Where Science Meets Muse

Posts Tagged ‘observation’

What do You See? – Are You Doing These Two Things to Improve Your Observational Skills?

Posted by Plish on October 6, 2015

We all know what one swinging pendulum looks like.  But what do multiple swinging pendulums (pendula 😉 ) look like?

I love the pendulum wave because it highlights two key aspects to improving observational skills (and observation is essential to design and innovation!).

  1. Pay attention to the angle of observation (i.e. perspective) – Are you seeing something in the only way possible?  Can you observe the phenomenon from other directions?  Is it the best angle?  From a particular angle, what’s moving and what’s standing still? What’s surrounding what you’re looking at? What’s in the foreground and background?
  2. Be cognizant of how much time you spend looking at something – Are you spending enough time observing something?  Do you feel confident that you’ve seen all there is to see in the time taken? Can you learn something by looking at it less? (Think a snapshot vs. a video)

If you didn’t spend enough time looking at the swinging balls, you could reach inaccurate conclusions as to what was happening.  At one moment they are swinging in a snake like motion.  At another, it looks random.  Look at it from a different direction and totally different conclusions might be reached.

I remember when I was learning to fly a glider, it became second nature to pay attention to other aircraft.  The above two points were especially important in determining if something was on a collision course.  Seeing aircraft moving on the horizon wasn’t  alarming.  It was seeing them NOT moving – and then getting bigger that signaled impending danger.

The angle of view, and the length of time I spent observing, were important to properly assessing the situation.  Look for too short of a time and the speck in the sky isn’t recognized as another aircraft.  Change the direction of the plane I was flying and now the approaching object’s shape and trajectory become more apparent.

This isn’t just about ‘hard’ objects, you can look in a ‘soft’ manner as well.  Is the scowl on the person’s face because of an emotion (short time frame) or a mood (longer time frame)?

Next time you’re looking at something, spend some time interiorizing these two questions.  Reflect on how you’re looking at something, and for how long. Try to look at things from different perspectives.  If everyone is looking at something from the top, try to see it from the bottom.  If people only glance at something, sit down and really look at it for minutes at a time.

If nothing else, you might be taken by the beauty of the world that surrounds us, and you might see something for the first time!


Posted in Best Practices, Design, innovation, Innovation Tools, Service Design, The Senses | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Making Lightning – The Creative Spark in All of Us

Posted by Plish on August 7, 2015

The sky went from sunset blue to thick blackness that the windshield wipers swiped at with futility.  The rain pounded the the car and an uneasy, queasy feeling filled the air as a tornado warning was issued.

I drove the rest of the way home and parked.  To the west the worst was already breaking and salmon patches of sunset backlit clouds.   To the north the blackness churned and lightning crackled from cloud to cloud as the thunder rumbled without pause.

(Mouse over and Click the play arrow and continue reading on the other side)



It’s in you!

That same power.

You’ve experienced those shocks that startle when you touch a doorknob on a dry day.

This is bigger and can change the world.

Lightning bridges gaps – tremendous expanses of space.  It’s possible because of the difference in charge, a difference in potential.   Lightning finds its way.

But you need to provide the stuff for creativity to happen.

Observe, read, smell, taste, listen, touch, dream!  Understand the challenges you want to solve and then look at them from a different perspective, and then another, and then another!

Allow those differing perspectives to mix  together and the clouds will rumble, the sky will flash, creativity will happen.

It’s in you.



Posted in Authenticity, brainstorming, Creative Environments, Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, culture of innovation, Design, idea generation, imagination, innovation, Nature of Creativity, observation, problem solving, The Human Person, Workplace Creativity, ZenStorming | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Are You Doing This Simple Thing to Improve Your Creative Abilities?

Posted by Plish on May 6, 2015

To become a better writer – READ

To become a better cook – EAT

To become a better musician – LISTEN

In short, to become a better designer/maker/artist/engineer – OBSERVE

I recently started an Instagram page for ZenStorming.  It’s filled with tips for idea generation and creative inspiration, and it’s especially geared towards people that don’t always have someone around to bounce ideas off of.  (If you aren’t on Instagram, the posts are cross-posted to my ZenStorming Facebook page.)

Since Instagram is amazingly well suited to provide quick nuggets of information, I started a weekly series for helping people improve their observational skills.  It’s based on the premise that if you are primed with a certain concept before going on a walk or drive, your eyes will be opened to new things just because of the priming.

You don’t have to see new things, to see things new!

My first observation challenge was to look for right angles.

I took my own challenge, and that day while driving to a client, I was amazed at what I saw.  I saw patterns that I never noticed before, even though I had passed the same areas innumerable times. It also amazed me how right angles are largely the work of humans.  We build a world of right angles around us. Up, down, left, right.

We create an orthogonal world.

Which is kind of interesting given that so much of nature is anything but in 90 degree intersections.  But it’s what works.

Would love to get your thoughts on this observation challenge (as well as suggestions for a catchy hashtag!)

And remember,

You don’t have to see new things, to see things new!

If you see things in a new way, you can create new things!

Posted in Arts, Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, Maker, observation, problem solving | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Innovation (and Living!) Starts with Seeing

Posted by Plish on November 3, 2012

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

At the end of August I was watching a bumble bee go from flower to flower.

“Hmmm…” I said out loud.  I went inside and grabbed a camera.  You see, these bees didn’t go inside the flower.  They landed on the outside of the flower, did something with their mouths, went off to the next flower, and did the same thing.

Today I mentioned this to a neighbor who used to raise honey bees.

She had no idea what they were doing. She had never seen, nor heard of that happening before.

Now, I grew up around hostas and bumble bees my entire life, and I’d be willing to bet  that this particular species of bumble bee is not only doing this behavior in my yard, this year.  Yet, it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen this.

I have been looking at flowers and bees all my life! But, what had I seen? What do I see?

How much do we really see when we look at things?

If we’re not seeing, how can we ever know – really know?  What opportunities for enrichment have we missed?

Spend some time consciously seeing.  Not only will innovation opportunities become apparent, your life will become richer.


Posted in Authenticity, creativity, Design, innovation, nature, The Human Person, The Senses | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Contemplative Way of Design

Posted by Plish on June 4, 2011

“(Emerson wrote,)’We animate what we can, and only see what we animate.’ Contemplative beholding of art – indeed of anything – can lead to the animation of whatever is before us. New eyes, “the right eyes,” suddenly open, waking us up, and consequently awakening everything around us. ” – Physicist Arthur Zajonc in Psychology Today

Don’t just observe a situation – contemplate it.



Widen the gaze

See the relationships


Understand (With more than the mind)


Posted in Authenticity, creativity, Design, Experience, Nature of Creativity, problem solving, Spirituality, The Human Person, The Senses | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Intuitive Guiding of Iterative Design Research to Expedite Product Development

Posted by Plish on May 14, 2010

Wednesday,  at the final day of the Design Research Conference,  a panel discussion was held on the topic of design research and its role.  One panelist, Don Norman, was particularly animated about the need for design research to better serve industry by providing the results of the research in an expedited manner.  

While listening to Norman I found myself in total agreement with his assessments.  I also resisted the urge to jump up, wave my arms and say, “We’ve already done it!!!!”

What is ‘it’?

‘It’ is: Expediting design research to help industry develop products faster.   This technique may or may not work with non-product design but thinking about it, I’m not sure there’s a reason why it shouldn’t. 

So what is this process?  Here’s a diagram of the comparison between how design research is done in traditional programs and in expedited programs.

Click for Full Size

The typical Research and Development (R&D) process holds science in the highest esteem.   It consists of a research phase, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Authenticity, Best Practices, Creative Environments, culture of innovation, Design, design thinking, innovation, Innovation Tools, Market Assessment, problem solving, Research, Tactics, The Human Person, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Refocusing Our Powers of Observation – Innovation starts with an “Eye”

Posted by Plish on April 18, 2010


Too often we think of innovation as a set of rules, which, if followed, will yield some tidy product or service.  The reality is that innovations are more than a process- they’re the breech offspring of astute observation, brought into the world on the verge of being strangled by dulled, but aggressive perceptions and preconceptions.

An old, entrepreneur boss of mine boasted of being able to visit manufacturing plants and “steal with his eyes.”  He was the epitome of what  Swiss theologian, Johann Kaspar Lavater, described when he opined:“He alone is an acute observer, who can observe minutely without being observed.” 

My boss’s goal was not to copy something directly but to mentally catalogue what he saw – knowing that when the situation was right, he would subconsciously or even consciously, use what he saw as a springboard to something better.

We see, smell, touch, taste, and hear constantly but we are trained to ignore most of it as it gets in the way of ‘being productive.’  Yet, intense observational skills run in the bloodlines of innovators beginning with the very first humans.  

Everyone looked at the heavens. Yet, before even the dawn of the telescope, only a few observed that there were ‘wanderers’ among the stars: the planets.

 Everyone saw birds flying, but the Wright brothers observed and gave birth to the airplane.

As Yogi Berra was purported to have said: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Watching is more than light hitting our retinas.  It is seeing with the knowledge and predisposition that there is something wonderfully unique about what we are witnessing at this point in time.  It is cataloguing occurring at the locus  of the senses during an observational moment.

I remember many years ago I was tasked with designing a new locking mechanism for interventional drainage catheters.  (These are minimally invasive catheters that are used to drain cysts in the liver, or kidneys.  The locking mechanism keeps the catheter from coming out of the body during the treatment time.)  The current locking mechanisms all had mechanical keys or switches that would lock the catheter in place.

As I was watching a procedure I noticed Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, cognitive studies, Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, culture of innovation, Design, imagination, innovation, Innovation Tools, nature, Nature of Creativity, problem solving, Research, The Human Person, The Senses, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Want an Example of an Elegant Idea? Watch The Soaps

Posted by Plish on July 3, 2009

soap1 michaelplishka 2009 

When a design has it, it’s clear. 

There’s something special and wondrous about a solution that has it. 

It’s what we strive to achieve when problem solving.

It’s the hallmark of all great innovations…

It’s Elegance.

How does one define elegance? 

Matthew May, in his book, “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing” lists four attributes of elegance.

1. Symmetry – It allows us to fill in gaps, to find and experience order, it provides a type of comfort as we naturally seek and prefer it.

2. Subtraction – Less is more.

3. Seduction – An alluring power to attract attention and mobilize the imagination.

4. Sustainability – A system or solution in which symmetry, seduction and subtraction are applied repeatably with success.  It also means that the solution itself has staying power. 

In general I like these definitions, so I began to look for an example of an elegant something that has these four traits, and I found it.

Soap Operas.

 Yes, you read correctly.  Soap Operas are elegant in their implementation and now, I see them as a thing of beauty.

So, why are soap operas elegant and what can we learn from them?  Let’s look at the attributes.

Symmetry – Since humans naturally look for, and prefer symmetry, in soap operas we have a tendency to look for balance (this also works hand-in-hand with seduction as we’ll see in a moment).  The writers of soap operas are brilliant in balancing justice/injustice, good/evil, what should be/what is, youth/elderly, life/death, what we don’t experience in life/what we do experience.

Subtraction – Soaps are masterful at using less to achieve more. Dialogues are short and to the point.    During the course of a show, the overwhelming majority of scenes last less than minute before moving to a new scene.  Interestingly, the majority of scenes contain two people and when a third appears often one of the other characters leaves.  It’s also not unusual for characters to get killed off or eliminated in some way from certain chunks of a show or season. It’s also not unusual for one actor to play multiple parts.

Seduction – Not even counting the obvious seduction from the sexual side, the tantalizing views of symmetry glimpsed through moments of asymmetry seduce our imaginations and make us speculate about how something will be resolved. Scenes cut out at just the right time so that we need to keep watching to find the resolution- we crave and want the symmetrical solution- we want justice for the characters- we want to be right in our predictions of where the show will take us.

Sustainability – The success of soap operas is staggering; in fact, if the soap opera isn’t an example of sustainability, I’m not sure what is.

Okay, so soaps are elegant, what does that mean? 

It means that elegant innovations/solutions don’t need more procedures or more features; they simply need to capture the imagination,  and appeal to human nature’s sense of symmetry, simplicity and beauty. 

Before any of this can be accomplished, however, we need to observe the world within and without.  It is in observation that the seeds of elegant solutions are born.

Posted in Books, creativity, Design, Disruptive Innovation, imagination, innovation, Nature of Creativity, problem solving, Sustainable Technology, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The First Step to Creative Innovation – Learning to Observe

Posted by Plish on June 5, 2009

This Picture is Your Assignment

This Picture is Your Assignment

When we’re awake, our eyes are taking everything in – everything!  However, we basically ignore the majority of the incoming data so that we can focus and accomplish the tasks at hand. 

Yes, we are ignoring most of what we see in the world.

This is an issue because the first step to solving a problem is seeing, or more precisely, observing a situation in its fullness.   So, if we’re not observing, we’re depriving ourselves of the ‘stuff’ that enables us to come up with creative and innovative  solutions. 

So how do we improve our abilities to observe?

Seeing turns into observing when there is some type of internalized reflection about what we’re looking at.  When we start asking Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?, while experiencing something with our eyes, we leave the world of passive seers and join the ranks of active observers.

It’s in observing that we see things more profoundly. 

It is in observing that we understand the context of what we see. 

It is the process of sifting through and connecting disparate observations that leads to creative problem solving and innovation.

So, here’s the lesson.  Pick a picture to look at.  I’ve attached one for your convenience.  Now, simply follow the rules below:

  • Try to approach everything you see with a “Wow!”  Be in awe of it, expect to be surprised by it.  Then…
  • Look at it. Look at all aspects of it.  Start from the foreground and move in to the background taking note of what you see.  Don’t draw conclusions yet, just take it all in.  Be sure to document what you see; these are the bones you will build upon.
  • Once you’ve spent some time doing that, start asking questions about what you’ve documented.  Journalists approach stories by asking Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?   Remember, there’s a story in what you’re looking at and by asking these questions you’re putting flesh on the bones.
  • Finally, pull together your answers to your questions and start drawing conclusions; start understanding the story behind what you see.  You’re giving the enfleshed bones life!! Also, don’t ignore your gut feelings; use them and recognize their connections to what you’re observing.  If you’re feeling something, odds are others will too.   Great solutions often have an emotional component to them; it’s why people fall in love with things like iPods.

Don’t be afraid to repeat the exercise looking at the art from different perspectives –  perhaps from the perspective of an older person, a person of the opposite sex, or a person from another culture.   When you’ve done this exercise a couple of times, you’ll soon realize that even though your eyes haven’t changed, you’re now seeing the world in a whole new way.

Posted in cognitive studies, creativity, Design, idea generation, imagination, innovation, problem solving, Stories, The Senses, Writing | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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