Ignite Charlotte!

This is my presentation from Ignite Charlotte v2. I had to cut down the script a lot, to fit the 5 minute format. So, included below is the full story (even though this version is a bit less polished), including links to sources and some really interesting further reading on several topics.

Amateur Advantage

1- A bit of background: this started as a set of slides I began accumulating a couple years ago, exploring the idea of how knowing less about something can be advantageous, and the effect this has on creativity.

2- Knowledge is Power! (…or something along those lines) said Francis Bacon. He’s all about empirical knowledge, the scientific method, learning via observable facts… That’s all well and good, but… kinda boring. I’m more interested in creative breakthroughs, innovation, and invention.

further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon


3- In his TED talk, J.J. Abrams talks about his “Mystery Box” – a box of magic tricks that he was given as a child, which he hasn’t opened to this day. Not knowing what’s inside helps to inspire him in his work. “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” … “Mystery is more important than knowledge”. You can certainly see this theory at work in storytelling – take LOST for example… where mysteries were abundant, and every answer came with 3 new questions… “Withholding information is more engaging”

further reading: http://globalmoxie.com/blog/magic-boxes.shtml

4- Ever been disappointed when you finally saw the movie version of a favorite book, or when a shadowy monster is finally revealed? Seeing it onscreen steals away the multitude of possibilities that your imagination has created.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/helloturkeytoe/416240205/

5- If you have kids, you might know the joy of discovery through their eyes… seeing them experience the things in the world – new to them – which you now take for granted. Children are extraordinarily creative… but as they go through school, creativity declines…

Picasso said: “All children are born artists. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.”

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/biscotte/108634176/

6- “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” (What is this big yellow thing? It covers my head nicely.)

That’s a saying from Zen Buddhist teachings. “Shoshin” – Beginner’s mind.

A similar point is raised in Marshall MacLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. “The amateur can afford to lose. … The “expert” is the man who stays put.”

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcummings1974/4768606485/

7- In their book Made to Stick, Chip & Dan Heath talk about “the curse of knowledge”. They say: “When we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators”. Think of a doctor giving a patient a diagnosis, and using lots of medical terms. Or an IT geek explaining something to a novice user. If they assume too much knowledge on the part of the recipient, they can become unintelligible.

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sleepallday/3311794264/

8- Here’s an interesting exercise:

Write a set of explicit step-by-step instructions for a relatively simple task, like making a PB&J sandwich

Follow the instructions – better yet have someone else follow them – assuming no prior knowledge of anything (“what is a sandwich?”) Notice how many opportunities there are to make mistakes. This can reveal a lot of assumptions we have about our audience.

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andymangold/4275336635/

9- So, knowledge can be a double edged sword. But, that doesn’t mean we should opposed to learning. Kids, don’t go dropping out of school. Without knowledge, you’re not even in the game.

The point is: how do we train ourselves to get around the roadblocks that expertise can put up?

10- Empathy is a good place to start.

Empathy is a skill that designers have to use a lot. We create something for a client, which is intended to reach an audience… we’re not a direct stakeholder in this transaction. We have to get into the head of the client, to understand their motivations and goals, and we have to get to know the audience, as well, to try and figure out how to connect with them.

Shifting your point of view – or frame of reference – is an important way to leave behind some of your own prejudices.

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mashed_potatoe/537099989/

11- But empathy will only get us so far. We can design something we think will be perfect, then put it in front of users to find that it baffles them. Ultimately, you have too much knowledge of your project – whether it’s a client’s website or a new business idea – to objectively judge it. You have to get it in front of someone else, who has no prior knowledge of it, to get some fresh feedback.

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparktography/64946647/

12- And do it early enough in the process that you can get feedback you can act on. Paper prototypes, mockups, sketches. In fact, the less finished it looks the better. People will be more likely to offer criticisms if it does not look like a finished product.

image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaeru/4114648446/

13- “yes, and” is a mantra for improv performers. It’s about accepting all suggestions. You take what the other actors present you, and go with it. If you don’t, the scene is losing momentum. You have to say yes, and… add to it… move it forward to advance the story.

14- like in improv, “yes, and” is a great mantra for brainstorming. Don’t shoot down any ideas at this stage. Welcome all points of view. Explore all avenues.

15- A team of T-shaped people, who have deep skills in one discipline and empathy and understanding of others, make powerful project teams. An expert in one discipline is an amateur in another. Start collaborating early in the project and run your ideas by one another.

image via: http://www.slideshare.net/darmano/logic-emotion-one-year-later

16- Ask “What if…?” Ask “Why?” Be childlike. Don’t be afraid to question everything. Propose alternatives, question assumptions. And welcome this questioning from your peers.

17- Think outside the box while you can. Soon enough, you’ll have to answer to the box. The box represents the realities of project schedules, budgets, technology constraints. These things are crucial to know. You have to know where the box is. But don’t let it inhibit your early conceptual work.

18- To avoid getting too caught up in details, artists will stand back, squint their eyes and look at their work. Obscuring their vision, to just get a sense of the thing, the overall composition, and flow. Do other things to freshen the eyes. Put the work away overnight and revisit it fresh in the morning.

“I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.” — Robert Rauschenberg

further reading: http://globalmoxie.com/blog/magic-boxes.shtml

19- “If you want to keep your brain alive, you have to do things your brain doesn’t expect.

The cortex forms new patterns… new synaptic connections in response to novel activity, and PET scans show that far fewer pathways are activated when the brain processes a routine task… even a complex one.”

further reading: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/08/blow_your_own_m.html

20- “The creative life requires a steady progression of experimentation and discovery. While acquired wisdom is useful, your knowledge must work in tandem with the daily exercise of your curiosity.” — Robert Genn

further reading: http://clicks.robertgenn.com/what-paint.php

Amateur Advantage



ESKAMON is the new colaboration project between Amon Tobin (Ninja Tune) & Eskmo (Warp, Planet Mu, Ancestor). “Fine Objects” is the first single by the duo that’s set for release on Eskmo’s own imprint “Ancestor.”

Preview and purchase at eskamon.com

The glitch aesthetic

Back in 2005, I submitted a bunch of images for the Glitch Art & Design Aesthetics book. It hit the shelves last month, and they used one of my images (the one on the bottom left). I got my free copy of the book last week. Score!

Inspiration can often be found in strange places. What begins as a mistake, an error, or even a complete breakdown in a system, can lead to intriguing and beautiful results. These “happy accidents”, as Bob Ross liked to call them, can be captured, and exploited. This phenomenon is the topic of the new book Glitch: Designing Imperfection, which came out this year. Four years in the making, it’s not just a collection of pretty pictures, but also explores the aesthetic of the error, in several essays. I submitted several images to the authors back in 2005, in hopes of getting some of my images in print. Just one was selected, but that was enough to score me a complimentary copy of the finished product.

Since I was hoping to see more of my pieces used, I figured I’d take this opportunity to showcase all the images I submitted. The first two are screenshots captured after random crashes of my work PC, back in 2000. The rest are the result of a corrupt JPG contact sheet that a photographer emailed me, which became a source of fascination, as it mangled, distorted, and posed a general threat to itself and others when I attempted to view it in Photoshop. I learned to direct the effects to my liking, and assembled the set of images that you see here.