notes from CrowdCamp part 1

I arrived a few minutes late searching for parking near the river walk in San Antonio. I found the room where everyone was meeting, only to see everyone walking out of it with long roles of paper. I was given a role of paper myself, and found myself following the crowd to an open space in the Hyatt's large atrium.

Liz Gerber led us in an ice breaking session. Activities included making random suggestions of what to do with the long role of paper. Someone suggested that everyone hit me — fortunately someone else made another suggestion before everyone was able to follow through with that. We also ended up tracing each other's heads on the paper. Ice broken. Thanks Liz ;)

Next, we spent some time trying to divide into groups to hack on some project over the weekend — the main point of CrowdCamp is to hack on some project. I proposed a group that would spend its time trying to be creative, as a group, and introspecting about that process. My thought was: we often try to figure out how to get Mechanical Turk workers to approach expert levels of creativity through some sort of magical workflow. But I'm more interested in taking creative experts and trying to achieve super-human levels of creativity, and the people at this workshop seemed like "creative experts", by some definition.

The first thing our group did was have each person spend 10 minutes on their own with a pen and paper trying to create a logo for CrowdCamp. Here's what I did:

I drew a path through the notes just now to show the order of the sketches. I started by drawing "CrowdCamp" with a tent next to it. Then I experimented with drawing a stylized bathroom person next to a tent. I liked the idea of having stylized bathroom people engaged in normal camp activities, and drew them roasting marshmallows. I then tried to make it look like a crowd of bathroom people roasting marshmallows. I thought this approach might be getting to complex for a logo, and decided to move toward making the CrowdCamp logo look like a conventional camp sign. I looked on google images for some examples of camp signs, and tried to adapt them.

After we had all spent 10 minutes sketching alone, we each shared our process with the group. All four of us had a similar process: we drew sketches of ideas, and then riffed on those ideas with new sketches, and if we got stuck, we started with a new sketch. Here's another group member's sketches for this task:

I drew the path based on what they said — they started with traditional camp imagery, just like me, including a tent and marshmallows, but then decided to abandon that path. They restarted with a focus on trying to show "working together", and trying to use symmetry. This idea eventually led to a celtic braid of cables.

As we shared our ideas, I was inspired by other people's ideas, and wanted to riff on those. There is a dotted line in my set of notes above going to an image of a crowd of people hammering down each spike for a tent. Unfortunately I don't have the other group member's sketch that inspired me to draw that, but I liked the idea of showing a crowd doing something that really only required one person, because I thought it was funny.

We tried the logo creation task again later on, trying to create a logo for UIST — which is a conference we were all familiar with — but this time we did it twice. The first time we came up with our own ideas. Then we passed our notes to the person next to us and spent 10 minutes riffing on their sketches.

Here's a sketch done by me, where the words user, interface, software and technology flow down in a braid:

Here's a sketch done by another group member where they stylized my sketch:

Here's a sequence of sketches done by another group member:

And here are a couple sketches done by me based on those ideas:

Note that we didn't talk to each other about our sketches before exchanging them, and I wasn't sure what was going on with the eye in the hand, or with the broken computer. After we discussed everything, I learned that the eye, hand and sound-waves were meant to represent different senses, since user interfaces involve senses. Also, the broken computer was meant to represent "breaking free of old interfaces". I found these explanations useful, and I may have riffed on the ideas better if we had told each other what we were thinking before exchanging papers. In any case, I'm still proud of the guy with his head in a monitor trying to program himself :)

In addition to sketching logos, we did a 10 minute session on a couple of other creative tasks as well: writing a verse of a song, and thinking of a website to build that could facilitate creative introspection.

Writing the verse was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we didn't specify what it should be, and so some of our time was spent drilling down to what our song should be about. This was a creative process in itself. Second, the task was somewhat uncomfortable for everyone, since songs are so personal, and people were — at least I was — embarrassed.

In any case, I feel like I learned a lot about creativity, seeing other people's creative processes. And by "a lot", I really mean that I grew to appreciate the importance of riffing on ideas. I feel like a lot of creativity is essentially hill-climbing with random restarts.

We didn't get a chance to explore too much into super-human creativity, though we did try exchanging ideas after thinking alone for 10 minutes, and that did seem better than just thinking alone for 20 minutes.

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