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.