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Thinctanc :: the creative life

Christian Cook, Creative Consultant from Thinctanc, shares random thoughts and musings on creativity.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Delta Thought Patterns: The difference between creative and technical minds

[This article concentrates on creative and technical individuals within an IT environment, but the theory can easily be applied to many other scenarios.]

Due to the simplicity of its underlying architecture, the early world wide web polarised form and function – websites were either works of art or performed some form of technical functionality.

With the advances that have now been achieved, graphically rich websites no longer have to merely be animated artworks, simply to be viewed without actually achieving anything.

Similarly, technical web-based applications are no longer confined to the realms of clunky-looking technical dialogues in a single shade of insipid grey.

One result this cross-pollination has had is in blurring the roles of teams that produce web-based content. Design agencies are increasingly having to deliver technical aspects within the solutions they provide and IT firms are having to add a creative string to their bows in order to meet the expanded expectations of today’s clients.

Managers and team leaders, used to overseeing a purely technical or creative group of expertise, now have to supervise and nurture a cell comprising multiple disciplines.

In most cases, the individual overseeing the group will have a background solely in a technical or creative environment. The challenge to the team leader is not simply to view their newly expanded team as numerically larger, but to appreciate the different needs within the group without introducing potentially damaging segregation.

Passed the same stimulus, the creative and technical mind will analyse and process the information in significantly different ways. Understanding the difference between these two mindsets will enable the team leader to avoid communication issues and utilise each member of the group to their full potential.

This is not to say that technically-minded individuals are incapable of creativity or that creative people cannot perform technical problem solving. Technical experts often need to think creatively when finding the answer to a particularly tricky issue. Creative artists also require technical ability in order to produce the visual output required of them.

There also exists that rare creature who spans both worlds and is able to be technically brilliant while very artistic.

But the majority of people working at the web’s coal face will either be of a creative focus or a technical focus, and the role and function that they excel in demands that the way in which they perceive input is the complete reversal of the other discipline.

Thinking of the single threads within a thought process as rivers, two distinct delta patterns can be applied to problem solving.

Divergent delta thinking (the creative mind)

This thought model takes a single strand of thought and then splits it into multiple new streams, all based upon the original concept. These new strands can also then diverge into an ever-expanding series of parallel thought streams.

A delivery company seeking a new logo will expect the designer to produce a range of options to choose from and will want all of these options to be distinct from their competitors and yet still encapsulate the concept of fast and secure delivery.

And when a second delivery company approaches the designer for a logo, then a whole new set of options will be expected that are different again, despite the identical requirement.

A writer of crime fiction telling a story of a detective solving a murder will be expected to produce a different plot to their previous works and also distinct from all other murder mystery novels that have preceded it.

Although there are times when the creative process produces convergence (a company will whittle down to one final logo, a novel will only have one ending) the majority of the time the creative mind is taking small amounts of material and expanding multiple concepts out of very minimal input.

The creative mind, provided with an image that has too much of the detail filled in, will simply expand the canvas at the edge in order to have room to explore and explode the concept further.

More often than not in web projects, the creative resources are brought in at the end as an afterthought, to ‘pretty things up.’ But creative minds do not just work well on visual aesthetics and can function just as well on exploring all manner of concepts and finding ideas from left of field that would have been left otherwise unexplored.

Too much input given to a creative mind 
will lead to an overwhelming explosion of output.

When presented with an almost complete project (or too much directive input), the creative mind will either start re-exploring the finalised concepts in order to put their creative mind to work or simply shrug and walk away from the project, pointing out that the project is almost complete and so there is little of value they can offer.

Convergent delta thinking (the technical mind)

Here a wide range of separate streams converge and keep meeting until there are the minimal number of streams possible (ideally one single stream.)

The technical mind seeks simplicity and efficiency. This is not to say that a technical mind is not capable of complexity. On the contrary, it needs to understand a vast amount of overlapping detail in order for its refining process to work as well as it does.

The technical mind seeks to understand all the details of a problem in order to produce the most simple and logical solution that will satisfy all requirements.

If a single part of the solution can be configured to solve five parts of the problem then efficiency dictates that this is more productive than producing five separate (yet similar) parts to meet the five almost identical problems.

The technical mind likes to componentise solutions so that a single part can be used multiple times within a project, but also so that this component might be reused for similar problems in future projects, rather than having to produce exactly the same code afresh when it is required at a later date.

Once again, just as the creative mind can be convergent, there are also instances of divergence in the technical thought process. A range of solutions may be carefully weighed before a single option is selected for a particular need. But, for the majority of the time, the technical mind is seeking to take vast issues of complexity and refine them down to the simplest form possible.

Just as a creative mind will be hamstrung by too much input, so a technical mind will not perform at its best when presented with too little information at the beginning of a project.

If not enough clear information is delivered for a technical mind to process and filter then the likely outcome will be that the brief is returned to the originator with a request for more details, or with a huge list of questions of attached.

The solution

Most IT companies do projects backwards. Technical people are brought in to question a client over their needs and will then write up a technical specification based upon this information.

A near finished system is then handed over to the creative department to have ‘a pretty face painted on it.’

The problem is that many clients are not fully aware of what solution they require and so there are often delays induced as the technical team go through a cycle of question and answer sessions until sufficient information has been extracted from the client for them to process.

Once companies begin to recognise both their creative and technical staff as the great thinkers they all are, and not just as UI painters and programmers, then a revolution in project efficiency is possible.

Creative minds need very little input to get working on a project and so brining them in upfront to extract information from the client can cut down on the Q&A cycles that are needed to extract enough information to produce a technical specification.

The creative mind can take the most vague of briefs and explode this out multiple times until a vast amount of concepts have been created without further input from the client. The client can then review the concepts from the creative department and simply cut out anything not needed rather than have to think up new ideas on a blank sheet of paper.

This cuts down on the amount of communication needed with the client before a project can commence and so reduces unnecessary delay. Obviously clear communication with a client is paramount throughout the lifecycle of any project to ensure the project is delivering the right solution. But often a client needs outside assistance in fully formulating the exact needs of a project and utilising creative thinking can be a powerful way of expanding the details of a solution quickly.

Once the full brief has been created, the technical team can then review the output, consolidating areas of overlap and flagging up any superfluous areas that are likely to create technical hurdles.
A round of interaction between the creative (blue) and technical teams (green) will then refine the details until the final solution is ready to be built.

While the technical team are finishing and testing the build, the creative team will already be out (alongside the sales people and project managers) and talking with the next client.

Creative and technical thought processes go far beyond visual ideas and problem solving in programming. Once companies grasp the fact that these thought patterns can be applied to all situations that their business face then their staff can be used to their maximum advantage.

Forget about the situation being a creative problem or a technical issue and start considering whether a situation needs expanding/exploring or refining/resolving and the right people will end up tackling the right tasks.

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Saturday, 5 June 2010

Nile River Split Pea Soup

(Why writer’s block is no laughing matter)

In most people’s eyes, writer’s block does not happen to real human beings. Writer’s block only affects caricatures of writers, outlandish characters in foppish hats banging their heads against the blank sheet of paper on their cluttered desk.

We can imagine a cartoon of Wordsworth, struggling with the first line to a poem; strewn at his feet are crumpled pieces of paper which read ‘I wandered lonely as a horse’, ‘I wandered lonely as a butterfly’, ‘I wandered lonely as a hiker’ etc.

A far more recent example of actual writer’s block afflicted J K Rowling at the height of Potter mania. Even among sympathetic writers it was hard not to raise a wry and mischievous smile at the picture of crying children picketing the gates of castle Rowling while the writer sat up in a high tower trying to recall the magic spell that would invoke the final chapter of the latest Potter tome.

The main reason for this light-hearted treatment of the condition is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding among non-writers of what writer’s block actually is. And the biggest problem writers have in trying to get non-writers to understand writers block is that they simply try to explain what writer’s block is. This might sound very logical, but herein lies the problem.

Imagine a seasoned cook was preparing Nile River Split Pea Soup and handed me a spoonful straight from the boiling pot, saying, “it’s still not quite there, what does it need?”

I would have to admit that I was clueless. Though I enjoy a variety of foods, I have never personally tasted Nile River Split Pea Soup and so would not be in a position to know what was missing from the recipe. Having never experienced this dish when the process had gone right, I would have no knowledge to draw on in assessing the process when it was going wrong.

And so it is with writer’s block. Most people understand ‘writing’ as the simplistic mechanics by which a person uses a pen or keyboard to construct letters and have no real tangible knowledge of the process that is creative writing.

The sum of most people’s experience of creative writing is when the teacher used to ask them on a Monday morning to write a story about what they did over the weekend.

So when people hear about writer’s block, their perception of ‘writing’ is that it is a purely mechanical effort and so the block must be some inability to perform the mechanical function. Much like a plumber with a hand injury or back strain might have to refrain from heavy manual work for a short time, so a writer (who can obviously still physically lift a pen) must simply be feeling lethargic and not really in the mood for writing.

And so most non-writers would therefore understandably feel less that sympathetic to a writer suffering writer’s block and simply shrug before suggesting they ‘take break and try again in a bit.’

So now let me paint a different picture.

Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths:
  • Writers do not write in order to become rich (most are not and have to maintain secondary jobs to prop up the finances).
  • Writers do not write in order to become famous (those that want to be are not and those that are try to escape attention and live a reclusive life somewhere remote).
  • Writers do not even write because they feel they have a good story to share (though this one is partly true, this is not the main factor that compels a writer to write).
Most writers would write even if they knew in advance that nobody would ever read their material and that they would never make a penny from it. You would still find their old wizened body slumped over a laptop in a forgotten attic and have to prise their dead hands from the keyboard.

Imagine that you are walking down the street, minding your own business, when a strange thought or concept suddenly just pops into your mind. It might just be a name, or a place, or a piece of conversation (even an actual one you overheard earlier), or maybe it’s a question you ask yourself.

Initially you just put it from your mind, but later that week it comes back to you and then it keeps coming back to you.

And then it starts to grow.

Before long there are distinct entities with personalities that start to arise and there are places that start to exist that you cannot physically visit, but are more real than your own house. And all sorts of events begin to happen, many of which will even contradict each other.

And it is not very long until this concept has begun to invade your entire life. Even during a mundane activity such as washing the dishes you will end up with a character alongside or you might even end up washing the dishes as one of your characters.

You drive down to the local shops and find that you drive right into a scene from your concept. Whatever you try and do, everything is tainted by that small concept that has now expanded to fill your entire head. Even when you try to fall asleep at night, your characters chatting away among themselves keep you awake for hours.

Although this process is incredibly creative and produces vast amounts of material, there is no let up.

And that’s just a single concept. Imagine if you have several parallel concepts in your mind at the same time. Sometimes you might have characters from two different concepts in your head together. Often a character from one concept might ‘defect’ and decide they would work better in a different concept.

It is little wonder that a recent study concluded that creative mind’s mimic schizophrenia.

After a while you begin to forget important people’s birthdays and messages you were asked to pass on go straight into the ether. If you have understanding friends and family around you then it makes life a lot easier, but the majority of people will just see you as some odd, forgetful eccentric.

But there is a cure…

There is something very simple that a writer can do to regain their mind and exorcise the characters and events from their brain. In order to get a normal life back, all a writer has to do is write the concept out in full.

So a writer’s life is much like having a balloon (or two, or three) inflating inside your head. It keeps growing and you keep attempting to reduce the pressure by letting some of the air out onto paper (or a laptop screen nowadays).

So now we can return to the subject of writer’s block.

Writer’s block is not where the balloon stops inflating, far from it. Writer’s block is where the writer feels unable to get the concepts down in a way that they feel satisfied with and so the concept stays in their head regardless. It’s as if the characters in your head read what’s on the page and turn their noses up at it. In this situation, a writer will often give up and stop writing for a while, as bad writing can be very frustrating and can crush a writer’s motivation to write.

But the balloon keeps inflating. The concept keeps getting bigger and more complex and the more space that your concepts occupy, the less space there is to try to keep a handle on the rest of your life.

This is why writer’s block is no laughing matter. It is not a simple inability to write, it’s the maddening fear that the mental balloon inside your head is never going to stop and something inside might just burst.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Courting Medusa: The 3 stages of a creative life

While it is true that many creative people in history have suffered many forms of malady from birth, both physical and emotional, the creative life itself can become quite literally maddening.

This article will study three distinct stages during a creative lifetime and the effect this can have upon the mental wellbeing of the creative individual.

01 Seeking inspiration
In the initial stage, during the early development of creativity, the creative individual wants to grow to their full creative potential as quickly as possible, so as to maximise their output as a fully-matured creative mind.

The creative individual will seek to analyse themselves and their artistic processes in order to develop themselves further. They will study a range of factors (such as their historical influences, the times of day at which they achieve their creative peak, the input of their peers and contemporaries and the effect of other stimuli in the media and the current cultural scene etc.) in order to find the right mix and work processes that increase both the quantity and quality of their creative output.

There is also a key desire to understand both the positive and negative contributory elements in order to enable the creative person to be able to switch their creativity on and off like a tap. Particularly in a commercial environment, the pressure to deliver quality, within rapid timeframes set by others, creates the need to remove as much mystique from their source of creativity in order to enable the creative individual to dominate and take full control of it.

02 Conflict begins
The point at which the initial stage moves into the next phase is marked by a single revelation that brings the first period to a dramatic halt.

The fear that arises is that if the creative should ever wholly grasp the full parameters of what feeds their creativity then the creativity will vanish and dry up in an instant. Like a mysterious gas within a balloon, it will escape as soon as the balloon is opened up to for examination.

It is the mysterious and abstract nature of creativity that is, in itself, part of the engine that drives the creative power behind the individual. But the creative individual’s inspiration is still a critical factor and cannot be ignored. It must still be nurtured and cultivated, but maintained at a distance.

The need now arises for the creative to never lose sight of their inspiration and yet never regard it with direct clarity. It is something that must be maintained within peripheral vision.

The creative individual is likely to attempt a few experimental projects, outside of their regular modus operandi, in order to reintroduce some vague mystery to their creative production and ‘re-blur’ the edges of the fragile creative bubble.

03 Claustrophobia sets in

Where as the transition from the primary stage into the secondary one was marked by a single defining moment, the passage from the middle phase into the third and final stage is less distinct – it is a gradual slide and could well be argued that the third phase is largely the second phase repeated, but more severe.

Despite the attempts of the creative individual to keep their inspirational essence vague, and at a slight distance, the passage of time will inevitably increase their knowledge of what makes them tick.

The repetition of familiar tasks and patterns on top of their inevitable increased knowledge within their field of expertise will make them far more perceptive and intuitive in recognising the processes and environmental conditions that favour their creative output. Much of what has been almost subconscious will now become tangible through familiar patterns forming.

Also the desire to produce originality in the face of all they have created to date means they need to risk getting ever more closer to the creative barrel to scrape what might be left in the bottom. Like Perseus seeking to slay the Medusa, they must get ever closer without looking the creature full in the face.

The need to get closer to something ever more familiar that needs to be kept slightly unfamiliar rapidly erodes the safe ground and leaves a slender pillar to stand on.

To the outside viewer, the huge extent of creative output from a creative lifetime seems a huge world that the creative individual occupies. But to the creative individual within the bubble, the ever shrinking no man’s land between them and their creative inspiration becomes suffocating.

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Monday, 25 January 2010

Dare to daydream

Sleeping beauty

My brother was talking to me on the phone a while ago about the fact he had been having lucid dreams. A lucid dream is one where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and can often move around at free will and manipulate the environment within the dream.

In one particular scenario, my brother found himself in an empty field and, having always wanted to experience flying, decided to charge about with his arms flapping at his side. Being unable to achieve take off he decided to consult the internet for some advice on flying.

Apparently the theory was that much of your behaviour during lucid dreaming is dictated to by your conscious brain. As a lucid dream involves your conscious awareness invading your subconscious mind, it also brings with it the restrictions of waking life, hence my brother’s inability to take off.

The way to get around this was supposedly to think to yourself during the day when you are awake that you can actually fly. You have to convince yourself that you can fly when awake so that this then implants into your head and is added to your toolbox of available actions during your next lucid dream.

I never did follow up on whether he got to fly or not but I did say at the time that I wasn’t sure if all this was a great idea. Certainly if someone was prone to sleep walking, convincing yourself that you can fly when asleep would not be a wise move.

But there is a deeper reason why I think that tampering with your dreams is not a good move and it is this – dreams play a very significant role in our psychological wellbeing.

When you copy a large file onto a computer, although you might have enough free space to hold the new data, your computer might not have a single block of space to put it in. This is because that when you delete old files, your computer does not close up the gap that the removed data leaves behind and so you end up with free space on your hard disc being in sporadic patches. In order to fit a larger file onto the disc, your computer will often split the file into smaller fragments and then place the file in several locations across the disc.

As this process repeats, more and more files become fragmented and so your computer will begin to slow down and lose performance. When reloading a fragmented file, the hard disc has to read from several locations at once and rebuild the file on the fly.

One solution to this problem is a process called ‘defragging’ which is where a small application is run that sorts through the hard drive and tidies up the allocation on the hard disc so that all files are allocated in single blocks.

This not only speeds up the processing time of opening these files, it can also open up more free space on the disc.

I believe that dreaming is the brain’s equivalent of doing a ‘defrag.’ The subconscious brain, freed from the restraints of our awake consciousness, whizzes through all the outstanding concerns and unfinished thoughts we never got round to resolving and completes them (or at least progresses them on further).

By invading our subconscious brain with our conscious self we interrupt a critical system process that our brain needs in order to maintain itself at optimum performance.

People often say it is a good idea to ‘sleep on a problem’ and the issue does seem to be less of a concern after a good night’s sleep. Is this just because we feel better for a night’s resting or is it more that our subconscious has been processing the issue away from our conscious brain?

So why do we experience all the surreal images and weird happenings when we dream? There is abundant research to show that our brain works best when dealing with images rather than ‘plain text.’

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then by processing issues as images our brains can race through larger abstract concepts at a quicker pace. Freed from our own logical understanding, the visual representation in our brain can look strange and jumbled.

The thought that then occurred to me was whether the power of this subconscious cognitive processing could be harnessed during our waking life? When we have an instantaneous gut-reaction that turns out to be a good decision, was this a lucky guess or the power of the subconscious at work?

The surrealists in their manifestos sought to bypass the conscious self and enable the subconscious spill out unhindered, but can the subconscious be harnessed as an engine to accelerate the conscious mind?

And how do you tap into the subconscious processing power of dreaming while awake without your consciousness overriding it? Hypnosis may be one suggestion but sending your brain into a trance-like state that is more disconnected than sleeping would be counterproductive.

Is it possible to fully ‘day dream’ or are the two states of mind too distinct and solely designed for their respective realms?

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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Effective Branding (Or: Lessons from a cow's bum)

Sitting around an IKEA table and sipping lattes with a group of marketing executives and chatting about ‘incentivising this’ or ‘surfacing that’, it becomes quite a mental task to reconcile the fact that this whole concept of ‘branding’ takes its name from using hot metal to scar a cow’s bum.

But many of the mistakes that companies make in attempting to establish and extend their visual identity could so easily be avoided if these organisations dropped all the meaningless buzzwords and got back to the historic roots of true branding. And so, to the cow’s bum, we must return.

A short history of branding

Man having an innate desire to make his mark has been around for as long as there were snowy walks back from the pub, but the practice of utilising hot metal to burn a distinct scar into the hide of livestock has been traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians.

The concept is quite simple. Cows are not the most loyal bunch at the best of times and are easily swayed by a slightly greener looking patch of grass in the next field. When two farmers both have a large herd of identical looking brown cows it’s easy to lose track of a few fringe stragglers who have spotted a daisy or two that might add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the aroma of the cud.

Even if you put up fences, cows only respect physical barriers and so see no ethical dilemma in wandering through a broken section of fence into a neighbour’s field. And there is, of course, the prospect that neighbouring farmers may not be entirely honest and so may decide it makes more economical sense to ignorantly eat your strays that just happened to ‘accidentally blunder in’ among their herd (with the help of a stick) and save their own stock.

And so the brand was invented. Paint can be washed off and a coloured collar can be removed. But a permanent scar burnt into the animal’s rump was an irreversible mark of ownership that could not be disputed.

But the mark had to be robust and distinctive. If you were a farmer by the name of Fred and your neighbouring herdsman was called Paul then there was little point in you branding your entire herd with ‘F’ if all his cattle sported ‘P’ on their rears.

If a brand didn’t press into the skin properly then part of the mark could easily be lost. There were also the natural markings on the animals hide to consider and the fact that this mark would grow with the animal’s skin as it grew and therefore be stretched and distorted with time. So Ps and Fs, Cs and Gs, Os and Qs could all lead to confusion and disputes.

But if farmer Paul has marked his herd with ‘X’ then farmer Fred can brand all his livestock with ‘O’, safe in the knowledge that the markings will be distinct even with the odd misprint and distortion over time.

Even when viewed from a moving horseback in the early dawn light, with the dust kicking up around their hooves, cows with Xs can quickly be separated from those with Os.

Worst case scenario

Many company logos may look like beautiful works of art when viewed full screen on that 21-inch Mac monitor in the perfectly lit design agency’s studio, but how would your company logo look scarred into a cow’s bum?

Okay, so maybe at this moment you are falling back on the assurance that you have never had any desire to see your logo on a cow’s bum and, even if you did, you’re pretty sure that marketing wouldn’t secure the budget for it anyway.

But what about when the web team want to create an icon for the website, those little favourites icons that appear in the top bar of the browser? 16 x 16 pixels is a tiny canvas to work on. Is there any part of your logo that you can isolate and use at that scale and still retain brand recognition?

Working at 16 x 16 can awaken some very old memories.

And how about when your business really takes off and you decide to project your logo onto the side of an office block? How’s it looking now?

All the swirly fiddly bits and the sparkly 3D shiny parts and that lovely drop shadow might look just exquisite on your PowerPoint slides, but how’s it looking once someone prints it off in… horror of horrors… black and white!? And then they fax it over to their head office where the girl on reception photocopies it to 3 generations, as she keeps losing her originals.

Your company brand, the beloved child of so many focus groups, is now a black splodge that looks like the document has been dropped in something nasty on the pavement.

Although it is advisable to have a separate monochromatic version of the logo specifically intended for black and white usage, this logo should still be almost identical to its full colour counterpart.

The moment you create a secondary logo that is significantly different to the main logo is the moment your brand recognition goes out the window.

Life on the bleeding edge

One of the greatest tests of a robust and diverse company brand is the ‘white on black’ test.

There are many occasions whereby a corporate logo may end up being printed black on white. It may be overlaid on top of a photo in a brochure or a dark background on a partner website. It may also appear in a newspaper on a reversed-out advert in order to stand out.

In large print runs the ink can often bleed slightly. Where a logo is printed on a white background, this means that the logo may expand and lose a small amount of definition. On a reversed-out logo however, the effect can be far worse. As a white on black logo is achieved by printing the background, and leaving white space for the logo, any minor shift or ink bleed will result in the background expanding into the logo. Any small intricate details on the edge or thin white lines can easily be lost altogether.

A good test for any prospective logo therefore is to view it reversed out in white on a black backdrop and reduced in size.

The most recognised brands on the globe all have logos that are bold and robust to ensure the integrity of the brand identity is retained in even the most challenging environments. Placing a logo alongside the world’s strongest brands is also a good test of how a concept stands up when viewed alongside other logos in a design.

Any logos produced at Thinctanc are tested in this way to ensure that the concept will work successfully to promote the clients brand, regardless of the medium. It’s also a lot safer than standing at the wrong end of a cow with a hot branding iron.

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Rule of Thirds? Eat my shorts!

This is based on a posting made on Flickr.

I uploaded the following image under the title 'Rule of Thirds? Eat my shorts!':
Paul Jerry then posed the question as to whether I was claiming this image does not conform to the rule of thirds.

When I was preparing this image in Photoshop, it started out as a definite 'rule of thirds' looking shot. Hayley was a third of the way across the image, the horizon was a third of the way down the canvas etc.

It looked so structured that I decided to re-crop the image and break out of the rigid grid a bit. So my first answer would have been no.

However, the question got me curious and so I went back into photoshop and threw a grid over it. And of course, ta-da!, the 'rule of thirds' grid magically aligned itself onto the scene perfectly, but this is the main problem I have with a lot of 'rule of thirds' discussion that you see happening. There is more fudge involved than in a Devon craft show.

Some people speak of the rule as some line or transition on the image lining up with the grid lines. Others talk about something significant appearing on the intersections of the gird. Many people seem to mix and match and refer to a bit of both. Because no-one expects the lines on the image to fit perfectly, the acceptable margin of error of how far away the line can be from the grid can become rather wide.

On this particular image I did a rough count and found 12 significant vertical lines and 14 significant horizontal lines, so however you slice and dice this image, a rule of thirds grid will always find some line or other to fall upon. The rule of thirds can be a little too accommodating and welcoming.

If you check out any of the 'Rule of thirds' groups on Flickr they may as well be Flickr Central - anything goes.

I also set up a number of other grids in Photoshop. As you will see below, not only does this image obey the rule of thirds, it also obeys the rule of halves... and the rule of quarters... and the rule of fifths... and the rule of sixths... and the rule of sevenths.

[The significant lines are highlighted with blue and the significant intersections are indicated by the orange glow.]

The Rule of Halves

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Quarters

The Rule of Fifths

The Rule of Sixths

The Rule of Sevenths

Some people are prone to mentioning the Rule of Thirds even when it actually has no bearing upon the shot. When you look at D'Vinci's paintings the canvas was 'golden ratio' proportions and the grid was obvious. When you introduce too much ambiguity then the Rule of Thirds loses any significance.

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Monday, 27 July 2009

Has 'untitled' lost its lack of meaning?

We have all stood before them and faced their challenge. Mainly in black and white. Whether we were browsing a real 'bricks and mortar' art gallery or wandering round the pages of an online photography site, we have probably found ourselves debating the meaning with a companion or within ourselves. And when we look for a title to seek the creator's take on the intriguing view before us we find no such easy explanation. The piece is untitled or, at least, it claims to be.

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. Finding no cognitive threads to pull on in the accompanying text we are forced to look afresh at the image before us and seek out some new deeper signs as to its meaning and signifiance. Pictures are supposed to speak a thousand words so just trawling one or two from the depths before us should be an easy task. Being forced to take a second longer glance at any art is a positive action and will often reap rewards.

And it's also true that sometimes a bad title can sour the experience of a great photo. The misplaced joke, the cultural reference that no-one else gets, the long semi-defensive sentence seeking to ensure people read the image 'correctly.'

There is also the time aspect. Particularity in an online environment where photographers can batch upload hundreds of photos in one click - having to go through and title each piece with something clever or witty, plus having to tag every shot with all the words for 'cat' you found in the thesaurus... it can all get a bit tedious. Such frame-by-frame repetitive monotony... best leave that to the animators.

But this isn't solely an issue of efficiency. Sometimes a photo will turn up after a shoot that simply defies an easy analysis. There are some quirky images that are so unique and indefinable that to force them under a particular title is to limit their mysterious nature. If a picture really does speak a thousand words then why limit its message to one or two?

So there is a perfectly legitimate use of untitled photos, but because the legitimate usage applies to images that have a deep and difficult-to-penetrate artistic quality there is a temptation to abuse this association in an attempt to add depth where none exists. When faced with a weaker photo that a photographer is simply unsure of, it is far too easy to slide it in under the 'Untitled' moniker and magically transform the uncertainty into something artistic and mystical.

Due to the seeming impenetrability of 'untitled' works, this being the very nature that required the ambiguous identity in the first place, there is also a temptation to assume that these works are beyond criticism and that anyone who should dare to offer constructive correction is just an ignorant fool who simply 'does not get it.'

And there is also a clear line that needs to be drawn in this discussion between images with no title at all and those entitled 'untitled.' An image with a blank title space is truly untitled, but an image that is oxymoronically entitled 'untitled' shows a deliberate thought process at work and that the rendition of the phrase 'untitled' was a conscious act and not any form of neglect. Even if we accept that 'untitled' is not a title, it is certainly an emphatic statement and a declaration by the artist.

And this is where the issue arises, through its overuse and perceived 'higher art' notions, the 'untitled' statement has now gained meaning. Where as 'untitled' once meant simply that - a lack of title, there is now the added connotation that any photograph named 'untitled' is something astounding and beyond words. There is a feel that these transcendental images defy understanding and should be revered as something that the photographer did not create, but humbly discovered during some unexplained rapturous connection with something divine.

Does this mean that every 'untitled' photo is an example of pretentious self-indulgence? Not at all, but just as the word 'genius' has lost its original power through every intelligent and wise person being labelled as such, so the waters of 'untitled' have been so muddied that its magnanimous, simple intrigue has, in many cases, become a self-awarded badge of honour rather than a humble artistic statement.