Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The genius of Ken Burns

I've just finished watching the Ken Burns film Thomas Jefferson. In my mind, Mr. Burns is the preiminent historical documentarian. In the special features section of the DVD I found two short films on him and his work. Here are some notable excerpts:

Listen to the photos
One of Mr. Burns' trademarks is taking a still photo and either zooming in or out or panning across it in some way while the viewer hears an audio track. It's now even called the "Ken Burns effect" in filming jargon. There's a whole lesson in just this point on embracing constraints (see a chapter on this in 37signals book). But Burns says he would stare at a photo and "listen to it." He elaborates by saying the trees in the photo had a rustling sound, the boat going by, the people walking and chatting in the background all would have been making sounds. He even goes so far as to ask, "What did the dust sound like?"

Find an emotional connection

My work is not just interested in the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but the emotional archaeology--and I call myself an emotional archaeologist--because we know that's the glue that makes these complex past events stick in our minds and in our hearts and become permanetly a part of who we are now.

This is very similar to the approach author David McCullough takes to his work.

History is

History is, not was. We're never going to change what happened...But the way we engage our questions now about it tell us who we are right now. (now quoting Harry Truman) The only thing really new is the history you don't know.

Meaning accrues
When asked about the length of his films in general and his slow, gliding shots in an era of quick frenetic cuts:

We realize that all meaning accrues in duration. The things that we are all proudest of, the work we've done, the relationships we have, accrue in duration. It's the things we've given our best attention to, and we realize in the end the only thing we have is our attention.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Think wrapping paper is a commodity? Think again...

I'm trying out some premium wrapping paper we bought off a school fund raiser. It's maybe a tad thicker than the Walgreens cheap stuff, has the snowflakes on the front, yada, yada...but wait...flip it over to start actually wrapping and what do we have here? One inch dotted gridlines are lightly printed across the whole roll. Now, even though I graduated from pre-school many years ago, I can actually cut a straight line so my packaging doesn't look like it was done by a bonobo. It's remarkable how simple and yet useful that is.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just set up new twitterfeed

I place short "what I'm doing" updates along with quick thoughts and observations on twitter. Things that take a bit more explaining make it onto this blog. I've now added a twitterfeed so that blog posts are mentioned in twitter. Regardless of how you follow what I'm saying, I thank you.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Moving away from PowerPoint?

After reading The Back of the Napkin I'm giving serious thought to moving away from slick PowerPoint (and my actual preference, Keynote) presentations and moving toward real-time diagramming of my ideas on a white board, flip chart, or piece of paper. I just did an experimental film using simple hand-drawn pictures on a series of index cards and laying them in a rough prototype of a proposed workflow for a client and it seemed to have worked just as well, if not better, than trying to do the same thing in a more polished, "professional" way. I'll keep experimenting with this notion. But I'm more inclined to move toward this intuition of mine based upon this great blog post. I love this representative quote:

[Speaking about others showing up with portfolios of their past work and him showing up with a paintbrush...]

It not about the past; it’s about the future. It’s not “build me something like you’ve already done” but “build me something from your imagination.” Calatrava came with a paintbrush and a vision, not a PowerPoint of his projects.

The challenge isn’t putting together the slickest presentation. The challenge is having the imagination and the ability to converse with clients about what their future will be. Those are the paintings that will win commissions.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thinking with your hands

I was listening to a TED podcast this morning from a gentleman from IDEO. He described a design session where an IDEO team was meeting with surgeon's to discuss a new surgical instrument they would like developed. Someone from the design team left the room and in a few minutes returned with a dry erase marker taped to an empty film canister that was taped to a clothes pin in the rough shape of a gun. The designer gave it to the surgeon's who passed it around and begin offering very constructive feedback on how the device should sit in the hand, how it should be shaped, what it should do, etc. IDEO calls this behavior "thinking with your hands" (and this eventually turned into a real device).

It typically involves making many low-resolution prototypes very quickly. Often by bringing many found elements together in order to get to a solution...And so this behavior is all about quickly getting something into the real world and having your thinking advanced as a result.

This dovetails precisely with the Getting Real approach advocated by 37Signals. Tom Peters has been an advocate of this for years. And it explains why the Back of the Napkin approach of visual thinking works so well.

IDEO takes this idea seriously and has "protyping carts" around filled with Play-doh, tape, Legos, colored paper, markers, etc. ("the stuff we all had in pre-school") so desingers can begin prototyping objects whenever they want. They also apply this approach to designing a service experience through rapidly jumping into role-playing various scenarios.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Do you think of what you do as an art form?

I just finished watching the John Adams miniseries from HBO (Adams is a hero of mine).  There is a wonderful short film about author David McCullough on the last DVD.  Here are my two favorite pieces of wisdom contained in the film:

I think of writing History as an art form, and I'm striving to write a book that might, might, qualify as literature.  That's the aspiration.  And I don't want it just to be readable, I don't want it to just be interesting, I want it to be something that moves the reader--moves me.

Mission accomplished.  

Next, in speaking about each of his writing engagements:

You've got to marinate your head in that time, in that culture.  You've got to become them, in effect.

The guy is a true pro.  If only more of us could have that same approach to our work.