Orbiting the Giant Hairball

January 8th, 2010

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Over the years we’ve been bringing in books from our personal libraries out to the studio shelves. Some are for reference, filled with font specimens, old style illustrations or swatches of color—other nooks contain the nerdy stuff: manuals for software or tomes on screen printing. But a few shelves are reserved for pure inspiration, where we keep our favorite authors that have helped shape the way we think.

One such person is Gordon MacKenzie. He worked for Hallmark greeting cards for 30 years and his role was simply to “create.” His path was not without challenge though, for when you work within a large company it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the layers of bureaucracy and whatnot. Gordon called this unintentional mess “The Giant Hairball” and it was in short, an “entangled pattern of behavior.”

After his tenure at the greeting card company he collected his thoughts on keeping creative and nourishing ideas into the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball. We love every bit of it. Gordon articulates his points in short chapters, generous with illustration (and whitespace!). My favorite story is called “What You See is What You Don’t Get” and it’s about the time it takes to create. I’ve included the gist below:

Outside the zigzag of the fence stands a rotund gentleman in a $700, power-blue, pinstripe suit. He is leaning on the fence – as best he can. One hand is holding his unbuttoned jacket against his generous belly so that the suit’s fine cloth will not be soiled by the fence’s grimy rails. His other hand is shaking a stern finger at the cows. He shouts:

“You slackers get to work, or I’ll have you butchered!”

What this man does not understand is that, even as he threatens them, the cows are performing the miracle of turning grass into milk. Nor does he understand that his shouting will not cause the cows to produce more milk.

If we drew a line to represent a creative occurrence…

… the only portion that would reflect measurable productivity would be a short segment at the end of the line:

This line segment is the equivalent of the cow’s time in the barn, hooked up to the milking machine. This is when productivity is tangible measurable. but the earlier, larger part of the event, when the milk was actually being created, remains invisible.

The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out the in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

A management obsessed with the productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity.

So when you’re pushed to create, take time to nourish the process. Step away from the output and feed yourself fresh air or a good snack. Slip away for a nap. Have lunch with someone you dig. It’s all a part of grazing in that field.

Now Wendy has another favorite, and this particular chapter fits neatly on a single spread. It reads “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.”

Orville Wright did not have a pilot's license

Now you may have heard this phrase before, but this is where we were introduced to it, so it stuck. We use these words in the studio when the unknown gets overwhelming.

Another treat is the table of contents:

The index

In 2007 Fast Company interviewed Gordon and asked, “What is the biggest obstacle to creativity?” He replied, “Attachment to outcome. As soon as you become attached to a specific outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you’re doing. And in the process you shut yourself off to other possibilities.”

Good stuff.

Gordon is no longer on this planet, but we’re glad to have a bit of his spirit orbiting our studio.

jenn goodrich

January 9th, 2010   4:28 pm

This has been a favorite of ours for years, too. It makes us remember that it is OK to be different from the pack. And to listen to that creative spirit when it tells us to zig when the rest of the world is zagging.

Steve Juras

January 12th, 2010   12:05 pm

A thousand thanks for sharing this. Just ordered a copy and can’t wait to dive in…

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