During this time of year, when the colors of summer begin to feel distant and the colors of autumn become more sharp with each passing week, I am acutely aware of the changes taking place around me. Every autumn I am reminded, once again, that transition is inevitable. Changes taking place outdoors seem like an invitation from Mother Nature to slow down long enough to pay closer attention to the subtleties of the season.

The Becoming Season

The Becoming Season

I have written about transition before.  I have written about the value of noticing small details and the lessons learned when we invest time to observe. This post is an invitation to set aside the time–in this season of transition–to look closely at the changes taking place all around.

Wishing you an entire season of joyful observation!


Close your eyes and slowly count to three. One. Two. Three. When you reopen your eyes, what is the very first color you notice? Which objects in your field of vision appear to have a rough texture? Which appear smooth? What sounds do you hear most clearly? As you begin to notice some of these immediate details, you are engaging in mindfulness.

In the context of talent development, the benefits that result from mindfulness are increasingly cited. Ellen Langer, in her book, Mindfulness, describes ways in which a mindful outlook contributes to our ability to recognize opportunities. Langer counts “openness to new information” among the “key qualities of a mindful state of being.” Remaining attuned to the present enables us to regard the possibilities or solutions that may result from new information. Mindfulness lets us be present, fully engaged, and receptive. As a result, we develop a richer pool of data from which to make decisions.

Acknowledging the benefits of mindfulness in this way emphasizes the role of active observation. Consider how important it is to observe and collect the dots, before attempting to connect the dots! There are numerous ways to engage in active observation. For example, research has demonstrated that there are eight distinct habits of mind developed as a result of learning that takes place in the visual arts, and observation is among them. In the publication,Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, researchers describe the practice of mindful observation learned in the art studio. Learning to observe details more closely helps us to move beyond “habitual ways of seeing.”

Four steps for increasing mindfulness

Here are four easy steps each of us can take to increase our capacity for noticing and mindful observation. The example below only requires 10 minutes and paper and pencil. Because of its simplicity, this exercise can be repeated often and in a variety of locations.

  • Choose a comfortable location to sit or stand. Spend three minutes noticing the details around you. Take notice of the lines, colors, and textures. After three minutes, see if you can identify additional details, such as contrasting colors or value tones.
  • Using a single sheet of paper, fold the paper in half vertically and horizontally. Open the page again so that there are four quadrants.
  • Pick two objects that are in your field of vision and use a pencil to sketch a loose outline in each of the top quadrants—one object per quadrant.
  • Next, without shifting your field of vision, choose two different textures that are within your view. Using a pencil or some other writing instrument, mark each of the bottom quadrants in a way that captures the texture you chose.

Tip: Avoid any temptation to critique the drawings after they are complete. Judging the drawings shifts focus away from the purpose of the exercise, which is an invitation to practice active looking and seeing anew. Often in the environments we find most familiar—the spaces and places we frequent each day—we begin to notice less detail. The benefit of an exercise like this is that it enables us to shift our focus from cursory observation long enough to become absorbed in the details. In doing so, we practice noticing that is more active rather than passive.

In the context of organizational learning, mindfulness and the disposition of mindful observation provide useful means of engagement that can stimulate new ideas or ways of looking at a familiar topic. Important 21st century competencies, such as creativity and critical thinking, are aided by those habits of mind that promote receptivity to novel information or ideas. Establishing time to more fully explore the visual qualities we encounter in both new and familiar environments is one way to direct attention to the present.

Active looking is a skill that artists and designers rely upon on a daily basis, a skill that enables them to cultivate alternative perspectives. Envisioning something new—an idea, product, or system—is easier when we remain open to diverse methods of receiving new information.

Active looking is one way to expand the quality and quantity of data that is available to us. Mindful observation leaves us more attuned with our surroundings, and, as a result, can prepare us with additional ways to define or think about a problem or challenge.


Langer, E.J., (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S. &Sheridan, K. M. (2007). Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


(Note: This post was originally published on the ATD Links blog, June 2014)

One of my favorite methods for producing a creative outcome begins by asking a single question:

“What do you want to address, explore or express?”

Address: Finding a creative solution to a problem is made easier when both the problem and the goal state are well defined.  In order for me to problem solve effectively, parameters are a must. Taking steps to clarify intent helps to better define the problem and the essential parameters.

Explore: One of the qualities I enjoy most about any creative process is paying attention during the stage of open-ended exploration.  The exploratory stage of a project can be a time of important discovery, because it is generally not clear where the exploration will lead. This is the stage where the unknown is welcome, and, perhaps, even sought after. This is the time to follow a thread that is intriguing, without immediate concern for the outcome. The more fully I explore a topic the more ideas I generate.  Very often the exploring will lead to new questions!

Express: Creative outcomes generally require some act of expression. Expression provides the tangible form of an idea or solution; the most creative outcomes express a distinct point of view.  Effectively expressing something novel usually requires more than a single iteration.  The key is to refine the idea, so that what is distinct about the point of view is clear.  If ever I find that I’m lacking clarity about what needs to be expressed, it is usually just a sign that there are elements of the topic that I need to address or explore further.

This question has been useful to me in countless situations. Because it is very general, but also very direct, the question helps me to problem solve in many different contexts and lends direction to my artistic pursuits.  For this reason, it has become an invaluable tool.

© 2014

This post was featured as DAY 24 in the Creativity Tools Project.  To view the original post, archive courtesy of Permamarks, click here.

Last week I had the great pleasure of meeting a person who has made an enormous contribution to the field of art education.  The interaction with Philip Yenawine, former director of education at the Museum of Modern Art and co-founder of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), has left an indelible impression.  Yenawine is one of those rare individuals who is able to engage with a large group as if he were speaking with friends in the comfort of his own home.

The subject of his seven hour presentation last Friday, VTS as a Means to Meet Common Core State Standards, is also the topic of his most recent book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines.  There were many times throughout the day, however, when Yenawine’s skills as a facilitator momentarily eclipsed the subject that he was there to discuss.  The audience witnessed him deftly handle some minor A/V issues and diffuse an unexpected disruption in the crowd with diplomacy, warmth and humor.  And, despite the cumulative toll of these and other nuisances, Yenawine maintained his masterful composure, with equal parts grace and patience, fielding the last of many questions from the audience with as much care as the first.

In fact, one member of the audience took time to publicly remark about Yenawine’s professionalism and his ability to remain entirely present.  Yenawine took that moment to underscore the importance of listening.  Which, he acknowledged, as a style of teaching, is as difficult as it gets.  

Although I have been aware of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) for some time, it was not until I took a closer look last week that I understood fully its great value.  There is a wealth of information on the VTS website, and the book is a distillation of what is most important for those who wish to apply VTS.  If you are interested in visual thinking, I highly recommend taking a look.  I plan to add both the book and website to the resource list that I have compiled for educators on my website.

Later that day, as I was enjoying dinner with a friend, our conversation veered to the topic of complexity and the need for well-developed critical thinking skills that can help us effectively respond to the type of ill-structured problems we increasingly face.

Recently, I have begun to focus more of my attention on the concept of visual solutions, and I look forward to exploring that in greater detail.  VTS demonstrates one way to engage with information, in order to arrive at solutions.  It’s one of many ways that paying closer attention to visual data can help us achieve our goals.

© 2013

In May I was invited to lead a workshop with a small but energetic group of eighth grade students.  As I was setting up the supplies, one young girl asked,

“We’re gonna learn about creativity?”

to which I replied,

“You will teach ME”…and they did!

That afternoon was filled with memorable moments. Lots of discussion took place as the students worked, and it was abundantly clear that these fifteen girls had much to express. Most offered opinions about creativity which were anything but juvenile. After a quick two hours together the materials were put away and we parted ways. A few weeks later I received a thank you note from the students and their teacher. Although I made every effort to express my gratitude, frankly, there is no way to thank them for what they demonstrated that day. Below are some highlights…

1. Passion and creativity are bedfellows. Creative outcomes are more likely to occur when we are inspired and motivated to explore a  problem or idea from multiple angles.  Motivation, curiosity and passion are integral to a creative thinking mindset.

2. Persistence is required. While some creative outcomes can be produced quickly, many simply cannot. The more attention we are willing to devote to exploring the problem space (i.e. problem finding),  the more likely we are to develop a solution that is both novel and able to be executed well.

3. Creativity can be uncomfortable. Most of the time, in our results-driven culture, we are inclined to focus on a goal or an outcome. Often when we begin the process of creating something new, we are confronted with a reality that we don’t like. Learning to acknowledge and accept creative tension as it arises is a necessary part of the creative process; finding productive ways to push through a work-in-progress is demanding but necessary.

Many other lessons were apparent that day, but the most significant lesson was one of courage:  Each student took her rightful place at the front of the classroom to discuss her work. Their eyes were met by the eyes of other students, focused intently, prepared to listen to the narrative. Near the end a student stood and confessed that she wasn’t entirely pleased with how her idea was executed. Her strength in that moment was palpable;  she had strayed from what her peers expected to hear, by bravely admitting dissatisfaction with her own work. And in that moment of vulnerability, she modeled the courage that creativity demands.

© 2013

Since I began the Practice Profile series (which was motivated by a nagging desire to instigate more dialogue about the subject of creative practice!) readers of this blog have been able to take a peek at the creative practice of other professionals. This month I am pleased to feature Kevin M. Hoffman, who has a stellar reputation for creativity in the fields of information architecture and design strategy. (Kevin’s colleague, Jessica Ivins, is among those who have also shared their point-of-view in the Practice Profile series.)

When asked “How would you describe your personal creative practice?”, Kevin replied:

“I would describe it as synthesis. Synthesis of research observations, synthesis of models from different verticals, synthesis of the old and the new. Very rarely can something be created from thin air. More often than not, for me to be creative means finding parallels between seemingly unrelated things, and then finding evidence that those parallels actually make one of those things better. Better could mean easier to use, more aesthetically pleasing, or any number of things. Just because two things are similar doesn’t mean that it helps you understand them better, necessarily.

In the general sense of the word “creativity” there is little that has not been done before. I try to be aware of what has been done before, understand what value it provides, and assess that value in light of the never-ending flow of new information. That new information could come in the form of new devices, new human interaction models, or just new insight into what people really want or need to do with information and the other people with which they collaborate.”

Kevin’s response offers a reminder that all ideas begin with an antecedent. As an undergraduate student I took a psychology course that examined the subject of creativity. It was clear by the end of the course that the feeling we equate with the “a-ha moment” is the culmination of prior thoughts and ideas about a subject; the moment typically follows a necessary period of gestation, during which those ideas can be explored and recombined. This endless loop of collecting data coupled with synthesis of data has also been labeled “combinatorial creativity”. (Maria Popova delivered a fantastic Creative Mornings lecture on the subject of Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, which can be found here.)

When asked how this informs his professional practice, Kevin is clear that he doesn’t make a distinction:

“I don’t see my creative practice and my professional practice as separable. With regards to the core digital design and strategy work that I do, I am consciously on the lookout for a better metaphor (strategy) or a better mousetrap (tactic). It’s not something I can really turn off. I find the best way to keep that engine running, however, is by aggressively applying yourself to work and life. Ask as many questions of people as you can. Learn what motivates them. Learn about the world. The more you have bouncing around in your head, the more likely one of those synapses is going to draw a dotted line between two (or more) seemingly disparate concepts.

There are many aspects of running my own business to which I don’t consciously try to apply “being creative.” I try to make things like invoicing, project plans, etc. as straightforward as possible. When I have time, I try to ask myself if that stuff can be better, but there are many cases where the simple, conventional approach is also the best. Like I said, a lot of things have been done before.”

Kevin credits his ability to consistently produce creative outcomes to at least one factor: co-design. He describes the significance of collaboration in this way:
“My approach to projects is strongly rooted in a philosophy of co-design. In a nutshell, that philosophy dictates that there is not a single individual that can design something as well as an integrated, collaborative process between diverse perspectives.

An important part of good collaboration is making sure one person is tasked with facilitating that process to a beneficial end — a better website, for example. In my research on the topic of facilitation, I’ve come across models that were around long before the internet, but still have tremendous applicability in design processes that support the kinds of design processes we use to build the internet.

I’ve integrated those facilitation models into modern design process in ways that have made my clients and my peers very happy. I continue to share those models and my iterations on them, and one of the things I hear that makes me very happy is when someone who has attended a lecture or a workshop I’ve given on the topic of design facilitation has learned a tactic that has become part of their modus operandi. ‘That thing I learned in your workshop? We do that all the time now.’

That’s a nice way of looking at creativity: it’s the ability to create new, positive change and growth (in companies, in interfaces, or in whatever) from pre-existing knowledge.”


As a strategist, educator, and information architect, Kevin M. Hoffman has been making great web design happen for 15 years. He did his hard time as ye olde “webmaster” in public libraries and universities as a team of one, designing and coding his way through microsite after microsite and redesign after redesign. While leading web communications teams the University of Baltimore and MICA, he also taught a younger generation of web designers in both BFA and MFA design programs, introducing them to web standards before browsers introduced those same standards into their codebase.
While at Jeffrey Zeldman’s own Happy Cog he directed the user experience design practice for nearly four years, overseeing all aspects of project definition, information design, and content strategy. He collaborated with fantastic clients like Harvard University, Nintendo, MTV, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to find innovative but realistic approaches to their web and mobile experiences. His ideas transformed the way in which work got done at Happy Cog by introducing visual facilitation, full-day design kickoffs with clients, and a more “agile,” sketch-based approach to the design process. Kevin continues to share ideas about meetings and meeting design all over the world at conferences like SXSW, UX London, UX Lisbon, the IA Summit, and UI. You can read his thoughts about designing better collaboration at A List Apart, UX Booth, .net Magazine, and Happy Cog’s blog, Cognition.
Today Kevin provides strategic consulting and workshops to both clients and agencies alike, helping them move their web presences into this newfangled, device-independent, software-as-service digital world and do so collaboratively. He appreciates your valuable time, and he’ll thank you personally if you contact him at kevinmhoffman.com.

© 2013

Each post in the Practice Profile series invites discussion about creative practice. This post features Jason Moriber, whose creative vitality is unmistakably present in his writing.  Jason’s interest in creativity is both personal and universal, and he is quick to champion the creative pursuits of others.

When asked how he would describe his personal creative practice, Jason explained,

“Don’t be afraid of the eraser,” is one life-long impactful lesson I learned from my undergraduate drawing professor Karen Saler. I would say that describes my personal creative practice. I like to add maybe too much stuff, then remove most of it, then add more stuff and then remove it. I do this with writing, with drawing, and with plaster. The eraser takes many forms.

Digital has made erasing both easier and harder. As example, I used to type on a manual antique typewriter and enjoyed covering over swaths of texts with white-out and then type over it (if not re-type the entire page and discover/make serendipitous changes). With digital you can cleanly erase, without history, both texts and images…this is “easier.” I use both, sometimes redundantly, to see if I get different results. I typically start with the physical and then shift into digital.”

Learning to edit extraneous elements is essential.  The iconic designer Charles Eames subscribed to a philosophy that asked two important questions: “What are the details that matter most?  That reveal the most?”. These two questions are central to any creative work.  Knowing which details do matter most separates master from novice. Learning not to be “afraid of the eraser” is a powerful lesson, and once this is internalized it becomes far easier (though not entirely easy!) to edit liberally.

Next I asked Jason to consider the ways he has observed this practice informing his professional practice.  To which he replied,

“I bring it directly into my pro work, but in my pro work there is a need for speed. The add/erase process is time intensive. I’ve developed a working technique, like exercise, so I am always practicing the form of adding and erasing, but not necessarily for my pro work. I believe the side effects of practicing the process allows me to develop ideas quicker when I’m called on to generate quick results.

One way to think of it, as a metaphor, is that I’m always working in my sketchbook, trying out ideas through add/erase. My client-work is a still-life photograph. I take the experience of my sketchbook and use it to influence how I will set-up the still-life. I do both, but the add/erase is an indirect practice.”

The comparison between working in the sketchbook and composing a still-life photograph describes two distinct but interrelated working styles.  Becoming fluent in this add-then-erase working style means that Eames’ two questions are ever-present.

Jason acknowledges that there is an important element to this process: a willingness to cultivate alternative perspectives. He demonstrates the benefit of exploring a new subject in the example given below.

“One key tenet of add/erase is to be open to change, to serendipity, no matter where it comes from. Ideally, through add/erase you’re generating “happy accidents.” If this becomes your mojo, a mantra, then ideas that seem unrelated can be adopted and modified to find a new solution.

As example, I was working on a client pitch presentation that was due in a few weeks’ time. During that time I attended a conference about organic farming. While listening to a presentation on organic dairy farming I had the serendipitous insight that the farming model could be the “story,” the foundation to my client presentation. My team thought it was a little “out there” but I convinced them to go with it. I erased a bit of the farming aspect, adding more about the client need until the presentation had a balance…ultimately we won the assignment.” 


Jason Moriber has always been interested in dissonance, the beachhead where cultural and social behavior negotiate and balance the past with the future. It’s the place where new ideas evolve. Over the past 15 years, the evolution of social and cultural behaviors caused by dissonance has been radically accelerating, mainly due to the digital revolution.

Within dissonance, his professional career has been focused on “social communications,” the way people invent, adapt and communicate due to these changes. At start-ups through to agencies his roles have been a mix of researcher, architect, designer and futurist, all within “social.”   Catch Jason on Twitter or spend some time on his blog: http://jasonempire.com/

© 2013

I began a new series recently.  The concept was inspired by the Columbus Cube, one of many origami forms.  It’s been fun to sit down to paint each of these boxes with a few blank sheets of paper, some brushes and gouache.

Here’s a peek:

Distributed Cognition series

Distributed Cognition series

No doubt I’ll be setting aside more time to work in this favorite medium. What inspires you this spring?

© 2013

Last year I began the Practice Profile series, motivated by a nagging desire to instigate more dialogue about the subject of creative practice. My curiosity about the nature of creativity leads to countless informal discussions about the influence of creative thinking in our daily lives. Often those conversations broaden or augment my perspective in some way. Likewise, each Practice Profile offers readers a similar opportunity to consider creativity from the perspective of another.

This month I am excited to feature Jessica Ivins, a talented User Experience (UX) designer. Jessica is based in Philadelphia, where she seems right at home amid a city that is teeming with other talented and intelligent professionals. User Experience (UX) design is a field that relies heavily on creative thinking, a subject with which Jessica is already well versed. It was her childhood interest in drawing, coupled with academic training in Fine Art and Art Education, that ultimately taught Jessica the importance of stepping beyond the comfort zone in order to shed creative limitations.

When asked about her current creative practice, Jess replied,

For a variety of reasons, I decided to take a drawing class at a local arts center last year. The instructor, Maggie Mills, brought me back down art school memory lane; we started each class with quick sketches called croquis. She would say things like “don’t be afraid to scribble… try holding the medium at different angles to get a feel for what values and textures you can create… get your blood flowing and get your arms moving.” It had been so long since my last art class. Generating raw ideas and practicing raw drawing skills in this way set a great tone for me. It allowed me to explore new territory unhindered. I realized it was okay to mess up, and that taking risks and failing made me a better artist in the long term. I was proud of all the work I produced in that class.

Unfortunately, I don’t make much time for art these days. My interests have shifted to reading, exercising, cooking, and devoting time to my career, user experience (UX). But my job does demand creative thinking skills. As a user experience (UX) designer, my role is to make websites useful, usable, and desirable for the people who need to use them. But my job is also to satisfy the needs of my client or colleagues. Businesses have goals that must be met, and users have needs they want a website to satisfy. Sometimes the needs of the business and the users conflict, so reconciling all of this can be challenging. The Web is also a medium that’s constantly in flux and evolving. Thus creative thinking and problem solving skills are indispensable necessities for any UX designer.”

Jessica’s vivid description illuminates why the habits of mind learned through the making of art are not easily forgotten.  The most profound lessons that take place through arts learning—that is, learning to take risks, learning to explore multiple angles, learning to explore new territory unhindered—are accessible long after the direct experience of making art is finished. In a complex and dynamic field like UX design, the territory changes frequently. Developing skills to navigate new terrain is paramount. Fortunately, once internalized, the habits of mind learned in the art room become useful in other contexts. Creative thinking begets creative thinking, and learning through the arts cultivates qualitative reasoning skills that are needed to thrive in any profession.

When asked how her creative practice informs her professional practice, Jessica gave the following (fascinating!) reply,

“Before any sketching or designing begins, I always begin a project by obtaining a full understanding of the problem. What are our users trying to do? Is it the same as what we think they’re trying to do? What are the needs of my fellow team members or my client? Do I understand all goals and limitations? Once everything’s on the table, I can put any creative exercises into perspective. I can find the right exercise or approach to fit the problem I need to solve.

I realized some time ago that my traditional way of working was inefficient and limited. I was generating my own ideas, working in a silo to produce fully realized documentation, then asking for feedback after pouring my heart and soul into a finished deliverable. It wasn’t a fruitful way of making quality designs. Ironically, I had always appreciated the creative approaches I learned about in art school, though I never put similar approaches to use in my work. The Exquisite Corpse game created by Surrealist artists comes to mind. This game involves the collective assembly of words or images, usually the body of a person. The results are entertaining and humorous, but more importantly, they spark new ideas. I had also never thought to look outside my own industry for new ideas. But in an art school drawing class, we watched a film called Decasia: The State of Decay. It is an assortment of very old silent films that are decaying with age. The film is set to music, and the decayed artifacts render distorted imagery that is stunning to watch. We watched the film in its entirety, and then used stills to inspire charcoal drawings. Both the Exquisite Corpse exercise and the film helped me find new ideas as an artist. I remember them both so clearly because they had such an impact upon my creative approach.

For years I had never thought to apply collaborative activities like the Exquisite Corpse to my own practice as a UX designer, nor did I think to look outside of my industry for inspiration. But thanks to the many collaborative exercises outlined in Dave Gray’s Gamestorming, as well as Kevin Hoffman’s mentorship and work on running effective, collaborative meetings, I’ve come to build creativity into my work as a UX designer. I’ve learned to involve a diverse range of stakeholders in the creative process so that various perspectives are considered, rather than relying solely on the perspective of myself or other designers. At the most basic level, crowdsourcing colleagues allows me to accomplish more than simply working alone. But it also brings more ideas into the equation than I could ever generate on my own. Sketching and affinity diagramming are two of many techniques I’ve learned to employ with groups of stakeholders or clients.”

Finally, I asked Jessica to share a memorable example that speaks to the relationship between her creative and professional pursuits.  She explained,

“While at Happy Cog, I was tasked with creating a site map for a client project. A site map is essentially a diagram of all pages on a website. The diagram accounts for all pages but also establishes the hierarchy and organization of those pages, forming a comprehensive website structure. I had traditionally created site maps on my own. However, I decided to create this one collaboratively with the help of several colleagues working on this project. Together we successfully produced all possible types of content, categorized them on the wall, and adjusted the categories for content that didn’t have a natural place to go. The result was a site map structure that everyone on the team was happy with.”


Jess is a Philadelphia-based User Experience (UX) designer and researcher who enjoys making websites useful, easy to use, and enjoyable. She speaks, writes, and volunteers for many things UX. She’s spoken internationally at conferences such as SXSW, Midwest UX, IA Summit, and UX Camp Ottawa. She’s the main organizer for UX Book Club Philly and served as an officer for PhillyCHI, Philadelphia’s UX community. Previously a senior experience designer at Happy Cog, she is now senior UX specialist at AWeber.

Jess is passionate about making everything she touches easy and enjoyable to use. A strong advocate for universal usability, she’s admittedly befuddled by a lack of clarity in everything from road signage to food packaging. She especially likes to drive her family nuts by complaining about the plastic film on food containers that can’t be removed without a knife.

In her spare time, Jess busies herself with reading, cooking, and enjoying a fine glass of wine or craft beer. She’s also mildly obsessed with the TV show Forensic Files.

© 2013

This is one of four paintings from the series, Noticing.
The series, which began with the design of a single notecard, includes postmarked stamps collected from letters and postcards mailed by friends over a period of ten years. The line of text chosen for the card is from the poem, April, below.

We Sat2

We sat,
enveloped by the green,
which had burst suddenly,
overhead, underfoot.

The firefly darted
in the still-light, still-blue sky
for less than an hour.

I forgot, briefly,
but you remembered to tell me,
“Everything is basically good.”

© 2013