Un-tapping the Brain

Un-tapping the Brain

Yesterday I was pondering the elements of focus; the idea was that there were ways to support mental focus. That was classic DaveThink in action: instead of just doing the task, consider its nature and recast it in another light! That’s the nice way of saying I think way too much.

I was faced with a design exercise recently and was going through the usual warmup: some writing, some sketching, and a lot of brow-furrowing thinking and visualizing. It’s a process that generally works, but it’s a bit stressful when it’s just me in the room. So much brain activity, not a lot of drawing. If there’s another creative person in the room, then we toss ideas back and forth at each other until something sticks, and then I can move forward with confidence.

I had put a very short time-limit on the design, thinking that a few quick sketchy things to get moving was just what I needed. However, as I started, I felt the familiar thinking process kick off and I was starting to feel a little mired. It was odd that my thinking process, which feels so unencumbered when I write, was so unhelpful when it came to making graphics. I was thinking too much, and not doing. But before I could make some nice graphics, I had to know what I was going to do, right?

Hm, maybe not. I wrote out a simple To Do list on a Post-It that looked like this:

  1. Find some pictures.
  2. Put text onto them.
  3. Make 3 picture-text combinations.

Compare that to my usual process:

  1. Distill the essence of the design challenge into key words and concepts.
  2. Do an Image Search that reflects the concepts synthesized in Step 1.
  3. Identify three broadly-ranging concepts to present in image and text
  4. Enter production mode and execute the concept to completion.

The latter process sounds pretty good, but it’s very weighty. It has a lot of inertia to overcome too, which makes ramp-up slow. However, I’ve always approached design like this, because my thinking process is what I’m comfortable with. You know the saying about “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? Exactly…not everything needs to be thought out thoroughly.

So I just followed the basic steps I outlined, not quite sure what would happen. It is so simple that it looks like a recipe for failure, but I realized this:

The very act of creating will be shaped by my sense of aesthetics and past design experiences. It’s unlikely that what I make will be utter crap.

Our thought processes reside in more places than just the brain. They also exists in the hands and in our learned motions. I knew this intellectually, but never had thought to apply it to my design work. I can actually turn off my main brain and let the other intelligences have a go at doing something cool. I find this tremendously reassuring. It also helped with my focus, and lowered the threshold for immediate action.

Next time someone tells you to “just do it” and you are balking at such a “simple” approach, take a deep breath and reframe the situation as an opportunity to stop thinking so deliberately. Give the reins over to your hands, your eyes, and your memories, and see what happens.


  1. Katy 18 years ago

    The second way of framing your objectives is very “Client” facing. It wouldn’t look out of place in a proposal or technical document. The first list of objectives is nice and simple and helps you focus on what you need to do.

    Remember the best way of doing things is often the simplest way.

  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Katy: That’s a great insight, regarding client-facing and self-facing lists. Very cool.

    On a side note, it’s interesting that I am so resistant to the phrase “the best way of doing things is the simplest way”, because in the past I have usually heard it in context of people not quite understanding what to do. But I guess I’m finally hearing it, and can explain why now :-)

  3. Nick Finck 18 years ago

    Dave, the first to-do list looks a lot like what I would describe as a mood board.  Is that the result of those steps or do you end up with a different result?

  4. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Nick: Neat! I’ve heard of something similar used in film, drawing a long line that changes color and expression to describe the feel of the movie.

    The first list was just my literal to-do list that day. The end result were several “finished” sketch/mockup to move forward on a design direction.

    It seems counter-intuitive to me to approach my tasks with simple lists because I’ve been thinking probably more like a manager than a designer. If I gave someone a simple list, it would often result in simple (and often unusable) result. So my management methods became more and more specific, concrete, contextual, and detailed. This quickly becomes too unwieldy for people to follow, so I stripped them back to the essentials, and relied more on maintaining personal long-term continuity and context to guide design efforts. However, I still did do a lot of explicit, detailed explanation when necessary, or when asked. Comes in handy when writing proposals.

    When I became a freelancer, I just applied the same methodology to myself. It’s was only a couple days ago that I realized that maybe this wasn’t all necessary; I can give MYSELF a SIMPLE list, because I ALREADY know what I need to do. Duh! I’m just creating a lot of additional mental overhead otherwise!

    I also can rely on certain compulsions: I know if I put a line of type somewhere on a page, I can’t help but fiddle it until it looks OK. Give me three things to lay out on a screen and I *have* to find an interesting and novel way to do it. Unless I purposely limit myself, of course.

  5. Pavel 18 years ago

    Find and read the first chapter of “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. You’ll find a lot of similar thoughts.

    From personal experience: long distance running or skiing helps to think thoroughly on something. No distractors, powerful flows through brain, escape from squarish urban visuals. Western meditation, you know =)

  6. Mike Brown 18 years ago

    My previous manager used to tell me over and over, “Just give me 80%, Mike, that’s all I need.” His reasoning was that the 80% delivered most of the value, and that my perfectionist self would stall momentum by polishing the last 20%.

    Also, he knew (better than I did) that I produced even my quick, turnaround work at a high level of quality, and that our internal customers would be quite satisfied with it.

    Your simplifying your task and trusting your hard-won experience to keep your minimum level of quality high echos to me that 80% advice.

  7. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Pavel: Thanks for the recommendation! It’s on my wish list!

    Mike: I love the 80/20 rule…I think you’re absolutely right about the echoing. It’s nice to have people know how you work, isn’t it? I need a “printable manager” now to go along with the ceo.