04 November 2008

The power of peripheral attention

In an old episode of the television show “Friends”, Jon Lovitz guest stars as a food critic. On the way over he gets stoned. Cannabis (I am told) has a tendency to increase focus to a near exclusive state. John’s character hears the word tartlet. He repeats, “tartlets, tartlets, tartlets… the word has lost all meaning.”

A couple of months after my daughter was born I was reading a book at a friends house. I wish I could remember and quote it precisely, but it basically said, “children are born the most aware beings on our planet, and we systematically take that away with them by teaching focus”.

The point of this writing is not to take issue with the power of focus, but to point out that it is not the only answer.

I was reading about Eric Johnson’s (virtuoso guitar player) lifelong quest for tone perfection. He mentioned that sometimes in order to get great tone, you have to stop thinking about tone. He has spent years practicing this. He is still learning.

For many years, I have managed the design process. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been eyeball deep in a project… wading in the muck of options and castaways only to find the perfect solution. As a design crew we would then assemble the client into a meeting room, make our dramatic and passionate presentation, and proclaim that “this, my dear client… is THE answer to your problem”. And, in that 18 minute build up… a 12 second unveiling… and the ensuing 17 minute discussion expect them to come to the same affirming conclusion that took our team 7 weeks.

So the client stares at the work… and then stares at it some more… looks us up and down and then stares back at the work. The pressure builds until they mutter, “umm, I’m not sure’. And we designers are astonished. How could they not see the brilliance?

At this moment, focus is not your friend. After repeating this scenario a couple dozen times I finally figured out why it does not work. The client must often, just like us, live with the solution for a bit.

And so here is the simple recipe. Next time you are struggling to make a decision, stop staring. Hang those three logo options, or variations of your web site, or anything else for that matter, in an area you work or live and go about your business. Give it 48 hours. I can almost guarantee you will come to an easy resolve.

So stop staring at the problem you are trying to solve. Live it. Be around it. Be part of it. Let your peripheral attention work for you.