Inspiration from Other Spaces

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the things we teach students at VCU Brandcenter is that they need to read stuff that’s NOT about advertising or marketing, and they also have to look at things that aren’t the latest and greatest inspiring creative IN our field.

We all have to be wary of becoming experts only at the same things about which everyone in our crowd is also an expert.

I’ve noticed that many of the people I follow on Twitter also follow the same people I follow, and when someone tweets something interesting, within minutes there’s a flurry of retweets – all saying the same thing. We all know the same stuff, nearly at the same time.

Finchtown
It reminds me of when I had a pair of little zebra finches as pets. They had lots of babies, and their babies soon had babies. One of them would make a little honking sound, and then a few would honk in answer, and soon all of them would be making the same honking sound, a stochastic and iterative cacophony… and then they’d sort of get tired of it and the honking would die down until the next honking cycle. Nothing new, just the same stuff honking and honking and honking. I think it finally broke their minds… it ended in what we called The Great Finchtown Massacre.

Anyway, it’s important to look beyond all the stuff that everyone in your Charm (that’s a group of finches; I looked it up) is talking about, and find inspiration that disrupts the normal. You don’t only want to know what you know.

In addition to the advertising and creative technology things I do, I also have a strong background in media psychology and I try to keep up on the field, especially as it relates to creativity, design, media effects, and the rest of what we do.

Disruption
One thing that’s becoming clear in the psych literature is that disruption can help us be creative – that is, things that interrupt the schema we use to understand the world give us an opportunity to see things differently. It can help us find those “wow… I never thought of that before” moments that are the core of a new insight, just by introducing a different kind of thinking to our norm.

I think this is part of the magic of the TED videos – things we’d never normally think about are presented in ways that make us question our worldviews – and exercising the ol’ synapses makes it easier to make new connections.

As a quick example, here’s something that came from my dabbling in the psych world, and how I started seeing things in the ad world a little differently.

One part of this came as I was doing research in interpersonal and small-group communication. The various phases of interpersonal relationship development describe ever-increasing levels of intimacy and engagement, and there are some pretty specific do’s and don’ts in the process. If we apply the interpersonal model to the relationship we want people to have with brands, maybe we can follow some of the same techniques to developing brand engagement – especially in a world where we can target people by on their behavior (and can intuit motivation and emotion). Hold that thought for a second.

Another element that comes into play for me as we talk about engagement is George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory – that over time, we internalize the stories we hear and they become true for us – we construct reality based on these stories (and for the most part, the stories are delivered by media). And the impact of an event, like an ad, is negligible compared to the cumulative social construction of reality we live, build, and reinforce every day.

Most of what we do in advertising involves relatively short interactions with consumers and brands; a flight of ads, possibly a year-long campaign that pushes a theme and a call-to-action of some kind. But if instead we approach the campaign as developing a relationship through different phases, just like people do with each other, well, that might take longer, but as people cultivate their beliefs about the brand over time it could result in a much more loyal and stronger bond – more like the interpersonal relationships we develop with people than the traditional consumer-brand relationship.

AND if you add to this some of the great work that Gerry Zaltman and others have done on mapping of concept constructs, we discover more places and ways to talk to people and to reinforce, over time, the kinds of associations that work to deliver on consumer needs and are in synch with brand goals.

A different kind of planning and a different approach to creative, but one that can play across multiple media easily and over a longer period of time, to develop deeper relationships. A meta-platform for thinking about relationships between people and brands that supports the “big idea” and the tactical executions, and is based on the interpersonal kinds of relationships for which our species evolved.

My point here isn’t that this is necessarily a brilliant idea; although I think there’s merit, it might be hard to do pull off in the current business climate, where the client-agency relationship can sometimes be measured in months, instead of years.

Something Different
The point is that I wouldn’t have thought about it if I hadn’t been diving into something that’s NOT about advertising. For me, the magic seems to come from learning the details of things I don’t normally do, or the surprise of the unpredictable – I’ve had these sorts of minor epiphanies (epiphanettes?) while jamming with other musicians, while learning how Tiffany made the glass for his windows, going behind the scenes at a supermarket, watching “How It’s Made” on TV, learning how a particular type of surgery is done, watching construction sites…

It goes beyond being well rounded – “In addition to my 70 hour week, I also go to the gym and take the occasional vacation, keep up on all the latest ad books, and of course, there’s the dog and my charity work.”

Instead, I think we need to really go out of our ways to challenge the schema, to dig into details of things that have nothing to do with our career – the more we feed our brains, the more they can come up with the good stuff for us.

So – the call to action. Challenge yourself to do a deepish dive into something that has nothing to do with advertising every week – even if only for an hour or two. Your brain will thank you, and it may lead to something great.

And of course there’s the added benefit of being able to talk about something other than advertising with your friends and families.

(This post also appears at Talent Zoo’s excellent site)

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Being Sketchy

July 20, 2010 2 comments

Being Sketchy

I want to be sketchy.

Not in the “Eww, why is he looking at me, he’s a really sketchy guy” sense of the word, but rather in the “look at him, he sketches things a lot” sense.

That said, those who have seen my scribbling know that charcoal, pencils, oil, and crayons are not my tools of choice. People grab them from my hand to prevent damage to anyone who might accidentally see what I do with them.

For me, sketching is not about drawing, it’s more a philosophical approach to figuring out the world and what I want to do in it.

And I believe all of us should sketch, in our various media, in our thinking, in our lives. Strategists should sketch; technologists, art directors, business people, copywriters, biz dev folk, and regular people should sketch.

Here are a few reasons why.

Permission to do the impossible
In the old days of new media, before anyone “knew” what it was for and how to do stuff, because we didn’t yet know what was impossible we tried to do it anyway. And a lot of the time we succeeded. But if we’d had to guarantee an outcome, we never would have tried.

Sketching frames what you’re doing as an experiment, an exercise in seeing what’s possible, and gives you permission to fail quietly or to succeed loudly. And sometimes both.

You might not achieve what you set out to do, but find that in your attempt you came up with a new way of looking at something, or a new way of doing something – you were able to abandon the metaphor or cognitive model that trapped you into a singular approach, and dolly your internal camera back to a perspective view…

And things look and act differently from different angles, and we react to them differently. You might find the connections that make a larger whole, or find a way to connect the dots differently, to draw a new constellation from the same old stars.

To borrow Microsoft’s phraseology, sketching lets us embrace and extend what we know – by giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, we are free to try things that we don’t know how to do.

And simply doing things makes you better at what you’re doing. Musicians compose, and become better composers as a result. Knowing music theory isn’t enough – you have to actually apply it. Mark Pollard, Strategy Director at McCann Sydney, just wrote on Why Strategists Should Make Stuff: “Making stuff will keep you grounded and ensure you talk mostly with knowledge you farmed in the field – not simply theory.”

I recently wrote about the “learn, do, teach” mind-set of creative technologists who sketch with technology – “Stay up-to-date on the latest in technology, in research, in business, in design, in advertising, in human behavior. Then do something with it – build something, try out a new API, prototype an idea, make something talk to something else, come up with a new business model. Then show others how this stuff works – evangelize, be a resource, help people move beyond what they already know (and learn from them while you’re doing that). Rinse, repeat.”

The point is, the more you do, the better you get, not only at making stuff but at thinking about the world, at seeing things differently than you did before, and helping others see differently also.

Safely abandon the rules
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-founder of the school of Positive Psychology and author of a series of books on Flow (the psychology of engagement), described creativity as willfully violating the rules. Drawing outside the lines isn’t a creative act unless you understand that the traditional goal is to draw inside the lines. Picasso’s biggest creative innovations were only possible after years of painting bilaterally symmetrical people. He had to learn the rules first. Then he could break them.

Bull Buxton says in his excellent book, Sketching User Experiences, “If you’re going to break something, including a tradition, the more you understand it, the better job you can do.”

So we learn the rules… but that’s only part of the deal.

Most of us just play by the rules, and we can’t easily abandon them in our normal lives – we have client deliverables, we have people counting on us to create things that work the way they’re supposed to, the way they’re being paid for.

And it’s hard to convince clients to try something different unless they can see it. So we carefully, artfully, create beautifully realistic mockups that look finished, so we can get the point across.

And they get rejected.

Freedom to participate
When things look too good, they’re seen as completed. And for the most part, completed things can only be accepted or rejected. There’s no invitation to participate. The people we show them to have to take a position, and the position with the least risk is “No.”

Sketches, though, are loose, rough, open to interpretation. They’re McLuhanesque cool, requiring participation and involvement. There are blanks that the viewer needs to fill in.

The best execution is often the one that people have in their mind’s eye – and if you don’t give them room to imagine, they’re stuck with your vision instead. They can’t make it their own, and it’s harder for them to feel engaged. In fact, just think of how this carries over into consumer generated content – people feel engaged because they actually are engaged in the creation of something, not just nodding their heads or finding fault.

So sketching out your ideas, low resolution, rough ideas, crayon on paper, wireframe websites, back of an envelope business plan, just enough coding to make it work, a quick Arduino wire-wrap – give you room to imagine and develop your idea, and gives other people room to feel part of the process.

Fast, Flexible, Disposable, Focusing
My consulting partner, Andrew LeVasseur, describes the best attributes of prototypes and sketches as being “fast, flexible, and disposable.” They can happen quickly, because you’re not concerned too much about details or making sure everything works perfectly. You can bend them, shape them, any way you want them – they’re not fixed in stone, and certainly not fixed in time or space. You can toss them if they don’t work out, you can save the best bits and reuse them later.

And paradoxically, they can free you to focus your thinking – because you’re not going for perfection, you can just focus on the aspects you want to explore… What would it look like in green? What would happen if we gave it away for free? What would happen if it knew where you were and at what time? What would happen if we moved it from desktop to a tablet… or to a car?

In their book “Getting Started with Processing,’ Casey Reas and Ben Fry describe sketching as “a way of thinking: it’s playful and quick…. the goal is to explore many ideas in a short amount of time.” They start on paper, then code, then go back to paper, then back to code, etc. They take advantage of the speed and flexibility of a prototype, junking what doesn’t work and doing more of what does work, while they flesh out their ideas. That’s a pretty good model to follow.

Getting sketchy
It ain’t hard. But it takes doing it to do it. Got it? So – pull out that notepad that you used to write ideas in. Steal your co-worker’s dry erase marker set and find a whiteboard. Heat up the soldering iron. Remember a business idea you never gave its due. Let your mind go loose, and just start sketching. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

(note, this post also appears as a guest column in a slightly different form at Talent Zoo)

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What the Heck is a Creative Technologist?

June 22, 2010 55 comments

What the Heck is a Creative Technologist?
Mark Avnet, Creative Technologist, VCU Brandcenter
mark.avnet@convergingarts.com, @mavnet

Back in the 90s, the first time “convergence” was brought up as an important idea, I was asked as a “new media expert” to write an article on its importance – and found just about as many definitions for the term as places I looked. When I was part of a panel of psychologists defining “media psychology,” again, we found that just about everyone using the term defined it differently. Same with “engagement.” These still remain relatively loosely described constructs, words or phrases that, to quote Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “mean exactly what [we] choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

We’re at a similar point with the term “creative technology.” What exactly IS a creative technologist? What makes her different from a programmer or a flash animator? What makes him different from a copywriter, brand manager, or strategist who can use Dreamweaver? What’s the role of a creative technologist at an agency or in our industry?

I think about this a lot, and not just because I head up the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter’s graduate program and continually refine and redefine our curriculum, but also because I consider myself a creative technologist. And, believe me, I’m different from my students and graduates, and we’re all different from other people who also consider themselves to be creative technologists. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the position called “creative technologist” is defined differently at places that use the name, and the role is filled at other agencies by other titles.

My Take
Here’s my take on it. CTs understand the business of advertising, marketing, and branding, take a creative, strategic and people-centric view of how to connect people and brands, and understand the kinds of mediating technologies that can best be used to make those engaging experiences where the connection happens.

They sketch with technology, just like a visual creative can sketch with a pencil. They’re steeped in strategy, so the things they come up with make sense – it’s not about technology just for the sake of technology. The experiences they design address real needs of people and brands.

Creative technologists share a creative and inquisitive view of the world. They’re on top of technology trends, aren’t afraid of coding (just as a modern visual designer isn’t afraid of Photoshop or Illustrator), and take both strategic and tactical approaches to creativity. They also understand that we’re in a business, and we’re solving business goals by addressing people’s needs as a priority.

Learn, Do, Teach
In addition, there’s a shared creative technology mind-set that I describe as “learn, do, teach.” Stay up-to-date on the latest in technology, in research, in business, in design, in advertising, in human behavior. Then do something with it – build something, try out a new API, prototype an idea, make something talk to something else, come up with a new business model. Then show others how this stuff works – evangelize, be a resource, help people move beyond what they already know (and learn from them while you’re doing that). Rinse, repeat.

These “T-shaped” thinkers come from many different disciplines, and they’re likely to consider all media and experiences as their venue – every medium is enabled by a technology (even print and speech), and the fewer artificial barriers we put up, the better. Choose the right medium or media, and remember that something doesn’t need electricity to be interactive.

We’ve had students enter the VCU Brandcenter Creative Technology track with strong design or copywriting skills, backgrounds in communications, business, consulting… some have come right out of undergrad programs, the music business, lighting design, even one who was an established art director at a big-name agency who wanted to deepen his toolkit. As creative technologists, they add their own individual superpowers to the computational media, UXd, IA, mobility, user participation, futurology, data cultivation, branding, concepting, business, and group expertise they develop in the program.

But Where do I Put Them?
At Brandcenter’s recent industry recruiting event, many of the conversations I had were along the lines of “we know we need creative technologists – but where do they fit in MY agency?”

In agencies that have moved to a flexible team model, CTs just belong to the team, adding their varied expertise to the group.

In agencies with a more siloed approach, first, please rethink that – technology can’t live down the hall anymore; it’s part of everything that everyone in the agency does. Second – CTs fit nicely in the strategic and creative functions, and as floating resources mostly affiliated with one function and that move where needed.

Gareth Kay (GSP) and Aki Spicer (Fallon), for example, are creative technologists in their secret identity of strategists. Richard Schatzberger (BBH) is a creative technologist without a mask. Paul Seward (The Martin Agency) is a creative technologist working from a deeper technology side. Dave Knox (P&G) approaches things from a brand standpoint. They, and all the other creative technologists with job titles including AD, CD, IA, UXd, CT, AE, CW, and all the other abbreviations share a deep general understanding of tech and how it can be used in the context of brand communication and experience design.

The job title itself is less important than being open to a hands-on and holistic view of technology as part of communication, as part of business, as part of the human experience, and therefore as part of culture.

Getting back to Lewis Carroll, “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” 
”The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

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Predictions for 2010

January 9, 2010 2 comments

An old-school agency will announce that they’re “digital,” approximately 5 years after it matters.

A new technology will become the focus of endless diatribes on how, because of this new technology, advertising as we know it is over. Upstart agencies will vie to be the first whatever-the-tech-is shop. Larger agencies will ramp up whatever-the-tech-is departments. The tech shows up in everything. Yawns abound. Advertising as we know it continues.

Towards the end of the year, the death of ebooks will be lamented.

Everyone buys a tablet computer. Turns out it’s like Google Wave – people love the idea of loving the idea, but can’t figure out what to do with it. Third party manufacturers enjoy the surge in bluetooth keyboard sales.

The new i-something killer will not be, but it’ll be damned good. And quickly vilified for not being an i-something killer.

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