Hidden in Plain Sight

The 4th in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Ideas are everywhere. They float around all the time just waiting to be discovered. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a 1000 times: On any given day, anyone can come up with a great idea. The key is to know where to look.

Years ago I discovered the art of Sister Corita Kent, a Catholic nun who made and taught art in southern California in the 1960s-70s. Very bold and graphic, her work has been admired for years. Charles EamesBucky Fuller and Ed Rucha were also big fans.

Sister Corita is famously known for her “10 Rules for the Immaculate Heart Art Department“. But it is one of her personal mantras has stuck with me over the years: Look at everything. Not just art and culture, but science, news, books and any and everything our world has to offer. If a large part of creativity is combining two or more seemingly disparate things into something new, then the bigger pool you have to draw from the better the chance you’ll have of making something original.

But being creative is more than just being observant. I believe there are two additional crucial ingredients.

The first is curiosity. You might think this is splitting hairs and should be rolled up under being observant, but curiosity is different. It’s not that you want to see something new, it’s that you want to understand that thing. I can watch NASCAR all day but will never understand it because I am not the least bit curious.

The second is timing. When you are aware of your surroundings, you are much more receptive to finding new things. Let me give you an example of what I mean by a newly acquired awareness: When I got engaged to the love of my life, I had no idea about how gigantic the bridal industry is. No idea how many magazines, stores, specialty items, shows, programs, etcetera, there existed for brides-to-be until I knew that world existed. Scared the bejesus out of me, and I am certain it’s even scarier these days.

So, how is being more observant and aware good for business? Here’s a real-world example:

I had the opportunity to work on a fund-raising campaign for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. At the time, they were looking to grow the Diocese, make improvements and extend their outreach. They engaged the studio I was with to develop a campaign. We needed a solid concept to hold all the different pieces of communication together to deliver succinct and consistent messaging.

While brainstorming, I had this idea. A big one. Being a new dad at the time, nursery rhymes and children’s songs were a big part of my life. While knocking around ideas, this came to mind:

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and here are the people. 

You couldn’t ask for a better message platform. It is familiar to just about everyone, yet so perfectly relevant to the mission of the campaign. The concept also lent itself to become a rich visual feast, extending the visual messaging by showing people of different ethnicities and ages doing the hand movements that accompany the rhyme. Merely being aware brought the concept to life.

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We put together an elegant design highlighted with photography by Ricardo Merendoni.

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The program was as successful as it was surprising, helping the Diocese meet their goals and fulfill their mission. This is a prime example of a big idea in action.

Seeing rather than simply looking is such a key element in producing excellent creative work. I’ll leave you with some good resources to start you on the path to hone your observation skills:

How to See, George Nelson: Nelson is one of my heroes who helped shape the US after World War Two. I don’t know that he was the greatest designer ever, but he knew who to surround himself with and how to get the very best design done. His book “How to See” is exactly what the title says it is … a how-to manual that every artist should commit to memory.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards: My 11th grade art teacher recommended reading this book and I scoffed at her. After thumbing through its pages at the bookstore one day, I thought to myself “Why read about drawing when the best way to learn about drawing was to just do it?”. I put the book back on the shelf only to pick it up decades later. Ms. Edwards’ book is filled with more than the how-to’s, it is filled with even more why’s.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger: You can find the original TV broadcasts of Ways of Seeing on YouTube. They are extraordinarily dated and downright hilarious at times, but the information Berger presents is second to none. Reading the book instead of watching the program will scrub away some of the 1970’s veneer, and leave you with nothing but a wonderful treatise on art, life and seeing the world.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz: All of the other books mentioned focus on art or design. But On Looking, instead looks at (no pun intended) the rest of the world. Although it can be long at times, it is a delightful read meandering from art, science, exploring and a number of other fascinating subjects.

The Art of Noticing. Rob Walker: Rob is a great thinker and writer. And The Art of Noticing is not only a terrific book, but his weekly newsletter supporting it is full of wisdom and continuations of themes in the book.

The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher: Finally, of all the books I have on my shelves at home, this one never collects any dust. It is a constant source of inspiration. From the careful design of each spread to the content on each page, The Art of Looking Sideways rejuvenates my soul every time I open it. I suggest not reading it cover to cover. Rather, pick it up on occasion, turn to any random page and start there. Repeat this process any time you are stuck looking for ideas, need a break, can’t sleep at night or want to take an adventure.