Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Ed Sheeran & Friends Shape a Song

Shaping the Creative Process

The creative process fascinates me – how artists and musicians can start with a blank slate and then make something out of nothing. Usually, all we get to see or hear is the finished piece and, if it’s good, it glows like a polished gem.

But creators shape their work bit by bit. As it flows, the creative process brings together many little moments of inspiration and discovery. Some pieces fit easily like hand in glove, others fall away to be replaced by something better. How it all comes together often remains a mystery.

So, I was excited to see a NYT video that takes us behind the scenes to explore how singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and his music collaborators created what would become the biggest pop song of 2017.

Ed Sheeran performs “Shape of You” at the 2017 Grammy Awards (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

From a NYT article describing the Shape of You recording session:

“Shape of You” was written in a brainstorming session where ideas are developed or discarded fast, with computers and instruments close at hand and recorders running. “The best songs that I’ve ever written, I don’t really remember writing,” Mr. Sheeran said. “They take like 20 minutes and then they’re just done. And then you move on to the next thing.”

Visualizing Creativity

What makes the NYT video unusual is how it uses music, graphic imagery and text to enhance the interviews. It helps us visualize all the little moments of discovery and inspiration that were pieced together to create the song. The graphics not only give the video a unique look, they also help tie everything together.

As the musicians play a little music riff or talk about working together to build the song,  you’ll see visual representations of the music’s rhythm, its melodic ramblings and little word bubbles mirroring the birth of lyrics.

The graphic elements kick your understanding up to the next level, as the musicians’ sensitivity to each other, their creative energy and the music’s pulse all beat together in delicious harmony.

Here’s the video. I apologize for the ad at the beginning. When it finishes playing you’ll need to click the pause button or else it will continue playing other random videos. 

(If the video doesn’t display correctly, you can click on this link)

Putting the Pieces Together

On the face of it, the video seems fairly simple, like the song. Bring the musicians into the studio, interview them individually, shoot them in black and white against a white background, edit and shape their comments and, seemingly, you’re done. But, adding the music and graphics makes the presentation much more fun and engaging.

The music riffs in the background add energy and help illustrate and counterpoint the commentary. The graphic touches – a music bar that pulses with the beat, dots of melody or rhythm that come and go, little graphic grids to breakup the visual space, text bubbles with lyrics and comments, all hold up a mirror to the creative process.

from the NYT video

The result is a complex, carefully-timed and layered video inspired by a complex, carefully-timed and layered song.

I know from my own experience, when creativity flows, you’re totally present within the moments of inspiration. Time disappears, it’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. It’s nice to see how much of that was captured in the video.

You can read the NYT article about the making of the song here. You can poke around animator Taylor Beldy’s site here.

So, did you like the video as much as I did? Is the creative process the same for a pop singer/songwriter as with any other artist? What’s your take away? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Art & Creativity Inspired by Nature: Janis Goodman

I’ve always been curious about the creative process and what inspires it – that’s one of the reasons I write The Vision Thing. So I thought I’d ask some of my artist friends about their take on inspiration, art and creativity.

Janis Goodman head shot

photo of Janis Goodman provided by artist

This will be the first of several posts, starting with artist and educator Janis Goodman. Janis is Professor of Fine Arts at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC. She’s a working artist and often experiments with new approaches to her art. Over the years I’ve seen her canvases change quite a bit. Janis also appears regularly on PBS affiliate WETA-TV to review arts and culture in the Washington, DC area.

She spends summers in Maine to hike, kayak and paint. She told me she finds lots to inspire her in that rural setting. As she meanders along the rocky coves near her cabin, her eye is often attracted to the ever-changing patterns in nature – and especially water.



Rather than record her encounters with nature in a realistic way, she tries to find the essence of those experiences and re-image them in her art. So the swirls and eddies on the water’s surface that she observes from her kayak become abstracted as lines, shapes and color in her paintings.

Janis explains:

I was working with paintings of water – the tides and currents – how they ripple and move, and are constantly changing. I’m trying to capture the instability of everything and the way we perceive and observe the world.

"Summer Landscape"

“Summer Landscape”



There’s a strong feeling of movement in her paintings and it’s that constant change – those moments of flux and uncertainty – that she’s trying to capture. Her work is unpredictable that way. If you spend time reflecting on one of her abstractions, inevitably something new is revealed or begins to take shape in a different way.

Painting represents change over time – that’s what’s exciting. It’s continually changing and you hope it adds up to something cohesive.


photos of Janis in her studio by Dan Bailes

I asked Janis what she saw as the core of her creativity.

I’m always questioning: why is something like this instead of like that? I think it starts with curiosity, then feeling a sense of permission to go forward, to reach out and embrace the motivation to do the work.

"Movement and Migration"

“Movement and Migration”

Her paintings evolve as she works on them, she starts with one idea and that leads to another and another.

You jump into the abyss and hope the painting will tell you where to go. I’m usually up in the air and never know where I’m going to land. It’s scary.

Curiosity is the catalyst that launches her creative process, combined with a keen sense of observation. As she spends time on the water or takes a walk through the woods, she becomes more open and connected to the natural world. It’s that quality of mindfulness, and her interpretation of what she experiences, that she tries to capture with her brush.


Janis has a remarkable sense of composition. While everything seems out of balance, somehow it works. I asked her why.

Composition is a lot about intuition. My work is always asymmetrical and I really like unequal balance. I’m conscious of the energy force (created by that unequal balance), or what adding something does to the energy force.



It’s like the energy around magnetic fields – you want all of the elements in a conversation. Balance helps your eye take everything in, but not necessarily in one go. As you spend a little time with the work, balance allows you to digest the whole picture.

What does the creative process mean for Janis? Is she driven by passion, a need to communicate something, ego or what? I wondered how she would respond.


This is not about enjoyment. This is hard work. It’s not easy to do – it’s problem solving – to me that’s really interesting. I love doing it, I couldn’t see doing anything else. Still, I’m very stoic about it – when I’m finished and looking at one of my pieces I might say to myself, “Yeah that came together” or “Where did that come from?”


Most of my artist friends would say it’s work – it’s problem solving. Painting is: you create the problem; you solve the problem. It consumes you – you go into unchartered waters in your head.

"Bee Hive"

“Bee Hive”

You keep digging, like you’re going to get to some truth – of course you never get there – but it’s like one of these days you will and it’s going to knock you on your ass.

"Dream of Odysseus"

“Dream of Odysseus”

Maybe it all just comes down to being curious, mindful and in sync with yourself.

I know if I haven’t been in my studio in a few days I go crazy. You spend so much time with yourself you need an honest dialog with your work – if the work isn’t talking back to you, you shouldn’t do it.


Janis begins with a blank canvas, something at once terrifying and exhilarating. Powered by curiosity and a confidence born from experience, she’s able to pick up a brush and begin. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Exploring the Creative Process – Michael Wolff

What’s the creative process all about? That’s the question designer and creative thinker Michael Wolff has been exploring. After a long and luminous career, he appears in a number of videos talking about inspiration, creativity and making an impact. I’d like to share some of his insights about the creative process – his ideas speak directly to anyone trying to find an innovative way to meet a challenge or solve a problem. As he comments at


Michael Wolff from

The task of designing has too often become one of persuading people to absorb some facts and think positively about them, rather than to evoke feelings of interest, pleasure, empathy, delight or inspiration. If we could move our clients into story telling, we’d be able to tell their unique stories and trust people to decide if it’s an interesting story to them or not. 

In other words, building empathy and forging an emotional bond are key to communicating with your audience. It’s not just about ideas or information – if you don’t create a personal connection, you’ll quickly loose their attention. In making a video, for example, one of your primary goals is to help the viewer build an emotional bond with your subject. The same is true in documentaries, commercials or political spots. Once you like or feel good about the person, then you’re ready to learn more or hear what they have to say. When I work on video projects, I put a lot of effort into making that first impression a good one.

Life-Times photo

Life-Times photo

I recently watched a video profile of Michael Wolff from Intel’s Visual Life series that I’d like to share with you. By hanging out with Michael as he wanders his townhouse, makes tea, peruses his wardrobe of colorful shirts and prepares a meal, we get a sense of how everyday moments of life are a reflection of his way of looking at the world, and thinking about design and the creative process. Produced by m ss ng p eces, the video shows great attention to detail, with lots of well-chosen closeups to ponder as you accompany him through his day.

I like the video’s unhurried pace. As Michael talks about paying close attention to the world around you, the video’s style – lingering on closeup images that echo his words – works elegantly with what you’re seeing and hearing, and gives you time to absorb and reflect upon his thoughts.

Some Observations on the Creative Process

Michael Wolff talks about the value of a holistic education. I’ve found that useful too, in this age of specialization. Often, something I’ve learned in one area aides my ability to explore and understand another. Also, creative people need variety to grow and flourish. Once you master something it no longer holds the same fascination and seduction that first drew you to it. Specialization easily leads to boredom – and boredom dulls the creative process.


from the website

Michael goes on to describe “three muscles of seeing” – curiosity, appreciation (what I would call mindfulness) and imagination. In Michael’s view, creativity underpins innovative solutions to problems – that’s one reason we should value the creative process. If we hope to develop creative solutions to meet our challenges, how do we get there? That’s where Michael’s three muscles come in.


Curiosity – asking “Why?” – is the first step on the path to understanding. Being curious allows you to dig more deeply, challenge conventional wisdom and discover underlying issues or facts that can clear the way to more elegant solutions. Instead of making assumptions based on what you already know, asking “Why?” can lead you to surprising answers and insight. Michael Wolff likes to clear his mind of assumptions, start out fresh and ask questions. Asking “Why?” can help you uncover information that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. As Michael said in the video:


from the website


“Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize is it’s only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see “seeing” as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: if you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything…”

 Appreciation (Mindfulness)

I live in a cornucopia of sight, smell and sound we call the city, but most people passing by focus their attention on a little electronic device and shut out everything else. In a sea of sensation it’s difficult to practice mindfulness and be open to the ever-shifting environment.

I speak from experience. For years, each weekday morning I would leave home, earbuds in place, and let my music provide a bouncy soundtrack for my morning walk to the metro. One day I realized I was so intent on the music powering me to my destination, I was blocking out everything. No birds, no wind rustling the leaves, no footsteps, no traffic, no rush of everyone else scurrying to work. So I reversed course, left my iPod at home and began to observe the day.

There was so much to take in. Now I often pause to watch the little dramas playing out around me, like the time I saw a robin chase a squirrel up and down a tree, across a lawn and into a hedge – and then strut back like some mini-macho cowboy who just rode the rodeo bull.

Mindfulness lets you be open to experience without preconception or judgement. The less you prejudge, the more likely you can find an innovative response to the problem at hand. Steve Jobs liked to take walks to mull over problems. Walking gave him a quiet space to explore, consider and ponder. Also, being mindful leaves you open to receive what others have to offer.


Curiosity and mindfulness spark the imagination. Giving your imagination full flight can lead to break-through solutions. The three together are the wellspring of creativity. Michael Wolff would also encourage you to give up your ideas. As he puts it, if you don’t hang on, if you let them go, then you create the space for new ideas to bubble up. Your first idea may not necessarily be your best, it may just be the first step on the way to getting your creative juices flowing.

On Michael Wolff’s website you’ll see some pithy thoughts about design and the creative process along with a series of favorite cartoons. It’s well worth a visit. Two thoughts in particular stand out: MichaelWolff


Goodbye to letting the data decide. And a warm welcome back to reflection, intuition and judgement. Great leaps forward come from asking the right ‘big’ questions. That’s why I always start thinking with not knowing any answers.

If you want more, Michael explores creativity and his approach to his work here and gives a slide show of his past designs and a talk about branding and dealing with clients here.

I like his reminder to keep an open mind, to question assumptions, to give yourself time to explore and then delve deeply for answers. To all of that I would add this – be quick to listen and slow to speak.

So what’s your experience with the creative process? Do you find Michael Wolff’s ideas useful? Do you like what he has to say? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Anyone But Me

from the web series Anyone But Me

This is at once a happy and sad story. One of achievement, frustration and heartbreak. Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But the subject of this post is a very well-produced web drama, Anyone But Me.  It’s innovative.  Award-winning.  An original web series with good writing and direction.  And excellent lead actors.  

Anyone But Me is a story about relationships, a touching and very modern series about young people in the process of finding themselves.  And about two girls in love.

Susan Miller
Tina Cesa Ward

Anyone But Me is the very engaging work of two women creators, Susan Miller and Tina Cesa Ward.  But after winning the first-ever Writers Guild Award for Original New Series, Anyone But Me is done, after just two and a half seasons.  The web series had critical acclaim, numerous awards, dedicated fans and an international audience with over 11 million views.  And, sad to say, it’s ended with a shortened third season after Susan and Tina were unable to reach their budgeted $120,000 for ten episodes.  Thus the happy sad story.  Ground-breaking series run a ground.

So what did I like about Anyone But Me?  First, I’d have to say the writing.  Conceptually, I liked the way the feelings of a character would propel the action and how their awkwardness, insecurity and indecision struggled with their need for emotional honesty and to just be real.  

Yes there were plenty of confrontations.  Plenty of hurt and confused feelings.  And great scene-ending moments.  But everything was delivered in what felt like an authentic milieu.  And the issues certainly resonated.  I could identify with the question of being true to who you are, the fear of having secrets revealed and the need to be yourself.  And we’ve all gone through those awkward teenage years of discovery.  

I liked that the writing was spare.  A lot was communicated with few words.  Many of the episodes could serve as a primer on how to do more with less.

Second I’d have to say I liked the directing (and editing).  Those credits go to Tina Cesa Ward.  The short episodes felt like they were lifted out of a well-made TV movie.  A variety of night and daytime scenes, lots of locations, tight and wide shots edited for maximum effect, nice handling of dramatic moments.  The locations felt right.  And Tina would often punctuate a series of tight dialogue shots with a revealing wide shot to cap the scene.  This was a show about relationships, and often it was her visuals that told the story.

The principle actors were all excellent.

Rachel Hip-Flores

Rachel Hip-Flores was the heart and soul of the show and deserved her Best Actress award.  This was her first acting job out of college, yet she played her character with an intelligence and vulnerabilty that was captivating.  And she made you feel all the tangled emotions that played across her face.  

Nicole Pacent

Her free-spirit love interest was very well-played by Nicole Pacent.  Yes, she was a girl with big emotions, but she delivered a character that was also confident, intelligent and helped steady her more skittish girlfriend.

Jessy Hodges

And the third principle actor, girl-next-door Jesse Hodges was also excellent as the high school beauty with boyfriend issues, trying to renew her friendship with Rachel’s character and bumping into all her fears and insecurity.  

So call it drama, soap opera, whatever, I found Anyone But Me drew me into their lives and issues (there are adults in the series too, all well-played) and I was sad after I screened the last episode.  And I give Susan and Tina kudos for making the series stories so universal and appealing.

So, as you might imagine there’s been lots written about the series.  If you’re wondering about Susan and Tina’s creative process and their thoughts about how to create a successful dramatic web series, here’s a link to a very informative webcast interview.  And here’s a link to their thinking as they prepared for the show finale.  

As a final thought, what first caught my attention was this photo of the two key actresses.  There’s something about the intensity of their shared moment that made me curious.  And, like so many imaginings you can explore as you stumble around the web, I found it a trip well worth taking.

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