What do the Mona Lisa smile and the Wall Street Journal have in common?
They both employ a design principle related to subtraction and minimalism. By limiting information, they engage the imagination.
In the case of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci purposefully blurred smile lines around the corners of Lisa’s mouth and eyes, the two most expressive parts of the human facial anatomy. The artist called the technique sfumato, meaning “like smoke.” The Mona Lisa smile captivates us because, in the absence of a clear expression, her attitude is open to interpretation. The viewer supplies it, projecting their own mood onto the painting. That’s why the Mona Lisa smile is different each time you look at her.
Leonardo advised aspiring painters, “Paint so that a fumoso [smoky] edge can be seen, rather than hard and harsh outlines and silhouettes . . . that is, more confused—that is to say, less clear.”
In the case of the Wall Street Journal, all you need to do is catch a glimpse of one those tiny, fascinating yet minimal portraits embedded in the columns to know that someone five rows ahead of you on the plane is reading the Journal. Made from countless little dots that form an utterly photorealistic image, those images have come to be the newspaper’s trademark.
It’s called a hedcut and was created by Kevin Sprouls in 1979. Here’s Sprouls by his own hand.
For most people, the hedcut is far more engaging than the actual photo. It makes you lean in and ask, "How did they do that?"
I contacted Sprouls and spent a good bit of time chatting with him to understand his methodology, because his iconic style is a good metaphor for the way limited information can be used to create clarity far more compelling and indelible in the viewer’s mind than something perfectly concrete and complete.
I also asked him to produce a hedcut portrait of me and provide me with a step-by-step visual walkthrough showing the interim stages of completion. His process begins with a black-and-white photograph. “I print out the grayscale image and transfer the photo’s information onto illustration board by tracing on the photo,” the artist explains. “The resulting contour drawing is like a map for me to follow. Everything is done by hand, one mark of the pen at a time.”
He then begins the six-hour, step-by-step incremental process of placing dots meticulously on the illustration board. Clothing, hair, and eyes are the most challenging, and so Sprouls focuses his attention there first. “Get that framework right,” he says, “and the rest is a matter of, um, connecting the dots.”
You can see the progression in the slide show above.
“What constitutes a good quality portrait in this style is the structure of the dot field,” Sprouls says. “To produce that tonal effect, I align the marks into a grid matrix.” Words like framework and alignment carry great weight in the business world, and beyond the fascinating design aspects, there are three key business lessons to take away from a hedcut portrait.
The first takeaway revolves around Sprouls’s pre-step of getting the starting point just right. Getting the proper first image—one with enough vivid detail to enable a clear endgame—is key. Too often in life people fail to recognize success because they haven’t visualized it beforehand.
There’s a reason everyone talks about “the big picture”; it’s difficult to remain fully engaged without it, because our daily work is really about putting a little dot down each day, metaphorically speaking. Something needs to guide us in connecting those dots. If you are missing the mark, so to speak, you can usually trace it to a glaring absence of a compelling mental image to guide the effort. Pictures connect the right brain with the left and help us see the path more clearly.
The power of this principle at work was on display when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti. There were no street maps of Port-au-Prince. An organization called OpenStreetMap.org had satellite maps—a framework outlining the streets—but they lacked street names, which were sorely needed during the crisis. People from all over the world, predominantly expatriate Haitians, contributed the names so that the map filled up. The map was used by everyone from the U.S. Marines to the World Bank to the United Nations—people connected the dots and completed the picture, which sped up the rescue and relief efforts enormously.
The second lesson is that when you carefully remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens.
Designers of the automotive youth brand Scion essentially took this lesson to heart in creating the fast-selling and highly profitable xB model, a small and boxy vehicle made intentionally spare by removing hundreds of standard features in order to appeal to the Gen Y buyers who wanted to make a personal statement by customizing their cars with trendy options.
As an adviser to Toyota, I witnessed young buyers invest thousands of dollars to customize their $15,000 xBs with dozens of expensive aftermarket additions, including flat panel screens, carbon fiber interior elements, and high-end audio equipment. In several documented cases, the price tag of the accessorizing equaled the original investment. Sales were so strong dealers sold out as soon as the cars hit their lot.
But it was never about the car as much as what was taken out of it.
A third lesson concerns the discipline and incrementality of the work. If you scan the web, you’ll find many people who have tried and failed to reproduce Sprouls’s technique in ways that shortcut the talent, skill, and painstaking effort required to produce his art.
They are trying to eliminate the wrong thing: craftsmanship.
They want the final result in one big leap, with the punch of a few computer keys. They want someone, or something, to do the work for them. They want the breakthrough effect without the hard work that goes along with it. Too often we seek the grand-slam homerun and forego the groundball single that gets us on base.
Creativity and innovation in any field is a discipline of increments. Ultimately, all the small steps reveal something altogether new and novel. Too often in work and life we force what amounts to a false choice between small steps and big jumps. It isn’t about choosing one or the other. It’s about achieving major impact by making relatively insignificant decisions along the way.
The late great John Wooden had it right when he said: “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”
Sprouls’s work is a systematic pursuit set on achieving the maximum effect with the minimum means. If everyone took his basic creative approach, we wouldn’t be dealing with so much excess everything.
In his book The Laws of Simplicity, RISD President John Maeda describes “the squint”: “The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the forest from the trees—to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.
I asked Sprouls if he squints a lot. I asked him in all seriousness. “Absolutely I squint, and I’ve got the wrinkles and reading glasses to prove it,” he joked. “But seriously, yes. Squinting shows you what to pay attention to, what to ignore. It helps me know when and where to add something, or leave well enough alone. This work, and I guess any work if you think about it, is a constant process of focusing and unfocusing of my eyes, working up close, then standing back, little details and the big picture. Or it should be, anyway.”
Few people have the design chops of Kevin Sprouls. But everyone has the ability to connect the dots.