Get Better, Looking

Once in awhile you get shown the light, 
in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias”

There are a handful of valuable insights and practices I first encountered studying Art Education at the undergraduate level that have proven relevant across other disciplines I have waded in since that time.

One such nugget is the routine of carefully observing what has happened and what is happening within your field. Put simply: the habit of looking. In this particular class—The History and Practice of Art Education—the instructor split our time 50/50 between studying the nuts and bolts of the title content and looking at and discussing its product: painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, etc. Twice weekly he would bring in a large stack of books from his personal collection and we (about five students) would simply flip through and discuss them at our leisure. We were also encouraged to subscribe to a good monthly art journal to maintain this practice outside of class. His position was that an art educator should have a natural, but also informed appreciation of the arts—certainly a step beyond the binary “like/don’t like” return he was probably used to receiving from undergrads. As well as being a civilized way to round off a day’s work (for an evening class) this routine also impacted my studio work where an idea and/or aesthetic I’d been exposed to might have utility.

That serious students of the arts take inspiration from past and present masters is no guarded secret nor esoteric practice. You may see them in major art museums sketching great works with an attempt to imbibe their essence. With similar intent, the American writer Hunter S. Thompson once retyped The Great Gatsby and Farewell To Arms in their entirety in order to understand how it felt to write a masterpiece. Affirming this practice and elucidating upon the difference between those that drink from the fountain and those that power it, Pablo Picasso once remarked that “good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Referencing this oft-quoted line from Picasso, Steve Jobs went a bit further by stating that “we [Apple] have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” To be clear, “stealing” in the parlance of Picasso and Jobs is not used as a synonym for plagiarism, rather it is akin to using an ingredient from an old or existing recipe in a new way. Hunter S. Thompson’s literal rewrite of Farewell To Arms has added nothing to contemporary Western culture, but his unique “Gonzo” style—standing on the shoulders of Hemingway’s matter-of-fact journalistic prose and producing such works as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels, undoubtedly has.

Continues Jobs: “I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that.”

Since transitioning from art education to UI/UX via the graphic arts, I continue to devote time and resources to simply looking at what the best are doing and where the bar is. It’s a humbling but necessary enterprise. And while looking alone will not elevate you to similar heights, it is certainly a requisite step on the path. “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing.”  said  Steve Jobs in the 1996 television series “Triumph of the Nerds.”(1)

In an interconnected world oversaturated with creative content, how does one attempt to discover and then distinguish between ideas that have merit and those that have little? Creators agree it’s a time consuming endeavor but worthwhile investment for those attempting to steal a competitive edge.

“Deep exposure is a prerequisite.” says Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author. “You have to systematically expose yourself to things outside your domain because the breakthrough ideas will come from areas where you are not constrained by doing the daily job.” (2)

Research has also delved into whom is most likely to be receptive to innovative and inspirational ideas. Psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot developed the “Inspiration Scale,” which measures how often an individual experiences inspiration in their daily lives. Those that are more open to new experiences, and more engrossed in their activities are more likely to have inspirational moments. For the presently insipid, there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of having a “Eureka!” moment. Preparation—research has shown—is a key ingredient. Though inspiration is not synonymous with effort, it is an essential pre-condition for inspiration, readying the mind for a meaningful and valuable encounter. (3)

Something to contemplate: the totality of experience and associated insight you have accrued (although probably not an antidote for the terminally depressed if made into a feature-length film) is a territory unchartered with views distinctive. Can this be married to an existing panorama that produces something that —on the surface of things—wasn’t anticipated yet will later be recognized as wholly essential?

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

— Steve Jobs

In an age where every second counts and time cannot be divorced from the bottom line, don’t feel guilty about taking the time to look at the great and grand: we are surrounded by gems that gleam with inspiration when our vision is clear.

  1. The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires. (TV Series)