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Permission to Play

First, a plug. My lovely and talented friend Courtney Cerruti just released her first book, Playing With Image Transfers.


And it is wonderful. Beautiful artwork, creative projects with clear “how to” instructions, and delightful personal anecdotes that give the book warmth. It would make a wonderful holiday present for kids and adults. Just saying.

In the trailer for the book, Courtney tells us that art can be made anytime. Art making doesn’t need the perfect setup. Don’t be too precious about it. She says that image transfers in particular give you permission to play and experiment.

I really like this idea of giving ourselves permission to play. I want to figure out how to do more playing. Playing with purpose, playing to make stuff, playing just to play.

I didn’t realize how much I wasn’t playing until I visited some friends who have a three year old. She started to make believe that she was driving me to a restaurant for breakfast, and we acted out the whole scene. From parking the car to ordering to picking up the bill. It was one of those things that you just had to put your whole heart into, otherwise it would have been boring and lame. So I did. I have to say I improvised the hell out of that restaurant scene.

I stayed with those friends for a couple weeks, so there was a lot of playing, and make believe in particular. A lot of times what you end up saying is garbage, it’s not witty or doesn’t make complete sense. But the three year old is actually quite forgiving and will go along with you. And sometimes you say something that is completely out of the blue improvised and it is just magic. Just effin perfect, something I could never have thought of if I sat down to think about it.

I’m trying to bring this to my writing and sketching. With drawing I usually go for portraits. I start with the eyes and never quite know who is going to appear. Sometimes, they are really ugly or just bad. But sometimes they are so so good. Again, something I would never have made if I sat down and tried to do it.


These are some improvised sketches.

If you draw a turd, just turn the page and move on. So I encourage you to try playing. Playing like you did when you were little, and to not care about looking like an ass in the process.

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The “insights” process is not mystical, but it is creative

The most common output of my work are “Insights.” Yes, capitalized, because that is usually the title of the report or slide deck or presentation or whatever it is that I am producing for a client. I usually do ethnography (“ethnography lite” to real anthropologists or just “ethnographies” to most regular folks in the know). Ethnography is pretty trendy these days amongst design firms, ad agencies, corporate research centers and the like. For the most part, it means going out into the “real” world and discovering something about it that you can use in business. I might have a project about photography for Nikon, for example. I’ll go out into the world, interview 10 people about photography in the context of their daily lives. I’ll observe them on a photo-taking expedition, watch their process, ask questions, and try my hand at photography. I am the learner; the participant is the expert.

After all that, I have maybe 30 hours of video, or 100s of pages of transcripts and notes. Here, we sprinkle some magic dust, say a few magic words, and poof, INSIGHTS appear. But this can only occur after weeks of wading through the research, scanning for patterns, diving deep in particular aspects of the research.

where’s the insight? peek-a-boo!

Both these ideas – that Insights are mystical and that Insights take a long time to develop – are lies. I was chatting with a colleague the other day about our project time line. She was explaining to me how we should have a workshop to share Insights with the client immediately after collecting data.  The purpose of the meeting is so that everyone (clients and researchers) can share their ideas about the research and have a voice in the process. Getting “buy in” you might call it. She says to me, “we kind of know what we want to say right away, even before the research is done.” Having an Insights meeting sooner is ideal because the time consuming part is editing video clips and creating presentations, not the analysis.

So why can’t Insights happen sooner? Clients usually like to believe in the mystical powers needed to “discover” Insights. They are paying good money for these Insights. It should be a hunt. A challenge. Not for the average lay person. With this in mind, we push back our Insights meeting a couple weeks, so that it appears that we’re searching, sniffing them out, hot on the trail, but never quite there.

hmm, what can it mean?
hmm, what can it mean?

I used to think this way, too. That the Insights should be a struggle. They should be reworked and torn apart, put back together again in new ways. You gotta earn it! That’s where our bread and butter is. Discovering something shocking in the research. Something that only we, trained professionals, can see.

research is messy!
research is messy!

However, ethnographic findings are rarely shocking, or even novel. I’m not going to do a photography project and find that most people actually take photographs with their feet. We’ve been designing the camera all wrong this entire time!!

Not mystical, not shocking. But insights can be exciting, when you turn them into usable tools. Most designers and engineers I know don’t want to wade through piles of research. They also don’t want a boring descriptive account of what occurred. They also don’t necessarily want to be shocked by the research.

oooh, that's how it's done, huh?
oooh, that’s how it’s done, huh?

Designers have specific questions that you can answer based on what people are doing. What are the main points? And what’s the point of what you’re telling me? They want direction. But mostly, they want to be excited to create and build. What this means for ethnographers, is that we can be a lot more creative on our end. Yes, we share the findings in an objective and fair (not boring) way. But we get that part done with quickly. Then we move onto the inspiring part. What do photographs mean and how can we help people achieve their goals? How might people want to do this in the future? We can motivate teams of designers and engineers to create something interesting and usable through playful activities, workshops, and tools that are something between research and design. And we get to participate in answering those questions. We, too, are creative. The Insights process might not be so mystical but that’s OK with me.

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What your notebook says about you

I was scrambling to get ready for my morning meeting last Friday and realized that I was out of notebooks. I had just finished my Creativity Explored one,


which is tiny and noncommittal, the equivalent of a hotel notepad with a cute cover.

I flipped through my red moleskine, just in case there were any blank pages left in that one.


There weren’t. In a pinch, I usually use my agenda book, but my new 2013 one has little room for notes.

(I love paper, if you couldn’t tell by now.)

I’m running all over my parents’ house (which is where I crashed last night) looking for anything to write on, loose leaf paper, backs of envelopes, anything! “They don’t even have computer paper, what animals!” I grumbled, checking the time. At this point, I’m pawing through my dad’s office, which is crazy messy, and come upon these beautiful notebooks in his bookcase. I always forget that he is a bit of a writer himself. “These are really nice. Too nice to steal? Hmm. He does have two, though. And they are both blank.” I rationalize. He leaves for work before 6 (and it’s way later than 6 right now), so I text him to see if it’s OK to steal one. I don’t get a reply. It’s too late. I run out the door, notebook in hand.


This notebook is large, bigger than your standard 8.5×11″ anyway. The weight of the pages is heavy. The backs are blank and the fronts are gridded, with space for project titles, page numbers, and extra bookmarking info. The ink is green.


I like this notebook because it feels like I’m doing scientific experiments. It elevates the importance of the notes, without the pressure to come up with grand conclusions. Experiments fail all the time.

I also like the science-y feel of this notebook because it makes me think of Field Notes on Science and Nature.


I love this collection of famous(-ish) scientists’ notebooks. Scratchings and musings. Its purpose is to share observational notes from the field, ones that usually stay hidden in filing cabinets or personal libraries. And each set is as idiosyncratic as its author. Its contents capture seemingly unimportant, fleeting impressions. Only after many seasons, or even decades, of field research do models start to form and the scientist is able to draw patterns and larger theories about the world around us.

Why does any of this matter? Because your notebook says a lot about you.

First, the notes themselves. Notes are in your handwriting and drawing style. They reflect your view of your environment and interactions, how you receive, interpret, and consider your personal experiences. Mine are rambling and messy, and usually have an expiration date. The more time passes, the less likely I’ll be able to read them.


Second, the notebook format says a lot about your design sensibilities. A yellow legal pad is different than a composition book which is different than a tiny spiral bound book which is different than a sketchbook. You get the idea.


Aaron Draplin‘s Field Notes, for example, are hugely popular among designers (although, I admit I didn’t know what they were before I heard Draplin speak at CCA.) Field Notes are simple, beautiful, and functional by design. They are pocketable.


Yet, the moleskine is still the quintessential designer’s notebook. My buddies at Pas de Chocolat and I go into this more in the app we’re making about design. Stay tuned!

Third, the notebook as prop declares your level of engagement. What kind of attention you are going to pay to the situation you are in. You show up to a meeting and lay it on the table. More often than not these days, it’ll be your laptop. But I find this to be disengaging and a barrier to interaction with the people in the room. I bring a laptop if the meeting is not that important and I want to daze out and check my email.  My old manager had a huge notepad (maybe 11×17, maybe bigger) that really made an impression in meetings. “Whoa!” people would inhale sharply as she opened it in front of them. I couldn’t decide if it was the equivalent of driving a big truck or if it really did help her think. Maybe a little of both.