On Conceptualizing

Some Creative Disciplines

I've been thinking a lot lately about conceptualizing. By this I mean: seeing something clearly in one's imagination, without just allowing one's internal creative auto-pilot to take over.

Seeing something first, then making it, instead of just making it, out of learned habit. This has been a useful-- if tricky-- distinction for me.

Example - Piano Playing

Here's an example. Someone who is procifient at piano will have a vast store of muscle memory. This muscle memory is natural to playing an instrument, somehow a part of brain function, and maybe related to the human capacity for pattern matching and imitation.

It's useful, but for me a side-effect is that when I sit at a piano, my brain begins to suggest patterns to play. Sometimes people calling this noodling.

I wonder about an experiment: find ten or fifty piano players, sit them at a piano and start talking to them. Tell them that the experiment will start in awhile, that it will be an experiment in their ability to sight-read, but that they might want to warm up. Talk casually to distract them.

What do they play? Where will their hands first land? I know, from mindfulness of my own playing, that my hands gravitate strongly to F, in particular an F-minor chord. Even as I type this, I can feel other chords forming: F#-major, Ab-major, and so on.

These chords are not formed deliberately, with any future purpose, but automatically, because of past experience.

Another experiment, this one maybe easier to carry out: find a YouTube channel of someone who demos synthesizers, or maybe repairs them. Watch where their hands go, when they first sit down to start to play. Across several different videos, taken even years apart, will they gravitate to a few starting positions?

Habits, or Tracks

It seems like the human brain will suggest automatic tracks for us to follow, day-to-day, ceaselessly.

These tracks are useful, in that we don't have to expend mental energy problem-solving the same problem, over and over. In the case of a piano player, it's good to know instinctively some patterns that will result in an OK sound.

In the case of a commute to work, following the same route each day avoids getting lost, can free up the imagination to allow mental rehearsing for the day ahead, and provide a predictable schedule.

Most of these tracks we are not even aware of. Habits can become apparent when they are destructive, but most habits are merely useful.

However, I find that these same useful tracks can become harmful to the creative process in subtle ways.

Breaking Out, Intentionality, Mindfulness

Let's go back to the piano playing example. Lately I've become increasingly mindful of the muscle-memory tracks I follow while playing. If I pay attention to my own playing, I actually find it tiresome! It's as if when I improvise, I'm always playing the same song, just refracted a bit differently. If I pay attention for even a second, I realize: this is really just terrible.

Well, but I'm just playing how I always do. How can I escape this prison?

If I'm intent on improvising, rather than playing sheet music, an obvious approach is simply to hit a new chord. Something unknown, new notes, new hand positions.

To do this, I have to first envision these new notes in my mind. Because they aren't part of my muscle memory, they have to be brought into being. This is conceptualization. I force myself awake: what options are available? Which note will be on the bottom, and how will the chord spread itself out? Will it be sparse, built on fourths and fifths, or dense, with many seconds piled in. Will it have dissonant intervals such as tritones or major sevenths? What notes will perhaps relate well to other notes below them, that I have already decided.

In transitioning between these chords, I might think: where should the bottom note go? And if it goes there, where will the others?

Ideally, I should be able to hear or at least vaguely feel them musically, not just physically with my fingers.

The process of conceptualization has to be continual; it takes my full attention. At every step, the muscle memory reasserts itself, attempts to return me to the mental laziness of auto-pilot. It's a slog, but it's rewarding!

I don't personally have a great sense of being able to hear new music before I play it-- I have some sense of feeling but I don't always know what a chord will sound like before I play it. This could probably be improved through ear training, but it does seem that some people develop it more naturally. Perhaps that's why some people excel more than others at improvisation or music composition, because it's easier for them to conceptualize new music before they write or play it.

But I find, and maybe you will to, that if I maintain that state of mindfulness, of thinking actively, of conceptualizing, that I can keep it at bay. The playing becomes slower; it becomes possible, again, to hit wrong notes, because the right ones exist, to some degree of clarity, in my mind. There is now a goal, not just meandering. And, to me, this is the real process of carving something out of nothing, of creating something new.

Overplaying a Game

I can apply this to game design.

In particular, I find it's easy to fall into the trap of playing a game, too much, as it already exists.

This becomes particularly true once I have some success with core mechanics. If moving the character is satisfying (perhaps the jump feels weighty, or the running animation is spot-on) then it becomes very easy for me to to just keep doing this, mindlessly. If nothing else, it's easy to waste time this way, which really interferes with productivity.

But more than that, it freezes my mental model of what the game could be. I can easily become too used to the current running speed, and so on, and lose my capacity to imagine something different and maybe better.

Playtesting a game-- a lot, a lot, a lot-- is of course very necessary. But I find I have better luck if I force myself to be mindful of it. I guess it's a kind of discipline: I just try not to let myself get too carried away. If I notice that something could be different, either I should stop playing to make that change immediately, or pause to make a note of it (along with everything else I'm noticing.) (For me, these notes have to be physical, i.e., in a spreadsheet, or they disappear really fast; I find that self-observations can be ephemeral, like a dream that disappears when you wake up.)

Mindfulness in playtesting can help me see issues that I'd otherwise only notice when I saw someone else encountering them. Maybe you've had this experience: you watch someone getting confused with or tripping over something in your game, and you instantly realize that, subconciously, you were already aware of the issue the whole time! For me, mindfulness can help bring this to the foreground, earlier.

Thought Space and Time

When I hear the word "designer", I tend to envision tools. Maybe it's too many tech commercials, but right away I see a hip-looking person, sitting at a table in an open-format office, moving some things around, prototyping, drawing, chatting with other creative people. Generally: engaging actively with the physical world. It's an experimental, fun, airy process!

Prototyping in particular can seem like the be-all-and-end-all of design. I don't know if that's right or wrong. I think I don't prototype enough, myself; I dive into things in detail too easily.

However, prototyping aside, one thing I've found works for me is to put all physical tools away, close my eyes, and think. At first it doesn't feel productive: it seems like designing something should at least involve sketching something out on paper. And it's not as if anything comes to mind right away. After all, this (to me) is the barest form of conceptualization possible. So by definition, I'm trying to set aside all my current patterns of working, all my automatic thoughts, and kind of see clearly what it is I'm trying to do.

It takes time-- actually a lot of time, for me-- to get enough mental space where I can even start to think very clearly about things. Maybe ten minutes of clearing my thoughts before the first realizing starts to form. But it's amazing how well and how reliably this does work, when I do give myself that space and time.

This is the way to glimpse into the unknown: to open doors I didn't know existed, to find things I didn't know I should be looking for.

Conceptualization of Mundane Things

Some other areas I find this kind of mindfulness to be useful:

  • Going to work along a different route. This small change can be revelatory. Sometimes, in my experience, the route that I thought was fastest from point A to point B, even after years of traveling it, has a faster or otherwise better alternative. I don't mean speeding or taking short-cuts (please don't!); I mean finding a real new way. It's also amazing how this simple change can re-frame your entire day.
  • Food choices. I confess I eat almost the exact same food for breakfast and lunch every day. It saves me getting hungry. But making different food choices, if I want to, takes that same mental energy. Conceptualizing a new meal will take time and not be obvious at first.
  • More thoughtful writing. In writing, I have to work hard to avoid phrases that flow too easily or automatically. I try to envision the words I will write, clearly, before I write them. If writing is like speaking, then I should think about what I'm about to say before I open my mouth.

The Small and Subtle Treasure

By definition, conceptualization is hard. As a process for me it means disallowing my natural tendency to auto-pilot, and that requires my constant attention and focus.

And even when I do make the effort, it will often seem at first like there is simply nothing there. When I turn off the auto-pilot, a new concept doesn't magically appear. In fact, it doesn't suggest itself at all-- that's the point. I have to make it.

But as daunting as it can seem, and as hard as it can be to find in a world full of distractions and stimulation, that blank mental canvas is a treasure. It's the empty stage that the imagination needs to begin the mental work of coming up with something truly new.

April 15, 2017
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Psst! Hey let me know if this was useful to you. Email me calvin@kittylambda or tweet me @psysal. Thanks :)