c&p #6: Empathy is a cheat code to progressing at your art


I don't condone the use of drugs, but also, you're a grown-ass adult (probably), and you do what you like. I also can't be too critical of people who use them because I've been there too.

Drugs are an interesting place to start this issue because they can focus you on something so intensely; you see every detail, every shape, every shadow, every fine decoration, every minute intricacy. We can become lost in the idea that someone designed this - someone thought it was a good idea to use this material over another; someone thought it was a good idea to solve the problem in this specific way and not some other. We put ourselves into their shoes; we start to think about their process, how it came to be, what thoughts led them to that point, and how they must have felt when they completed it all.

This was my favourite thought train to fall into when I went through my own fun-loving, chemically-induced phase way back when (and never since); the micro and the macro—stuck in the flow of observation.

To be in this flow of observation is to put yourself in the seat of empathy, and empathy is the cheat code to understanding art.

Often, we lump the words "art and design" together. Many things can be art. Many things can be artistic. To be an artist is simply to be a person who expresses things. However, design is just as simple. Design is nothing but solving problems. To be a designer is to be a problem solver. Where that problem lives and the domain to which it is solved is the type of design or art it can be categorised in.

Art and design are related and often go together because expression mainly involves solving a problem, releasing a pent-up emotion, communicating a certain feeling, inspiring someone to do something, and showing a solution to a complex issue. There are artful ways to express the solutions to all of these problems.

Inherently in every piece of art lies a wealth of thought; an emotion, an expression, a problem, a solution, and empathy is the key to unlocking that wealth.

Currently, I'm writing this from Dallas, Texas. I'm at the airport on a 5-hour layover, and I'm sitting in a lovely chair after evacuating myself from an overpacked lounge. This chair is most certainly the best one I've sat on all day, and there are many like it. And while the vast majority of these chairs will go unthought about, I'm sitting in this one right now, thinking about how nice it is and why that is so.

For me, it's the butt support. The perfect height of squishy foam wrapped in fake leather gives my bottom a tremendous amount of relief compared to the hard aeroplane seats of the 13-hour flight I just got off. It's also preparing me for the next 10-hour flight to come. But I also like the lumbar support. It's perfectly positioned for my height. And while the armrests are slightly too tall, I can understand why whoever designed it made it this way—it's for lounging on, and the height encapsulates you while you sit in it, providing a faux private experience while you're stuck sitting next to someone else, and if you so decide to lean on it, there's ample seat space to shift your weight over. It's thoughtful.

My current situation, in these chairs.

Out of all the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have sat in this chair before me, I bet absolutely zero of them spent 206 words over two paragraphs talking about it. But, somewhat poetically, these words pay homage to the anonymous person who designed them.

Someone took the time to think about the use case, the setting, the types of people who would sit in it, the wear and tear of the materials, the exact shaping and look and the visual aesthetic of this chair. More time was spent solving these problems and designing this chair than you will ever know, only to be mildly appreciated momentarily by travellers who need more butt relief than what's provided to them on a long-haul flight.

And yet, it's in putting yourself in the shoes of the designer; it's in putting yourself in a position of observation and empathy that is the cheat code to making good art, to making good solutions, to becoming a person who solves things well. This chair solves a particular set of problems for a specific type of people. Other chairs solve specific problems for different groups of people. And if you're into making chairs, the more chairs you see and the more you analyse them for why they are the way they are, the better chairs you will make.

The more photographs you study from good photographers and the more you're able to put yourself in their shoes and understand their perspectives on why and how they shot those photographs, and the better photographs you will make.

The more documentaries you analyse the structure of and emphasise with the decisions (especially if you don't agree with them), the better your documentary structures will become. The more styles of illustration you expose yourself to and understand why those artists create in those styles, the more open your style will become.

It seems so simple; to just sit down and try to analyse a piece of work and emphasise with its creator. Perhaps too simple, which is why most people don't do it, but imagination and connection are our biggest weapons as humans, and that's the genesis of empathy.

Something to think about the next time you're daydreaming.

See you next week, creative.

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