As a media producer, I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach my production projects; new ways to think about the storytelling, unique and engaging ways to edit, pace and present the ideas, sounds and visuals.  As a consumer of media, I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach my media listening and viewing; new ways to think about the story being presented, unique ways to engage with the program and its producers, pacing and ideas, and new freedom to listen and watch with a curious mind.

One of the ways I motivate myself to think critically and creatively about my production style (and the meaning of the projects I produce) is to constantly ask myself questions throughout the production process.  My toolbox is filled with old standards such as “so?”, “so, what?”, “what’s missing?” and “what would be better left unsaid?”.  Like a jazz musician, the old standards must be in my repertoire as a foundation and in the event my stuff doesn’t land.  The real art, though, comes in presenting my own ideas in a fresh way.  This means I need to expand my repertoire and toolkit with fresh ways of thinking on a regular basis.

Enter Nick Clark, the Chief Director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.  In November, he gave Andrea, me and our two daughters, a guided tour of the museum.

At one point, Mr. Clark discusses the museum’s approach to education.  The staff structures the exhibits and programs around Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).  In simple terms, this involves asking three questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

“The Carle” strives to motivate visitors to ask themselves those questions about the art on exhibit as well as about the exhibits themselves, the layout of the rooms and the spaces in the museum.  Most importantly, the experience isn’t strictly about the content of the art on display but the context of the art on display, the context of the display and the context in which the display exists.  The questions apply to everything.

The best part is that the VTS questions apply to everything we experience on a daily basis.  This gives everybody plenty of opportunities to practice asking and answering the questions about anything and everything.

When it comes to producing audio and video programs, VTS have motivated me to think more creatively about what I’m actually hearing or seeing and how the pieces work individually and together to communicate ideas and tell stories.  I find myself identifying new connections between the various elements and how they reveal additional ideas and stories that weren’t part of the original plan.  The good thing is that thinking about the questions and their answers has pushed me in new directions.  On the other hand, that rethinking adds more production time to my projects.  That works well for the hobby stuff, but becomes expensive for someone in the business world.

The key question is number three… what more can we find?  For the project I was working on tonight, that caused me to dig through source material I’d cut to see if the newly discovered ideas were better represented in the clips I’d dismissed.

I think it would take a special person to apply VTS to their media consumption habits.  It’s my belief that most people listen to audio programs and watch videos largely for entertainment and to give their brains a rest.  Relatively few people listen to a podcasts (as an example) and try to push their engagement with the program to such a level as to think critically and creatively about the material.

Perhaps because I do more producing than consuming, I see VTS being used by media consumers with academic and artistic interests.  Mashup artists spring to mind since they seem to be the amazingly fast at pushing ideas forward with music and other content.  I suspect they naturally apply the questions to things they hear and see.

I’m particularly excited about VTS because they reinforce my belief that both media production and media consumption achieve far more through context than content.  The individual elements (the content) serve as a starting point for the ideas, but the backdrop and the relationships between the elements (the context) open many more exciting possibilities.

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