On talking about his ‘man-cave’ Guillermo del Toro talks about why his immense collection of curious possessions are important to him:

“Everything in the house for me has equal importance whether it’s a rubber toy or an anatomical model, whatever it is, it’s here to try and provoke sort of a shock to the system and get circulating the lifeblood of imagination, which I think is curiosity. When we lose curiosity I think we lose, entirely, inventiveness.”

After seeing his awesome house it got me thinking more about curiosity and creativity.

The delight of investigation is crucial in design. Exploring a concept and finding unopened doors is a skill which as you get older can become harder to find. Today is my birthday, so today of all days I am ever more acutely aware of the lengthening pursuit back to the magical outlook of childhood. But without curiosity the designer’s will to investigate can only diminish. A childlike view of the world is as integral to your success as your professional adult persona. It is only through curiosity where true value can be found.

Through exploring the odd and the peculiar we can escape from mediocrity. So seek out and surround yourself with those who see the world differently, their company will pay dividends many times over. As Del Toro alluded to, imagination feeds off curiosity. An inspiring design can only come from a designer prepared to be daring. Be unafraid to venture into the unknown and come back with something people have never seen or experienced before. Fight back against those who try to pull you back to safety and have the guts to explore where others fear to tread.

Curiosity lies at the very heart of human nature, so if you’re not knocking on that door then why bother? Ask yourself, are you offering anything new? Does your design excite and raise curiosity? Are you creating a need to explore or indeed easing the fear of exploring? You should aim to constantly be both creating curiosity and rewarding it. You must provide the joy of discovery.

It is through experiencing that which is new and odd to you that your brain can really flex its creative muscles. By trying to understand something never seen before, it will generate new insights, unique thoughts and synaptic sparks that the muse inside of you will revel in. Your enemy is the mundane, the well trodden path and the insidious voice inside your head that tells you to conform. Don’t do it. People will see value in the fruits of your curiosity and thank you for engaging theirs.

Destruction and Design

Posted by pcollier under Creativity, Design Brief, Work

Destruction

Sometimes things have to be cut loose to save ourselves more pain down the line. The same is true of design. Through the process of destruction new ideas can often have a greater chance of flourishing. So although it may seem contradictory to our creative cause, our willingness to destroy is also vital.

Often we can be so bogged down in trying to get something to work that it can give us tunnel vision. We can be so fixated on the details that we lose sight of the bigger picture and our overall design goals. Becoming overly obsessive on the details can lead us down intricate, diversionary tangents and ultimately to a skewed design. It can be a neat trick as you become a more experienced designer to catch yourself doing this and learn to cut off where you started to run astray. We’re all guilty of getting carried away, become an expert at reining it in and cutting loose and I don’t mean in the free spirited way!

Sometimes it pays to turn the destructive eye to the whole design. In the past I’ve found myself much more capable of this after a break when I’ve rediscovered my objectivity. It is painful to throw away hard work but sometimes (as the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ demonstrated) you have to crawl through a river of shit to come clean out the other side. Every time I’ve decided to throw away work in the past it has subsequently lead to a stronger design. I hated doing it at the time but was always thankful after for having the courage to not be precious. It is just a process of refinement and iteration.

At any rate the aftermath of destruction is an interesting place. Taking a torch to your design will in turn give you the sturdy green shoots poking out of the blackened ashes. These survivors are the design elements that can be your winners and keepers.  This is why ‘create and burn’ can be a healthy design process. If we are aggressive and even-handed in our destruction and an idea still resolutely remains, then maybe it deserves to stay.

As you move forward with your design it will have a strong backbone of survivors. The ideas that you carried forward will help deliver more focus down the line and have the room to flourish. I guess all this leads us to my final piece of advice at this juncture. After all this talk of destruction, which let’s face it, us humans love, I really should support it with more fiery gusto whilst I have the chance, so here goes: Don’t be afraid to be a cold merciless bastard of an overlord. Design elements and ideas are in your dominion and should be scared shitless of your wrath. If they are not there to serve your cause, then quite frankly, they deserve to die. There you have it. Try not to cling onto something just because you created it. Creation is not always beautiful, so don’t be afraid to wield the knife, or even the torch…and yes it can be more fun if you do it with a crazed look in your eye.

one wheel motorcycle

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire (1694-1778)

The best designers I know are good because they like to get their hands dirty. They are not afraid to try something out to see if it works. They have a healthy attitude toward prototyping. Bad design is thinking you have all the answers and therefore no need for questions.

You know that person in your life who is always the first to say ‘That’ll never work’, well next time they do give them a slap. What’s frustrating is that quite often these people can be extremely intelligent and highly convincing in their arguments as to why you needn’t go further with an idea. And you know what, 90% of the time they may very well be right…on the original point. But you know what is insanely criminal in any kind of design? It’s not allowing exploration, often ideas are the genesis for fantastic and unexpected revelations further down the line. Prototyping is so intertwined with creative thinking that to stunt an idea at its source can severely limit the natural design process. Innovative thought can only occur from action, never inaction. So test out an idea and see what tumbles out, the naysayers might be surprised as to what actually does turn out to work.

Now going back to the traits of the best designers… they will without doubt always have confidence. But not cocky overly assured confidence, true and honest understated confidence. They are open to being wrong and indeed relish the prospect as an opportunity to learn. Being wrong broadens their outlook and opens doors. But on the other hand an unwillingness to be wrong can bring those guilty ultimately to ruin. One path leads to exponential growth in wisdom and experience. The other a linear and narrowing path saddled with a deepening propensity for close mindedness. The moral of the story being; prototype, or be prepared for your final designs to fail a lot more. How is that for irony?

Pieter Bruegel (The Elder) - The Seven Deadly Sins

I hate procrastination. It is the product of the weakest parts of our minds, yet a very strong force. It does its nasty deed in the short and long term and often we do it without even realising. It comes in many different forms, unique to each of us. You might even be doing it now!

What is procrastination? I think of it as anything which prevents us from doing the work that needs to be done. Nothing of value comes for free; we need to put effort in to get the returns. The problem is that the work is often hard and taxing. The part of our mind which concocts acts of procrastination feeds off this prospect.

I clean and tidy when avoiding work. I tell myself “clean and tidy means an unmuddled mind”. To be fair, it’s probably a little bit true, but in my heart of hearts it’s about me shirking from the real work. Let’s face it the world is never going to write “Had a tidy house” on your gravestone. It takes great physical and mental effort to achieve clarity of thought.  But here is the rub, somewhat perversely, it takes very little effort for your mind to concoct clever sabotage when facing exertion.

How to deal with this menace then?  Well self-awareness is a big factor here; you need to recognise the resistance and your acts of procrastination. How many times have you put off going to the gym but once there loved the exercise? Or once you sit down and focus on something literally felt the surge of mental energy run through your body? All it takes is for you to recognise the insidious Gollum like creature sitting inside your head. He craves the act of doing ‘precious’ sweet nothing. But he must be respected for he is cunning and tricksy, wielding procrastination as his greatest spell of all. He’ll try everything to subvert you from doing the work, but banish him you must. All it takes is seeing him for what he really is.

Here are some of my practical tips as a veteran of many battles with the ‘p’ word:

  • Remove yourself from as many distractions as possible (even if it means closing the door to the cat). Distractions are like Piranhas, they’ll keep eating away at you, specifically your will to work.
  • Nike were right; ‘Just do it’. Plonk yourself down and start working. I stared at this notepad for half an hour and faced off my usual nemesis when it comes to writing these articles, that being the rationale “I can’t write the article, I haven’t had the inspiration yet”. Its poppycock, I know it as the voice of my own personal Gollum. So what do I do, I just start writing. That’ll teach the little f*cker.
  • Recognising procrastination is the hardest part. The only way to succeed is to be honest with yourself. Seeing the enemy will help you fight it. It’s one of those weird things where you can catch yourself doing it, sometimes so ingenious that it’ll make me laugh.

We are all guilty of procrastination so no need to feel too bad about it. But I do liken it to the 8th DEADLY SIN, just so you know. Treat it like a game, a battle to outwit yourself, to overcome the cunning schemes of your own Gollum. Good luck fighting the little blighter!

Time and being Memorable

Posted by pcollier under Creativity

Synapses

Time is a funny old thing, often our experience of it can vary a great deal. We’ve all experienced that sensation of time flying when we’ve having fun and dragging when we’re bored. I’ve touched on this before with my article on flow. When we’re really engrossed in our current activity we’re not paying attention to the passage of time and, by not observing it, never really experiencing it. In contrast to when we are bored where we’ll painfully watch the clock tick seemingly backwards.

However in the medium term our experience of time can tell a very different story. Christmas holiday 2007 was the end of a very hard year of ball busting work to get a game out the door so I had a lot of annual leave stored up. I was off work from Nov 16th – Jan 4th, brilliant. What did I do with the time? For the most part I played the Xbox 360 game Mass Effect. Before I knew it, it was Jan 4th and I was back at work. I didn’t feel refreshed and certainly didn’t feel like I’d had a month and a half away. Even though I’d had fun playing the game it was one chunk of very similar day-day activity. Suffice to say, to my brain, Christmas 2007 was quite easy to compress to memory. My fiancé told me about a book she had read by Steve Taylor called ‘Making Time’. In the book he talks about the way our brain allocates our life to memory. Unique experiences earn a rightful individual place in our synapses. However, similar experiences that re-stamp old ground don’t require new space. Our brains don’t see much use in storing them separately so just re-write over the same slot as before.  People say ‘travel broadens the mind’ because it literally does, everything is new. In the medium term our experience of time is very much dictated by the allocation of our experiences to memory. Memory and time are very much interlinked.

How we spend our time is also critical when it comes to creativity. Christmas 2010 I was in the same position as in 2007, I was off work from Nov 18th – Jan 4th. But this time I spent it very differently including a vacation to the Caribbean. It’s a part of the world I’ve never visited so everything was exhilarating and new. We snorkelled with turtles, kayaked through tropical mangroves, hiked through beautiful rainforests and bathed in hot sulphur springs to name a few highlights. This is not to mention being semi-mugged on the beach in St. Lucia and getting sun stroke in Barbados, but I digress, my notepad was on fire. I’ve never been more productive in writing, generating new game ideas and mechanics. All these brand spanking new experiences were like an electric shock to my brain. New data fired up synapses from new angles rather than familiar data over well trodden neural pathways. It was a party in my brain with only new ideas welcome. As a bonus, when I returned on Jan 4th I also felt incredibly refreshed and like I’d been away from work for an eternity.

Creativity is a demanding beast. Feed him the same old junk and don’t exercise him and he’ll become fat, lethargic and immobile. But keep his diet fresh and varied then you’ll have him lean, mean and barking for more, excitably taking you in new directions every time ‘walkies’ is called. Yes I have turned creativity into a dog, but you know, a lovely cute one!

So when it comes to game design what does this all mean? Well I’ve been on projects where the game design seems to have been defined as “Game X + Game Y = Our Game”. This is not healthy, nor is it a good sign. The point is, you’ve got to be giving the player new experiences.  You can’t play it safe and plump for more of the same, because if you do (and this goes for any design or product) it won’t be memorable. You’ll be consigned to ‘same old’ in people’s brains instead of earning yourself fruitful new territory in bouncy brain real estate where insight, value and enlightenment reign as King. The time spent with your game or product will easily be forgotten. In other words be memorable or don’t both bother coming to the party.

Ray Davies

I got back from a 2 week vacation on Tuesday. I should have been jetlagged I’d been up for more than 24 hours, I’d arrived home, I should have felt like napping. But I happened to flick on the TV and was transfixed by a documentary that I think was on BBC 3. It was following Ray Davies the legendary singer songwriter of ‘The Kinks’. Go and watch it now whilst you can on BBC iplayer. I felt so completely energised watching it. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever considered myself a diehard fan of the Kinks but as the program went on going through his songs I realised how much they resonated with me and how much I loved them. But what really got me were his words toward the end in regards to being an artist:

“My songs will be here when I’m gone, in a sense they were here before I came. I just picked up the ideas and saw what thousands, millions of other people saw and it came out the way I interpreted it. I could be sitting here one hundred years ago or I could be sitting here in the future, but I don’t ever feel I existed. There’s a lot of me invested in it, but I absorbed everything from everywhere else.

As original as you try to be the ideas have always been there, the same as the city has always been there [in reference to London]. Songs can absorb into the folk culture but whether we know it or not we’re passing on music, we’re passing onto a common collective consciousness.”

What I feel is so poignant about his words are that of being a genuine artist. To truly recognise that you must take ego out the equation, it is not about you, it is about your ability to open yourself up. To channel that which is already around you and focus or interpret it in such a way that it reveals a new angle on the beauty of the world around us. This resonates with people.

In Garr Reynold’s fantastic book ‘The Naked Presenter’ he quotes Bruce Lee:

“My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty”

Garr further on in the book writes:

“Indeed, if we approach life with a full cup, we cannot learn anything new. New skills, new approaches and different ways of thinking will be blocked. Wild ideas, crazy notions, and remarkable insights will have no space to enter a world of certainty, pride, over confidence, and commitment to the past and the known. Part of emptying our cup is a willingness to unlearn what we think we know to be the best or only way.”

All great artists seem to acknowledge that all they are is a conduit. Ideas and insights into our existence are already there in our collective consciousness and life around us, the artist just becomes the right person to find it. The artist recognises their peripheral part of the equation. He/she is transient and will turn to dust only their trail and imprint remain, they feel life make their impression, then leave. An artist is not a dream maker but an open vessel ready to receive and for others to drink from.

Of course the other side of it is immense hard work and focus. The most inspiring thing I’ve recently read regarding facing the resistance in your head and getting to work is in Steven Pressfield’s brilliant book ‘The War of Art’:

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favour in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete”

So here I was watching this great documentary on Ray Davies with more and more respect and admiration growing for him. Everything that I had just read on holiday was being validated by what this well loved, respected and true artist was saying. And funnily enough what did his good friend Mick Avory the drummer in The Kinks have to say about him?

“I can’t see Ray ever giving up writing songs because it’s too much a part of him. I’d say Ray is the William Shakespeare of song writing, that’s the best way I can describe him. We might even have a Ray Davies Day but it won’t be a holiday it’ll be a day where you work harder [laughs]”.

Your ability to see beauty in the world seems directly proportional to your ability to strip away parts of yourself; Van Gogh maybe took it too far. Ray Davies talks a lot in the program about ‘absorbing’. He is right and in order to do this you need to empty your cup, talent then comes in your interpretation of what you receive and how hard you work in finding it.

The Evangelist

Posted by pcollier under Action, Discovery, Emotion

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of action. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally on August 28, 1963.

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing.  Action always generates inspiration.  Inspiration seldom generates action.” – Frank Tibolt

For a long time I’ve held the assumption that it is ideas that change things. I was wrong, people change things. Ideas are cheap, without action they have little value. It’s easy to romanticise the notion of ideas, but let’s get real. It’s the execution of an idea that people can then experience for themselves and make it their own that matters.

But before all of us designers start slitting our wrists and lamenting the very point of our existence let’s hold our horses. We do have a role to play. An architect of change needs to understand people. He/she needs to have emotional intelligence. To actualise an idea you need to be able to communicate, motivate and collaborate with others to take action. Designers need to be evangelists; their power is to create movement, to generate energy, to galvanize people behind their cause and to listen, not just talk.

Every form of design work is a pitch, its clarity and a declaration of purpose that sells on the worth of making whatever it is into something real. Any designer worth his/her salt has people that believe in them and their ideas. But the thing with ideas is that they never come fully formed. Being in a position to hold the belief of a team through the refinement, prototyping and testing of your design is crucial. However without belief and ultimately without trust you are dead in the water.

So let’s stop perpetuating the status quo and instead choose to change the world and innovate on whatever scale we can affect. Let’s forget mediocrity, ego and meeting after meeting. Let’s do something that has meaning, value and truth of purpose…now that feels better.

I Promise to be Brief

Posted by pcollier under Design Brief

Herbert James Draper - Ulysses and the Sirens 1909

Knowing what you want to achieve before setting out to do something is very important. It sounds like a bit of a dumb-ass thing to say, of course it’s important! But you’d be surprised how often designers can get over zealous when it comes to jumping into creation without due diligence.

The significance of a clear design brief is something I’ve only recently truly appreciated…and I mean ‘truly appreciated’ not just a superficial nod of the head toward it. I’ve realised that it is something my elders and those that are wiser have been attempting to drum into me since my school days. But as with many things the lesson has to be learnt for yourself for it to properly sink in. Which kind of makes this article a bit pointless, but hey you’re here now, so you might as well carry on reading!

Really it is a pretty simple concept. Ask what you want to achieve, and then fulfil it. To be fair at some level most designers will do this. The issue is the quality of this question. The key to becoming a great designer is becoming an expert in asking the right questions. The creation of the brief should be the hardest phase of a design process. It carries a huge amount of responsibility, as the old saying goes:

“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it”

If you don’t ask the right questions and are not completely clear with your brief then everything that follows suffers. In one fell swoop you can damn a project to costly delays and a poor end product. Yet even on a commercial level, it is apparent that designers across the globe have been all too eager to jump into development. The only way you can be clear with your brief is through knowing your target audience and what they demand. A deadly trap that many designers fall into is designing for themselves. Many millions of £$€’s have been wasted because of this.

A brief permeates every level of the design process and spawns many further, more specific, questions during development. If you get it wrong the design will move further and further away from any original intentions at every stage. A solid, well constructed, clear brief acts as a mast that, if necessary, the design team can strap themselves to in stormy Siren infested development waters (especially those pesky brainstorms). A clear brief makes the design process easier because it acts as a fixed point that designers can check against and keep referring back to. With an identifiable reference point it prevents you straying too far.

Our desire to create is an admirable human trait. But with inexperience the temptation to jump in and just start ‘making’ is strong, exuberance can runaway with us. It is possible, after all, to find problems through the act of creation. But without focus and direction these problems are much more likely to become icebergs able to sink your ship. You’re not quite setup to deal with the surprise. A clear brief allows for a more methodical design process which at every stage prepares you for the next. A healthy design process should be one of refinement not damage control.

Emotional Residue

Posted by pcollier under Discovery, Emotion, Story

Bioshock 2

Evidence of our lives and personal story are all around us. Everywhere we spend any time. I like to call it emotional residue. If you look around your study or living room and pretend you’re a stranger, what could you tell about your life? Our imprint on the world is determined by how we leave things and the extent of the impact. Like a safari tracker you can tell a lot about a person by their trail.

In game design we exploit this idea with environmental story-telling. In a narrative driven game it’s very important to flesh out the entire back-story of events. Ask the question, what has happened in the world you’ve created leading up to this moment in time? In a specific room or area we can then fill in that trail. Literally inject story, journey and life into that environment.

The fascinating thing about games as a medium is that they allow for personal discovery a lot more. I’ve touched on this before. In books and to an extent in films they selectively show or describe a world to you. In games there is more freedom for personal exploration and discovery. This means more to people. As a player it is your insight not someone else’s. Or at least that is the impression we create!

We can craft an emotive experience a lot better by looking at emotional residue. Games have got very good at dealing with action. The here and now, what you role is and what you have to perform. But to miss out on filling in all previous actions and life in that environment is a big missed opportunity. What can you learn from what has already taken place to make this moment more meaningful?

People talk about a place being steeped in history and of feeling a deep spiritual connection. This is emotional residue. We are reaching out back in time and connecting emotionally with every person who has ever occupied that space. Our physical environment is a deeply emotional canvas. You are sharing a collective footprint and mark in the world. To ignore this incredible opportunity to impart emotion and story in a game where players can physically (at least through an avatar) occupy that space and leave their imprint would be a travesty. It’s a remarkable string to our bow as a medium that few others can access.

* Thanks to Ian Hall, Liam Morrey, Neil Walker and Anthony Filice for the inspiration for this article.

Attachment

Posted by pcollier under Attachment

Losing Wilson

Ever notice on a walk in the country how strangers say hello to you, but in the city not a peep? It’s a phenomenon I’ve always pondered. Now it could be that countryside folk are just friendlier, but I think this is a disservice to our city chums and I don’t believe it for a second! What I think it’s about is shared experience and connection. It is these things that can help inform us about attachment.

I believe that the bond between people is stronger the more unique the connection between them is, mother and baby for example. You are more likely to acknowledge a stranger in the countryside as opposed to a busy city street because an experience between two people is more unique than it is between a thousand. You are playing much more of a role in the exchange, really the location is irrelevant.

Our experiences in life define who we are, what we become. But by the same token, by being part of an experience you also help define and shape it.  There is a bit of you imparted onto each participant in an experience and vice versa. We can see a reflected fraction of ourselves in those we share experience with. We become attached because we leave a little bit of ourselves behind with them. It’s a beautiful thing really. Being a member of a crowd at a football match fosters attachment to the team because collectively the crowd’s supportive role is significant. The more we connect and impart, the greater the bond and the sense of attachment.

In game design how do we foster attachment, say, to an in-game character? Really any shared experience is going to be fake and not shared at all. The in-game character is artificial, it’s a one-sided affair, and really you’re alone in the game-world. But in successful games player attachment is real nevertheless. So how is this so? Well your role in the game has consequence. At least it appears that your input in that world and connection with its characters are meaningful.

Wilson and Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland in the film Castaway is an interesting case in point. Why does he need to characterise the ball by painting a face on it and calling it Wilson? We need an element of humanity in the equation for something to have meaning and attachment to develop. Even in the case of Wilson where he is nothing more than a sounding board.

I have a hideously dirty bean-filled throwing ball in my desk draw. I keep it because it reminds me of summer holidays as a kid playing catch on the beach with my Dad. It’s sentimental and I’m attached to it because it signifies a bond, a specific group of shared moments that shaped the relationship between my dad and me. Attachment comes in different forms, but the common factor is meaningful value. You quickly get rid of the superfluous if there are no hooks there. There is little attachment to be found when your role is/was inconsequential to the experience.

How depressing would our lives be with our existence unrecognised; to have no impact? We take solace in shared experience and connection because it adds meaning and value to our time on this planet. Attachment is created whenever your mark is recorded, through another person, a memento, anything capable of defining meaning to your life. It is why it is so traumatising to lose something you’re attached to, meaning is being taken away. On the other hand it can be unhealthy to be overly attached. Attachment can hold us back and prevent us from finding further meaning and definition elsewhere. Attachment is a very precious thing that can bring both great joy and sorrow. In game design it can therefore be an extremely useful tool in defining player experience.