February 6th, 2009

4 Steps To Idiocy (And 1 Step To Sheer Genius)

By John Bielenberg

Step 1

I went to college and studied graphic design. I managed to learn how to spec type, crop photos, use a waxer (don’t ask), drink coffee, recognize Paul Rand, make comps with markers, steal ideas from design annuals, and create a portfolio.

Step 2

I got a job. First at a little ad agency, then at a crappy little design studio designing 2-color pamphlets. After a few years of relative progress, I became a partner and eventually bought out the other guy. So…

Step 3

I had my own design studio. Now I was master of my own domain and, better yet, starting to win design awards. Things were going well and it felt pretty good. I was making decent money and driving a somewhat nice car. I wasn’t at the top of the mountain, but I could see the peak from where I was standing.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Step 4

I realized that I was an idiot. We were working with a client that had hired a behavioral psychologist from Cornell University to help evaluate to what degree their competitors were victims of “heuristic bias.” I had never heard this term before. It simply means that people are victims of learned biases or orthodoxies. As we develop, we learn things that become ingrained patterns of behavior. These synaptic connections allow us to survive in the world and make quick and efficient decisions.

For example, a useful heuristic bias develops from learning that swimming with great white sharks can be a tragic mistake: a dorsal fin next to you while surfing = get away fast. However, this same useful bias can also lead to poor decisions. If a shark attack off the coast of California is widely reported in the national news, people will stay out of the water in New Jersey even though the statistical probability of an east coast event has not increased due to a happening 3,000 miles away.

(Insert image of light bulb going off here.)

I realized that I was an idiot. Even though I thought I was a good designer, generating copious creative ideas at will, I was actually severely limited by my built-in biases. My brain was automatically short-cutting to solutions for my work without exploring the range of possibilities available, one of which could be brilliantly unexpected and effective.

Step 5

I learn how to “think wrong.” Some people are natural wrong thinkers. They short-circuit normal biases without breaking a sweat. Picasso, Fellini, Phillipe Stark and Stefan Sagmeister are examples… damn them.

The rest of us need to work hard to get our minds to break out of predictable patterns.

The bad news is that doing this is really tough. How tough? Try talking “wrong,” out loud right now. Link words in a nonsensical sequence meaning absolutely nothing. It’s probably possible but I can’t do it.

The good news is just knowing that thinking wrong can be a useful way to generate alternative ideas is an advantage in itself.

The better news is that there are techniques and exercises that can be used to trick your heuristic mind into “lateral” thinking.

I’ll describe one of them. Next time you’re “brain storming” at the beginning of a project, get out an encyclopedia. Pick a number between 1 and 100 and another between 1 and 10. Say… 45 and 3, for example. Go to page 45 in the encyclopedia and find the 3rd word. Say… “brimstone.” Now use “brimstone” as the starting point for brainstorming about your project. Since there are no incorrect answers, go in whatever direction you want. I guarantee that you will end up someplace new and unexpected.

It might not be the right answer, but then again… it could be sheer genius.

John Bielenberg is a partner and co-founder of C2, in San Francisco, with Greg Galle and Erik Cox, and founder and director of Project M, a summer program in Maine that is designed to inspire young designers, writers, photographers and filmmakers by proving that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world.

Since 1991, John has produced an ongoing series of projects under the pseudonym Virtual Telemetrix, Inc. that address issues related to the practice of graphic design and Corporate America. Projects have included the “Quantitative Summary of Integrated Global Brand Strategy” booklet and video produced for the 1998 AIGA Brandesign Conference, the 1997 Virtual Telemetrix Annual Report satire of corporate branding and “ceci n’est pas un catalog” which parodies designer products. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has acquired 6 of the VT projects and staged a Virtual Telemetrix exhibition and mock IPO (Initial Public Offering) in 2000.

John is a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique International) and is Vice President and Director of the Pop!Tech Institute.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.