Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Untethering Your Mind

Computers have become so ubiquitous in our daily lives, that we've lost some of the "old ways" of doing things. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Many things have become a zillion times easier and faster because of computers. As a software designer/architect and programmer, the computer is part of my very essence as a professional. Without it, I would have become a writer, a cartoonist, an architect, a statistician, or maybe even a schoolteacher.

But I'm not here to discuss how fantastic an invention the computer was, and how it continues to improve major facets of our lives. I'm here to discuss how the computer can sometimes be a stumbling block, rather than an aid, to creative thinking. How so, you ask?

One of the "old ways" that's increasingly becoming a lost art to many people is writing your thoughts down on paper. Think about it. When was the last time that you wrote a letter to someone in long-hand? The easy thing to do nowadays is fire off a quick email to them. Or if you really want to send an honest-to-goodness letter to someone, you hop on the computer, open up your word processor software, compose something digitally, and then print it out and stick it in an envelope. But write a letter by hand? C'mon man, you must be smoking crack!

Many of us rough out ideas on the computer as well. Need to make a quick list? Open up Excel, lay out some quick column headings, and start filling in your list. Need to jot down notes about a meeting you had, work out a project plan, or slap down some design ideas for that product you're creating? With a couple of clicks, you've opened Word and started typing in your thoughts.

There's really nothing seriously wrong with the above approach. I've done it myself, countless times. But let me ask you this little question. Have you ever opened up Excel, Word, or some other productivity program only to sit there frozen, staring wide-eyed at the screen for what seems like longer than the entire length of the O.J. Simpson murder trial? I'll bet you have. It happens to every creative person, oftentimes more regularly than we care to admit.

The problem with always writing things down on the computer is that your focus is centered on this small screen, with its rigid structure, overflowing menus, muted colors, cryptic icons, and myriad of scroll bars. Tunnel vision sets in and you get lost in this detailed digital world. And instead of your mind being completely free to roam around and brainstorm new ideas, your mind is tethered to a machine. Part of your brain is focused on using the system, while the other competing half is trying to ignore this structure and run amok like a wild animal. Creative minds need to be allowed to run free. If you want to think outside the box, stop staring into the box all the time!

I make it a point to push myself away from the computer every so often, pull out my big 11 x 14 "artist's sketch pad" that I bought at Michael's or AC Moore, and write down whatever it is I'm thinking about. Sometimes I'm jotting down business planning notes or creating a list. More often, I'm roughing out design ideas for a game or piece of software that I'm in the process of developing. And I work with ink PENS. That may seem stupid, because after all, these are often rough ideas I'm conjuring and I'm gonna mess up. Who cares! Cross stuff out. Draw arrows to things. Don't worry about being perfect. There's no need for an eraser; that's way too constraining. The key here is that you are free to think and create. You're not clicking icons, searching through menus, or scrolling every which way. There are no grid-lines to keep within. You've got a big old blank sheet of paper and a pen. That's the simplest interface there is.

Go ahead and try it. You'll be amazed at the results. You'll use parts of your brain that are oftentimes stifled by the structure of the computer. Whatever natural artistic abilities you possess are free to come out and play. There's a reason I chose to use an "art pad" after all. All good design has a basis in ART. Whether you're designing a building, a machine, clothing, software, a board game, or whatever, you visualize what that thing will be like before it ever comes into existence. You mold it in your mind's eye. So takes those creative visions and let them flow through your fingertips and out onto the paper. Even if you couldn't draw a tree in 2nd Grade to save your life, the simple act of writing is an act of expressing yourself in your own unique way.

So creative people of the world, get writing!!! You can thank me later.

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