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Rob Walker—author, columnist, and teacher—has just released his third book, The Art of Noticing. It’s an essential read for designers, but also an amazing book for anyone interested in lateral thinking and, well, taking a break from their phone. (It’s also a fantastic gift for clients and students.) On the heels of its publication, Allan Chochinov’s Core77 catches up with Rob to learn more about the book, how it came together, and the benefits of focusing on the things we take for granted.

 

Allan Chochinov: Let’s start at the beginning, Rob. We know that you have long been interested in people noticing things around them that we generally find unremarkable, or perhaps more importantly, don’t even “see” them as things to be remarked upon...at least in the form of taking notice. This is an element in much of your work. Where did this curiosity start?

Rob Walker: I suppose it’s a cliché to say that as children we’re all super-curious, but for some this falls away over time. So maybe this is just one of the ways in which I never quite grew up. I was just incredibly bored as a kid (I grew up in a small town, obviously long before the Internet), particularly by school, so I was always looking for amusement or surprise. At the same time I was very shy, and I was suspicious of “authority,” for lack of a better word. So, pretty standard-issue alienated outsider stuff.

Then I stumbled into journalism, a field that offers a certain opportunity to curious observers. At the same time, I’ve always tried to have some kind of side project going, usually something with no obvious commercial/market potential, often with collaborators—zines, a comic, an online fiction experiment, a public art stunt, and so on. Later, thanks mostly to you, I took another stumble into teaching, and that forced me to think through why it is that I believe a curious mindset, one that resists ceding control of one’s attention to others, is important.

Meanwhile, the culture at large seemed to be getting more and more concerned about how technology distracts us and makes it hard to focus and prods us to attend to certain things and ignore others. Which, to me, makes this subject more urgent.

 

There are very logical evolutionary reasons that we want to pay attention to whatever we think everyone else is paying attention to. But what makes humans human is our ability to overcome that, to set aside instinctual behavior, think in the long term—to pay attention to what we, as individuals, value and believe is worth attending to.

 

Indeed. And it’s not exactly a fair fight, given that online platforms can afford the very best designers, behavioral psychologists, and marketers to keep us glued to ever-irresistible (and novel) content. I wonder if “noticing” things online is different in ways yet understood. I think about kids making memes as a response to a particular flavor of what they see. This reaction to “design” something—they used to be called “response videos” when YouTube was new—has got to be a bright spot, right?

Well, maybe. Two things here.

First, the designers and marketers and so on aren’t quite the magical puppet masters that they portray themselves to be. They’re merely exploiting aspects of human nature. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I’m very wary of mystifying these people and processes and making them seem impossible to overcome (without help from the exact same designers and marketers who allegedly “caused” the problem and now are working very hard to forward the idea that they are the only ones who can “solve” it).

There are very logical evolutionary reasons that we want to pay attention to whatever we think everyone else is paying attention to. But what makes humans human is our ability to overcome that, to set aside instinctual behavior, think in the long term—to pay attention to what we, as individuals, value and believe is worth attending to.

Similarly, I’m not against response memes or videos and the like, but I’m very specifically interested in spending less time and energy merely reacting to others’ expression. Sometimes reacting matters, obviously. But if you spend your life reacting to others, that doesn’t leave room for you to be, you know, a person.

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And hopefully a person who has the ability (or the persistence!) to exercise her/his agency. And that’s where the book seems so accessible. In many of the activities you suggest, the magic seems to be in the creation of the structures that bound each kind of engagement—each invitation, really, to notice something. Tell us what it was like to put all of these together. And of course, what the number of them might mean. 

I noodled for quite a while with the idea of “a book about attention” before coming around to the idea of making it a collection of exercises or provocations. My publisher doesn’t like the word “assignment,” but the form was clearly influenced by giving assignments. And once I hit on this, putting it together was really pretty fun. I came up with my own idea, I got ideas from students, from things I read. I interviewed people and asked for their ideas. The format allowed me to go long or short with any given prompt, and I decided to rank them by difficulty. We put a lot of thought into sequencing, but the structure is intended to allow the reader to dip in and out if they don’t want to go straight through. 

We debated whether to have 100 or 101 or 150 or what. I wrote many dozens more than are in the book, and we decided my editor would winnow it down and we’d settle on an exact number based on that. I became attracted to the idea of a number that seemed really specific—this lends some kind of weird authority that makes people curious, like the numbers on Cosmo covers. I thought it should be a prime number, but that was kind of my only serious parameter. We ended up at 131. So that’s the number because it’s the right number!  

Darn! I was going to comment that it was a prime number!!!

RW: I really don’t know much about math, but if you’re interested in that point, then I suggest you check out the Wikipedia entry for the number 131 (which I actually consulted when I was conferring with my editor about whether 131 was our final answer).  

Yikes! That Sonnet—yowza. Okay, let’s get into the meat of the book, and maybe focus on a few exercises that I think really speak to the designer. Some are breezy, and some are tough. And for sure the hardest hitting is on page 202: “Read the Label.” This is a speculative product that I’ve seen often in design school, but it’s also one of the most compelling ideas for a design intervention that speaks to everything from materiality to labor practices. You boil it down to “Scrutinize whatever information is available” in the bold-face. (By the way, I really love how each of the activities has this distillation sentence; I also adore the illustrations!) Anyway, can you tell us a bit more about that activity, and maybe one of the ways that you’ve employed it yourself?

As an aside, one of the fun things for me in talking about this book is that everybody zeroes in on different exercises. I so rarely have to repeat myself!  

Anyway, yes, that exercise refers to reading the labels in clothing, but means to make the larger point that we should a) take the time to scrutinize whatever information is available in plain sight that might guide our decisions, and b) consider what information is missing, and why that is. Usually details are vague, little more than “Made in X,” or whatever. But if you’re wondering “how they do it” for such a low retail price, well, maybe that should give you pause. It’s just another way to be engaged in the world, and to pay attention to something that hardly anyone wants you to pay attention to.

And obviously it applies beyond apparel.

(And thanks about the design & illustration, we spent a lot of time on that. And it was a thrill to have Mendelsund / Munday do the actual illustrations, which I love!)

I think designers are always trying to deduce what could be—whether it’s how to tweak some element of a product, or completely re-envision a category.

Another of my favorites is on page 141, “Channel Your Inner Monk.” It made me think of my friend and colleague Petrula Vrontikis—an amazing graphic designer and educator—who says, “I work with my ears.” Here she’s talking about working with clients and users. But when I read your text, you’re of course working way beyond the consultant. (My other favorite expression on this is “you only learn when you’re not talking.”) I’m very excited about trying not talking for a day. I’m also excited about the “not spending any money for a day” exercise on page 117. 

I think with both of those exercises, the most important thing to remember is that it’s fine to fail. The point of self-denial is to make yourself focus on stuff you take for granted—speaking freely, spending your way through the day as a matter of course. But yes, per your friend, I suspect a useful side effect of speaking less is a different kind of listening. She’s actually quite wise: I’m pretty sure we all know professionals in many fields who are a lot more focused on telling their clients things, rather than absorbing what the client wants and needs. I’m pretty sure I’ve done versions of that myself.  

On page 39, you talk about Adam Grant’s notion of conditional thinking—key for designers of course. Can you describe this a little more, and maybe talk about some of the ways that you incorporate this kind of thinking in your own process and work?

The point of the underlying research was that the subjects needed an eraser, and didn’t have one. But those who were primed to think conditionally (to think about what “could be” instead of what “is”) realized that a rubber band can function as an eraser. Those who weren’t primed that way were much less likely to have that epiphany.

I think designers are always trying to deduce what could be—whether it’s how to tweak some element of a product, or completely re-envision a category. In the book I talk about a designer who does street interventions under the name Rotten Apple, and he was very good at seeing how, say, a bike rack could be converted into a chair, or a walk/don’t walk sign could be used for some impromptu pull-ups.

So I think this is a way of looking that could simply be fun, but is also kind of at the heart of innovation.

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So that last one, “Change Is to Could Be”  is in the first section of the book, Looking. You divide things up into five families of exercises: Looking, Sensing, Going Places, Connecting with Others, and Being Alone. How did you go about clustering the exercises to come up with these, and what were some of the categories that didn’t make it to the finish line?

We designed the book in a way that you can actually ignore those sections altogether, flip around, read it any order. The exercises are ranked by difficulty, so you can focus on that if you want. (This could have been another way to order the book—easy to difficult—but I never seriously considered that structure, it just didn’t feel right to me.) In a way, this all a concession to short attention spans! I’m trying to meet readers where they are. Nobody needs a tome on how hard it is to focus.

So, the first section focuses on the visual, because that’s what people think of when you first describe noticing or attention. (Thus the cover features an eye symbol.) So that’s just starting where the reader is. I thought about structuring it around the five senses, but for a variety of reasons that just didn’t work. So the second section became concentrated on getting beyond vision—sound, touch, and even sensations beyond the five senses (feelings, etc.). 

The third section focuses on place—exploring new places, re-exploring the ones you know well. The fourth section is about connecting with other people. This is an idea that basically came from students. Every year I ask them to “practice paying attention,” and the point is to see how they resolve the challenge. On several occasions the ideas involved talking to or attending to strangers, which would never have occurred to me. (I’m very introverted.) But it makes a lot of sense, and inspired a whole bunch of ideas about listening and communicating and how attention affects relationships, both close and fleeting.

The last section is more interior. I had this rough structure, but it wasn’t really thought out very well until my editor (Maria Goldverg) got involved, and I remember her saying what I’d done boiled down to: “First you look around, then you end up looking inside.” That became the sort of north star comment for finishing the structure and sequencing and so on. She had a lot to do with that.

 

Every year I ask them to “practice paying attention,” and the point is to see how they resolve the challenge. On several occasions the ideas involved talking to or attending to strangers, which would never have occurred to me.

 

 

And speaking of the cutting room floor: Are there two or three exercises that didn’t make it into the book? Anything that you were in love with but just couldn’t make work?

Somebody else asked about this recently and I was surprised that when I looked at the “cut” file, how much was in it. Dozens! I’m going to start sharing some of those in the newsletter soon. But I can mention one.

There’s a little batch of prompts that advise the reader to “Look like” a historian, or a futurist, or whatever, meaning look at the world in the manner that a historian, futurist, etc. would. I had one that was “Look Like Prey.” This comes from walking my dog: Some years ago he was attacked by an off-leash dog who came out of nowhere and was much bigger, and frankly I thought was going to kill my dog. Ultimately it was brought under control, but it was really traumatic. To the point that to this day, when I walk my dog, I’m constantly looking for threats. It’s a very intense way of looking at the world—like prey.

But when Maria read this, she made the point that a woman might not appreciate this idea of adopting the perspective of prey. And that was a fair point. So we dropped it.

My goodness, that story about your dog is awful. I hope s/he is okay. But that reminds me of a comment that you made during a recent talk of yours. It was just off the cuff, but it’s one of the things that stuck most for me about the evening. You urged the audience, “When you walk your dog, please don’t be on your phone. Just be with your dog.” Seeing this around Manhattan is truly a sad thing. 

Oh he’s fine, it was some years ago, he recovered. But yes, be with your dog! It’s such a great opportunity to free yourself from other obligations. Take advantage of it.

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You also have a newsletter as an extension of the book. Can you tell us more about what goes into that, and how readers can sign up for it?

The Art of Noticing newsletter is basically a way to keep sharing or experimenting with new ideas similar to those in the book, or highlighting projects that resonate with the book’s themes. I randomly started sharing “icebreaker” questions, and asking people to send in their own favorite icebreakers, and that’s kind of taken on a life of its own.

I’ve had other newsletters in the past (my first book had its origins in a somewhat newsletter-like series of essays distributed via email to friends and then to strangers). I like the form, it feels more genuine than, say, social media. Getting the icebreakers and other feedback and tips from readers is really enjoyable. Anyone interested can sign up at tinyletter.com/robwalker. (It’s possible that I’ll have to switch to a different service as the number of subscribers has grown, so as a backup people can always check robwalker.net/noticing.)

In your acknowledgments, you give a very generous credit to the students of the SVA Products of Design. Can you tell us more about your course, and how the activities with which you engage your students gave some oxygen to the book?

My class, a five-week mini-class, really, is called Point of View, and it’s about helping students think about what they want to do, and talk about it when they’ve done it. Like the book, the class heavily emphasizes the importance of noticing things everyone else overlooked—which is the starting point for creativity and innovation, if you think about it. Teaching forced me to articulate a lot of vaguely held beliefs about attention and originality and so on, and that definitely got me thinking in ways that led to the book.