea, there is a reputation behind us, more than just our own. When we do it alone — not so much. So once again it is easy to understand how this could act as a deterrent. On the other side, it might as well be an area that not deters you, but vividly alerts you to something that you are going to need to work on before you move ahead.

In Short:

  • It is not just the idea under scrutiny, but your ability to make it happen as well.
  • You must be able to effectively position and market yourself and your project against the rest of the market.
  • You do not have any other reputation backing the project other than your own.

No End in Sight

Finally, you must consider that if you are going to try and create your own opportunities and run with them, you will be running for a long, long time. When you are the one spearheading the entire project, and overseeing all facets of the process, there is no end of the line where you just get to hand it over and then move on to the next project. You have to stick with this project and ride it out for the entire reach and life of the project. No matter where it leads, you have signed on to following, and that could prove to be a very long haul indeed. Somewhere, that road could potentially keep going, always requiring some level of dedication, if not participation, on your part.

Can-you-picture-wht-will-be-the-end in Why Wait For The Opportunity? Create Your Own!
Can you picture the end? Image by N3T1O

This could effectively undo any of the time saved benefit that got you looking favorably at this idea in the first place. So you have to look reasonably at the long term time investments and consider how much time the project could require to completely determine if the project will be worthwhile to pursue. Keep in mind that the project will eventually endure beyond their initial projected commitments, althought the exact details depend on the project itself. And it would be better to realize this before beginning and getting others to commit, so that the project does not fall short of its potential because you actually underestimated your own project.

In Short:

  • You may have to be willing to commit to it for however long the project survives to maintain its integrity.
  • There is no point at which you should be expecting to be able to just cut and run from the project without seeing it through to the absolute end.

In the End

Doing things on your own is risky but worthwhile. There is certainly some merit to creating your own opportunities. The tools are available; the medium for connecting with friends, colleagues and like-minded people is available; and you can freely explore your creativity and skills using both of them. I honestly believe that this new culture we observe today might change the rules of the game and I anxiously wait to see what interesting new developments spring up as a result. Please share your opinion in the comments section below.

(sp) (al)

© Robert Bowen for Smashing Magazine, 2011. | Permalink | Post a comment | Smashing Shop | Smashing Network | About Us
Post tags: business, creativity, freelance, Inspiration, wokflow

January 06 2011


What Mythology Tells Us About Creativity

No matter what account of creation you believe you can’t deny the overpowering creativity of the world’s mythologies. The essence of every mythology is to tell a story about how things came to existence and of how the earth and life on it emerged.

In every aspect of our lives we learn from all the things that surrounds us, same goes for the stories that have emerged from the inquisitive minds of people. We can learn a thing or two from them, it doesn’t matter even if we are ages apart from those people.

What Mythology Tells Us About Creativity

1. Creation


Image by: Flavio Takemoto

In the most basic sense, a mythology tells us how things came to existence. Although modern science and thinking would easily refute the idea that there is a god named Poseidon who ruled the seas and storms, of how Prometheus defied the gods and gave fire to mortals, the very thought of these primordial events (those which happened at the very beginning) are dramatically original and creative.

Implications in Real Life:

For thousands of years myths inspired people to do things that marvel us which can now be seen in museums and ancient sites. People of old were able to build temples that would make even the most brightest of people today scratch their heads and wonder how such an astonishing structure was built when pulley wasn’t thought of yet, when wheels weren’t available, and all were built to surpass the conditions of time.

Image by: Tatiana Bolshakova

Look at Superman, everybody knows who he is and what he can do. People were amazed by his strength and abilities that are beyond human’s. Doesn’t the very thought of beings with overwhelming power rooted from the world’s mythologies?

Most of the time, what people need to have is just a touch of madness and exaggeration. You are free to create your own story based on how you see the mysteries of the world. Your interpretation, your art.

2. Story


Image by: Gary Scott

In every mythology there is a story of how gods and goddesses came to existence, of how they lived with mortal humans. In every story, usually, there are two sides: good and evil. There are peaceful times when gods and mortals coexist in harmony when suddenly a rogue god desiring for more control over the mortals disrupts the balance and wreaks havoc upon the heavens and the earth. Now that’s an interesting story.

Implications in Real Life:

Every piece of art has a story to tell be it a book cover, business logo, architecture, web template, even the photos that you take. Each of them contains an idea, and an art which vividly speaks it well is usually the one that gathers lots of audience. Just look at the Mona Lisa, she has her story combined with mystery.

3. Mystery


Image by: Travis Walker

In mythologies, things and events that people can’t explain are attributed to a higher being. Suppose you and I are cavemen and this is our first time going out of our cave after years of living inside. The sky flashes and an angry voice booms! In our fear we cower and think that someone is making that mighty phenomenon. Someone is responsible, someone incomprehensible! Have we done something wrong to incur his wrath?

Implications in Real Life:

It is one of human’s nature to be inquisitive, to ask questions about things that tend to be mysterious and unknown. When reason can’t explain things, usually we leave the rest to imagination. As a result, we create things that are out of the ordinary, we create things that are original to us and often we leave the audience to decide on how to understand these things.

An art which has an air of mystery endures time. Most people love solving mysteries, they would love to have a peek and interpret things. And in an artwork, there are actually two interpretations: the way the artist interprets it, and the way the spectator sees it.

4. Limitless


Image by: Sachin Ghodke

In the movie Troy, Achilles said “The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now.We will never be here again.”

What does it actually say about being limitless? The gods are stagnant, they no longer change in appearance and they will be that way until the end of time. It is ironic to note that no matter how infinite they may be, their beauty will be the same tomorrow and forever.

The noble thing about being mortal is that you will wake up everyday knowing that you are beautiful in a way unique to everyone, and it evolves. In mythologies, often the gods are surprised by the marvelous feats humans can do whenever presented with challenges.

Implications in Real Life:

Many things have already been made and are still being made. Perhaps the very thought that someday our lives will end gives a kick to that feeling to make a difference, to make the world see your art whatever form it takes. Several years ago almost half of the gadgets that we enjoy today seemed impossible to many, the way we communicate online has dramatically changed too and many things that came from human creativity within a short span of time.

Our lives will end, surely, but creative ideas will transcend time like the ideas of the distant past.

Mythology in Modern-day Technology and Arts

You are standing at a museum amazed by this piece of art when suddenly the person next to you tells how the artist conceived the painting, what the story is behind this male carrying the world, why that man’s carrying a flame, from where did some companies got their products and names, and you will be far more amazed to learn that you’ve just had a crash course of mankind’s creative history.

How to Create a Greek Mythology-inspired Photo Manipulation (tutorial)

This is the Titan Atlas who was condemned to carry the Heavens for all eternity. Here he’s carrying Earth.


Image by: SBA73

Prometheus, champion of mankind for stealing fire from Zeus for humans. Modern art for a very longstanding mythology.


Nike is the winged goddess of victory who is swift and strong, rewarding heroes in the battlefield. Yes, this is where Nike shoes came from.

Human Flight

Image by: Jean Carneiro

Humans, ever since, have always been obsessed with flying. Daedalus, in Greek mythology, invented wings bonded with wax to fly with Icarus. From that we now have airplanes. I bet you would want to have a jet-pack.

Notable Novels and Films:

  • The Lord of the Rings – an epic fantasy novel turned film written by J.R.R. Tolkien; elves, orcs, walking trees, dragons, you name it LoTR has it. A very wide world filled with awesomeness.
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Shrek
  • Harry Potter

Up to date people know what fairies, vampires, werewolves, and others are; most of the time a box office hit film is derived from one or two myths. TV series are populated with ideas rooting from mythologies even paintings, sculptures, company name and brands and each has their story to relate from ancient to the modern times.

Feel like sharing some of the things you believe are inspired by mythologies? Feel free to comment, we’d love to see them!

December 27 2010


Astounding Stories Of Love And Creativity

Love can fuel creativity for so many reasons, creativity may appear because of wanting to impress someone or simply because you want to express the emotions running through your life. When in love and all the things around you can be a source of inspiration, from the food you eat to the things you rarely notice, clearly a new sense of awareness will appear that will help you achieve the best you want. Through the course of history many artists have created great artworks because of love.


Image by: Billy Alexander

Positive Effect on Creativity

We are talking about romantic and familial love.

  • Heightened sense of awareness, makes you feel active and you always want to do something for the world to see.
  • The sense of wanting to inspire others too, the feeling that everything will be just fine.
  • You feel awesome, and when you feel awesome you do awesome things!
  • Love alters our thoughts

Do an experiment, when you feel bad or any negative thoughts cloud your thinking try wrapping a gift with fancy gift wrappers. Can you? But when you’re in love, in a very good mood, your thought process is so diverse that instead of using a cheap wrapper you may even create your own wrapper just to make people feel loved.


Image by: Michaela Kobyakov

In Japan, during Valentine’s Day, women give chocolates to men who they adore. But it’s not the type of chocolate we gentlemen give to them. What Japanese women usually do is cook and design their own chocolates, trying to make it look best for their man. Isn’t that sweet?

Of course you shouldn’t just believe in everything people say, many get their heart broken for believing in everything that is said. Below are examples of how love gave birth to the most creative things we now see today. If you know things like these please feel free to comment and I’ll add them on our list!

Proof #1: The Taj Mahal

For those who do not know, Taj Mahal is a tomb for a Shah‘s wife. It took around 23 years to finish this marvelous construction, now famous all over the globe. It is said that Shah Jahan hid himself from the public because of his grief.

Incidentally, the Filipino term for Love is Mahal.


Image by: Vivek Chugh

Proof #2:

Believe it or not love at first sight indeed works, it will turn every nook and cranny of not only your home but of an entire metropolis just to find that woman in the train station. I’m talking about a man who creatively asked the whole of New York to help him find the woman of his dreams whose name and phone number he was not able to get. How many millions of people are there in New York? Through creative and flashy thinking he asked millions through his website. It didn’t took long for someone to find the woman of his dreams, and they dated.


When I was in college I attended a conference about how to properly dress for a company interview for fresh graduates. There were two guest speakers and one of them was this pretty lady whose topic is about how to impress. She began her talk by asking “do you believe in love at first sight?” an acquaintance of mine wittily shouted from the back rows “just now!” and the guest speaker blushed. Just sharing. *laughs*

Proof #3: Shakespeare

If you know someone named Romeo chances are you have already asked him “where’s Juliet?”. Romeo and Juliet, the most famous love story which has been repeated throughout various theaters, never fails to make us realize how love can boost our powers or can make us off-guard.

On Shakespeare’s sonnets, it doesn’t really matter if you do or do not understand them in one sitting, what matters is you can’t write one if you’re not in an extremely good mood: in love.


Image by: Ralu Home

Proof #4: SamStones

“Sam was a boy who loved and played for 14 years in Richmond, Vermont. SamStones are made with love by Sam’s friends and family. Our intent with these stones is to pass on some of that love. If you have found a SamStone please feel free to keep it, move it or pass it on. We hope that you will pause and feel the love that is being passed on to you.”

Passing love to people through stones is something I will surely do. That’s why I have 9, one already placed on a perfect spot . Got them at Spread SamLove through SamStones!


Another thing that you can benefit from love is that you actually can see things in a different manner, you will have a different reality. People who are in love can fearlessly express themselves, and that entails expressing it in every media possible.

It is easy to notice when people are in love (or those who feel loved) based on the way they speak, walk, move, and changes in their crafts too. If you are one of the fortunate people who have been, and are still, in love, don’t you notice how bright things are? Suddenly you see things in a brighter way, like there’s a flashlight/torch on your eyes and everything you look at becomes vivid. In relation to designing, designers who know this feeling are usually the ones who make people spell wow on their faces, these are the designers who craft super cool arts that even the audience can feel the emotions involved in the creation of the art.

Coming Soon: Hate As Fuel For Creativity

September 26 2010


10 Seriously Effective Ways to Be a Creative Genius

Your creative thought and thinking can give you many benefits and good life. Lets discuss some of the effective and handy ways to be more creative and how can you think better in your daily life.

View and Vote

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