Thoughts on how we see the world, with thanks to Ed Catmull and the “Invisible Gorilla.”

I’ve written before about the need for brief writers to have empathy. You need to have the capacity to walk a mile in the shoes of you customer. You can’t fake empathy. You can’t pretend to know someone with superficial observations, bullet-point factoids, “I read it somewhere else” research.

Research is important, but empathy connects you to your customer.

Which led me to thinking about how we see the world. I mean literally the way we take in information through our eyes, and how we often trust this information when we shouldn’t. And how this flaw shows up in the creative brief.

Allow me to share two anecdotes, one from Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration, and a study more than 20 years old that revealed how blind people are to the unexpected. Both, I think, shine a bright light on how poorly we “see,” and teach us some valuable lessons.

First, from Ed Catmull. You may recall that Catmull was the president of Pixar Animation and later Disney Animation. He retired in 2019. His book, published in 2014, is a master class in nurturing and maintaining a creative culture within an organization.

In the early 2000s, Pixar started Pixar University, a perk for employees that offered a long list of classes, all free. Topics covered the gamut, from sculpting to painting to acting to belly dancing, computer programming, ballet.

The first class was drawing, and of the 120 Pixar employees, 100 signed up. Including folks from the accounting department and HR.

The drawing instructor provides the lesson here. She knew that beginners tend to see objects not as objects, but as images. We have an image in our heads of what a, say, chair is and we try to draw the chair based on the “image” rather than the chair itself. The object.

The drawing instructor taught the Pixar students how to “see” the chair by essentially teaching them how to turn off the left lobe of their brains. The side that computes verbal and analytical thinking.

Turning off one side of your brain is impossible. It’s like asking a sighted person to look with only her right eye. Unless she covered her left eye, she couldn’t comply. Sighted people see with both eyes.

Turning off your left lobe is a metaphor for one way to see. The drawing instructor asked Pixar students to draw everything but the chair. In other words, draw the spaces around the chair, but not the chair itself.

Well, that changed everything. Even I could see what this meant, just from reading the instructions. I glanced up at one of the wood stools at my kitchen counter, and I saw it instantly: the rectangles and squares and odd pyramids of “space” between the seat and legs and support pieces holding the parts together. If I were to take out a pad of paper and a pencil and start drawing, I’d have a much easier time drawing a “chair” as the object it is rather than what I think it is by simply drawing everything around the chair.

In other words, the drawing instructor taught her students how to see differently. To see the object, not the image in our heads.

It’s not exactly empathy as the word is defined, but when you see more clearly, even an object, empathy is more possible, more likely.

Second, the Invisible Gorilla experiment. It was conducted first in 1999, and it’s a bit hard to believe, but the results have been replicated. Some of you may know about it.

A quick summary: Test subjects watch a video of two groups of people, one dressed in white, the other dressed in black. Both groups in the video pass basketballs to each other. The test subjects are asked to count the number of times the people dressed in white pass the basketball back and forth, and to ignore the folks in black. In the middle of this scene, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks through the group of basketball passing people. The gorilla stops in the middle, turns to the camera, pounds its chest, turns and walks off camera.

After the test subjects finished watching the video they were asked if they had seen the gorilla walk through the video.

Fifty percent said “No,” they had not seen the gorilla. Half the test subjects missed the gorilla!

The term to describe this phenomenon is Inattention Blindness. We are aware of far less than we think.

What are the lessons for creative brief writers?

First, collaborate with a partner or two, and you will be far less likely to miss the guy in the gorilla suit. Meaning, you’ll have backups who can pick up the important details if you miss one or more.

Second, be aware of your blind spots, which usually translate into not seeing the full picture. And that can lead to obstacles preventing you from empathizing with your customer.

Third, if you can’t draw, now may be the time to take a drawing class. It is for me. As a writer, I am keenly aware of my powers of observation, and both Catmull’s story and a reminder of the pitfalls of awareness brought home by the invisible gorilla made it clear I need to enhance my “seeing” skills.

Fourth, now you can see why even your best customer isn’t thinking about your product. Even when she sees one of your ads, that’s no guarantee she saw it.



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