In his book on Pixar, CEO Ed Catmull explains that drawing well requires us to learn how to see. The difficulty with drawing is that we let our mental models of objects get ahead of us and get us to jump to conclusions. For example, if we’re drawing a portrait as an amateur, we let our mental models of the size of the various elements of a face take over. This is why an amateur’s portraits don’t look like the real thing.
Art teachers teach students to conquer this by getting them to draw an object upside down or, more interestingly, by asking them to draw the negative/white space around the object. We don’t have mental models for what white space looks like. So, our mental models don’t get in the way.
The fascinating lesson here is that this “examine the white space” approach is applicable to problem solving. Don’t just look at the problem – look at the context/situation around it. For example, at Pixar, a scene could sometimes only be fixed by looking at the entire story or changing the preceding scenes.
This technique gets to the challenge of dealing with causality. We often make the implicit assumption that solving the symptom (what we see) will help solve the problem. That is generally not the case. And, taking a step back to examine the white space is a great way to remind ourselves to solve for the cause.