Thinking Outside the Box

Everyone knows what it feels like to be restricted by rules, stifled by conventions, controlled by laws. Being deprived of one’s freedom isn’t a serious criminal punishment for some random reason: it frustrates and it hurts. The kind of confinement I’m interested in here though doesn’t involve prison – although technically it can lead to that if one chooses a different path. Here I’m talking about the restricted feeling many students and no doubt others experience when their media-making endeavours are bound by copyright and they are told that the instinctual move to grab just anything from Google Images is out of bounds.

Discover by Fan D.jpg
Discover by Fan D (CC BY 2.0)

The video above highlights a key lesson I only discovered myself after I began teaching the subject of copyright and making media online. With an open mind, embracing one’s own creative potential and complimenting this with a vast array of freely (and legally/ethically) available content can make the world of difference. Experimenting with material shared with Creative Commons licences, for instance, may at first seem to limit one’s options, but with a little time, effort, and experimentation, drawing on the massive collections of generously shared content can be genuinely liberating. (And by the way, the answer to the question in the above tweet is that it took between 8 and 14 attempts before I got the video right. I’ve either forgotten the exact number or I just stopped counting).

In everything I do online – in blogs, in podcasts, in videos – I operate by the same rules I set students: I make my own stuff and I draw on others’ stuff when it’s convenient, legitimate, and valuable to do so. Point number one: media-making is more creative this  way. A decent-sized collection of photographs of Tiffany and endless video files of panning footage and other miscellanea often serve me well enough. At times, I’ll head to Flickr or SoundCloud for some inspiration – and I mean inspiration.

Tiff hidinga.png
Photograph by Adam Brown, 16 April 2014.

Sometimes I can’t find what I need in my own hard drives, but more often I don’t quite yet know what I’m looking for. Not exactly, anyway. I might have in mind a general theme or just a vague mood that I want to convey in the content and tone of a blog or video. I then let some broad search terms and a few minutes or moments of exploration do their work.

Innovate Never Imitate by dumbonyc.jpg
Innovate Never Imitate by dumbonyc (CC BY 2.0)

Discovering something that turns out to be more than I expected or hoped for is a frequent occurence. An image might be some variation on what I originally conceived, adding layers of meaning that I could never have conjured myself. That’s the true beauty of drawing on Creative Commons material: other creators’ work fortuitously intersects with your own in many and unforeseen ways. In some cases, thematic and aesthetic connections between two outputs can even turn into significant connections between creators – I’ve heard multiple stories of the discovery and use of another’s work that benefited both parties.

Take It From the Expert (not me)

I’ve collaborated with Deakin University’s Copyright Manager Astrid Bovell several times over the past few years, beginning with the video about content creation in the digital age embedded below (also podcasted). Unsurprisingly for anyone who watches this, I learn something new every time we speak. The personal insights of someone like Astrid, who’s had many years of professional experience in the copyright arena across multiple industries, are invaluable – even if some students are brought to the point of panic when she articulates the importance of understanding this immensely complex subject.

Astrid often emphasises the inherent value of ‘thinking outside the box’. Being asked to be creative, to innovate, to try something that may well have a good chance of failure, is perhaps the most intimidating task a student can be set. With very few exceptions, my own university education required no creative endeavours. In fact, amidst the scores of essays I wrote, I feel like I had to bury my creativity more than I was asked to exploit it. Recent years have thankfully given rise to different opportunities. But as I made clear in an earlier blog on confronting copyright, these opportunities also meant I had to learn new things.

Inspiration Doesn’t Only Come From Within…

Having watched my video chat with Astrid, a student asked me a few months ago for an example of what ‘thinking outside the box’ might entail. I fortunately had a recent example I could share with the group, which seems a fitting one to share here too. When Danielle Teychenne and myself were putting together an episode of Our Gamified World on the collaborative professional development app Team Treehouse, we had sought permission to use some screenshots of it as overlay footage. Unlike the replies to all our other requests to that point, we were turned down and left without the option of capturing anything from the app itself. We immediately began to think about other possibilities, with an email exchange that included the following ideas:

I say we get some CC images of tree houses or film some footage of us looking up into trees with a subtitle explaining we couldn’t get permission to use the app itself…

Great idea, that’ll also be hilarious 😀  Or I could sit in a tree whilst using my laptop. That seems fitting.

Definitely all of the above! 🙂

In the end, it was none of the above. A few weeks later, I walked to a nearby reserve and filmed a brief one-minute narrative. This turned out to be a more engaging way to visually occupy viewers than any screenshot of the app could ever have provided. An imperfect, unplanned moment of lost footing (a.k.a. clumsiness) also increased the value of this strategy, underlining once again the benevolent surprises that learning-by-doing can bring. And to reiterate the key point made earlier: just as the conclusion of this visual overlay made use of a Creative Commons licensed photograph, the original impetus for this little ‘story’ began with this very same photograph itself…

Thinking out of the box isn’t always easy or immediate – and it’s usually not as drastic as the above example – but everyone can do it. Most importantly, when someone does find inspiration, their creativity will invariably inspire others – even if they never find out that this exchange took place. I see this in the online arena on what feels like a daily basis: blogs prompt blogging; interaction inspires interaction; collegiality gives rise to creativity. Inspiration can come from within, but something else may need to provoke it first.

Tiff inspires me all the time, even when she gets confused about the box idea…

Photograph by Adam Brown, 29 January 2016


Featured image: Zanzibar in a box by Nicola Rampagna (CC BY 2.0)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Keith Edson says:

    Solving a problem through innovative thinking and creativity, awesome! Certainly a situation which may organically develop the more media outlets a produser is contributing to. I really enjoy the way you write these blogs. aaaand Tiff.

  2. Adam Brown says:

    Thanks Keith, glad the blog was of interest! Definitely the best way to solve problems is to expose yourself to them and get practice solving them… 🙂

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