Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: design Page 1 of 2

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.

Capturing the Creative Spirit: Michael Graves

Michael Graves

How best to capture the creative spirit? In this case, how to understand the work of architect and designer Michael Graves, via two very different approaches on video?

Let me offer a little background to what I’m talking about.  Early on, as a film and video editor and later as a writer, I learned to “show it,” not “tell it.”  That means to do your best work, you have to put aside the explaining part of your brain and work with the feeling side to create moments with images and sound that really communicate.  You let the pictures and events tell the story.
Once you’ve given the video a visual style and structure, then you can add that other layer of meaning (the narration or voice over) to amplify the message. Or not, depending on what you’re going for. In essence, this is the original approach to documentary and also the basis for cinema verite. And even with today’s more content driven approach, the tension in the creative process is still about what drives the story: words or images. Telling or showing.

The Humana Building by Michael Graves

So, back to the challenge of capturing the creative spirit: how to describe an innovator like Michael Graves?  As an architect, his buildings give shape to city skylines around the world. He designs tea kettles and other products found in many of our homes.  And now that he navigates with the help of a wheel chair, he’s working to improve the quality-of-life for others facing similar challenges.

This image and most others from the Michael Graves and Associates Website

You could describe him as a man of genius, a visionary and innovator. Some call him the father of post-modernism, as you can see in this Portland, Oregon building that helped launch that phase of his career.  

from the Wikipedia site

Today, his body of architectural work is broad, deep and visually arresting. Just peruse his page on Wikipedia and scroll down the list of the important buildings he created.  Or check out his website to see what his firm has  been doing recently.  

But all of this is by way of giving you a little context for the challenge facing the two videos. Each explores the man, his importance and creative drive, but with two very different approaches. 

First up is a video I found on the site of Dwell Magazine.  

Design Icon: Michael Graves for Dwell | by Gary Nadeau from gary nadeau on Vimeo.

I like how this video is more impressionistic than informational. It explores the quiet beauty of his home and furnishings as a metaphor for Graves’ artistic and creative impulse. You can feel the influence of Italy and Europe as the camera meanders through its rooms and garden. The video is like a visual poem, enveloping you in an almost meditative quality. While his comments suggest his thoughts and themes, the overall effect is more of a moment shared, an ambience savored. Everywhere you feel Graves’ touch and sensibility and the images are visually engaging. 

Time Magazine called the Humana Building one of the 10 best buildings of the decade
From the PBS documentary

The second video is Architect Michael Graves: A Grand Tour 

 The half hour video was produced by PBS station WTTW and embraces a typical present-day documentary approach. I should mention it takes a little while for the piece to focus on Graves, but when it does I found it very informative. It also tells you how his work developed over time and the influences on his approach to design. 

St. Coletta School for children with cognitive and physical disabilities

But, overall, I found it more like a video history lesson with the visuals playing a secondary role. The content delivered via the narration and interviews drove the piece, and it was much less poetic. So you feel more detached from the person and what he was about.  Perhaps more intellectually satisfying, but much less emotionally involving.  And therein lies the key difference between the two approaches.  

And while I personally prefer the more poetic, visual approach, what I did put together from watching the two programs is that, along with huge talent and skill, Michael Graves also has a healthy dose of grit and determination.  His strength of character and ability to refocus his creative energy inspires me. And his story reminds me once again of what you can accomplish, once you put your mind to it.

Exploding Vision

D. Bailes

Last time I was in New York I visited the High Line.  If you haven’t been there, it’s a space transformed, now an elevated  walkway/garden/observation post, that transports you to a new vision of the city.  It’s a fully realized shift in view as it sets you apart from the every day urban street experience.  People visit it from all over the world.  And it’s quiet presence has served as a catalyst for any number of architectural innovations.  

HL23 Website
D. Bailes

Take, for example, HL23 by Neil Denari.  Here’s how he puts it:  “We wanted to make new architecture that honors the old in certain ways, but that stands as an elevated world, integrated with the High Line in a new way.”  Here’s what he’s talking about:

Renderings from HL23 Website
Michael Falco for NYT

Limited to a small footprint, HL23 grows wide as it grows tall.  And it shows us how to use space differently, covering the steel framing with glass front and back, bowing and curving out. The NYT calls it “sleek and muscular as an Italian sports car.”  I can only imagine how captivating your vision of New York would be if you were fortunate to observe the city from within its calmly elegant spaces.  


Michael Falco for NYT

And yes, HL23 was not designed to quietly blend into the neighborhood. Rather, it calls out for our attention.  And it does play well off the ever-changing  High Line.  I think it’s a great example of how the High Line serves as a catalyst for a bolder vision.  
If you want more, John Hill blogs about architecture on his Archidose site and has some great photos showing the High Line and it’s surrounds.  His site is a rich experience and you might want to spend some time exploring his take on architecture and design.

The New New Yorker

I admit it up front, I haven’t been paying attention.  So if this is not news to you, then you can skip the rest.  But today I spent some time on the New Yorker website.  And I found a lot of stuff that was new, or I should say new to me.  And I’d like to tell you about it, just in case I’m not the last person in the world to discover the wheel, or fire or whatever.

So, here goes.  Yes, of course there are those indepth well- written pieces that so typify the New Yorker of old.  But there are also wonderful short bits, lots of video and audio slide shows.  They even animate one of their cartoons, although not sure that works so well.  But there’s plenty to explore.  And I’m talking about the side show stuff.  The main attractions remain.  For example:

A bit they call fingerpainting which are city scenes created by Jorge Colombo.  Click on one and you watch, in process, as he “draws” using Brushes, an iphone app.  That’s a finished piece on the left.

And there’s a jigsaw puzzle of a New Yorker cover, with three layers of difficulty for the visual wizards out there.  A built-in timer lets you play against the clock. 

But what has me really buzzed is that all the charming video pieces that I used to write about that were abandoned by the NYT seem to have found a welcome home at TNY.  Cool.  
So here are some pieces to check out:

Peter Schjeldahl writes a blog about art.  For example, his piece “Bye Bye Kitty” on new Japanese art at the Japan Society has haunting, strange images.  I also like listening to his voice, it has a pleasing intimacy, a lot of humanity in his descriptions.

“Portraiture Now”  A fascinating audio slideshow about modern portraits by TNY photographers, Steve Pyke and Martin Schoeller, who made them.  The work was on display at the National Portrait Gallery in DC.  Their bold work is brought to life by their insightful comments.  Very nice piece.

“Burning Bright”  A beautiful visual collage about Asian people who live with Tigers. Video without words.  Just natural sound, music and footage from a new documentary in process by George Butler.  He did Pumping Iron and lots of other work.

“Social Studies”  A funny and engaging profile of a young man running for NY City Council.  What makes it work is he’s still in High School and talks about the juggle of campaigning while trying to keep his grades up.  Plus he’s so earnest but also self-aware, and the piece just makes you think about how all those political pros so cynically package themselves.  

So there you have some things to savor.  I love the variety, how eclectic it is.  I love the wry humor that wafts around the edges of some of their stuff.  Plus the varied collection of visual delights.  Intelligently conceived and skillfully executed.  Thank you TNY.

Page 1 of 2