Become an Observer

Charles SharmanOctober 29, 2016

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia, Watson finds Holmes deductions simple, yet he himself cannot make the same deductions until Holmes explains. An interesting interchange follows, with Holmes beginning:

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, 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.” [1]

When I read Sherlock Holmes the first time, I took a hike one weekend in the nearby mountains. Inspired by my reading, I tried to observe, not just see. It was an overcast day, and finding my hat more a source of heat than shade, I took it off during a break. Later, in the day, the sun came out, and I realized I had left my hat miles behind. However, the power of observation was upon me. I remembered the rock, the bend in the trail, and the nearby tree. As we retraced our steps I searched for those marks and finally found the rock, the bend, the nearby tree, and my hat.

Careful observation is the first step to becoming an excellent designer. Stop, slow down, and look carefully.

  • What angle does the windshield make with the hood?
  • How much higher are the turrets than the wall?
  • Which way does the horse's hock bend relative to the knee?

When answers to these questions are at your fingertips, designing becomes easier.

So, how do you transition from a seer to an observer? Stop, slow down, and look carefully. I'm afraid our rapid data age has lowered our power of observation. We're so used to browsing, we don't read. We're so used to instant access, we turn away when data takes more than seconds to arrive. We're so used to action, we find older movies boring.

Become an observer. Take a walk through the woods and stop and notice the plant types. Cuddle with an excellent book and read slowly. Have a conversation and listen carefully enough to ask thoughtful questions. Look at that car and remember the interfaces. Observe the castle and count the turrets. Study the horse and know its every motion. Stop, slow down, and look carefully.

*This is an excerpt from a book Charles is writing entitled Designing with Crossbeams.

  1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes