The tools that let you get dirty and mess up

This morning I was feeling stuck on a project, and went for a walk. I usually walk with headphones on and listen to useful and inspirational podcasts (in this case, Design Life)

On the walk today, I felt that I wasn’t really getting myself unstuck by listening to someone else - this seemed too easy. I paused the podcast and just started looking for stuff around me. The underwater river grass caught my attention. (Is it still called seaweed if it’s in a river, not saltwater?) It seemed so vibrant and playful in the water.

I took it out to inspect better, but it immediately looked limp and much less impressive.

This difference got me thinking about how important it is to observe, learn and understand things in their own natural environment. The seagrass shines only in the right context, and we wouldn’t have a chance to appreciate its elegance if the only way we ever see it is on dry land.

Water may not be the easiest environment for em to observe and document things (think of dropping the phone! Eek!) but I had to go somewhere I normally wouldn’t be to learn something new. The seagrass will be a good reminder to get out of my comfort zone and explore.

But why do we often avoid going in the water? For me, wearing “nice” shoes would be the biggest reason. I happened to be wearing my rubber shoes: they can get wet or dirty without issue, and often encourage me to explore when I wear them on short hikes. The rubber shoes are not great shoes by themselves, but for the purpose of quick and (literally) dirty exploration, they are the perfect tool that enables me to go far and get wet.

I like to take the same approach to explorative sketching. The “rubber shoes” approach to drawing for me is to take regular office paper, a marker, and just draw. A marker makes you commit, and work fast. Inexpensive loose paper lets you throw away a drawing that didn’t work, and keep the ones that did.

Like many designers I know, I enjoy working with beautiful materials, and own “nice” sketchbooks, pens and pencils. But to start exploring, there’s nothing better than the quick and dirty materials. These are what I’m packing with me on vacation: rubber shoes, beat-up jean shorts, and a stack of loose sheets with a marker.

Happy exploring!