Archives for posts with tag: art

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

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

For the last few months I’ve been working on a series with the title Noticing: An Homage in Analog. The earliest stage of this series began with my participation in Mary Ann Reilly’s CrowdSourcingLove project. Even as I rendered the first notecard I had already begun to envision what might be included in other works.  Each piece contains unifying elements—hand lettered notecards, postmarked stamps, a line of text excerpted from various poems, as well as imagery rendered in pencil and watercolor.

Acts of noticing allow us to experience any moment in a rich, full fashion.  When we pause, to allow ourselves to become absorbed in the moment, we break from routine and the typical pace of our everyday lives.  Though the unique things that capture our attention may vary, these acts of noticing begin to develop the invaluable skill of observation.

Last month there was an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, How to End the Age of Inattention.  The article describes the value of sharp observation skills within the medical profession and cites “museum interventions” at Yale’s School of Medicine as an effective means of strengthening such skills.  While the practice of medicine benefits from heightened observation skills in significant ways, the benefits are not limited to the field of medicine.  Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project, also made a remarkably convincing case for paying attention in his post, Slow Down, You Move Too Fast.

This summer I have been revisiting the writing of Ellen Langer, whose research examines Mindfulness.  Also on my summer reading list is Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart.  Rheingold advocates that we establish tactics and practices to balance the manner of “information scanning” we have grown so accustom to in the digital age.  As I read Langer’s writing again, Mindfulness continues to feel like an important avenue to consider as we strive for balance.  In fact, early in Rheingold’s book he asserts, “It’s impossible to separate signal from noise without exercising attention, so mindfulness is a prerequisite to effective crap detection.” (Loc 205)

As for my series, Noticing, the process of conceiving each work, along with the execution, is the point.  I look forward to completing these works later this summer, but it will not mark the end of my noticing.  Quite the contrary.  The series is one of many ways to emphasize, embody and record a commitment to noticing and observation.  One of the things I value most about having a personal creative practice is each new opportunity to give tangible form to a lifetime of observation.

The popularity of digital sharing platforms such as Instagram or Pinterest reminds us that noticing can take many forms.  Responding to something posted online or posting a new photo are among the ways we demonstrate our instinct for noticing in the digital era.  On the other hand, the appeal of a sketchbook, used by artists and scientists to document observations for centuries, is hardly lost. It’s not as if digital and analog are at odds; they may just serve our noticing in different ways.

© 2012

I decided to dive a bit further into the CrowdSourcingLove theme.  The photo below documents the direction I’ve taken.  After finishing a final design for the notecards last week, I was able to include one in a collage that I’ve begun.

Here’s a looksie…

P.S. Mary Ann Reilly has turned her CrowdSourcingLove project into a book. check it out! 

(text on card: Hafez, That Moon Language)

© 2012