In an interview at Columbia University, the architect Frank Gehry was asked how he reacted to criticism about his buildings. He said he likes to “try it on” like a jacket. If the criticism “fits,” he “wears it.” If it doesn’t fit, he puts it “back on the hanger.”
I learned the value of “trying on” criticism in architecture school. I felt like I had three options when receiving what I thought was a stupid suggestion: 1) dismiss it, 2) begrudgingly follow it, or 3) try it on and see if it fits. Trying it on, I reserved the right to reject it, but I also took advantage of the opportunity to see something new and challenge my own preconceptions. My approach was always to find a fast way to try it on, while also exploring my own ideas for how to move forward. Sometimes I discovered my professor was right; sometimes l became even more convinced that I was right. The interesting thing was that it never seemed to matter much who was right.
Even when there were serious egos involved, it was easy for us both to forget about petty arguments and engage in finding the best solution. Even if it is purely by distraction, visuals are remarkably effective at clarifying an idea and making apparent what works and what does not
Mark Zuckerberg describes what I believe to be the same principle when he says, “code wins arguments.” His developers could talk back and forth forever, but, by coding something, they can quickly test their ideas.
The problem is that speech is too amorphous, and it is too easy to rationalize our own ideas. I heard a professor interrupt a presentation and say, “You can rationalize anything. We rationalized the holocaust.” He would tell us, if something is designed well, we won’t have to rationalize anything. I agree that too much talk is not conducive to good design, but I think it is also a huge waste of time. We often wind up arguing about “air” as a colleague once described it. Talk is expensive because it can exacerbate arguments when there is often an inexpensive way to test and evaluate results. When the conversation gets heated, remember that testing an idea can be as simple as drawing it — and drawing is cheap.
Rich Moore is an Associate Creative Director at XPLANE.
Since childhood, I have always had a habit of drawing to understand new ideas. My teachers looked on this as everything from a mild distraction to downright disruptive. Sometimes they forbid me from drawing in class. But for me it was so core to me, so essential to my learning process, that I did it whenever I could.
I learned though that my drawings were often wrong. I discovered this one day when I showed one of my drawings to my teacher after class and asked if I had understood it correctly. She told me my drawing was wrong, and that I had misunderstood. But at that point something magic happened: she picked up my pencil and started to correct my drawing, and I started to understand.
I learned a few things that day. First, learning works best when it is not a one-way thing. One person doesn’t just pour knowledge into another person’s head, like you might pour tea into a teacup. It’s a dialogue. Second, I learned that I could teach people how to teach me. As a visual learner, I realized that I could create a kind of visual dialogue between myself and my teachers; that by making a rough sketch of an idea, I could create a picture that functioned as a kind of learning space, where knowledge, learning and insights could be co-created with other people.
I vowed to make this co-creation a regular part of my learning process, and in doing so I soon learned that I was wrong far more often than I had ever realized. In fact, I was almost always wrong. But the learning method that I had discovered was so powerful that it became the foundation of my life and work. And when I was ready to start a company, it became the foundation of that too.
That’s my origin story: How I came to do what I do today. What’s your origin story?
Dave Gray is the Founder of XPLANE.
XPLANE's Visual Thinking Sketch Notes eBook
Dave Gray's Visual Thinking Reading List
XPLANE’s latest Visual Thinking School (VTS) session focused on ways to envision the future, or what we like to call “futurecasting.” 34 participants worked in small groups at XPLANE’s headquarters to imagine the future of commuting in Portland in the year 2025. Three exercises guided the conversation:
- “Ideation Post-up”
Participants rapidly developed ideas on their own and as a group, filtering to the top three ideas.
- “What if we were…”
They then stepped out of what they knew and adopted perspectives of different companies, experimenting with new lenses and ideas.
- “Cover Story”
Highlights from both exercises were drawn as magazine cover mock-ups to illustrate what success would look like. From the covers of Imbibe to The New York Times, groups reported their stories of future states that included bike limos, ziplines, driverless cars, and ferries. Lastly, public presentations allowed them to identify common themes across these covers.
Across these exercises, groups created visual artifacts that captured main ideas and set them up for the next steps of determining how to get there. Participants left VTS with the ability to take these exercises and apply them to their personal goals and their jobs. We look forward to hearing back about more successful examples!
Interested in getting a spot at our next VTS? Check out more information here.