In praise of stick men

Foto de Larry
Foto de Larry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people think that they aren’t creative. I used to think this myself, despite having worked in a number of jobs that require some degree of creativity, including working as a film editor, writer and teacher. Nevertheless it took me quite a long while to realise that when I said I wasn’t creative, I really meant that I couldn’t draw.

Whilst I would love to be able to draw, I have come to understand that if you are trying to explain something complex, stick men are not only perfectly adequate, they are actually preferable. Stick men, which even I can draw reasonably well, can convey information very clearly because they don’t come with the visual distractions that accompany a photo or a drawing of a real person. When we look at photos our brains are distracted by the extra information that we are asked to process. How old is that woman, what colour are her eyes, is she happy or sad, does she look like someone I know? These are only a few of the thoughts and ideas that flow through minds in the first few milliseconds when we see an image. The same goes for an illustration, especially if it’s well executed and life-like.

Not only do we get the message really quickly from a stick man (or a stick woman for that matter), a stick man can also convey movement (for example running) with little of no effort on our part.

So don’t fret if you can’t draw. You only need the most basic skills to depict relationships, instructions and behaviours. Go ahead and practice your stick men. Your audience will understand that you are merely illustrating a concept, and not trying to be an artist. And if you figure out a way to draw a stick woman (without be rude), let me know.

Do you see what I see?

It’s been great to see how different people have responded to the penguins in the art gallery image. I even received this lovely artwork designed by Tom, emailed by Emma. Thanks for sharing Emma!

perceptual bias

It’s made me think deeply about the fact that we can never really tell how another person is ‘reading’ an image because our views are always distorted by our own perceptual bias. In other words, we all view the world through a lens made up of our experiences in the world. As Anais Nin said so eloquently…

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are”.

I have been reading a book by Ken Robinson called ‘The element: how finding your passion changes everything’ and in it he talks about the impact of our cultural background on how we view the world. A number of studies have found that people raised in Western societies have a very different way of reading images to people from Asian communities where there is more of an emphasis on the community. When shown an image of a tiger in the jungle, people raised in Western cultures are likely to describe the image as being of ‘a tiger’. People raised in cultures where there are strong family and community ties are much more likely to say that the image depicts ‘a jungle with a tiger in it,’ or ‘a tiger in a jungle’.

What does this mean for people like us who are striving for simplicity and clarity? First of all we have to examine our own perceptual biases. Obviously we shouldn’t do this to the point of paralysis. If we stop too long to think about all the ways something can possibly be interpreted then we might end up doing nothing at all. But it is a good idea to be mindful of difference and to be open to other people’s interpretation of what we present. This means that when you are running your slides past a colleague and they completely misread the point you are making, you need to stop and listen and explore how and why they are interpreting your information the way they are. There’s every chance that they will bring a fresh new interpretation to your work.

This is what your comments have done for me and I’m really grateful. Thanks.


What does this image mean to you?

I have just finished doing an assignment on digital imaging where I had to produce a photomontage with a ‘message’. 

The instructions were to create an image which would make a strong visual statement about an issue, for example a political or social issue. This was difficult for me, not because I don’t feel strongly about a lot of things (because I do), but because it’s really hard to visualize some concepts, especially when you’re a bit hazy about your message.

The other criteria was that we could only use the photographs of certain (famous) photographers, so finding suitable source photos entailed hours of trawling the internet in a search for images which would inspire me. When I tried to rope in some friends and relatives to help me with my assignment, they all seemed to think that it would be a much easier task if I just knew what it was that I wanted to say. As a person who advocates for people to know what it is that they are trying to say before they start writing or creating presentations it struck me as hilariously funny that I had clearly failed to take my own advice. There was no way that I could find images that suited my theme when I didn’t have a clear idea of what it was I was trying to say.

I tried to get away with making some vague statements about the way the privileged classes monopolise culture, but it was hard to disguise the fact that I was just plain confused. I also tried to suggest that the finished image would express my idea better than any words ever could. Does an artist need to be able articulate the ideas behind their art? Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Another ploy was to suggest that the viewer should be able to ‘read’ the image in any way they chose. Clearly, I was desperate and the due date was looming ever closer.

In the end I came up with the image below. It’s called ‘A visit to the gallery’.

What, if anything, does it mean to you? I would love to know if it says anything at all, or if you also struggle with pinning down your ideas?