conversation is an engine

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Archive for the ‘Image and text’ Category

If you say a dumb sketch, will others pay attention?

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Engineers aren’t the only ones who love to correct you

I’ve been repeating myself recently to different people and groups within my client’s shop.TheHand-04212015

I’ve been saying aloud the oral version of a dumb sketch. I’ve been telling and retelling the story of how I thought one thing but then in conversation with different experts, came to see what I thought was really not so at all, but something different. I know this is terribly abstract and I apologize: We’re working on a new proprietary idea at the moment, so I cannot be too specific.

I thought X was like Y. But it turns out that X is very like Z. And when I tell that story—of trying and failing and trying—my listeners get it. They learn something. They jump to Z and each gets pretty excited about Z—they had not seen Z before. But now that Z is named and out there, Z may just change everything (and not in a breathless marketing-hype way, but really change how people move forward in this particular industry) (Which I cannot name.) (Sorry.) Each mini-audience put the pieces together and then leaps forward in a way my didactic, linear, word-driven paragraphs did not succeed at.

TryFailTry2-04222015The point of a dumb sketch is to be not-finished. A sketch is the opposite of the heavily produced diagram or slide. The “unfinishedness” of a sketch is the very crux of usefulness as a communication tool. By being unfinished, the sketch invites collaboration and improvement. And people seem to not be able to turn away—at least from the oral version. Failure is built right into my story, and who can resist gawking at a car wreck?

Maybe this is an engine behind John Stepper’s notion of “working out loud.” Maybe this is a key to how we collaborate with each other. We already do this with friends and family, but what if we extend our try-fail-try circle to include many others?



Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston

How to Make Your Message Permanent

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A tip from a prehistoric consultant

First: Forget about it. Nothing is permanent—at least not in the way advertising mavens augur.

Second: OK—if you insist—make your message about someone else. Make your message give back more than it takes in. “GE” branded on a rock would never last. Even the Apple logo will be chiseled away by Microsoft rebels. But a man with jointed wings, well, who can resist that story?

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?]

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?

Prehistoric peoples stopped by these ancient rocks to tell their version of the human condition. So they carved/picked/incised/abraded their messages into the exposed Sioux quartzite outside Comfrey, Minnesota long before there was a Comfrey or a Minnesota or a U.S. of A. Maybe before the pyramids and Stonehenge. Ancients left messages here to direct and entertain passers-by.

Why make your message permanent? We understand marketing communications for companies—it’s about keeping the wheels of commerce turning. But you personally—what messages do you have to communicate? And why would you make them permanent? I argue that your take on the human condition comes out in the way you do your work, the way you interact with family, friends, colleagues, and even the way you see/refuse to see the homeless guy at the end of the exit ramp. And all these daily interactions amount to a carving and incising that is far more permanent than any of us imagine.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

Our conversations have an enormous (cumulative) effect on the people around us. An effect that may move through generations.

What exactly is your message, anyway?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Edward Hopper: How to Talk to Yourself

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Can a conversation result in art?

The answer can only be “Yes!”

Not every conversation, mind you. But some will.

Last weekend Mrs. Kirkistan and I (plus our art-student daughter) wended our way through the sketches and drawings by Edward Hopper currently on display at the Walker. As a nation we’re quite familiar with Mr. Hopper’s drawings and paintings—today they seem perfectly obvious explanations of life in America. But I was intrigued by how he got there. What was his process for producing such enduring images? How did he see what he saw?

His sketches look like conversations with himself. Look how he developed the frame for his (well-beloved, much parodied) Nighthawks at the Diner. His sketches add layer to nuance to layer. It’s almost as if he were explaining something to himself with one approximation and then another and then another. Sort of like conversations with our best friend where we allow each other to say it wrong even as we pursue saying it right.


Hopper was a man given to observation and keen on interpreting detail. With quick strokes he captured form and mood and motion. And there’s no question he had an eye for the ladies:


Hopper seemed to never stop observing and capturing. Again and again and again. He spent hours sitting at favorite locations and sketching and perhaps waiting. This quote from Mr. Hopper hints at his process:

My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most….

I’ve been a fan of sketches for some time because they give a behind-the-scenes picture into how someone’s mind works. The Hopper exhibit at the Walker does not disappoint. And I cannot help but think how sketches provide such a rich analog to our collaborative conversations.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston photos taken at Edward Hopper exhibit, Walker Art Center

Hide Your Potato

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Or wash your hands. Either way’s good.



Via Imgur

Written by kirkistan

March 18, 2014 at 9:55 am

It’s no good to compare

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Draw your own conclusions



Image Credit: David Fullarton

Written by kirkistan

January 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

Wing Young Huie On Seeing

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When is a photo more real than what you saw?10212013-gallery008

My photos make me question “real.” The eye is tricky and perception is problematic: what I believe I saw was different from the photo I took and the photo I (clumsily) retouched. Which of the photos was real—or was real something entirely different?

That’s why I’m happy to find people who let me see things in a new way. Wing Young Huie is one of those people. His The University Avenue Project is remarkable in that he successfully reframed this long, rather desolate (at times) urban street in a way that helps me see individuals and their hopes. People pictures—sort of honest and gritty pictures. But pictures of real people.

I like photographs that are real, a curious concept in the Photoshop era. Almost all of the images we see on a daily basis have little authenticity. They most serve to reinforce that status quo, driven by marketing and entertainment forces that fundamentally form our perceptions of each other, and ourselves. (Wing Young Huie, The University Avenue Project, p. 125 )

Wing Young Huie clearly has a lot to say about the persuasion industries. And what he has to say is good to hear (at least for this copywriter). But his work also cuts deeply into how we see the people around us. Wing Young Huie’s photos allow me to see afresh something so ordinary as to be invisible. 10212013-gallery010The way he puts people and situations into the frame is almost exhilarating at times. The individuals, the mix, the chalkboard questions answered with raw honesty—the photos peel away all sorts of misconceptions and stereotypes. Even Wing Young Huie’s process feels real.

And that feels to me like a good work.

Learn about Wing Young Huie’s process here.


Image credit: Wing Young Huie

Written by kirkistan

October 21, 2013 at 5:32 am

Stop-Action Living & How to Pay Attention

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Jean Laughton’s Mythic West Borders Her Real West

Put a frame around the scene before you and the scene changes. The frame creates distance from the action, which is both useful and off-putting.


Useful in that the frame helps you stop and see what is going on. Moving parts fall (momentarily) silent and you are released to think critically about the action. Note that critical thought need not be negative or a complaint or a sardonic aside. Critical thinking can result in even more whole-hearted agreement with the action. Critical thinking can also lead to backing away from the action.

Off-putting in that the frame truncates the scene and isolates it from everything else. Off-putting because the people in the scene see the camera and note you’ve switched from action to observer, which most of us find discomfiting. Pick up a camera or sketch pad and you’ve suddenly marked yourself as something other than what is happening right here and now. Pick up a camera and watch people freeze or back away.

Edmund Husserl (that 19th century mathematician/philosopher/phenomenologist) talked about leaving the “natural attitude” and bracketing his experience to come to fully understand/appreciate the experience. Actually, Husserl advised breaking with the natural attitude and bracketing experience to get on with his phenomenological work. Henri Cartier-Bresson always used a 50mm lens to capture the surrounding action, so his audience could see the central action in context and form stronger conclusions. Damon Young, in his Distraction, cites Henri Matisse in explaining how art became his way of looking at the world:

“I am unable to distinguish,” he wrote in 1908, “between the feeling I have for life, and my way of expressing it.”

Any way you cut it, paying attention and making your experience available to others are somehow linked. In Jean Laughton’s work, she takes her camera in the saddle and documents life as working cowgirl. The images she creates are mythic and telling and honest.

Walk through a few of Jean Laughton’s images and you’ll be glad she is paying attention. Laughton seems to have found a way to live in the scenes even as she brackets them. Her frames seem to not take her away from the action. The result is both memorable and accessible.



Image credit: Jean Laughton via Lenscratch

Written by kirkistan

September 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

Joe Sacco Journalism and the Heights Silent Movie

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Hijacking Old Forms

Joe Sacco’s Journalism is a sort of graphic-novel-meets-global-reportage. It’s cartooning with a deadly serious purpose that hijacks both reporting and cartooning and drops both at a new place. Mr. Sacco actually does several new things with this book: sketching out the story, inserting reporting into cartoon bubbles, publishing reporting that looks like a graphic novel. But chief among these new things is Sacco inserting himself into the story he was reporting. Most journalists work hard at writing objectively, that is, without bias. Though that is an impossible task, news readers want to feel they are hearing more than one side of a story.


Sacco went the opposite way: he inserted himself as reporter, sketched right into the panels of the action. We see him ask the uncomfortable question and record the answer while the action goes on—the medium allows for this in an extraordinary way.

The result is a book that is difficult to stick with because the war and refugee experiences depicted are shown in such a raw manner. I think this is exactly what Sacco was after: reporting that grabs you and forces you to interact. He is driving home the difficult stories of our day—and they are hard to see.

Sacco offers no apology for hearing from just one side. The feel of the book is a newspaper as told by your troubled, immigrant neighbor. You want to ignore it (as we do with so many difficult stories) but the whole thing is laid out right before you.

Speaking of being dropped at a new place, last night Mrs. Kirkistan and I attended the remastered The Thief of Baghdad at the Heights Theater, a silent movie complete with the mighty Wurlitzer emerging from the floor. Organist Karl Eilers did a masterful job of providing a continuous soundtrack for two and a half-hours (Oy!) of screen silence. What struck me was how different this experience was from my typical movie-going experience. Because sound incorporates, Eilers’ organ-playing and the response of the crowd (mostly laughter at what was once amazing special effects) were much more prominent. And it took the entire crowd (indeed, the theater was nearly full) to respond to Douglas Fairbanks’ dramatic wind-milling responses to most any situation—it must take a lot of physical energy to communicate without words.07152013-MightyWurlitzer

What old form should you revitalize today?


Image credit: Joe Sacco, Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 15, 2013 at 9:30 am

Cartier-Bresson: Zoom Lens is the Work of the Devil

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To See. To Learn to See.


HCB must have framed this and simply waited for the decisive moment.

I’m not sure if Henri Cartier-Bresson actually said that about the zoom lens, but it would fit with his aesthetic. He spent his life getting close to his subjects with a small Leica and its 50mm lens (which he used all his life). That camera and lens brought him in close and kept him there. Someone recently described the big zoom lenses available today as akin to hiding and shooting as a sniper.

What impresses me about the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson is his ability to capture something deep in people. A moment of reflection. He called it “the decisive moment” and it was gone as quickly as it appeared. Cartier-Bresson could irritate people because he would sometimes take a photograph before his initial bonjour.  But he also spent time just hanging around with his camera. People grew used to seeing it (the Leica) and him and he was quick to bring it up to his eye and put it down again: no big deal.


HCB caught Jean-Paul Sartre being Jean-Paul Sartre

In my quest to learn to see, Cartier-Bresson is a valuable guide. He photographed lots of famous folks (thinkers, artists and politicians—he shot Gandhi 15 minutes before Gandhi was, well, shot) and he captured lots of regular people—in a way that reveals a stunning beauty. Here’s a lovely collection of his Magnum photos. Two quotes from this remarkable man:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously.

Seeing takes work and practice.


Image Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Written by kirkistan

June 27, 2013 at 9:12 am

Two Equal Texts

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Christian Bök & Micah Lexier, ‘Two Equal Texts’ (2007) via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

May 18, 2013 at 5:00 am

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