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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

© 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

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

Since creativity can be manifested in countless ways, discussions of creativity can run both deep and wide. One goal of the Practice Profile series is to reveal, over time, the richness in those discussions by highlighting individuals’ personal practice. Every Profile is unique, as no two individuals share the same creative habits. This month I am excited to feature C. Todd Lombardo, whose creative habits happen to be rooted in visual thinking. The more familiar I become with visual thinking, design thinking, studio thinking and handmade thinking, the more clearly I understand the benefits of each.

Recently, C. Todd shared with me his thoughts on the value of visual thinking:

“I am a sketchnoter, which is a fancy word for notetaking doodler. I like to visualize things as I hear or think about them. This could be in a meeting, at a lecture or a conference or even when I am just thinking about something. At its simplest, it’s boxes and arrows. It is not about being a great artist, nor being “good at drawing,” rather establishing relationships with concepts in a visual manner. I sketchnote for myself, but I have found that other people find value in them, so I post most of them to Flickr. This doesn’t change my practice. In fact, because it is for myself I give myself permission to really screw up (read fail!). If I was doing this for others I’d feel more pressure to elevate the level of quality, which wouldn’t allow me to discover what many like to call “happy accidents.” This is helpful because some are really amazing. I think “wow, I did that,” while others are pretty terrible.”

Posting sketchnotes to Flickr makes his creativity accessible for others to observe. The images, drawn by hand, become an opportunity to learn about the ideas or concepts depicted in the drawings. Topics range from Glen Kelman’s presentation “Where do Ideas Come From?” at the Harvard Innovation Lab to “Human Centered Design, Methods for 21st Century Challenges”. Each pictorial rendering is dense with information, with only the most essential details communicated.

When asked how sketchnoting informs his professional practice, C. Todd explained: 

“This practice of visualizing helps me think about anything, and gives structure to my thought process. The story below shows a great example of how it helps with communicating in my professional life. I also think that there’s a kinesthetic value actually doing something with my hands and creating helps solidify concept in my brain so that I can recall them at a later date or even better, when I refer back to the image I can tell the story just as vividly as when I first heard the concept. I also find that it pulls out things that others may not have noticed or thought about. For example, I took notes at a talk given by Hacker Chick (Abby Fitchner) and she mentioned something about “leap and a net will appear” which she dismissed as something unimportant, but when she saw the notes she realized that it was quite integral to her talk and was surprised that picked up on it.” 

Finally, I asked for a memorable example that would speak to the relationship between his creative and professional pursuits.  His reply:

“A few months ago, I had a phone call with Eli Stefanski from BIF. As we chatted I started drawing out our conversation on the whiteboard and circled areas I wanted to circle back on and dive deeper into. I took a photo and sent it to her as a record of our conversation. Last week we were on a phone call with a few others and she was explaining something to the group. I repeated back to her what I understood the concept was and her reply was something to the effect of:  “Yes, that’s exactly correct, can you send me the picture you’re drawing that explains that? I’ve been trying to distill this for a while.” I chuckled because indeed I had drawn it and she rightly called me out.” 

C. Todd’s stories about sketchnoting speak to the value of visual thinking, with the examples posted to Flickr demonstrating that value further. With the promise of deeper comprehension and better retention (not to mention the possibility of the occasional happy accident!) I am certain to be putting pen to paper more often.


C. Todd Lombardo, often known as “CTodd,” has over 15 years of experience creating change in the corporate world and is very comfortable navigating ambiguity. When it comes to creativity he believes the power of three simple skills: convergence, divergence and withholding of judgment. He can be found working on a variety of project types such as user experience (UX), communication, design and strategy. In addition, he serves on the adjunct faculty at Madrid’s top-ranked IE Business School where he teach courses in design thinking, innovation and communication. His sketchnotes are often found online, and he believes chocolate chip cookies are one of the secrets to creativity.

© 2013

Every idea has an antecedent.  Last February, when Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist was published it offered readers a close up view of the people and things that shape his work. Kleon’s first book, Newspaper Blackout, was a nominee for the 2010 Goodreads Choice Award in the Poetry category, and became a Poetry Foundation 2010 Best Seller. Recently, I asked the author to participate in a brief Q&A, to highlight a few concepts mentioned in Steal Like An Artist.

You speak about keeping a ‘swipe file’ and the importance of collecting good ideas.  What are some of the more unlikely or memorable source materials that have made it into your file through the years?

AK: Oh, most of what I collect is pretty mundane: newspaper clippings, pages from old books, magazine photos, etc.  

You indicate that you have gained inspiration from the poems that  others share on your Newspaper Blackout website.  How would you describe the creative community that has grown from this reciprocal exchange of ideas?

AK: It’s a funny community, because I don’t know any of the members personally or any of their biographical details, really — we’re all just working in solitude but then sharing that work publicly. The exchange of ideas just comes naturally out of the sharing, not necessarily any back and forth dialogue. 

Keeping a calendar and logbook ensures that structure is built directly into your process. What are some of the measures you have built into your process to ensure sufficient experimentation and exploration? 

AK: For experimentation, I try to structure my work time so that there are no expectations about the results of the work — it’s more like play, like a kid with building blocks or something. As Bob Ross used to say, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

For exploration, I find that sticking to a day-to-day routine means that when you break that routine, the strangeness of the upset and the unfamiliar things you experience work on you even more. It makes the travel and the moments of serendipity in the stacks that much more effective.

You have a number of ‘Deleted Scenes’ near the end of the book. Please select one and elaborate. 

AK: Let’s just take “mutations” — sometimes the process of transforming your influences into something new is a matter of the imperfections in your copying. For instance, human memory is a very imperfect device — sometimes our faulty memories of a thing means when we try to replicate it was come up with something new. The voice actor Billy West put it this way: “A bad impression of somebody is a voice no one’s ever heard before!”

Steal Like an Artist will be the focus of the next #creativereads Twitter chat on Tuesday, January 22nd at 8pm ET.  Join us!


Austin Kleon is a writer who draws. He’s the author of two best-selling books: Steal Like An Artist (2012) is an illustrated manifesto for creativity in the digital age, and Newspaper Blackout (2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker.

His work has been featured on 20×, NPR’s Morning Edition, PBSNewshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalNew York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”

He grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but now he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Meghan, his son, Owen, and his dog, Milo.

© 2013