Choosing example topics to visualise – Example 2 – “Why Read? I’m a Games Designer!” – Masters Degree

Module 4 –

Overheard in a Design Studio (paraphrased).

Student 1 – (about a fiction book they had just read) “It’s really clever, loads of cool ideas, and the imagery in the book, just makes me want to make something like it.”

Student 2 – “It sounds really cool, it’s so annoying…”

Student 1 – “Why annoying?”

Student 2 “Because it’s a book, and I know I’ll never read it. I just can’t get into it if its a book.”

Student 1 – “But you think it’s cool. The idea?”

Student 2 – “It sounds like something I’d really, really like… maybe if it was a game I could get into it.”

“Why Read? I’m a Games Designer!”

Firstly, it becomes important to have a short discussion of some possible reasons for this resistance to engaging in this line of inspiration and investigation by (some) contemporary Art & Design Students.

I have taught intuitive makers in all design fields and many avoid critical theory and in particular reading like a child avoids greens. It not that they really believe its pointless, they simply find the process of uptake to be difficult and so without the taste of success or some other immediate and simplistic benefit being evident, the process becomes yet another area in which failure looms large and so it becomes something to be shunned, anathema.

It must be stressed that I am not talking about the “active decision” not to read, or to edit ones reading, or even deal with the intellectual content of books in an alternative manner or via alternative media, but a negative “holding at arms length” of a resource that to the practicing creative/student should be an integral part of their design/creative process; part of their “synthesis” of their varied points of contact with the world about them.

So how to tackle this?

Well a survey of actual student attitudes about this part of their coursework.


So I devised some basic questions… and tried them out on a handful of students (It should be noted these are just preliminary testbed questions to be used as a rough gauge – a further survey will need to be drawn up in consultation with someone more used to this type of data gathering process).


I added a further form to clarify another standpoint that is clear when teaching, but perhaps not so much in discussion.


These results need looking at with someone who is more adroit at sifting data for meaning clearly, though one or two results came as no surprise.

The Italian Bicycle Ride

Struggling to find metaphors to describe the difficulties that some people may have with reading and the consequent resistance to Critical Theory, I suggested to colleagues that it could be seen as…

“Two weekend explorers are given bicycles atop a hill in Italy and told to take note of the magnificent views and architecture below, and to thrill at the breeze with the smell of orchards on the air… only to find one of them having not ridden a bike since they were a child, and struggling to enjoy the view at all.

In fact they cycled with their eyes down monitoring just the handle bars, and the road directly in front of the bike.”

Here the bike is the act of reading; and the countryside views, the over arching story of the book; the breeze, any subtexts, analogies and metaphors; and the scent of orchards, allusions to other literary works perhaps.

I thought again of structuring my initial response to the creation of my “visualisation of concept” as a visualised metaphor, by the creation of a straight forward poster.

My mini-brief to myself, “One cyclist riding while shielding their eyes looking at the view – the other looking wobbly and nervous looking down at their handlebars – equations view = understanding/metaphor etc. and bikes the act of reading.”

Something similar to or parodying classic cycling poster art – Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, and others.

And maybe throwing in a little of my love of the work of Jay Ryan (Printmaker, Animals and Objects In And Out Of Water).

Jay Ryan Images

First a very quick thumbnail or two to establish composition…


Then some cycling Character doodles…

Bear Sketches

And with a some stock photography and a little Photoshop, a sketch for a poster (below)… Clearly the whole image would have to be an illustration, but for the purposes of explanation this is suffice.

Cycling Poster 001x

Copy and illustrations by G Sleightholme, Free PhotoStock (Italian Countryside, recomposed) courtesy of

But again, even if (especially if) done well, this allows the unimportant idiosyncrasies of aesthetic decision and design preference, a weighting for beauty or design style to outweigh the message. This idea would show how clever the designer was, and not really allow the student to explore the message the idea held in the holistic way I had hoped.

So back to the core idea.

It is an unspoken idea that beyond the early learning of ones alphabet and the subsequent structuring and reading back of simple sentences, you are going to need to practice reading, if you want to get fluent.

At least fluent to the point where you no longer consider the page and the words but only the meaning of what is flowing in – (see my combinatorial placement of literacy against Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow and Bloom’s Psychomotor Taxonomy below).

Reading and Flow

Without a confident and well exercised reading skill set, I see some of our students quickly moving through Boredom, Apathy and Worry, and into Anxiety as the deadlines of Critical and Theoretical Studies assignment loom on the horizon.

Now there are meany out there who profess to have tips and tricks that work, allowing the student to tap into ways to read more, more quickly, how to pick up more information, to read faster, to skim. But all of these people still seem to stress one fundamental thing… to do any of these things you still have to pick up a book and read it.

And tips and tricks aside, the act of repeatedly reading, whether for study or as a source of pleasure, the act in and of itself, will, with repetition, become easier.

Just as Bloom posits in his taxonomy of Psycho-motor function (above), that repeated manipulation of the tools and media breed competency and eventual naturalisation, so does the repeated act of reading lead to an eventual naturalisation in which the reader can concentrate on the content of the text.


In the language of Maths and Science I suppose we would/could use an equation to posit the idea…

As an Equation we might say:

.                 Reading

.             _________                                  =              > uptake of over arching concepts

a lack of skill  + or x  fear of failure                          > recognition of metaphors & analogies

.                                                                                       < resistance to theoretical awareness

.                                                                                       <resistance to the act of reading itself

Conversely as expressed somewhat clumsily, practiced and undeveloped reading skills cause a barrier to manifest between the medium and the message, at which point a parsing of anything beyond the actual words and their literal meaning (sometimes not even that) does not occur or is muffled.

And what a thing to miss out on…

Jennifer Egan, novelist and short story writer says “Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.” – even as someone who isn’t a writer this is true. It all feeds your understanding of “the other”, the things you have yet, or will perhaps not ever experience yourself. Especially in fiction writing through which the novelist allows us the opportunity to experience the life of another, occasionally directly through their eyes, ears and mind.

Reading fiction allows us to engage with micro-Anthropological studies from the inside, out. We walk the path of “empathy” each time we feel for a character we read. Synthesising yet another unique worldview.

The sketch plan below seeks to show or validate the reasoning behind “wider-reading” and the links therein to experience, the recording process, empathy; and in turn “empathy” and its links to the generative creative process.


It was this issue of “empathy” that rang out during a taught session on character design, and finding the students worldview in some cases too limited to develop “…a feeling of other” (i.e. not simply a superhero/wizard version of themselves or a vehicle for personal desires that some naive character designs appear to be), a defined character based upon experience of a divergent or completely alien worldview.

Further reasons…

“One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.” So said  H.P. Lovecraft in this curious example within an example from the king of purple prose himself (“…in January of 1920, iconic science fiction and fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft published a short guide titled “Literary Composition” for United Amateur Press Association” links via brainpicker HERE)

He went on to say… “Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests…” – if you don’t recognise a word, look it up! Don’t just ignore it, or worse dismiss it as a “posh or big word”.

Vocational language in particular is important. Every trade, industry and profession has its own unique language, and building a glossary of terms and technical expression to use when interacting with these your future colleagues and collaborators is vital. Reading within (and then without) your subject area and reading with comprehension is a step on the road to this.

All of it will feed your creativity. Every new idea brought to light by a character or author, every feeling you’ve ever had shared by the creation of another writer or the writer themselves. Every question, every solution from between the pages of a book, added to the wealth of first hand experience you (and you alone, in this unique combination) encounter as you move through the world.

Every film, every piece of art you see, all synthesised and pushed through the particular mechanical processes of your chosen design discipline to create something new.

Paula Scher discusses her the process of synthesis of all she has read learned and watched into her design process which after years of honing and adding material to (like her own unique “Google images” and “Google reads” collection  combined).

“I operate very strongly on my instincts, and if I get… if I don’t get it in the first crack, I get it in the second, and if I don’t get it in the second, I almost never get it. Because like I said, its a very intuitive kind of process for me. I’ve never been a refiner… um, my best work are kind of big bold strokes, that came very quickly. – She goes onto say about some of her faster ideas – It can take, yknow, its done in a second… (laughs) how can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head.” ~ Paula Scher

In Debbie Millman’s interview with Scher for her book How To Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Scher reiterates this point about being as Austin Kleon might put it – “You are a mash-up of everything you let into your life.” – his genealogy of ideas…

In the midst of a metaphor explaining her own creative process she states, “I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there.”

As Maria Popova (self professed as an interestingness hunter-gatherer) states in her “about” section to her excellent blog (my highlights in bold)

“Because creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to culture, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become”.

Another great metaphor – one I’ve tried to work out for myself focusing in particular on the area of wider reading (below).

Reading - Read Everything

Read Everything! Get More Ingredients for your Creativity Sandwich – Click to Enlarge

Austin Kleon (another favourite of Popova) suggests to his readers and any student creatives out there to Steal Like An Artist – which clearly on the surface goes against everything we hold dear about creativity and uniqueness or innovation and NEW, never before thought of ideas.

Clearly, he is not advocating plagiarism, in fact, looking a little deeper, what Kleon is discussing is just another iteration of this idea of creating your own Gibsonian “personal micro-culture” – and suggesting some ingredients for that, or two of the Things That You Will Need are:

Curiosity – what defines as “the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness”.


A Willingness To Look Stupid – a shrugging off of that ever present Fear of Failure.

Again something close to the hearts of many experienced designers, all of whom know there is no truly great moment of inspiration and total safety combined. You need to step into the unknown from time to time. Milton Glaser sees it as the dichotomy between Professional Practice (the thing that you have got better and better at) and Personal development (the things you still fail at occasionally but enjoy). The industries buyers might want us to get better and better at less and less, but as a creative we want to do more, and distinctly different things. Pulling an iteration of the same idea off the top of the pile each time we receive a brief is not going to keep us creative for very long. Paula Scher in the video below begins to discuss the same idea towards the end of her TED Lecture.

Paula Scher – designer – talking about her career in design, influences, pet-peeves, becoming popular, play and being serious not solemn in your creative life, and how accepting failure helps you grow*.

So bringing it all back to the tricky subject at hand… why aren’t you reading? Is it because it’s difficult? Do you fear not understanding it all, or worse, not seeing what you’ve heard other people see in hidden there amongst the words?

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

Steven Pressfield

Dr. Margaret Haviland, in her article Encouraging Teachers to Teach Creativity suggests:

“If we want students to think and act creatively then the assessments we create for them must measure creativity. Ingenuity, inventiveness, originality are non-linear, iterative, and prone to failure. Failure is great! Failure here is different from failing to demonstrate understanding of graphing logarithms in a pre-calc test; this kind of test measures grasp of the content and application. Our assessments for creativity need to reward failure within the creative process.

In modeling our own creative process we powerfully model for our students the rewards of approaching their lives with joyful wonder, the resilience to fail, the agency to seek their own solutions.”

“…failure within the creative process”, as a clear record of experimentation and testing.

Ultimately, as a Games designer, particularly those who wish to design ever expanding, free roaming, persistent, virtual worlds… worlds that to have meaning, or at least engender empathic recognition, must have some referential bearing on the world that currently exists and the world as it has existed.

Therefore by simple extension (and to quote Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks ’64-’80) the games designer “must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my [their] province.

Of course all we can do is show them the maps, the roads as charted by those who have gone before us, or those we have taken ourselves, the pathways that lead to an understanding of how this combinatorial creative synthesis works, whether with visuals or passionate words and hope that they meet us half way rather than pull that first desperate excuse from the hat, that excuse that prevents any issues (no matter how ill-defined we tell them these terms are) of personal failure, wasted time and effort, and of course preserves that most fragile of treasures, peer acceptance…

But as Steve Jobs said “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”

And an accessible way to begin your exploration and exposure is through this not so simple act of reading.

“…the best things humans have done…” How can the knowledge and passion that has been expressed through literature, fiction, and factual writing be separate to that? It can’t. Read!


Get on that bike and ride it until you don’t need to look at the handlebars, or check your feet anymore… then as you freewheel begin to take a look around at all that great scenery, then encourage your children to do the same.


For goodness, and your own mortal/immortal (it matters not) soul’s sake, go sign up to Maria Popova’s amazing blog BrainPickings

~ by hesir on January 22, 2013.

One Response to “Choosing example topics to visualise – Example 2 – “Why Read? I’m a Games Designer!” – Masters Degree”

  1. […] this too, on Reading and Empathy …and check out this recommended reading list if you have the […]

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