Pay Attention: The Art of Noticing
Rob Walker invites us to look at the world around us with fresh eyes in his book of exercises, challenges, and observations.
Welcome to 99U’s monthly Book Club, where we look at book releases that challenge us to think deeper, explore new perspectives, and spark a better understanding of the nuances of a creative career from leadership and community building to productivity and everything in between.
Have you ever been on a Zoom call where someone drinks from a mug? Me too. But it took me a long time to notice something: the underside of mugs is completely underutilized real estate. Talk about a missed opportunity! I also happened to be reading Rob Walker’s book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday when I made this observation. It made me ponder what else is staring me in the face that I’ve never noticed before.
Walker, a journalist covering design, technology, business, and the arts, challenges us to see the world around us with fresh eyes through his collection of challenges, prompts, and exercises proving you don’t have to go far to be a powerful observer. Walker culls examples from literature, research, and other writings to make a further case for his suggestions. Here we explore some of our favorites from the book to get you flexing your observation muscles and developing strategies for new ways of paying attention.
By no means feel like you have to attempt them all. Start with one idea and see where it takes you in your practice. Or consider trying one prompt each day for a month and then move on to the next.
Notice what most people miss
Walker started a project a few years ago while he was in San Francisco without time for sightseeing. He decided to look for security cameras. He opens the book with the prompt to “conduct a scavenger hunt,” making it clear that the exercise does not need to to have an obvious point. Looking for security cameras was more an exercise in novelty than actual research. He approached it like a game, where the goal was entertainment more than anything else.
When it comes to conscious noticing, Walker points to the power of choosing “something that’s ubiquitous and taken for granted.” He draws from George Nelson, the author of How to See who was a longtime design director of Herman Miller. Nelson was a collector of the world around him, documenting manhole covers, street corners, public clocks, arrows, and even footprints. Try this and see how your understanding of our connection to ordinary objects changes, and in turn, how this changes your own process of creating and designing.
Draw what you see
Photography can be the default mode now that we all have cameras constantly within arms length on our phones. Instead of taking a picture the next time you see something interesting, why not draw it? No artistic ability is necessary, and you don’t have to show the drawing to anyone else.
When you’re tempted to reach for your phone out of boredom, go for your notebook instead (you can even find a cheap one that’s sized like your phone). You don’t have to draw everything, just draw one thing. Then repeat every day until you fill your notebook.
For a quick challenge, draw the last room you were in from memory. Once you’re done you can go see how close you were, and what you missed.
Take a different route
Rather than using Google Maps to keep us from ever getting lost again, make it a point to engage with the world and “get there the hard way.” You can look up the directions and write them down before you go, but the challenge is to make the journey without any real time guidance from a digital device. The simple act of choosing to observe where you are without digital assistance may seem daunting, but can change the way you feel and interact with your surroundings.
Similarly, what happens when we shake up our routines and take a different route to the grocery store or the park? The next time you go to a place you frequent, why not attempt a new route? In the book, Walker notes this tip from Jim Coudal applies to the creative process as well. Try sketching on paper when you’re usually digital, or brainstorming via phone while on a walk instead of via videochat. What changes if you switch up your habitual mode of creation?
Look through someone else’s eyes
When we take on the view of someone else, we start to see the world through fresh eyes. Walker looks to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, where he points out that the most honest, blunt observers are children who are also insightful and imaginative. Pausing to ask, “What would a child see here?” is one way to shift into that mindset. In addition to child-like eyes, imagine viewing situations from the perspective of a historian, improv performer, a street artists, or even a bad guest.
In another scenario, take a walk with an expert. This may mean taking a tour in the city where you live, or finding an expert in any domain, be it botany, geology, or typography. “Walk together and allow your attention to be directed by others; explore your familiar world through an unfamiliar perspective,” Walker advises. As your interests develop, continue to dive deeper learning the names of plants you see, or whatever it is that you encounter regularly, but don’t know much about.
You can also go for a walk with someone else—silently—while you observe, and later discuss what you each noticed.
Awaken your senses
Observing can engage your senses—hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch—by hunting for things that tickle your senses. When it comes to sound, take inventory of the everyday sounds as you move through life. You can even take it a step further and think about reviewing sounds as if you were a critic, or create a map of what you observe. You can repeat or substitute this exercise with any of your senses.
Ernest Hemingway said, “You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.” Now take that idea, and consider how a place makes you feel. Feelings are not something we can see, but rather that we can sense. Tap into that.
Celebrate the awkward moments
As an observer, you may not always be in your comfort zone. It may even make you feel a bit uncomfortable if you challenge yourself to a meal alone without anything—no phone or reading—to keep you company. We don’t often find ourselves alone in public, but it can be revealing.
Inspired by the book Taking Things Seriously, where writers and designers share essays about unusual objects, Walker suggests looking for the weirdest thing in the room and asking the question, “So what’s the story with that?” Consider it an ice breaker for any situation you find yourself in.
Pursue your own ideas for noticing
There’s no one way to explore and notice the world around you. Part of the challenge is noticing what you did observe, but also what you didn’t. “It’s precisely the stuff everyone else has missed that ought to make us think twice,” Walker writes.
Walker fully encourages taking any seeds inspired by ideas in his book and pursuing it further, and even inventing your own exercises to deepen your exploration. “Give it a try,” as he says in the epilogue.