death / watch


Most of us walk around with eyes closed. A slight exaggeration, but almost true. The inside of our heads is built to ignore the familiar. Observation is a key component of creativity—yet it can take the worst of shocks to fully switch it on.

Living largely via pixel & glass and distracted by everyday concerns we neglect the actual world as a source of inspiration. For those of us without the time / inclination for a Buddhist attention to the now, it can take awareness of imminent death to force a clear-sighted perspective.

As a music enthusiast I was upset to hear of Wilko Johnson’s recent cancer diagnosis. His old band Dr Feelgood
were a timeless one-off. I saw him play late last year—he and master bassist Norman Watt-Roy two fiercely animated Dickens characters. Wilko’s career was resurgent, boosted by Julien Temple’s terrific 2010 documentary Oil City Confidential (highly recommended BTW, even if you hate the music). He’ll be fortunate to see this year out, but in a recent interview spoke of feeling “alive and …existing in the moment”, his appetite for music (and astronomy) in no way diminished. This reminded me of legendary TV writer Dennis Potter, whose original and innovative 1978 TV drama series Pennies from Heaven made powerful use of music—still possibly my favourite piece of TV (The Wire / The Sopranos / Breaking Bad / Treme etc. notwithstanding). In a famous last interview (he died in 1994) Potter spoke of an ecstatic appreciation of nature: “…the blooms were the bloomingest blooms ever…”.

For Johnson and Potter the universe did not change but their focus did. They may have both been innovators but surely any mind free of the obligation to fret about mortgages and a million other mundanities can be more perceptive? For those of us fortunate enough to be healthy truly clearing the mind is easier said than done, but it’s worth remembering that everyday wonders are out there, waiting for us our appreciation.

Creativity relies on brains fully charged with information, experience and knowledge and the individual take that comes from noticing and reacting to what people / things do, how they look / move / feel, and noticing what works / fails… This the preparation that leads to the possibility of originality. The majority of good designers maintain some form of sketch / note book to record such thoughts and observations, even if less than 1% of it is directly applicable to work.

I like to think that coffin-dodging is a way off for me (despite early morning appearances to the contrary) but I find Wilko & Potter’s revelations an uplifting reminder that we spend far too much time looking in and not enough looking around. Our eyes and brain are our most useful design tools and before we develop the technology to bypass them entirely we must make more effort to notice the worlds of interesting and useful detail on both sides of the glass divide.



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