#noticing: or ways to boost your creativity with social media


Above: #noticing the Observer Building, Hastings, UK

If you want a golden rule … [the] true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. William Morris

I recently read an eighteen month old article by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian that argued that Instagram and other social media was killing creativity. The comment was backed up by reference to a case in which two photographers on a cruise both took shots of the same iceberg. Not surprisingly their photographs turned out to be pretty much identical – they were after all on the same boat at the same time. However, one of the photographers claimed that the other had plagiarised her work. Jones was annoyed that neither photographer had done anything very creative or, especially, original. I guess if you want to claim your photography is art this might be an important case to study and consider. But what if you are just having fun or simply trying to boost your own creative abilities?

So let me try to counter Jones and to show why social media and the internet at large can help you be more creative too. Although I can’t argue with the cliché, “Get off that screen and get out into the real world!” there are some good reasons to get back on that screen when you come back. These reasons have to do with fostering the habits that make you a creative person. They include knowing where to find inspiration, being more observant, reflecting on your experiences and browsing cat memes!

Arranging your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds and followings to enable you to build your own personalised library of inspirations, is, obviously, a great start to creative social media watching. This is like having a newspaper or iPlayer kind of channel that brings you the material that you want. It is a significant source of research and information. This is the so-called democratising of the internet (not just in a political way) to enable smaller voices to be heard, to see the creatives you would not normally come across. And to be seen by them. My own modest Instagram followers and following are from all over the world. On a daily basis I see creative stuff coming out of a range of places such as Turkey, the Lebanon, Russia, Texas, Massachusetts, India, Poland, Japan, Australia and most rural England. This is why social media can be really rich and rewarding.

However, in your personalising of what you receive, just be aware of not keeping your interest too narrow, because the creative person gets excited by all kinds of information, not just the news from their favourites. In graphic design, for instance, there are plenty of sources of really fantastic works. But everybody else will be seeing this too. You might need to add some farther flung research sources (such as say, a nature source, or engineering, or philosophy, or sustainability, cookery) to boost your knowledge and to help you make connections. The best ideas and most innovations come from cross-disciplinary connections. So, my first challenge to you is to go and follow three pages on your Facebook or other social media, relating to things you know or care little about and to try to find ideas from these too. You can always change or rotate these choices later. Creative people relish the unknown and ambiguous.


Above: framing and re-composing – #noticing vignette of front window at the House of Illustration, London

Creative people feed their brains with stuff. It is the only way that new stuff – ie: ideas – will come out. So noticing more is really important. But it is not just having a quick glimpse at interesting things. The habit should include seeing interest where others do not and then recording what you have noticed. What better way than taking a photo for Instagram. In other words, “#noticing”.

OK, you may say that shooting off loads of snaps with your smart phone is not really that creative. But I’d disagree. For one, you have to look to see in the first place. Noticing is all about going about with a prepared mind to spot the opportunity. This is the best creative habit – the power to see what is in front of you and to take nothing for granted.


Above: framing –  #noticing the view from a dirty window at Tate Modern, London

Then you have to consider how to “frame” your image carefully. Even if your phone photo is taken  really quickly  you need to re-compose it when you post it to Instagram or other social media. Thinking about framing fosters the ability to think like an artist and to consider the impact of each element of the image. What scale might you choose for the main objects? Are you looking directly at something or through or beyond something else? How does the composition alter the overall meaning of your image? Sometimes a naff looking image can suddenly become eye-catching when you zoom into specific details via your app.

12568133_1499397383699012_874573813_n 12552435_119693551746837_866394741_n 10554091_404106239786510_2008517381_n pinocchio

Above: Pareidolia –  #noticing #iseefaces 

You may soon be able to develop your sense of pattern recognition and be able to quickly see things like faces or accidental letter forms in the world around you. This is know as pareidolia. There are a lot of hashtags for this, such as #iseefaces.


Above: abstracting the ordinary – #noticing #abstracting rainy car park

Further to this, these kinds of #noticing pictures help you to see beauty or interest in the small things of life, such as a patch of light on leaves or a rainy windscreen view in a dull car park. You can play with abstracting them and create a tiny piece of art or design there and then. This appreciation of the small things is very good for you and your happiness. From William Morris to Buddhism, it is recognised that the happy person takes joy in so-called mundane things. And art, after all, is about helping your viewer to see and know, not just to glance.

12144191_1115248651826381_1941120708_n 12142550_142901479397527_866765182_n 12132763_875539202561612_1454919103_n

Above: abstracting – ~noticing #abstracting chandelier; Marc Quinn’s Frozen Waves at Somerset House; window

A few weeks ago a post did the rounds on Facebook suggesting that Instagrammers were cheating by using white marbled paper as a background or surface against which to place ordinary objects to make them look better. Anything form sneakers to flowers, they said, can be made to look so much better (perhaps more commercially valuable) by using this simple trick. Well good. There is a natural trend amongst Instagrammers to compose mini still life photographs, even if they perhaps don’t think of it in this way. Earlier in the year, for example, I was bird watching for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. When I wanted to post about that fact I arranged my scruffy notebook and carefully placed Biro (!) on top of some nice bird books. When I uploaded my image I found that many birdwatchers had done similar things. That strategic placing of elements, even very ordinary ones, into a composition is developing a creative habit; that of communicating that an event, place or object is more than the sum of its parts. “You cannot not communicate”. (See #biggardenbirdwatch to check this out along with plenty of amazing wildlife images).

12552196_1032432346843362_1527782145_n 12393817_1669198319995612_909150398_n 12063225_1640070746247777_1526190333_n

Above: still life moments

So my second challenge to you is to go about your daily life with your phone at the ready. Take pictures of “boring” things and make them interesting by the way you compose or abstract them when you post them.

GDP-7daynatureaquarium GDP_SeandeB7daynature GDP-FB7daynaturechallenge

Above: photos from the Facebook 7 Day Nature Photo challenge (centre by Sean de Burca)

My third challenge is similar: join one of the many social media challenges in which you are asked to upload an image from a specific topic. Things like the Design Museum’s weekly type challenge on Twitter, #fontsunday, Instagram’s Weekly Hashtag Project #WHP, or the Facebook challenges to post a picture of nature (or other) every day for seven days and each day to challenge a friend to do the same. If you cannot find a challenge, invent your own.


Above: #noticing still life of paintbrushes at the Leon Brazil exhibition at Mascalls Gallery

Now I hear you say, but we all do this all the time, why is it so good for creativity? The answer, dear reader, is in the fact that you are reflecting about it. Having many and varied experiences is good for the creative brain, but it has been found that reflecting on it afterwards helps the memory become more embedded and retrievable when your mind wants to make creative connections. So in this sense, Facebook posts are good but blogging is better. The act of writing or sketching helps your brain think further as your hand moves with your pencil or keyboard. Better ideas develop in the process. You become more aware of what went well and what you need to improve for creativity the next time. So while full blown reflective writing is the best, simply uploading to social media and selecting hashtags are still ways of considering the photograph or event a little more closely and photos are a good way of committing something to memory. Anyone, like me, who used to keep a hard copy photo album will know that the events that were not recorded tended to fade from memory much more quickly than even the silly, mundane days that did have some snaps captured.

Right, so now you are tired of reading this and you want to go and browse some cat memes on Facebook. That too is good. Your brain needs downtime when you are doing something not too focused. This is so that you can incubate subconscious ideas. Conscious creativity needs a focused input and reflection but it also needs a supposed break. So wandering aimlessly around your social media can also be creative. Just don’t overdo it. Everything, as they say, in moderation. My last challenge is to create a meme and post it! Help others be creative!

Now get off that screen and get out into the real world…and don’t forget your camera…

The Graphic Design Project’s Creative Training course will be published shortly. Stay tuned or contact info@thegraphicdesignproject.com for more details.


Above: GDP sceptical cat meme challenge!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s