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This chapter is from the book

What Can Art Teach Commerce?

By reading this book I hope you will be encouraged to discover inspiration in anomalies wherever you find them. Early in my career, I wanted to be a children's book illustrator. One of the books I collected then, and still treasure now, is by Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

The book is a bunch of wonderfully creative drawings, each with a title and a one-word sentence that contains a bare snippet of story. According to the author, the drawings were given to him by a friend, one Peter Wender, and created by a man named Harris Burdick. Wender related that Burdick had presented him with the drawings as publishing samples and said that he had written and drawn a complete story for each one. Burdick also said he would come back the next day with the completed storybooks.

Days went by. Weeks went by. Years went by, but Harris Burdick was never heard from again. So Van Allsburg and Wender decided to publish the collection as a book. One page, for example, might show a drawing of a little boy and a harp in the foreground sitting on a rock. The caption is: "Oh, it's true," he thought. "It's really true." This book is given to children, who are invited to flip through, pick out a picture, and make up their own story or finish what seems to be started. Who is the boy? And what's with the harp?

As an adult, you realize that Harris Burdick never existed; Van Allsburg did the drawings himself and created a false story—a concept for a book that is all about imagination.

The Seven Chairs.The Seven Chairs. The fifth chair wound up in France. This must have resonance for anyone who ever went to Catholic school. (Copyright 1984 by Chris Van Allsburg. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved.)

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was an early inspiration for my Web site work. These sites explore sound, design, and interactions, and present ideas that viewers can finish. Like Van Allsburg's picture book, this web site work becomes what the viewer will make of it.

These web sites also get about 200 emails every day. Most of them, I am pleased to report, are variations on, "What the hell IS this?"

So what does commerce have to learn from art?

I have a studio that sometimes produces work for commercial web sites. I have clients that come in and say: "On the web, we only have two seconds to capture someone's attention. What can you do?"

One thing I can do is point to my stats from the server log files from these web sites. The average users spend 30 minutes, and when they're done, they e-mail me, asking to know if they've missed anything.

Some site visitors take screen shots, mail me the screen shots, and write, "Am I close?" Or, "Here's where I put it—is this the right combination to unlock the rest of the content?"

I am intentionally creating a digital black hole—a site that offers questions but doesn't give out any answers. I have made hundreds and hundreds of people confused, and in that confusion I've created an interesting space and a provocative experience for anyone who logs on.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of deeply involving and richly interactive experience that site visitors and corporate clients seek from the web. At my studio, what we do is try to pull ideas like this into our work and create experiences that are a little more interesting.

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