How do we create visuals for our businesses that are aligned with our social justice values, and don’t perpetuate racist, sexist and other oppressive visual languages? The answer goes deeper than you think.Read More
The abundant amount of graphic designers, social media whizzes and other artists and technicians selling in these online spaces can be overwhelming. Whether you are looking to hire a branding agency or just someone to whip out 10 social media graphics for you, how do you sort through the gazillions of options available?
The first, and most important advice I have for you:
Understand that while some people are great at making beautiful, standout images --
and others may be good at really understanding who you and your business are --
a more rare breed is the person who can connect the dots between the two.
In other words, good looking images arent enough.
Your images need to work BEYOND simply stopping people to look. They should express something that is truly unique and true to the transformation that YOUR work provides, and this takes someone who is skilled at translating your abstract ideas and spoken/written language into a visual language. This takes skill and development. It usually can't come from someone who just learned Canva, signed up with some stock sites and started a business, without a background in visual thinking and visual language (either through higher ed or through their own self-taught creative process and development.)
What you are responsible for in this process is to get clear on the values at the foundation of your brand, and your position in your market. If you don’t already have this foundation, make sure that the branding specialists you find are really good at asking you penetrating questions that get you thinking more deeply about what is at the heart of your work. And that they are listening closely.
Then, ask them how they will help you translate the content of those conversations into visual terms. If they can’t articulate that, its likely that they don’t know how (its shocking, but there are a lot of those folks out there - they get by on the beauty of the images they make, but don’t make images that are truly responsive to your business’ needs).
You dont want to lure someone in with your beautiful images but leave them unclear on who you really are. They may OOH and AHH but if your images dont FEEL like you, or the transformation your work provides, it will take them longer to stick around and learn, if they stay at all.
Here are some parameters to get you started:
- Look for work you like, but with a caveat: don’t stop there. You have to like the work of the person/agency you chose, but not everyone with work you like is the provider for you. “Like” is only the first step in your discernment process.
- Look for originality. We like a lot of things that we see over and over out there - the reason some types of images become popular is that they are awesome, right? This is another place where your “liking” something is not a key to action. If its already being said, don’t say it again or you will blend in. Find a designer or artist who can make things that look totally unique.
- Look for range. In other words, when you see examples of this person’s work, do they look like they could all be for one person’s business? Then walk away. One of the best ways to tell if someone is listening to their clients is if their portfolio has collection of projects that each have their own, distinct identity and voice.
- Avoid the discounters - while its tempting to save money by hiring someone who will make you 30 images for $99 (I’ve seen this, for real!), this can only mean that 1) their business is 10 minutes away from closing; or 2) they are scamming people. Period. Good art and design takes depth, time, care, skill. And those who can provide it will charge enough to make their own business sustainable, and to give them the time and leeway to be truly creative with you. Your images can make or break your visibility in the marketplace. Don’t skimp.
And a bonus:
- Special skills: Does the artist/designer have the ability to bring types of craftsmanship into the process that extend beyond photoshop or canva - hand lettering, sculpture, drawing, skilled photographic techniques, etc? You can get great benefit from those whose design chops are built on a foundation of artistry - in the form of substantial experience as a designer, or in some other visual art form.
Hope this helps. Ask your questions in the comments!
I’m so uncomfortable with candid photographs of myself that appear online. They actually sometimes make me physically recoil. The little voices rise up, the ones I’m embarrassed to have and to share: I look strange to myself. Why is my lip doing that, so much of my gums are visible! The shape of my nose/cheek/chin/belly/hand/shoulder is weird. I look weird. Not totally human somehow.
I’m a solid feminist, and I know it's all BS -- so I stand before the image and battle with my feelings.
I know we are all just fine, all beautiful, in our own unique way. “And I am too,” I whisper.
We are all worthy, we are all whole, we are all wholly human: so what's happening here?
I start this post with these personal moments, because of how common this experience is to those in my world and in my community of business builders who are making images to market our brands.
Almost everyone I am close to reports similar discomfort with our own images, whether candid or posed.
I know that a large part of it is about our relation to the “norm” - that giant, specific, cumulative visual narrative, informed by layers of oppression in an economic system that is driven by marketing that manipulates our fears, relies on our awareness of ourselves as packaged objects in a consumer culture, triggers our survival instincts in a system that uses specific but arbitrary physical attributes and conditions as an excuse to separate, oppress, discriminate, assign worth.
John Berger, the art historian and writer, describes the situation in these terms, while discussing the impacts of male domination in society on women’s self perception:
"A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the *surveyor* and the *surveyed* within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."
When I see a photo of myself, the surveyor in me as activated. The surveyed in me gazes back.
The eye of the culture, of the “norm,” informed by the billions of images I have seen in my life that comprise this mythical “norm” - is inside of me, looking at me. I am, in that moment, divided from myself. Berger again:
"One might simplify this by saying: *men act* and *women appear.* Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
What Berger is describing here is what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined as the male gaze. Similar dynamics are at play in every case of oppression and culture: the colonial gaze. The white gaze. The oppressive gaze objectifies, and “others” the one being seen. The one being seen then sees themselves...as other, and object.
We all carry the surveyor, and the surveyed, within.
And this is a big reason why it’s complicated for us to feel comfortable with selfies.
Especially when we are using our images to sell - our message, our brand, our work. We are participating on our own packaging: the positioning of our value for the market.
For many of us, the conflicted emotions and even contrasting belief systems inside of us leave us only this: to either attempt to conform to the “norm” and find acceptance there, to whatever degree is possible (depending on our privilege in the matrix of identities and oppressions), or to avoid the thicket altogether and be invisible.
Conform, or disappear. Those are the default options. ANd they are both devastating for your business and brand (not to mention the culture at large).
I’ve got some alternatives, and I offer them all in my business. But since I started personal, I am going to talk about the one that I personally use here. The one that suits me best.
Here’s my new default option:
To perform my identities and realities. The method: PLAY.
I see my branding photographs as both a place to be the business owner I am and to be “in drag” as a business owner: suit, tie, and cardboard briefcase included.
A child playing dress-ups with the world is, in a very real way, a cultural agent. The cultural forms around her (the stories, movies, packages, songs, picture books, toys) become raw material. She is the producer of her identity and her story. She is the one with agency. She is both a princess and an astronaut. She is a teacher, a horse, a nice doctor and a mean cat. All of these identities and characters are parts of her being expressed through story and metaphor.
That's what we do, from a very young age. We relate to culture, we understand our lives, and we learn the world: through story, imagination, fiction, poetry, play. We relate to the world as flexible, creative authors of our story.
When we are children we know this: we contain multitudes.
The reality of our imagination IS the reality of our existence. We know we each have inside of us a rock star and a nerd. A mystic and a clown. We are small and delicate, we are epic and unstoppable.
Rather than see performance and dressing-up (in all its forms) as some kind of contradiction to the idea of authenticity in our business communications, why not recognize that we are more vast, more complex, more genius and beautiful than one photo of us with our laptop on the beach can ever show?
Performance, drag, dressups, composing, posing and constructing - these are all the tools of the artist and visionary, using multiple languages to express the complexity and emotional range of their visions.
When we take the tools of world making and culture building into our own hands and play --
When we recognize that while we may be the faces of our brands, we are not branded, our identities are not fixed --
We recognize ourselves as the authors of our lives and our images.
We replace surveyed and surveyor with CREATOR.
Your own unique genius, your unlimited creativity is what is most authentic to you.
So go play dress-ups!
Yours in re-imagining reality,
This post and all writings on this site are copyright Amy Walsh 2017.
A look at some of the hundreds of flat lay experiments that flooded the Tactical Imagination Club from March 13-17, 2017 (and beyond). View artist names and my comments/narration by hovering over the image.
Warning: Expletives. Included for accuracy.
14 Steps to a Stunning Flat Lay!
- Chip the dried hummus off your desk.
- Get out the marbled contact paper and unroll it over your desk, taping it down on the edges.
- Borrow your friend's new MacBook, dust it off, and put it on your desk, placing your 6-year old PC to the side.
- Print a picture of a latte with a fancy pattern in the foam, cut the part of the photo with the foam off the top, insert it into your coffee mug and put it on your desk.
- Celebrate! You are half way there!
- Now its time to clear the dirty underwear off your desk. You might put it in the Dirty Clothes Corner of your office. Promise yourself that one day soon you will have enough self respect to buy all new underwear and stop wearing the ones with the holes around the waistband. Wonder why your partner stays with you.
- Choose your color scheme. You can use anything you want, this is where you really get to express yourself. In other words, use mint and gold and white, or pink and black and white, or just white on white, with some white, or maybe one small color.
- Search your home for one piece of jewelry that looks like its worth something. Casually place it in your flat lay desktop.
- Now line up one small succulent plant, your phone, your laptop, your jewelry, your black and white striped pencil, and something quirky (post it notes in a fun color?) in neat rows, with one thing slightly askew.
- Get the goddamned cat off your flat lay. Brush the cat litter that he dragged on there off your fucking flat lay.
- Light the shit out of your flat lay. Search around for every lamp in the house. Remove the cat hairs from the desktop that you only saw when the lights got bright.
- Hold your phone over the flat lay and photograph.
- Bring into Canva. Find some gold brush lettering and put an inspiring word, like "INSPIRE," on your flat lay.
- Go back to building your authentic business in the 20 minutes you have left before your kids get home. Get discouraged. Surf on Facebook.
Hey folks! Lets look at some of the more typical "flat lay" (still life photos shot from above) styles we see all over Instagram and Facebook these days. These ones are from stock photo sites, but I'll bet they look familiar to you:
These represent just a tiny, teensy little sliver of what's possible with this art form. But if you are a content marketer on Instagram and/or Facebook, you have probably seen pictures JUST like this everywhere.
Sometimes, you find something that follows the visual structures of the flat-lay, but breaks the mold and does something different. Sometimes, you begin to see how much potential there is.
The best flat lays are little visual theaters. the objects are characters in their own way, telling a unique story of a moment, a day, a collection, a life, a vocation. They are intimate, engaging, complex and speak to the intimate relationships we have with the objects in our lives.
The worst flat lays? Sanitized, conformist BS. These very trendy images are a perfect place to observe the most damaging ideologies of dominant entrepreneurial culture in the online spaces, as expressed through a very narrow visual story.
If you are thinking - oh no! I really like those images! Don't feel bad. They are designed for you to like them! I like many of them too. But lets turn a critical eye on them, and see what we learn.
In this case study I'm going to break down the ideology of the ubiquitous trendy flat lay style of the moment. If you wanna go down that rabbit hole with me, keep reading. Because when you understand the visual language of the dominant over-culture, you can understand how to better challenge it, and find your own visual story on your terms.
If you want to go straight to inspiration and prompts for creating your own unique flat lays, rich with your own visual storytelling, head to part 2.
PART ONE: What does the typical flat lay communicate?
1. Purity, Cleanliness, Perfection.
The white that dominates most of these flat lays is not a light that illuminates or reveals.
It is a white that conceals.
This white is about purity - akin to the white museum or gallery space. We have come to equate the white gallery space as a place of unlimited possibility...a neutral, content-less space, a blank canvas, the blank page, against which everything shines and sparkles. But this kind of easy contrast is problematic.
In his book "Inside the White Cube," Patrick O-Dougherty deconstructs the hidden ideology of the "white cube" of the museum or gallery space. He explains how the idea that ANY kind of space can be an objective and neutral, separated from social, cultural or other economic contexts is a myth -- and a central tenet of much western and colonial domination. The empty space of the gallery actually cuts the relational power of art off at the knees, removing it from context, positioning it as separate from daily living.
This is, in fact, part of the ideology of white supremacy: that there is something called "white" people (the pure, the good, the elevated, the standard, the norm, the best) and a white state of being, a pure form out of which all truth emerges. It lays the ground for all kinds of appropriation, theft and exploitation (visualize the white museum space with "artifacts" of indigenous cultures around the world, displayed for Western consumption.)
The pure white flat lay does something similar: it is a device that renders all that enters it apparently free from constraints of real daily living, time, and specificities of geography or culture. It is the fetishized idea of a "perfect" work life - but by what standards? And that is what we will explore next.
But first, I want to provide a reassurance:
This doesn't mean that white - as a color and as a function of light and space - is bad, or is not beautiful, or that we cannot use it. White, as a visual phenomena, is incredibly beautiful, and changeable, and variable, and strange -- and it communicates so much more than the ideology of white supremacy. But when it is the primary visual agent of erasure, purity, cleanliness, neutrality, and source of all - we are triggering in ourselves and others an ideology of purity and perfection which doesn't serve. So, how do you wanna use your white?
For an example of someone who uses white as a light that reveals (rather than a white that erases) see my post on Laura Letinsky's work.
2. Productivity Without Bodies
Notice: The coffee is usually unsipped in these images, with the foam heart still sparkling on top. Bonbons and cupcakes are unbitten, the bowl of glistening berries untouched. There are flat screens with no fingerprints, pencils brand new, sharp, and unused, plants unbruised, tables unsmudged. One gets the distinct feelings that there is not a body doing this work; that the office supplies and technological devices are doing it all by themselves.
Because bodies are messy, unpredictable. They don't operate strictly on market time. They are often unproductive. They have feelings. Oils. Odors.
So much work culture in our world is based on exploitation: of natural resources, of bodies AS natural resources, to be mined for productivity, to be forgotten as sovereign beings, ignored, used, overlooked, replaced when worn.
Professionalism has come to be related with an absence of the body. The more professional you are, the more moderated your voice, the more covered your skin, the more unobtrusive your bodily functions, the more packaged your presentation: not a flyaway hair out of place.
Professionalism is also equated with maleness, whiteness, thinness, heterosexuality: more of this mythological norm.
These flat lays are packaged and smooth, unsullied by use, by feelings, by time, by effort, by struggle and by diversity and anomaly. They comprise a visual language that has parallels to beauty standards for women, and class/race/status standards for all people. And they signify a fascination/preoccupation with domestic consumer objects, which is, among other things, a major feature of internalized sexism for women. Which brings me to...
3. The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand (the FLEB) + the fetishization of domestic objects
The FLEB is what happens to feminism in the entrepreneurial world. Its the way that the collective liberation and societal transformation that radical intersectional feminism stands (and stood) for has been distorted -- and come to indicate individual "freedom." Freedom bought by wealth and conformity to social norms, cultural standards of beauty, and consumerism.
(You can learn ALL about the FLEB by following the brilliant Kelly Diels who has made it her mission to understand it, name it, and educate us all about it.)
The visual culture of the online entrepreneurial world helps create the archetype of the FLEB. So how do these flat lays contribute to it?
These images are made primarily by and for women. The objects that signify more traditionally "male" aspects of work (the keyboard, the glasses, the calculator, and other signifiers of skill, work and productivity) are counterbalanced by signifiers of "femininity" (within a sexist narrative) - a pink pencil, a sparkly earring, makeup, a compact mirror, a heart-shaped container, a pink notebook. Its part of the bigger cultural archetype we see everywhere now, of the woman who "has it all" - a happy family, a job that provides piles of cash, the ability to travel and "work from anywhere," a thin, fashionable, light-skinned body, and a great sex life with her man. She is "free," but only within the confines of the dominant culture's narrow definition of the acceptable feminine.
Remember: in a society based on sexism with capitalism at the helm, women are commodities.
Long before we started businesses and began equating ourselves with our business's brand, we were already brands. We already fit, or didn't, into very deeply rooted cultural archetypes for women, and were celebrated or punished (or both) based on our ability to conform (or not) to those brands.
As women, our identities have been inseparable from the DOMESTIC for eons. We are the biggest consumer base in the world, and it is household goods that we consume. We have been trained to see our value and our worth as related to our successes in the domestic sphere. So it's no wonder that we have been deeply conditioned to fantasize about and adore consumer objects from the home. Think of how many young girls create dream worlds inside of dollhouses.
We are vulnerable to feelings of longing for the objects and signifiers of domestic beauty. Which makes us vulnerable to images that will trigger our longing for a perfect work-at-home desktop.
We may be on the edge of our skill sets, our courage, and our sleep cycles in trying to build a business - and in these conditions, a desktop that feels like success can give us a lot of reassurance, am I right? So, clearly the fetishizing of pink pencils and fancy planners and (lets not even get started with) Apple products is a clear vocabulary of sexism and classism, and boring to boot.
So what to do?
I believe we have a real human need for a sense of connection to - and appreciation of - objects. Without the confusions installed by mass production, sexism, and more, I am sure we would still treasure objects. They would be made, shared and used with a sense of reciprocity with the land and each other. We would not exploit the environment in degrading ways, or exploit other humans as laborers, in the creation and use of objects. Each object would hold embedded meanings and histories that we would be aware of and appreciative of. There is a more ancient longing here -- and a real need -- that is not being met by our current obsession with mass produced objects.
PART TWO: Liberate the Flat-Lay!
Let's turn our inherent love for and connection to objects and spaces into gorgeous, drool-worthy flat lays that tell powerful visual stories, communicate the heart of our work and values, change culture and defy the icky norm. Shall we?
The setup of a flat lay is magical. It turns your tabletop into a little theater in which objects become special just by being placed there. The edges of the photo are a window into a miniature world, a language of its own, in which the objects are the vocabulary. When you break out of the standard tropes that are dominating the current visual culture, suddenly the format of a flat lay becomes like any great set of creative parameters. It offrs a container inside of which the limitless can happen.
TIPS, ADVICE, and PERSPECTIVES for ROCKING YOUR FLAT LAY:
1. Remember that authenticity can mean many things - it doesn't have to mean bald honesty about the actual state of your desktop. This is art, people. So go ahead and create a magical theatrical desktop of imagination. Your creative imagination as expressed in this form is just as authentic to you as your actual desk with the dried hummus on the keyboard and the dirty sock falling off the edge. Your creative genius is authentic and your own internal visual language is variable, complex, layered, endless. Don't get too stuck in the "real." REAL is bigger than what you see in the day-to day.
2. Embrace beauty. Some folks, in rejecting the super-stylized look of the flat-lays, think that its stylization ITSELF that is the problem. Not so. Its the homogeneity and vacuousness of the current trendy forms of stylization that are such a bummer. If you don't go ahead and claim BEAUTY and intentionality in your artistry, you'll lose likes, hearts and followers. You just will. We respond to tender loving care, and you get to be fully invested in your creative process, and in the pursuit of beauty. So set up good lighting. Take time to compose. Get into your own love for the objects, shapes and colors you're using. Feel the beauty yourself and capture it. Delight yourself in the process, and your viewers will take delight too.
3. Lighting matters. I suggest purchasing/gathering at least 4 small clamp-lights from the hardware store and arranging them to point at your tabletop from different places nearby. This will help reduce cast shadows (unless you are deliberately using shadow as a part of your composition). Do your photography in a room with lots of natural light early in the day, if possible.
4. Think about some overall visual parameters for your social media graphics generally. Example: if you have an Instagram account, how do you want your feed to look overall? Does your brand already have a color palette you want to conform to? If its been a while since you really thought about your visual brand, dust it off. Your photoshoots here will help evolve your brand, refresh it, give it more dimension, color, texture and story.
5. Gather materials. Once you have thought through some of your existing visual brand parameters, gather materials. If your brand colors are pumpkin, eggplant and sage, you might go to the art supply store and purchase 3 large sheets of paper in each color to provide backgrounds for your flat lays; then you can alternate the colors in your Instagram feed for a vibrant effect. You can also find interesting papers you can write on, labels and letter cut-outs, anything that can help you build your space with color, shape and text.
6. Open up your relationship to objects: Your flat lay doesn't have to include only objects that directly symbolize parts of your practical business life, such as keyboards and pencils. The heart of your work is about so much more. If fun and creativity are core values of your work, for example, what happens when you simply search for FUN objects? There are MILLIONS of those out there! Set aside a box in your office where you gather interesting objects you find in your home, in nature, in thrift stores and flea markets, in the supermarket - anything that catches your eye. Just get a collection going that you can keep adding to over time. Don't overthink what goes in your box - you want a lot of raw material. Sometimes certain objects don't mean much until they are paired with other objects, and then it just "works." Just collect stuff you like or are drawn to.
7. Playtime! Once you've got a tabletop, some lights, some papers and colors, a box of objects, spend a few hours just arranging and playing, photographing along the way. This is important: DON'T JUDGE while you are playing! Just arrange, shoot, arrange, shoot, for a good long time without worrying about the final result. Play with the relationships of the objects to each other; play with colors, with composition. Notice how the look or meanings of objects seem to change as the objects or composition change around them. Have fun! Go for quantity rather than fussing over each image. Try to take 100 photos in one session (make sure your phone/camera has lots of storage space)!
Some prompts to help your play, if you need them:
Explore the relationship of 2D to 3D. What if you use printed photos, magazine images or other printed 2D images in your in your flat lay along with your 3D objects? What strange phenomena and relationships can happen between images and objects?
Explore handmade text. Most people bring their images into Canvas or Photoshop and add text digitally. If you want a word or sentence in your flat lay, how about handwriting it right into the scene? Or cutting words out of books and magazines? Using punch-out type labels? Where else can you find text and type in the physical world that you can include in your flat-lay?
Play with light, shadow, reflection and transparency. Set up simple scenes, then remember that the strange visual phenomena that light can offer are totally part of the drama. Is your theater a little shadow puppet show? How does light bounce off of marbles, glassware, etc? Darken your room and play with spot lighting. Play with mirrors, objects seen through lenses, etc.
8. Curate! Each individual image may tell a powerful visual story, but groupings of images can amplify and complicate the meanings (in good ways). Give yourself lots of time to group and cluster images, putting the ones you think you'll never use into a different folder.
HAVE A BLAST creating your own GORGEOUS, CREATIVE, MAGICAL, INNOVATIVE flat lay images.
Come share your creations on Facebook at the Tactical Imagination Club (and everywhere else), and post on Instagram with the hashtag #flatlayrebellion! Let's evolve the art form and raise the standards. Have fun!
Coming up next: slideshows of flat lays that break the mold and inspire.
As promised, this is part 2 of my case study of the work of Kehinde Wiley.
We humans have been obsessed the world over with creating and looking at patterns. I think it is a 2-way communication with the natural world around us which is microcosmically and macrocosmically seething with pattern. Patterns are inscribed in our bodies and our lands and our heavens.
So pattern is inscribed in our cultures, languages, and stories in a way that is as inherent and inseparable from our beings as our blood and breath. Think drumbeats. Think rituals. Think doodles.
Visually: what we draw, stamp, paint, print, embroider, weave and etch into the world is as much a language, full of vocabulary and system of symbols as our written and spoken language.
We are all multilingual, driven by our senses and our meaning-making to give form to the formless, and build fluent languages from simple vocabularies and elements. Images, music, dances, rituals, poems, meals.
Which brings us to the stories embedded in visual patterns: one of Kehinde Wiley's spaces of communication and play.
Textile patterns, like all language, communicate more than simply a visual phenomenon. Think of: Military camouflage. Dora the Explorer bedsheets. Victorian-era chair upholstery. Jungle-print velour. Stars and stripes. Ikea textiles. Handmade block-printed Indian textile. Mandalas. Polka dots. African wax-printed fabrics. Paisley. Patterns in maps. Argyle.
Every one of these (and a billion others) communicate to us. About wealth, status, nations, cultures, spiritual ideas, world views, functions, feelings, philosophies, histories, eras.
Example: speaking of African Wax-printed fabrics. Nadege Seppou outlines here how those varied and gorgeous beautiful colored fabrics so widely associated with "Africanness" are a products of colonial economics, and were/are not designed in Africa at all, but in Europe - after European traders appropriated batik techniques from Indonesia into their work and then found African markets for it. The facets of the patterns that look "African" to us are a result of an imperialist form of market research: the manufacturers responding to what African consumers seemed to enjoy. In the meantime, these fabrics have been truly absorbed into culture and society in much of Africa and are widely reclaimed, enjoyed, and improved upon by residents of Africa.
Those flowers, and triangles, and stripes and shapes and colors of wax-printed "African" fabrics become a kind of container for all kinds of references, associations and feelings - changing and shifting from viewer to viewer. The meaning of a pattern is never fixed, it is entirely context-dependent.
Another example: American military camouflage. How is it felt and interpreted by an American soldier? Someone whose country the US is at war with? A punk rocker who integrates it into fashion? A fashion designer? A child who doesn't know the use?
So much political, historical content can be inscribed into a pattern. Patterns and designs, like most contemporary music, are complex mashups of historical and cultural movements across the globe, inseparable from the political dynamics and economics that entails.
That's the kind of complexity embedded in Wiley's paintings, where patterns are active, powerful, sometimes erasing and sometimes revealing actors in these out-of-time-and-space (so we can talk about time and space) theaters he is creating.
So how does this relate to you, and to making powerful images that help you build your business, get more visibility and influence culture?
How can use use pattern to powerfully communicate your work?
The answer is to start by simply listening - looking - noticing. And let your creative mind, the one that's always creating just beyond your awareness, to start putting it together. Ways to stimulate this process:
- Start looking at patterns around you, in your living space and workplace, in the streets etc and start noticing what you are drawn to. Why? And ask yourself: what is that pattern communicating? Personally, culturally, socially? And see what thought comes up. Patterns are flexible: they can mean different things to different people, and their meanings change through time and place. So, there is no right or wrong answer here: YOU know what a pattern communicates to you.
- Brainstorm ways you could use pattern in your work to communicate something. Collect patterns around you and photograph them together. How do the patterns communicate with you, with each other?
- Do you doodle, or have you gone through period of doodling? Were patterns involved? You may have an inner set of patterns that wants to come out. Listen.
Think about your "ideal" client, your collaborators, your audiences. What are the visual cultural forms they like and are drawn to? Look at their visual presences online. Take stock. How can you use pattern to communicate to them - invite them to your work, invite them to think, delight them, challenge them?
If you could make a wallpaper or fabric pattern that represented an idea, a value, a question, a desire or delight embedded in your own business, what would it be? Once you know the answer...guess what? Its not that hard to make a pattern. Google for methods. Or find something similar with web research.
Have fun...and remember, bring questions and explorations to the Tactical Imagination Club on Facebook.
(Note: my case study this week in inspired by some conversations I have been having on Facebook about visual trends in the online business worlds - in particular, idealized images of entrepreneurial everyday life: clean tables, steaming cups of cappucino in perfect ceramic mugs, brand-new journals, and a generally minimal/modern/pure look. Many of these images are beautiful, but there are so many of them it led me to begin to wonder about the underlying effect of these visual trends, and the values and ideologies they contain. Instead of writing a giant essay about it, I'm going to simply present alternative points of view in the form of case studies. Enjoy!)
CASE STUDY #3: THE PHOTOS OF LAURA LETINSKY
This image is LIGHT in color and value, but not in the ways present in so many visual trends right now. This light is complex and revealing.
Present in this light: stains, wrinkles. grease. rot. crumbs. When I look at this image, I am reminded that meaning - and presence of being - and breathing - are not found in the perfectly clean table top. Not in the perfect mug for my cappucino. Not in a perfect ANYTHING.
That here: amidst the dust and crumbs, amidst the table unwiped, the coffee gone cold or the cup that slips off the table and breaks, here in the aftermath of the meal and in the in-between spaces of living, is mystery too. Here is luminous air, powerful stillness. Here is meaning, and magic.
This is the kind of perfect I want. The one in which things die, in which I will die. In which things rot and the table goes unwashed. And in the middle of it I can sit and feel something sublime, and true, and unnameable. And beautiful.
The light graces everything, it does not discriminate - it is warm even in the forgotten space against the wall.
For any of us who aim to support the well-being of our clients, in any of the ways we do, isn't this a powerful message? Isn't this something like liberation: you are just right, you do not have to be perfect, the magic of being here is available to you, as your birthright, no matter what the state of your tabletop?
If you are gonna keep it light, make it a beauty that includes us all, in all of our moments. Make it a light that reveals, not a white that erases.
PROMPT for you:
Using your camera, go on a hunt for beauty - without "improving" anything, cleaning anything, or creating an illusion of some other kind of life. Its OK to "stage" things - this image being studied is clearly "staged" - but notice what you are tempted to conceal and reveal, and try playing around with that. Where is the beauty residing in the life you already have? Remember: this is still about seeking beauty, meaning, love for your space and your things. Its there: find it.
Feel free to come discuss your findings on Facebook in the Tactical Imagination Club.
See more of Laura Letinsky's work here.
The Case Studies explore HOW VISUAL LANGUAGE WORKS and they are for business owners and content marketers who want to change culture with their work. Because change happens not only through words and action, but through images - and if you aren't using them to communicate, you (and we) are missing out, comrade!
These are not art reviews or academic treatises: they are meant to break down concepts of visual language into one or two nuggets you can think about and apply to your own business, whether that's changing how you use your Instagram feed, creating a new blog post image or redesigning your web site.
ALEXANDER 1, EMPEROR OF RUSSIA by Kehinde Wiley
Before I start case-studying this one, take a few minutes for yourself to just look at this image. In what ways does this differ from other mass-culture images you have seen of women? Of black women? Notice what parts of the image you are drawn into, or repelled by. Interested in, surprised by.
A bit about the artist and the painting:
Kehinde Wiley is an American artist who works in the tradition of European Portrait painting. In other words he uses that visual vocabulary (everything from color and pattern to scale, composition and perspective), and all that it communicates - wealth, power, prestige, glorification and history (in a context of colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy). But he applies it to subjects that reflect the contemporary experience of African-heritage people around the globe. Almost all of his images are of black men and explore both the dominant stories of white European culture, and the multiple stories and realities of black lives, masculinities and cultures worldwide. He has recently begun exploring images of black women as well.
The subject of this painting is a teenage girl from Jamaica; she is not a model but a person he met in the street and invited to pose, and she chose the pose she wanted from a book of 18th century paintings (Hence the painting's title). His subjects always have a say in their own representation; they wear their own clothes and their own facial expressions.
I have 3 lessons/prompts for you to take away from Wiley's work as you seek to find your own powerful, culturally-disruptive or culture-making images for your work.
- the power of the mashup, and disruptive appropriation
- the magical meanings of pattern
- seduction and beauty in the service of revolution
Today we are dealing with #1; you'll have to stay tuned for part 2 and 3!
The power of the mashup
You could say Wiley is a mashup artist. He holds the history of the European portrait painting tradition (and the story it tells) in one hand, and the realities of black lives around the world (and the stories they tell) in the other, and he crashes them together. And that's what I want to talk about with you today: what happens when you place imagery from two distinct and seemingly separate realities together in one image. Something breaks; a rift is made in the illusion of a world view through time and space. Disruption, people! A chance to experience the world, in that moment of the image, as more layered, more complex, than we usually feel like it is or than it is ever presented in our visual culture. Its an opening for new perspectives, new empathy, new understanding, or even just a new feeling to emerge.
Wiley uses appropriation of an old and exclusive tradition and disorients it! This pattern is taken from British wallpapers of the 1800s, when the slave trade was in full bloom. The woman and the pattern together create an image that stands apart from time and place. They are in a nebulous cultural space together. It triggers flickers of awareness: that the slave trade was happening as these beautiful patterns adorned the walls of the white wealthy. That the sense of legacy and unbroken history visible in the European paintings was not available to African families torn apart by the slave trade. The experience of history is different for each group yet simultaneous. The pattern lifts away from itself and passes in front of her; it is not fixed, not stable. The patterns and styles and textures of her own clothing are from yet another time and place. They have their own culturally-, economically-, and gender-encoded meanings too, that trigger flickers of awareness: the prevalence of American fashion trends exported all over the globe, a facet of modern day imperialism.
I could go on (we haven't even started talking about the mashup of her self-determination and the pose of a Russian King), and now that you're getting in the groove, you probably could too. So...
PROMPT #1: MASH IT UP
- In your work, what are the cultural norms and social realities that you seek to change? Write them down.
- Can you think of visual imagery that communicates those social norms and realities? For example, if you are seeking to disrupt sexism in images of women in mass media, you might think of glossy magazine images of women, advertisements, movie posters, images on products marketed towards women, etc. Go ahead, think of the ones that most embody what you are trying to disrupt.
- Now ask: What are the new cultural norms and social realities that you propose in your work? Write your answer(s) down.
- Brainstorm every type of image you can think of that might communicate that reality. Let your images be literal (like a woman proud of her body, however it may defy the oppressive norms), and totally not (like goo. Volcanoes. a skinned knee.) This can include art you have seen, photographs, films, etc. Keep thinking and writing until you have a long list of options.
- Now: start looking for combinations. What can you combine to make your own rift in the veil of illusion?
Come discuss over at the Tactical Imagination Club Facebook group!
Part 2 and Part 3 of the Kehinde Wiley Case Study coming soon, in which we explore the MAGICAL PROPERTIES OF PATTERN, and THE POWER OF SEDUCTION.
Note: Welcome to the Visual Storytelling Case Studies! These are explorations of what makes images work, and how images communicate - beyond subject matter alone. From there, I translate the lessons learned into prompts, tips and methods we small business owners can use to harness the power of visual storytelling more effectively in our own businesses. Enjoy!
Case Study No. 1: Susan Sontag, photographed by Annie Leibowitz
The meaning of images are often hiding in plain sight. In other words, stating the obvious - "I see this" - reveals all we need to know about the workings of an image.
I see this: She doesn't look at the camera. Her eyes are half-closed. She does not smile.
I see this: I see her from almost eye-level - she is lying down, but not far below me, I am close to her.
I see this: The room is plain, no detail. The image is monochromatic in black and white. Textures are simple and soft.
She doesn't look at the camera: yet she doesn't look anywhere: she is experiencing something internally. She is half dreaming, thinking, or just feeling, in a state of rest. She is not here for us, not in communication with us, not inviting us.
We see her at eye-level: We are framed as her intimate. Someone close enough to witness a vulnerable moment of quiet, thinking, dreaming, rest. We do not dominate from above or worship from below: friendship or family is implied. (Notice - photographs frame their subject, but they also frame you - the viewer - in relation to the image.)
A plain room, no detail: Soft textures and a close range of black to grey. Without environmental details to give us reference, she is pictured out of time and place. Colors, patterns, objects would make her more a part of the everyday world. This image refuses us those details and points right back to Sontag herself: and her internal world which we cannot see.
This is an image of a great mind and a cultural creator, critic and influencer - living and breathing for herself, without a hint of performance for the camera. It is deeply sensual and intimate yet she is not available to us: she is her own. Photographed lovingly by her long-time creative (and possibly romantic?) partner, photographer Annie Liebowitz.
What do you see here? How does this image support (or not) Sontag's public identity? What is said here, what is not said? What feelings or questions or curiosities does the image raise in you?
Prompt: Play around with point of view and eye contact in a series of selfies. Photograph yourself from below, above, eye-level. Look at the images from the point of view of the photographer or viewer. What does the angle communicate about that relationship? Experiment with looking at the camera and looking elsewhere. What happens?
Dear geniuses, business owners, visual storytellers, world changers and friends.
Today marks the first day of my weekly blog/email series: dispatches from the Bureau of Tactical Imagination. Or: Tactical Imagination Missives. Still working on the name, which is challenging, because Truth Bombs and Blazing Epistles of Righteousness are already taken. But its basically a love letter. With an invite to a free gathering, and an assignment for you that you can use to boost your creative confidence.
Later this month, I'll be launching a free audio series on creative confidence. What it is, why you need it, and how to get more of it! I want to poke and and goose and examine and understand more deeply how and why we get in our own way – get in the way of the luminary genius inside of us, the visionary imaginer and creator we are aching to be. And find the many good paths forward towards liberation for all of us so we can create stunning, ethical, intelligent, creative, wildly beautiful brands and successful businesses that are a big extension of the best of what we each bring to the world.
The places we already have creative confidence make us the powerhouses we are, and are probably why we became entrepreneurs or artists or innovators in the first place. But the places we lack it are affecting the quality of our offerings, and our businesses' bottom line (for starters).
At the basis of any good business plan and strategy there has to be a leader who is comfortable being a creative genius, a courageous risk-taker and a true innovator. The fiery sun in the center.
Plans crumble around our insecurities and no amount of good strategy can compensate for a leader who doubts herself. This is the challenge, and the opportunity, that most of us face. Its possible to build a good business without blazing creative confidence, but not a breakout, standout, amazing business that really brings the impact, income and life that you want.
The places we falter in our creative confidence can be hard to spot because a general suppression of creative brilliance is normal in our culture. We adore and hold up those among us who bust out and do something truly visionary and break the rules in the name of good and in the name of progress. (Take a moment to think of those icons in your world.) But in seeing those folks as exceptions, or transcendent, we forget that we are all built to be that way.
Especially you. You were built to be that way and no part of that essential functioning in you is broken. Its as essential to you as your blood and bones.
Suppressed maybe. Oppressed, definitely. Layers of conditioning sit on us: from our class backgrounds, our gender, our race or heritage or color, language, physical disabilities and differences, body sizes, religion, the list goes on and on. Many of these layers of conditioning are installed in obvious and damaging ways as we are growing up. Ways that we can remember and speak to. But many of them go down easy and unawarely. By contagion - in a culture that relies on people being divided from each other, and from our own core creative brilliance.
Think about it. Would be buy so many things, get so addicted, would we go to war, would we hate anyone, would be exploit the planet's resources, if we didn't feel divided - from each other, from the earth, from our own selves? If on some level we hadn't given some of our power up? Our power to connect, to create, to never give up, to insist on justice, on our lives and the world being fair, joyful, in balance, safe, sustainable?
We have to bust this down. Because, on a very basic, here and now, hows-it-going-running-your-business level, this crap is in your way.
Its in your way each time you spend an afternoon researching for answers that you suspect are already inside you.
Its in your way when you put off making images or telling a story because it feels somehow tiring to do the “creative part.”
Its in your way when you get seduced by the latest font everyone is using, or the latest way everyone is designing their sites or talking about their services or using buzzwords, and you do the same in hopes to conform to success.
Its in your way when you shoot down a number of ideas you have before giving them some room to breathe and develop.
Its in your way when you leap from inspiration to inspiration and don't commit to full execution.
Its in your way when other people's needs come first, beyond where that's appropriate.
Its in the way when you don't communicate the full value of your work.
Its in the way when you forget to stop and stretch and drink water.
Or when you keep forgetting to focus on the bigger picture. Or when you are afraid of details.
We've all got some version of creative confidence boo-boos, and: it's losing us clients, time, income, happiness. And it dims our light, dampens our vibrancy....and feels normal.
I'm not a big believer in chasing productivity. Because when we are fully creatively confident, we know we can light that fire when its needed, and create what we want to create, and nothing can stop us. We don't need to hold our feet to the fire, fight procrastination, or whatever. When we are creatively confident, we are having fun and we are focused. We may have challenges and conditions in our lives that interfere with creation time. Competing priorities and bona fide crises happen. But when our creative confidence is sound, PRESENCE replaces productivity and when we do make the time and space to work, we know our focus, clarity and motivation is strong and ready to roll.
So how do we get there?
On Thursday September 29 at 2pm EST, I'm inviting anyone who wants to explore this further to join me in a free 2-hour CREATIVE CONFIDENCE JAM to listen, witness and be coached on this issue. Go here to sign up!
AN ASSIGNMENT (takes 2 minutes. Do it now.)
Conjure to mind someone who you hold up as a beacon of clarity, creativity, an impact in this world. Someone whose contribution to the world you value and celebrate totally. It can be someone you know, or someone in the public eye. Someone you look to for hope and inspiration. A mentor. An elder. An extraordinary leader. It can be someone now living, or a brilliant ancestor. Someone from your personal canon of heroes.
Then, close your eyes, and imagine standing before this person, face to face. Standing tall, same height, shoulders back, head raised, eyes clear and delighted and confident. Smile at them. Thank them. Reach out for a hand and feel yourself as a peer, an equal, a friend. Listen for what they have to say to you.
Then make your declaration. It has to be in your words. But it might have to do with promising to never undermine or demean your own creativity and intelligence again.
It might have to do with claiming your mastery and your vision.
It might have to do with being gutsy enough to shed an old identity that keeps you playing small.
It might involve tears, or laughter, or the shakes.
Whats your declaration that you make in the eyes of your favorite peer in the world of luminaries? The one that calls you to accept that you are here to serve at that same level?
The first in a weekly teaching series on Facebook Live, at both my Bureau of Tactical Imagination business page and in the group Tactical Imagination Club. Each Monday - and sometimes more often than that - I'll post another ridiculously simple idea you can use to enter a divergent creative practice for the week. These will all be posted in a library on this site soon!
I've been so in love with creating this mini-podcast for mothers focusing on self-care and creative practice. Finding my calling?
I was writing a coaching summary to an exceptional mom I know, and I started, as I often do, with an appreciation of her. I got really into it. And then I realized that as specifically brilliant as she is, everything I was saying applies to the work of mothering in general - it applies to all of us. So here it is, my gift to you.
I suggest stopping everything else you are doing for 4 minutes so you can take it in fully. Can you handle it?
If you loved this appreciation, sign up for the:
SPARKTENDING: a free 10-episode mini-podcast for mothers, going live on March 8!
That's right, one brief and powerful episode delivered to your inbox each weekday for two weeks, Your daily love letter, energy infusion, inspiration smoothie, Just listening is an act of self-care: take me up on the gift!
It's Thursday, January 28: The 4th day of the work week, 4 months into building my new business from scratch, four o'clock PM, and I am:
Completely. Melting. Down.
In my kitchen. Taking my husband, who is just walking in the door, quite by surprise. Its the end of a day of high productivity, after a week of high productivity. But for some reason, I find myself at the height of dissatisfaction and frustration with myself and my business. In the height of my drama, I enter another reality, the way you do when you really need to have a big cry and your psyche produces whatever whacked interpretation of your life that it takes to finally get you to let it all out. I bet many of you who are building businesses (or doing any kind of epic project) have been there, right?
But it alarms me. Because I am usually very good at rolling with punches, remembering the long haul, celebrating my victories, finding reassurance and joy in creativity and loving myself in the midst of uncertainty. I am a person who brings new things into being. I make things, big things, out of nothing. And I enjoy the cliff edges. This is how I roll, and its what I love.
As the storm clears I am able to WTF my situation, and unpack the drama to its sources, or at least to its triggers. And it looks something like this:
MISSTEP NUMBER ONE
This week, I got hoodwinked by the toxic myth that says:
If you work really, really hard, you will succeed.
Blood, sweat and tears, baby. No pain, no gain!
Not "if you work efficiently and passionately towards a well-planned goal, you will succeed." And not "if you take really good care of your mind, body and spirit, and stay true to your values and vision, and do your work in its proper time and place, you will succeed." And not even "If you stay connected to people and the earth, and nourish your relationships, and keep your channels of creativity open, you will succeed." nope - its just about hard work. And if anything stressful or uncertain is rambling down the road towards you, WORK HARDER.
I've found that this mindset is a quick road to self-exploitation. Its the sick pace of our larger economic system - you know that one that exploits natural resources to the point of mass extinction? The one that exploits human beings through slavery, historically and in the present? That one - trickling down from the macro to the micro, and settling right into those muscles in our shoulders. Sinking right into our nervous systems, right into those places where we feel small, ashamed, and afraid.
As soon as I remembered this, the words spilled out of my mouth: I am not here to be fracked, mined. My mountaintops will not be removed. My fossil-ancient sources of energy will remain in my cool, dark earth. I will not exploit myself. Ever. No matter how scared I may occasionally feel!
A business is not a to-do list, a race, or a battle. Its is a creation. Creations are each unique, and each must unfold in its own time, at its own pace. To rush it is to lose focus and harm yourself and/or your business. To truly embrace this perspective is countercultural - its a paradigm shift that must be defended, daily, against the culture of WORK HARDER, SACRIFICE YOURSELF FOR SUCCESS that surrounds us.
A body is precious, and is not to be exploited. The body's pace is its own, not to be dominated or owned by the time of markets, of business, or the violent pace of contemporary culture. To rush it does harm to the body and the spirit, and confuses the mind.
MISSTEP NUMBER TWO
Whoops. I looked for too much help!
That's right. Those of you know know me know that I am the world's biggest champion for support and connection. If I remade the world my way, none of us would ever even take a pee by ourselves.
So what's the problem? This week I watched excellent free training videos, read informative blog posts, and generally absorbed every bit of good business building perspective I could - from some of the people I most admire and respect in the business world online. People from whom I am receiving a top-notch education to support my business, and to whom I feel tremendous gratitude for the value they provide. Sweet, right?
Yes, when that outward attention is in balance with a hearty practice of looking inward, slowing the f--- down and listening for the wisdom and information that comes from within, and in my experience, the earth. This week, as a component of the DRIVEN way I was working, all that good education was turning into a kind of obsessive consumption of information. Does that ring a bell? Obsessive self-education. A seeking of answers and info from out there - while in here is simply ignored. And when in here is neglected, out there becomes a destructive rather than generative force.
As all of this becomes clear on Thursday night, I decide: Friday is slowdown day, self care day - a day of reflection. To break the addiction of information consumption, and the addiction to hard work for its own sake, and care for my body, mind and soul. To fill the well, choose TRUST - in my own business, and in TIME: the time of the body, the time of my creations. To once again retrain myself to shift into a paradigm of health: in money, business, creative practice and especially in body. To listen to my next steps and trust what I hear.
THE DREAM THAT NIGHT
I am taking classes at a university. Running from room to room, taking tests, buying books. Leaving to work at a restaurant, then back to school. I am happy, productive. Working hard. Every once in a while, I remember something important. REALLY important: that the day before, I had given birth. To a baby. My infant son. That my mother, bless her heart, is caring for him in my dorm room while I take classes. As I remember, I am horrified that I am taking classes instead of caring for my sweet new baby, falling in love with him, feeding him with my body. I try to hold on to the memory of my baby, as the distractions creep back in. And then I forget again, and I am running, running. Several classes later, my mother calls.
"Amy, you need to come back here and feed your baby. Your milk is going to dry up. Your milk is drying up."
Overwork and distraction are not simply annoying addictions for the reasons we usually think, like they leave little time for our leisure activities, or they make us eat addictively, or raise our blood pressure. Overwork and distraction is devastating for another reason.
There is a beautiful, innocent, and infinite creature waiting for us, and its our humanness. Its our creativity - our very soul. Its need us - rested, open, receptive, willing to be in slow time, willing to listen. It needs the milk of our attention and our confidence, our vulnerability and our wildness. It needs us to take a stand against the violent pace of the outside world, and curl up with it in a sunbeam for the afternoon. Without it fed and loved, our accomplishments can never mean much - to us or to the world.
I decided to build my own business after being diagnosed with an illness that forced me to slow down and heal. I took a vow the day I began this business: If its not sustainable to my body and soul, its not worth doing. I remake this vow over and over, as I learn what it actually means to do this. Im grateful for this week's lessons, and for the dream I was given.
Is your business sustainable for you? What would it take to make it so - what myths and cultural patterns will you have to resist? What within you will be able to awaken?
Delia King is a mixed media artist, mural painter, community-based artist and single mom living in Philadelphia PA. She has completed some 30+ murals for the city’s amazing Mural Arts Program, many of them packed with color, pattern, geometry and poetry. Her work finds its roots in interests as diverse as philosophy, math, community engagement and corrections reform.
In Delia’s words: “The things in life have been elusive and difficult, homelessness and poverty have been key points in my life. But I’ve used this to develop empathy for the communities I serve through Public Art. I know that there is no one formula that can lift people from the hardships of the underclass, but I do believe that the soul is not bound by class, and it is in this that I believe that Art can and does lift folks up far above societal expectations.”
I’m so thrilled to support this incredible artist for the month of January as our first Integrated Artists Residency parent artist. Delia will use the month to enter full production mode for her newest public art project, designed with students from the Julia de Burgos Bilingual Elementary School at 4th and Leigh Streets in Philadelphia. The work will consist of eight glass mosaics on pre-existing four-foot concrete pillars.
Delia and I are strategizing about every area of her life as a mother and artist - gathering resources and community support around her, freeing up time, energy and focus so her work can really flourish. Stay tuned here for residency reports!