Mastering the Art of Observation with Dan Pink and Amy Herman

“You could be the best observer in the world but if you can’t communicate what it is that you see, it doesn’t do you any good.”

Dan Pink, management expert and New York Times bestselling author of Drive, recently sat down with art historian Amy Herman to discuss the benefits of sharpening our perceptions. Herman is the author of Visual Intelligence, and has pioneered a course that teaches FBI agents, doctors, CEOs, and others to see more clearly. During their talk, Herman gave Pink a brief lesson in observation, description, and effective communication.

Dan: You have an interesting background – tell us how you came to exploring this set of ideas.

Amy: It’s been a very circuitous route to get here. I tell people that I am a recovering lawyer. I’m also an art historian. I’d like to think that I’ve taken the practical aspects of each of those disciplines, legal analysis and visual analysis, and put them together to teach people across the professional spectrum how to enhance their observation and perception skills by using works of art.

Dan: So, you were a lawyer then you became a museum educator.

Amy: Right. One of the first jobs I had after leaving law was at the Frick Collection in New York. While there, I started this program for medical students, taking them out of the clinical setting and bringing them to the art museum to teach them how to look at works of art.

Dan: And what’s the advantage for medical students to be able to look at works of art? Why is looking at art valuable?

Amy: What the program sought to do was to bring humanism back to medicine. To give a straightforward example, when the medical student walks into the patient’s room, rather than just picking up the chart and looking to see what the test results are, I ask the medical student, look at your patient. Are there cards on the table next to them, are there flowers, are they wearing their own pajamas or a hospital issued gown? How does the patient react when you walk in? People speak volumes about themselves without opening their mouths.

I try to get the medical students to be attuned to nonverbal communication and to process the information that’s right in front of them before they pick up that chart. After doing this with medical students for years we realized this had a much broader application than just in medicine. So I picked up the phone and called the NYPD. I made a cold call and said, I’m teaching doctors to enhance their observation skills and I think it would be really great for the detective bureau.

“Listening to the news now, we live and work in a really complex world. Nothing is obvious and even less is clear.”

Dan: The idea is that most of us don’t really know how to see, how to absorb. Our eyes are not fully open, our minds are not fully awake. And what you’re suggesting is that you can systematically help people see better by looking at paintings, photographs and sculptures and using that as a way to enhance our eye.

Amy: Yes, although everybody knows how to see. I try to make the distinction between what we see and what we observe. Because we see so much, I’m trying to get people to think about the filters through which they’re passing all that information and to get them to sharpen their observation skills.

Dan: Today, I’m going to be one of your guinea pigs. You’ve selected some images. I’ve never seen them before. And you’re going to show them to me and tell me what to do.

Amy: I’m going to give you one rule.

Dan: Yes.

Amy: There are no right or wrong answers, but I’m going to ask you in your description and your analysis to refrain from using two words: “obviously” and “clearly.”

Dan: Obviously I will abide by those rules and clearly they’re wise suggestions.

Amy: I’ll tell you the underlying rationale. Listening to the news now, we live and work in a really complex world. Nothing is obvious and even less is clear. So, I find the words to be really assuming and rather than saying, “Obviously it’s a case of ‘X’,” I would prefer people say, “It appears to me to be a case of ‘X’ because of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’.” Let’s start with work of art number one. Look at this work of art and describe it to me as if I could not see what you were looking at.

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Dan: Okay.

Amy: Choice of words is very important — that’s a hint.

Dan: Okay. What I see is what looks to be a painting. It’s not a photograph.

Amy: Good.

Dan: It appears to be the right hand — a close up of somebody’s, probably a man’s, right hand. I think it’s a man’s hand even though the nail is fairly manicured.

Amy: What made you get to that conclusion that it’s a man’s hand?

Dan: Size, I think, but I could be wrong.

Amy: Okay.

Dan: And the person, let’s say, is gripping between the thumb and forefinger a disk. It’s a disk that looks to be, compared to the size of the hand, about the size of a dime or a penny. But on the disk is another image, I think painted, that looks to be a sun in the sky above a body of water. It could be sunset, it could be sunrise, I have no idea.

Amy: Great.

Dan: The person is putting this coin-ish disk into a slot and the slot looks reminiscent of the kind in a parking meter. That’s what I see.

Amy: Excellent. What I ask my participants to do after their description is to think about their observations, perceptions, and inferences. You started right away with an observation of a thumb and a forefinger on the right side and then you jumped to an inference that it belonged to a man.

Dan: Uh-oh.

Amy: There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s why I asked why did you think it’s a man. You said the size — but we realize the size here is enlarged and distorted. Then you moved to the center of the painting and gave a wonderful visual description of what looked to be a coin the size of a dime that had a painting on it of the sun over a body of water. That was wonderful because a painting on the surface of a coin is kind of odd.

You gave a great visual image but my instruction was to tell me what this looked like if I couldn’t see it. And one of the things I ask people to do is lay the groundwork. The color of almost everything, with the exception of the coin, is a greenish hue.

Dan: I totally missed, I did not say anything about that.

Amy: Or about the color of the sunset, with yellow and red and orange and white hot. I only introduce that because it gives us strong visual images. The reason that I picked this painting is it’s one of my favorites, from 1979, called Beach Call. It’s of someone putting a dime into a payphone.

Dan: Oh.

Amy: The beach is being reflected on the coin. I thought you were there when you said it looks like a coin being put in a slot. I thought he’s going to get it, he’s going to tell me it’s a payphone, and you said parking meter.

Dan: And I’m old enough to remember payphones… Thinking about what I missed here, what would be the lessons from those misses?

Amy: Say out loud, “I’m looking at a close up of something” when you’re looking at a very small area — a thumb, a coin, and slot — to give someone a visual orientation. And as I mentioned before, lay the foundation with color. I know that your brain saw that there were many different hues of green and olive and chartreuse.

Dan: So how might a detective be able to use this technique to do her job a little better?

Amy: One of the best explanations I got of why this course is so valuable was from a detective I noticed in my class two or three times. Finally I approached him and said, “Why are you taking the class over and over again?” And he said, “Because I’m really terrible at this stuff.”

He said, “After taking your class I realized I’ve been on the job for 25 years and when I get a call I already have a vision in my mind of what the crime scene’s going to look like before I get there. That’s not the way to do your job. That’s how you miss the nuance of what’s really going to solve the case. So, I need to lay the foundation and lay the groundwork and your course is teaching me how to do that.”

Dan: Yeah. How might someone’s answers change if we knew the title of the image beforehand? We often see what we want to see.

Amy: That’s right. I talk a lot about bias in the book. When I have my classes in museums I don’t allow the participants to look at the labels, because if you read a label you’re going to look at the painting with the bias of what that information told you to look for. So, if I told you at the get-go, this painting is entitled Beach Call, all of a sudden you’re going to think, Beach Call, what does that mean? And you would start to see the payphone and you would try to put those words together before you put your observations together. I need you to do it in the reverse order, because for detectives it’s laying the groundwork.

Dan: Got it. Let’s go to the next one. Okay, my lord…

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Amy: Now again, lay your foundation. Give me a description of what it is that you see. If we were on the telephone, if I could not see what you were looking at, what would you say?

Dan: It looks to be a black and white photograph. Its aspect ratio is 4 x 3 or thereabouts, so it’s longer than it is tall. And – lord have mercy, what is this thing? It looks like a window. The reason I say that is because at least part of it is transparent and there’s a building across the street. It looks like the window’s kind of dirty. Some of the window is missing and has been covered over by a big black substance. It’s like a window through which you can see only half the things that you would otherwise see. The other thing that makes me think it’s a window is on the right hand side of it a cord is coming down. Otherwise I find this totally mystifying.

Amy: Well, let’s put it this way, it should be validating for you that I show this photograph to teach us what to say when we don’t know what to say.

Dan: That’s a very important life lesson for me. What to say when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Amy: Okay, what you’re looking at is a black and white photograph. I thought your description was so interesting. You said its shape looked to be 4 x 3, and I thought, why isn’t he just telling me it’s a rectangle?

Again, you’re trying to give a visual image to someone who can’t see what you’re looking at. So you’re looking at a rectangular black and white photograph and you were absolutely right that it looks to be some kind of window. You’re looking at a window that is broken, and the broken part is the right hand triangular shape. The upper left hand of the window is intact and in the upper left hand corner you’re seeing a reflection of the window behind the photographer.

Dan: Oh.

Amy: Direct your eyes to the bottom of the photograph, in the center. Do you know what that is? It’s the legs of the photographer. This is a self-portrait. The artist is named Ellsworth Kelly and the title of the photograph is Broken Window in Paris.

Dan: Okay.

Amy: I use it as an illustration of a) what to say when we don’t know what to say and b) how do we talk about what’s missing. How do we talk about what’s not there? It’s not just what we see, it’s what don’t we see and what should we be seeing. In this case the part of the window that’s broken and missing is where the photographer would be reflected. But it’s gone. So the title Broken Window in Paris tells you what he’s looking at, the window behind him.

Dan: Imagining this akin to a crime scene, what are the sorts of oversights and biases and mental slippages a detective might make?

Amy: In a case like this, I’d want the detective to say the cord is both inside and outside the building. Because that’s one of those small details you can see: the cord actually goes under the window so it’s coming from one space into the other.

Dan: I didn’t even notice that.

Amy: But you did say the cord, which is good. I’d want the detective to note the surface of where the glass is broken. Does this look like forced entry, does this look like cut glass, are there smooth or jagged edges?

Dan: Are there some small, everyday practices that we can employ to get a little bit better at this? Right now I’m in my office, which is a garage. On one side of the garage is a window that looks out into the yard. For years, I’ve looked out of it, and I probably haven’t observed anything close to what I should be able to. Is there a practice that I can employ to get a little bit better at seeing things like a really good detective, art historian or physician?

“You could be the best observer in the world but if you can’t communicate what it is that you see, it doesn’t do you any good.”

Amy: Yes. I give this simple, two-word instruction: look up. Look up from our computer screens and from our phones. I learned long ago when I started teaching this program most people are trying to get from point A to point B. Whether they’re walking, driving, on public transportation, or just working on their computer, they put these blinders on. I want people to take the blinders off and look up from their phones. In your case, if you’re looking out the window and need to rest your eyes from being on the computer I want you to mentally come up with three or four sentences about how you would describe what’s out the window.

Dan: Okay, I like that.

Amy: Looking out the window, what do I see? How do the leaves look different today than they did yesterday? What’s on the ground? It’s a mental exercise. You could be the best observer in the world but if you can’t communicate what it is that you see, it doesn’t do you any good.

Dan: Is this something that people could do to sharpen their perception if they’re commuting? They can come up with three sentences to describe what they’re seeing.

Amy: Right. If you’re on the subway or the metro, look at who just got off and who just got on. How would you describe it? What’s one thing you noticed about someone who got off, and how would you communicate that to someone?

Dan: Is it a matter of slowing down a little bit, of being intentional, of shaking ourselves out of the mindless blinded default? All of the above, none of the above?

Amy: I would say the last two. I move quickly, walk quickly, and speak quickly, so slowing down wouldn’t make me any more observant. It’s about intention and being mindful and saying I’m not going to look at my phone for half an hour.

Dan: Let’s go to the third image and see what I can do as my eyes sharpen.

Amy: This one is going to be hard. There are two paintings. I’m going to ask you to look at these two works of art and tell me how they’re similar or different. This is what I talk about in the book called pattern recognition.

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Dan: The first similarity I see is in the orientation of the two bodies. They seem to be pointed in the same direction.

Amy: And what direction is that?

Dan: Toward the left side of the image as the viewer sees it. Another thing, I just noticed this, around the necks of the two subjects are a set of ringed necklaces that are actually very similar to each other. I’m just looking at the observational stuff here. The central image in both of them appears to be a woman.

Amy: Yes.

Dan: Two women oriented the same direction, each with a necklace that looks similar. The left arm is cut off in both images. In the one on my left the woman’s garment doesn’t cover her shoulder but completely conceals her left arm.

And in the other one the left arm is snipped off. The only other similarity I see is, in the one with the chopped-off head —

Amy: First tell me there’s a chopped-off head in one of them.

Dan: Wait a second. I just noticed that one of them has a chopped-off head and one of them has a missing head.

Amy: Excellent.

Dan: I totally missed that. I was being much more literal and going for the one where the head is resting on the table. I was exploring the viscera and the gunk under its neck, which seems similar to what looks like a stomach and small intestine of the other image. So… what the heck is going on here?

Amy: This exercise comes about two thirds of the way through the program, once people have really built up their skills of description, they’ve laid the foundation and now I want them to show their knowledge, how do you connect these things, how are they similar and different. You noticed yourself as you talked about it you saw more things.

Each is a painting. The one on the left is from 1630 and the one on the right is from 2015. They’re entirely different styles and centuries. Each one has a central figure of a woman. On the right it appears to be a woman’s torso. The head is chopped off, the arms are chopped off, and then you made a terrific connection between the two: you had this ah-ha moment and said wait a minute there’s a chopped off head on the left side and the figure on the right is also headless.

So, you have reference to a headless figure somewhere on the left and you’re confronted by a headless figure on the right. We have a woman with a weapon on the left and a strong womanly figure on the right. You did a great job in pattern recognition and articulating similarities and details. The only thing I would add, in laying the foundation, is we have very ornate clothing on the left: a hat, ornate dress, and bodice. On the right, there doesn’t appear to be any clothing except the necklace and the tassels, the rope tied around the woman’s bust.

Dan: Was this 2015 painting done explicitly to reference this?

Amy: Yes. I discovered this painting at the Whitney. It was an exhibition of contemporary young painters and it, in fact, referenced the Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1630. When I put them side by side I thought, this is exactly pattern recognition. If we had two unsolved crimes and you put the facts side by side, how do you link them together?

Dan: You anticipated my question, which is how is pattern recognition valuable in our day-to-day lives?

“When we see patterns and deviations from patterns we need to be able to articulate, this is what I saw yesterday, this is what I see now. We need an explanation for why it changed.”

Amy: Think about teachers, about parents. If a teacher writes a note home or sends an email, your son was acting strangely today, what does “strangely” mean? How does it deviate from the behavior of yesterday? Was he laughing too much, was he crying, did he look sick, was he withdrawn? When we see patterns and deviations from patterns we need to be able to articulate, this is what I saw yesterday, this is what I see now. We need an explanation for why it changed.

Think about nurses that are looking at an illness every day. The patient looked this way yesterday but looks different today — they have to be able to articulate it. Pattern recognition is very important. It also helps us in prioritizing information. Well, I’ve seen this pattern before and if it’s the same pattern then we can expect this to happen.

Dan: If you hadn’t explicitly given me this exercise I would have said they’re totally different.

Amy: And look what you came up with.

Dan: My takeaway, personally, is just being intentional, stopping and looking. How long does the average museum visitor look at a work of art?

Amy: They’ll usually spend about 10 to 15 seconds reading the label, and anywhere from three to eight seconds looking at the work of art.

Dan: Three to eight seconds? That’s incredible.

Dan: Is Visual Intelligence a book that parents could use?

Amy: When I realized that there was a much broader applicability of these skills to the wider world, parenting really topped the list. As a parent, it’s not so much what my son says to me, it’s what I see him doing: his actions, how he speaks to his friends, his body language. It is very valuable for parents to think about what they’re observing and especially to think about how they communicate with their children based on their observations.

Dan: If you’re a leader or a manager, someone who is typically doing a gazillion things at once and racing through the day, how could this help?

Amy: Managers and leaders are charged with articulating vision and strategy for their team, for their company. So, the takeaways for managers and leaders are to really think about how they communicate: writing, speaking, email, text and the choice of words is so important. Leaders and managers are delegating, evaluating, mentoring, observing. I think these skills are really paramount for a good leader.

Dan: Tell me about the four A’s that are in your book, this very systematic approach to looking.

Amy: In every new situation, you do four things whether you realize it or not. First you assess your situation. You have to decide what do. Then you analyze it. You say what’s important. What do I need to know, what don’t I need to know? You prioritize your information. Then you articulate it. You write an email, a report, you speak to someone on the phone, you articulate what it is that you noticed and then you act and make a decision based on your observations and your perceptions. If we break it down, does our articulation match what we’ve analyzed and what we’ve assessed? How do our inferences go from the information that we have?

Dan: Fascinating. If you could give folks one thing to do tomorrow to get a little bit better at visual perception, what would you have people do?

Amy: Wherever they’re going from point A to point B, I want them to consciously notice something that they haven’t noticed before and tell someone about it. Communicate an observation that you’ve never made before.

Dan: I’m doing it. Even though I work nearby — I have a 22 step commute from my house — I will actually leave my house and go somewhere, just so I can tell people something I’ve observed.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.