Image by Marcie Vargas
I see lots of things that no one else does. Some of them are even really there.
I get a lot of my ideas by looking at things and wondering “what isn’t it,” or “what didn’t I see?” For instance, the other day I was out at a friend’s studio and noticed a bunch of birds hanging out on a telephone wire, the way they tend to do… And I thought “hmmm… if you could train those birds to sit where you pointed, you could make them be an abacus.”
I really like the idea of an abacus of trained birds. Okay, sure, it isn’t very practical, but given that people have been able to train birds to do things like carry messages, I’m sure it would be possible if you really wanted an avian abacus. And who knows, maybe you could even utilize their innate flocking and navigational skills to get them to do much more complex math than people usually attempt on an abacus. Maybe it’s a whole new way to approach bio-computing. Or not.
Then I was looking at the big sign in in my friend’s yard, which says “antiques” in huge letters and “pottery” in much smaller letters. Because she’s a potter and runs her parents old antiques store, which also happens to have some of her work in it. And it occurred to me, because of the birds, that if she were to line up a series of her pots in uneven heights along the top of the sign it would be more interesting. And maybe people would stop in more. Well, I would anyway. And of course it would be easy enough to use pots that had been ruined in the firing, since there always seem to be a few that go wrong. So it wouldn’t require any sacrifice, really, other than climbing up there. That’s a more practical idea that came from the birds. If it were me, I’d probably cover the entire sign post in pots like a bottle tree.
And of course, when I was a kid, I used to think birds on a wire looked kind of like musical notes and wouldn’t it be cool if you could train them to arrange themselves to write out the notes they sing when they’re chirping. Maybe not so practical again.
But then, it might be cool to do an ironwork fence that spelled out the notes of a common bird song by arranging little metal birds on the rails of the fence. Back to somewhat practical. Imagine a fence that scores the ten most common birdsongs of your region, all with notes in the shape of the bird whose song it is. Nice.
Niels Bohr once said, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”
So I’ve gotten in the habit of reversing, inverting, subverting, or combining random statements to see if there’s a great truth hiding there that maybe no one has noticed yet- I intentionally try to misread any clichés I run across. How can I hear it wrong but better? How can I creatively misinterpret things? How can I see the things that aren’t there? And then, once you’re clearly out of step with what’s in front of you, it helps to focus and see where that mistake can lead you. It’s a fun game, even when you don’t bring anything great home from it (it also makes it much easier to tolerate people who speak in clichés).
My friend Daniel Edlen provided a great example of finding new meaning by inverting a cliché when he Twittered “Leadership means preaching what you practice.” I like that a lot better than the original phrase… it’s more interesting than saying “lead by example,” and so it’s more likely to be heard. More likely to stick.
One more example of paying attention to good mistakes: I accidentally typed “playwood” once when I meant to write plywood. But playwood is so much better. It describes the material and it’s uses far more accurately, to my mind. Because with a little plywood you can make just about anything, quickly, cheaply etc. I’ve been calling it playwood ever since.
You and Your Mistakes
Have you ever made a mistake – of thinking, perception or action – that turned out to be really creative?
Do you deliberately cultivate mistakes, misreadings or mis-hearings in your work? How?
What are some examples of things you heard wrong that actually worked better that way?
Do you ever find that mistakes you make on a creative project end up taking the work in new directions or enhancing the finished work?
John T. Unger is an artist, designer, entrepreneur and impossibility remediation specialist. He pioneered catablogging at johntunger.com and is also lead author and developer at TypePadHacks.org. Follow John on Twitter.