What to do when it’s too late to go walking in the woods, get burrs stuck on your pants, and invent Velcro all over again
(Published in Communication Arts Magazine 2008)
The only way to cure my hiccups is to offer me 20 bucks to hiccup again. Then I can’t do it. Performance anxiety. I teach a workshop called “How to make Mistakes on Purpose.” It has to do with how not trying works better than trying.
I have a fear of the blank page. A fear of the pressure to be “creative” on demand. Starting with a “mistake” saves me from starting out with a nothing. I can ask, “What could this be?” instead of , “Oh no! What am I going to do? I’m a fraud! I can’t even draw! Who am I trying to fool?”
It’s a psychological thing.
Instead of focusing on a problem to solve it, do something careless, pointless, opposite, random. Something that has nothing to do with what you’re doing or wanting.
What we do in the Workshop is top secret. I ask everyone who has done it (over one thousand by this time) to swear “omertà”, the Mafia code of silence. I have taught it at the best design schools, like RISD, SVA, Parsons, ArtCenter, MICA, and many others. I have taught it at Starbucks and in Stockholm, London, and even Des Moines.
I have taught it to 200 people at the AIGA 2007 “Next” Conference in Denver and to two very bourgeois Belgian ladies, in my New York loft. It’s definitely not just for designers! Anybody can do it. I have some impressive testimonials and details on my site, rosenworld.com, if you are interested. But not too many. Because I refuse to explain what happens in that room.
The workshop is about surprise, so it must be one. Ideally, those who take part know absolutely nothing about it, and just show up in a room with no expectations.
I’m certainly not the first to believe in mistakes. The Situationists, Fluxus, Jean Arp, Jackson Pollock, Freud, and countless others. But because it’s so hard to “fool” oneself, to get away from all that routine problem-solving, I built a workshop around mistakes, to help people make them on purpose. Because I needed it myself.
We all watch YouTube and drink red wine and cappuccini and join facebook and grow basil and download Amy Winehouse. We listen to NPR and watch HBO on TV or play DVDs. We’ve cut down on the BLTs. We’re feeling guilty about SUVs. They’re just not PC! We join AIGA and subscribe to CA and live in the USA.
We have a PC! Or a MAC! We have Google and Illustrator and Photoshop and In Design and AfterEffects and GarageBand and Flash. We’re skilled, too! We know how to do things! We can make things look good!
“What’s wrong with that?” you say.
Everything. Because when you get good at something, you repeat it. As a designer, you can keep your promises to your clients, because you know what things will look like before you make them. After all, it’s satisfying to know the result will be right, be professional. Unfortunately, just because we’ve shared so many of these universal tastes and experiences, it will also be very boring. No surprises.
If I’m not surprising myself, no wonder I’m boring YOU!
We are all a product of our times. After all, Michaelangelo and Da Vinci shared the same technology, and enjoyed the culture of their time. Well, I am here to tell you that computer programs are not only more powerful than a pencil or a chisel, they are profoundly, fatally different, in this: a chisel can slip, and a pencil is only as skilled as the person holding it.
It is said that when the Pope asked Michelangelo for proof of his talent, the artist responded by drawing a perfect circle.
Computers can do things I can’t. Like draw a perfect circle, for example. I have a machine do it for me. It is easy to operate this machine.
-Computers don’t make mistakes. Given the same commands these machines yield identical results, no matter who presses the button. Because of them, things not only look alike and sound alike, they are alike. Why? Because your computer is never going to say, out of left field, the clear blue sky, and for no reason at all, “Cashew!” or “Olympia Dukakis!” or “Bolivia!”
Or “Trask, Radio! Trask, Radio!”
Huh? What am I talking about?
In the film “Working Girl” (directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Kevin Wade) Melanie Griffith plays Tess, a low level Staten Island Secretary. Her boss is Katherine, a bigshot bitch played by Sigourney Weaver. Tess sees an item on corporate giant Trask in Forbes, and then two completely unrelated items in “Suzy”, the gossip column in the New York Post: Trask’s daughter’s photo, and an item on Bobby Stein, the radio talk show guy.
“So I started to think, “Trask, radio…Trask, radio.”
and the result is the brilliant business deal around which the movie revolves. Tess wasn’t trying. Reading gossip columns is fun. It’s easy and lazy! Here we see a perfect example of the way our minds work best, if we let them play. She didn’t sit down and “think” up a great business strategy. She was doing what she enjoyed, and had the light-bulb-on-head moment we all long for.
When Tess’ boss Katherine claims she came up with the big idea, she’s challenged by Trask .
“The impulse. What led you to put the two together?”
She responds, “Well, you know, I would have to check my files. I can’t recall exactly the, um…”
Trask then says to Katherine,
“Miss Parker, if I were you…I’d go to your office and take a long last look around…”
Interviewed in 2007 by Malcolm Gladwell, brilliant author of “Blink”, at “The New Yorker Festival”, Dr. Safi Bahcall of Synta Pharmaceuticals says that in 2005, the six largest Pharmaceutical Companies spent a total of 20 billion dollars on research and development. The number of FDA approved drugs resulting from all this? 0. In his opinion this is the outcome of Big Pharma’s habit of stifling real innovation by not allowing for mistakes to happen. These huge companies are so well organized, there is no place for the serendipity that led to aspirin, and thousands of other helpful drugs, at a time when the unintentional was still possible. Everyone gas a job to do. They are looking for certain results. I guess they find them. What a snore!
No, I’m not suggesting we unlearn how to play the piano, speak French, tie a slip knot, make risotto, or drive. Nor do I think we should stop using computers, or reject all those fantastic programs. I’m just saying this: It’s not just a matter of “accepting” or “learning from” our mistakes. We all know that mistakes can be good, and that many things were invented that way: Velcro and Post-it Notes and Saccharine and Viagra. The sandwich, Radar, and Silly Putty. Moveable type, Ivory Soap, Penicillin, and most important, Pringles.
Cool, right? That’s why I don’t want to just accept my mistakes. I want to make mistakes ON PURPOSE. I want to stop trying to be good at things and “come up with” good ideas and be “creative.” I don’t want to “think ” of solutions to problems that probably aren’t important anyway. There’s enough stuff in the world, but that’s another essay.
No! I don’t want to try to “think outside the box.” I hate that expression, except when I yell at my cats when they think outside the box. I want to trip OVER the box. The box that I put there ON PURPOSE to trip over, but then I forgot I put there, so I really did trip over it. It has to be real. I need to fool myself.
It can be a dot, a blob, an object, a word. The important thing is that the “mistake” is not carefully chosen. It must be found, and not created with the intention to use it in any particular way. I taught at The School of Visual Arts on and off for 28 years. I often gave an assignment where I collected random things, and put them in a paper bag. Things like a broken balloon, a Q Tip, a corn flake, a birthday cake candle, a nail. The last bit of soap, a rubber band, a battery, a button, a raisin, a bit of newspaper. I asked the students to grab an item from the bag, blindly. I then asked them to write down one thing that the item suggested to them, where they could move forward. In my workshop, the magic words are again, “What could this be?” not “What should I design?” For instance, the Q-Tip could be a new kind of barbell. Obviously. But I’m sneaky! I switched these ideas around, so that the corn flake could become a barbell. The wrong point of departure creates an epiphany.
It’s true these ideas may not often “succeed.” They may have no practical application whatsoever! But… so what? I feel strongly that many schools focus too much on careers, anyway. Focus. School is a place to experiment, right? You have plenty of time to feel trapped and stifled at 41, but at 21 it’s a crime. It’s good to keep in mind that “Web Design” didn’t exist as a major when I was at school, but I know a lot of successful web designers. What is the point in being so vocation-oriented, when the vocations haven’t yet been invented? All the best musicians went to art school. The Beatles, The Talking Heads. Among my accomplished friends, it turns out that Comparative Literature students make great architects, and the best illustrators dropped out of law school.
I made a book without a computer. Naturally, it’s called “How to Make Mistakes on Purpose.” I co-wrote and designed it with Norman Hathaway.
Everything we did went in the book, no matter how much I hated Norman’s drawings, or he hated mine. All of it went in. Every ugly collage. No editing allowed. It’s not about trying to be bad, like using your left hand if you’re a rightie. It’s putting oneself in an unusual situation where chaos and accidents happen, things go wrong, and your control freak is AWOL. Our watchwords were FAST and SLOPPY.
In this book we tell some stories. Like the time I left all of my worldly possessions in a van on the way to the airport to go live in France, and then went out for a coffee like an idiot (I’m a native New Yorker!) and of course it was all stolen. I had my ticket, though, so I flew to Europe without even a toothbrush, and how that affected everything else.
I don’t advocate trying to get robbed, but I’m glad that it happened. Feeling lightheaded, I sat down in First Class and drank free champagne, even though I had an Economy ticket. When I got there I bought strange vintage clothes I would never ordinarily wear which led to an unwise, if interesting romance. Love is often a fun mistake.
We describe a magician doing a trick. The audience is intently focused on his sleight of hand. A card is produced from … where? The place where we weren’t looking. Misdirection. If we could focus on the real action, the magic would disappear.
In another story, a woman goes to a party. She is single, and at once notices an attractive man standing by the bar. She would like to get to know him. But wait. Why is this lovely woman single, anyway? Because she’s never had good luck with men! She’s always attracted to good-looking guys who turn out to be selfish, narcissistic creeps. Fortunately, she’s just seen the “The Opposite” episode of “Seinfeld” in which George succeeds wildly by doing the exact opposite of what he usually does.
A bit from that episode:
Jerry : Well here’s your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.
George then goes right up to a pretty blonde, introducing himself this way: “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.”
It works! Back to our single lady. She sees a rather ordinary looking man, standing just to the left of the handsome guy. She hadn’t noticed him before. She goes up to the man and says “Hello.” He’s pleasantly surprised. This never happens to him! They chat. They flirt. He’s witty, charming and a good listener.
He turns out to be Mister Right.
I had to draw a canary for my children’s book: “And to Name but Just a Few … Red, Yellow, Green, Blue”. It was 2007, so like everyone else in the world I went to Google Images and pressed a button and out popped one thousand canaries. I could easily draw one. After all, I am a professional illustrator! I’m pretty good! But I didn’t. I took a piece of black paper on my desk, randomly. And I stuck an eyeball and a beak on it and some legs and colored it yellow, and put the word CANARY in six hundred point Akzidenz Grotesk Bold next to it, and you’d better believe it’s a god damn canary.!
It didn’t look like the canary I would have drawn. It didn’t look like any canary you ever saw, but it was clearly recognizable. I was surprised. It had this power. The power of the wrong thing.
When I was supposed to do the “Mistakes” workshop on the radio (!) the producer asked me how my theory would work for non-visual problem-solvers. I said, “Imagine you’re a radio interviewer. You could ask somebody, “How long have you done this?” or “Who are you dating?” or, most dreadful of all, “Where do you get your ideas?”
But maybe instead, you could try opening a random page in a book. I picked up a novel on my desk as I said this, and I’m doing this again right now as I write this essay. The top right hand page starts with this: “looking straight at the blackboard, acutely aware of those sitting…”.
So, suppose you asked the person “Can you learn this in school?”
or “Are you self-conscious or confident?”
or “Do you look directly at the audience?”
Perhaps they are questions you might not otherwise have asked.
So try going for the first thing you grab, not the best thing. The other thing. In other words: “If you can’t be near the girl you love, then love the girl you’re near.”* Not the right question or T- shirt or material or color or software program or lipstick or ingredient or paragraph. Read the book you’d never read but it’s lying there. Start thinking quantity, not quality. Think anything but quality.
If you try to be good, it will probably be bad. If you stop trying at all, it might be good. Or possibly dreadful. But if you are surprised, I will be, and that’s very good!
* E.Y. Harburg song title