The Observations Log

Milk Mustache: Alex and Eddie Van Halen

I went to undergrad school twice. Let’s just say the first time I didn’t get it right, and I don’t mean grades, I mean I didn’t know what the heck I was doing there. I learned a lot of cool stuff I wouldn’t trade, but I didn’t do what I needed, whatever that was. The second time I went to college, several years later, was an awakening for me. By then I’d been in business for others and for myself; I was focused and goal oriented, and ready to be a bulldozer, plowing through the learning.

What stopped me? Turns out professors don’t always see it that way.

I ran into maddening, zenlike profs all over the campus, who wanted me to grow and experience and absorb and notice, for Pete’s sake. I had no time for noticing. Should have caught me when I was a post-hippie first timer. Just show me the direction to what I want to know and look out.

Darn these guys, there’s a reason they’re teachers. They were on to something big.

Miss Observant is Taken to School

An Interior Design professor, in particular, plagued me with something she called an “Observations Log.” First week of class: Buy an oversized sketch journal with 200 pages in it. She wanted me to walk around, sit down, read, stare, talk, and then write, every week, with accompanying sketches, magazine tearouts, and photos, about what I’d seen and why I’d put in in the book. Anything at all. Three entries per week, thank you, and she checked, and it was a major part of the grade. Observing.

For two months, I hated that book. I nodded yes of course I’m doing it, then waited until Sunday nights, “noticed” a bunch of stuff all at once, backdated three entries, and handed it in every Monday. Miss Observant.

There were always comments back, indicating she had read and considered what I’d barely considered in order to get it in on time, always praising my powers of perception. To me this indicated that she had none, and that I was right in considering her an idiot.

One week she wrote that there was a theme emerging; that though we were told we could observe anything at all, I was observing similar things, in all different settings.

Usefulness. Effectiveness. Elements of success. What makes something, as Seth Godin would later say, remarkable?

I looked back through, and from the first bad-attitude week to that moment, she was right. My hastily torn-out examples, tossed-off sketches, and brief essays, were talking about the things all around us that impact us deeply, that stay in our memories, or cause us to buy, or make us feel special, and why—in spite of myself. An obsession with observation was born.

Manual Canovas' trade fabrics

I kept the log book up for a couple of years afterward in the literal sense (the card above, an ad for an upscale fabric designer, is from that period). Even without the book, I’ve never stopped smelling the roses, seeing the roses, feeling the petals, hearing the bees, and writing. Sure, I was already the eyes-wide-open type, but that prof and her assignment sharpened my senses and probably changed my life.

Log 2.0

In Ever Notice, an article for Gain, the AIGA Journal, Steve Portigal (author of the fabulous blog All This ChittahChattah), discusses active noticing with his colleague Dan Soltzberg:

I’ve assigned students to routinely maintain a noticing log, either a blog (words with pictures) or a Flickr account (pictures with words). The exercise helps sharpen noticing skills by giving people permission to simply observe and document.”

Please read the entire article, it’s well worth it. We’ve come a long way, with electronic journals, but I’ll bet Steve’s got students who resent it and toss the assignments off lightly. Some things don’t change.

What’s in it for you?

Oh, you don’t need a journal. You’re not getting graded on whether your eyes are open every day to the little things all around you.

Or are you? Would noticing all the little things before your customers do, highlighting some, fixing others, impact your business? Even knowing what your competition is up to (or drawing inspiration from unrelated sources like a milk ad) is a lot easier when you’ve honed your powers of observation.

So, are you a bulldozer, getting through the day with your head down, plowing through your piles of work? Or a Zen professor, observing, wondering, and looking for connections? Have you trained yourself to slow down and notice?

Coming up: A series of mostly tiny articles with one thing in common: they’re observations. I hope they’ll inspire you to look around your world, and maybe even write down what you see.


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

P.S. My observation about Alex and Eddie Van Halen: “Sex and rock and roll selling milk. Couldn’t have happened when I was a kid, even. The times, they are a-changin’.”