It doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious. (Then why don’t we notice more stuff?)

A  friend of mine has a gripe about the CBS show “The Mentalist.”

He says, “The guy’s not a mentalist, he just observes stuff – like Sherlock Holmes. They should call it ‘The Observer’ or something.”

He’s got a point. The character isn’t clairvoyant, he just notices things. Everything, in fact.

Most of us don’t do that. With images and information constantly buzzing around us, we’ve conditioned ourselves to “grazing,” to picking out only the bits that are most interesting and ignoring the rest.

That’s true whether we’re on the computer, watching a TV show or just living our lives.

I realized how non-observant I’d become when I tried my hand at an online “choose the correct logo” game.

I failed miserably.

I’m a writer, not a designer, so I tend to think verbally more than visually. But that’s no excuse. I realized I need to put more effort into retaining more of the information my eyes feed my brain every day.

After all, us agency folks work in a “creative” field. Ideas don’t spring from an information vacuum but from our accumulated knowledge and experiences. If we don’t actively gather that data and catalog it in our minds, we’ll have much less to call upon when we need to brainstorm an idea.

If we do load up our palette, however, we have that much more information from which to pull solutions.

Of course, being observant also has “real world” applications too:

• It’s a useful skill if you ever need to tell police about something you witnessed.

• It can help you remember a new acquaintance’s face so you’ll recognize them later.

• It can help you talk someone through a procedure over the phone without having any visual reference in front of you.

• In extreme cases it may even save your life.

But how do you become an observer, rather than a viewer?

You just have to do it. Take in your surroundings. In your mind, describe to yourself what you’re seeing.

For example, the next time you’re standing in line at a fast food restaurant, make a point of observing:

• The color and pattern of the floor tile

• The number of cash registers

• What the counter is made of

• If the lights are fluorescent or incandescent

• The number and location of the exits (This ties into the “may even save your life” statement above.)

That’s just one example of opportunities for observing. Any time you’re standing in line, waiting in the doctor’s waiting room, surfing the Internet, or if you’re just out and about, stop and force yourself to observe.

It’s a great mental exercise, and the things you remember will most likely be useful to you down the road.


“You have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

—Sherlock Holmes and Watson, from “A Scandal in Bohemia”

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