I’m a good looker. I don’t mean I’d win a beauty contest, just that LOOKING is part of my creative toolbox as a designer, and I’m good at it. I’m in the habit of using my eyes in an enquiring way that helps me make the creative connections and leaps that are needed for new ideas to happen.
I believe it’s a skill that can be learned and practised, and even if you’re not a designer, you can make it part of your toolbox too. Looking more – looking better – transforms amiliar objects and buildings and everyday sights into opportunities for discovery, insight and enjoyment.
I’ve been thinking about how I look at the world, and have come up with 9 things I do that can help turn everyday sights into treasures. Try them out yourself!
Tip #1 : SLOW DOWN
If you want to notice more things, you need to slow down. At speed our eyes help us not bump into things or get into danger, but that’s about it. Non-essential detail is not on hurried eyes’ agenda. But when you move more slowly, or when you keep still, your eyes will have time to notice a lot more.
TRY THIS: Walk instead of driving. Look up, down, all around, instead of at your phone. Take a breath, and look at what you see. There’s always more than you realised.
Tip #2 : HUNT FOR SHADOWS
Look at how shadow reveals and conceals. The way light falls on a building or an object can make you see it completely differently. Sometimes a shadow accentuates a detail you’d never noticed, sometimes the light flattens surfaces so it’s all about the shapes of the shadows.
TRY THIS: Light changes constantly, so things look different throughout the day. Visit the same place at three times in a day and notice what’s different.
Tip #3 : COLLECT WITH YOUR EYES
Pick something to notice. When you decide to notice something particular – a shape or colour, an architectural feature or leaf structure, a certain font or embellishment – you’ll start seeing it everywhere. It’s amazing! Just decide what to notice, ‘tune’ your eyes to something specific, and you’ll be astonished by how much you see.
TRY THIS: Instagram is a great place for collecting with your eyes. I use the Collections feature to save images whenever I spot the specific thing I’m collecting – like the rounds doors and windows in the pic above. Then, when I visit that collection, it’s wonderful to see it all together.
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.”– Henry Thoreau
Tip #4 : CLOSE YOUR EYES
Add information from your other senses. Sometimes we are so used to looking at something, we hardly see it any more. Try feeling it instead, closing your eyes, listening to sounds, considering words that come to mind, naming the mood you’re feeling, the feeling you get – and you’ll see more when you open your eyes. I closed my eyes and felt one of these grasses, thinking the word ‘fluffy’ , and when I looked again, I realised the grasses and clouds shared the same quality. Using more of your senses and feelings will help you access new ideas about something.
TRY THIS: Look at something you’re very familiar with, then close your eyes and list three words that come to mind. Do they reveal anything new about the familiar object?
Tip #5 : LOOK FOR ECHOES
Find the ‘conversations’ in a scene. Sometimes you notice shapes that ‘talk’ to other shapes, or colours that echo others, or how one thing reminds you of another. When I noticed that my friend’s shirt matched the floor, I wanted him to lie down on the for the photo, to accentuate the effect, but he said no..
TRY THIS: When you’re in a place with lots of people, keep an eye out for how patterns echo each other. That lady in stripey pants is standing against a palisade fence! Those guys at the pizza restaurant are wearing plaid shirts while sitting at a chequered tablecloth!
“Don’t look at things – look in between things.”– John Baldessari
Tip #6 : GET REFLECTIVE
Use reflections to give your eye a different angle on things. Seek them out, changing your focal distance to see what glass windows and dividers are telling you. In this pic, I was tickled by the reflection of clouds in the bubbled window film of a car’s rear window seemed to echo cloud shapes.
TRY THIS: The next time you’re opposite a building, focus your eyes on one of the windows. Does the reflection give you a fresh perspecive? What else can you see going on there?
Tip #7 : CHANGE PERSPECTIVE
Go closer! Get underneath! Look up! Look down! Changing your viewpoint will give you a new point of view, and will shake up your expectations of how things ought to look.
TRY THIS: Stick your head inside the shrubbery and see how that looks. Lie on your back and look upwards. Imagine how a toddler might see things. Or a pigeon.
Tip #8 : LOOK FOR INTERRUPTIONS
Take note of disruptions in regularity. The single element that’s out of sorts with the others immediately makes you notice both the pattern and the disruption. It’s kind of a visual version of ‘the exception proves the rule’, or something like that. In this photo, the water bends the stripe, and the edges of the glass frames the sudden visual activity, making the stripe a lot more interesting.
TRY THIS: As you walk around, keep an eye out for fences that have breaks in them. How does that break affect the scene? What does it reveal about the fence’s pattern? What does it frame?
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”– Dorothea Lange
Tip #9 : GET HANDS-ON
Pick things up! Look for more of them! Put them in a row! Take a snap, do a sketch, make a pattern – the moment you start getting hands-on with the things you notice, you’ll see even more than you saw the first time.
TRY THIS: Collect 9 bits of something really and truly ordinary – say, pieces of gravel, or autumn leaves – and make an arrangement with them. Take a snap, then make another. Between them, your hands and eyes will show you things you didn’t know.
There it is. I hope these tips give you some insight into what designers and artists do all the time. When people talk about “being creative”, all it means is they’ve slowed down, looked, and then used what they saw to imagine what’s next.
We can all do it. Just start practising.