31 Aug 2008

on noticing

Detail from a public sculpture in Charleston, South Carolina

Detail from a public sculpture in Charleston, South Carolina

So I just read this great conversation / article from AIGA. The article is from July, but the concept of "noticing" that Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg discuss feels timeless and relevant both to the purpose of this blog and to my teaching.

The men are discussing and defining the role of "noticing" in their design practice and their lives. This is something that I have been exploring and trying to find an application for in my own thinking and making. In fact, it is beginning to feel a bit like a personal quest. In this article, Portigal and Soltzberg make a case for and celebrate the act of what they call "noticing," and define what they see as the parameters and purpose of the activity. Portigal, using a recent trip to Japan as an example, explained it like this:

In a place like Japan at times I wouldn’t know what it was I was documenting or even be able to explain why I was taking the picture (beyond describing the scene as “cool”). But once I’d noticed something and photographed it, chances were good that I’d notice it again—as if that click of opening the shutter coincided with the creation of a new info-capture zone in my brain.

This process of noticing once and then noticing again is how you start finding patterns and uncovering themes.

Hmm...well said. This has been my experience as I have photographed my way through neighborhoods in Los Angeles or towns and cities I've visited. I've thought of my excursions, and hence my photos, as part purposeful and part instinctual. This instinctual part has been particularly important for me because I often over think—or let my ideas and concepts take such a leading role in—how I approach a design that I leave no room for intuition or accident.

Because this "noticing" or what I've thought of as "collecting" has been beneficial for my own creative development, I've been wanting to find ways to incorporate it into the classroom. In 2007, I asked my Type 2 students to document the vernacular typography of a city block, or neighborhood, or even a single word of their choosing, then develop a quick project to present their findings to their classmates. (Thank you to one of my own teachers, Kindra Murphy, for the inspiration for this assignment.)

Some made videos, others dioramas and even others wrote songs. The project was certainly open-ended and meant to be quick—they only received one week to document their findings and create the presentation of their research—but this meant that the observation wasn't sustained nor necessarily full of depth or purpose.

What it did do, however, was awaken my students eyes to the world around them, getting them to look outside of design annuals and the internet for what they were calling "inspiration." Through the exercise of looking, they noticed they are surrounded by typography and the written word and began discover their personal preferences or themes, just like Portigal. But even more important, to me, the exercise fosters and reinforces a person's awareness and curiosity, explained by Soltzberg this way:

Noticing definitely draws on a set of skills...but at the heart of it you have to genuinely be interested in the world around you and in other people.

Yet, I have not continued with this assignment. For all the positives—getting students excited about looking and the world around them, teaching how to make presentations, learning to think and make quickly, and developing peer to peer communication—I still have been bothered by the absence of depth or purpose. It's that "noticing once and then noticing again" part that still feels missing.

And then came the Sister Corita presentation I went to this summer, where I learned of her experiments of sustained looking, exercises asking students to observe a crack in the sidewalk for 1 hour each day, for 1 week. Here again is that idea of "noticing once and then noticing again." I admire the patience required for, and the principle of, this assignment, but I just couldn't ask my students to do this, at least not exactly. But, I've wondered since then, couldn't I ask them to document—with a digital photograph—something they've observed and write about what they see in their sketchbook or post to a blog where they can read what everyone else has "noticed" that week? Wouldn't this be a great way to get them looking at their world, but also learning how to articulate what they see and eventually develop a point of view about it? What if they had to write about the same photograph 3 weeks in a row? How would the language they use to describe what they see change over several weeks? Would what they actually see begin to change as well? So this is an idea that has been consuming me these several weeks and then here is someone who's already done it:

I’ve assigned students to routinely maintain a noticing log, either a blog (words with pictures) or a Flickr account (pictures with words). The exercise helps sharpen noticing skills by giving people permission to simply observe and document. There’s never any requirement to suggest a fix; indeed what they observe may not be broken in any way. It just has to arouse their interest, and in documenting it make the details of that interest explicit. Establishing some discipline for this behavior can be very helpful.(Portigal)

So there it is. Not that I needed anyone to tell me it can work, but I guess sometimes I do.