If you want to learn how to put something together, practice taking it apart

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It hit me recently that one of the best ways to learn most creative skills is simply by paying attention to the world around you. Formal classes or a mentorship are great, practice is obviously essential. But learning to dismantle what you see is indispensable.


The more time I spend with people who work in creative industries, the more my perspective on the world changes.  I'm more perceptive. More appreciative. I look at beautiful and effective things around me - books, logos, podcasts, user interfaces, short films, photography, events, furniture, prints - and consider what went into them.

Think about it. 

That thing you glanced at? A team of people (and it's rarely one person) worked on it for far longer than you'd probably expect. They went through the anxiety, expectation of rejection and eventual elation of getting a pitch accepted. Details were fought over, darlings killed, coffee drunk, sketches and notes made in overpriced notebooks. Submitting it felt like sending a child off to war. They're probably refreshing their Twitter feed right now to see if anyone has mentioned it. 

We see all this in our own work. We look at it and see the missed sleep, the arguments, the regrets, the decisions made, the maddening tiny flaws. Knowing full well that no one really cares, that's it's finished now, even while knowing it did its job better than expected. We know the finished thing is the tip of the iceberg.

It's not usually like that with other people's work. Looking at the final product, we're not meant to see beyond the surface. Mostly, its meant to seem effortless, pure signal and no noise. We're meant to lap it up, to passively consume.

Many forms of art should be almost invisible. Seamless user interfaces. Frictionless interior design. Fiction that pulls a reader from paragraph to paragraph. Instantly recognizable graphic design. We shouldn’t notice their structure - we should just feel whatever they make us feel.

But when you make the switch from consumer to maker, that dynamic changes. It has to. You're no longer consuming. You're dissecting. 

Every word Steve Jobs ever said has been quoted to death. Still, the classic line from his Stanford address- 'everything around you was made up by people no smarter than you'- is apt. The smarter part is irrelevant, I think just recognizing that someone made everything is enough.

If you want to learn how to put something together, practice taking it apart.

I mostly learned what I know about copywriting by paying attention. In fact, I'd say that the best way to learn about copywriting is to look up the most popular online courses that teach it, then read their sales pages. Seriously.

For the last year or so, every time I have seen a non-sleazy sales page, or product description, or billboard, or article or email which makes me want to grab my wallet, I'll scan, note down, or save it to Evernote. Print it out. Highlight, annotate, analyze, figure out why it works.

It's not as easy as it sounds. Like many skills, copywriting looks very simple from the outside but there is so much under the surface. The same technique works for pretty much any skill. 

Do this and you start recognizing the effort that goes into otherwise ignored things. Personally, my appreciation of anything increases tenfold once I know how it was made. 

It becomes a dialogue with the creator. You're trying to figure out their secrets.

Sure, you can ask people how they made their work. And most creative people, contrary to the reclusive stereotype, LOVE talking about what they do. If you're genuinely interested, they'll talk about it for hours. Attention is a scarce resource these days. 

I’ve learned so much by just asking good questions, then shutting up and listening. Bonus points for asking questions they don’t hear every day. E.g.instead of asking where they get their ideas (read this book) ask how they capture their ideas, decide which ones are worth pursuing or what their first step is to turn an idea into something concrete. Questions like that from an enthusiastic, eager listener are like catnip to most creative people. 

But there's a limit to that; the sense of fingerspitzengefühl someone builds up for any skill over time. When you're trying to get down to the details - why that color? What that word? Why that chord? Why that gesture?- the most skilled people are often the worse educators.

They know exactly what to do, it just has become so ingrained and instinctive over time that they can't explain the thought processes. And I'm talking about really diving into the tiny details here.

The next step is to stop listening to what people say and start figuring out exactly what they do and how.

To look at a piece of art or music or writing or a negotiation or product that feels right to you, and start dissecting it. Start taking it to pieces and examining each one.

Asking: why does this work? Why is it different? What exactly does it do? How does it do that? What choices has the creator made?

Even; what have they left out? What aren't they explicitly saying? The why is as important as the how. Going in depth on why something works doesn't just give vague directives, it teaches the underlying, foundational ideas.

You're getting inside the creator's head. Your observations may not necessarily be correct. Maybe they made a decision for a different reason to the one you intuit. But that's not really so important. If you understand how it affects you and what details contribute to that, you can start figuring out how to do the same in your own work.

I'm not talking about copying or mimicking (although that does sometimes happen unintentionally, it's called cryptomnesia.) I'm not talking about looking for tips, shortcuts, instructions or a formula. They're not that helpful because you're a different person, making different work, with a different purpose, in a different way. I'm talking about cutting through the Bullshit Industrial Complex which throws useless recycled advice at us, and instead drawing our own maps. It's crucial to go direct to the source - reading about 10 hacks to write like Hemingway or give a speech like Martin Luther King is not a substitute.

Does it spoil the magic?

Yes and no. 

Yes because whatever piece of art you're looking at ceases to seem like something which appeared out of thin air, fully formed. 

When I took Film Studies in college, a few people told me I'd never be able to enjoy a film again without analyzing every detail. In a way, that has been the case. I don't watch films in the same way. There's an undercurrent of unconscious analysis. 

And no because this process uncovers a different sort of magic.

I discovered the Song Exploder podcast a few weeks ago, then listened to pretty much every available episode. In each, a musician dismantles one of their best songs and explains each little component. They run through their decision processes, what they cut out, what's in the song that no one notices, how it all came together. At the end of each episode, the song plays in full. 

As with any form of dismantling, it soon become apparent that the individual components aren't, in themselves, that remarkeable. It's the interplay between the parts, the way they blend together into something which is (cliche alert) greater than the sum of its parts. That is, I believe, where the real magic lies.

Header image is of tattoo #12, inked by Paul at Corazon. This little typewriter was #9, from InkAddiction in Verona.

Rosie Leizrowice