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Nishat Akhtar: Look Around You


About this talk

Like all of us, Nishat Akhtar, a practicing artist and Creative Director at Instrument, is surrounded by algorithms that seem to have an intimate knowledge of our likes, dislikes, and personal patterns, reflecting back an image of ourselves every time we engage online. But how often are we taking the time to interrogate our assumptions and preferences? In this master class, Nishat points out the responsibility we have to push ourselves past these imagined boundaries, engage with our community, and take the time to truly examine what we like and why.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 23, 2020. 

Nishat Akhtar, Creative Director, Instrument

Nishat Akhtar is a creative director at Instrument and an adjunct professor of design at Portland State University with an ongoing illustration and art practice. Her work is multi-disciplinary, ranging from illustration and brand design to interactive and experimental projects. Nishat has shared her artwork globally through exhibitions, lectures, and workshops from New York to Japan.

Full Transcript

Hey, I’m Nishat Akhtar. I’m a creative director at instrument, I’m an illustrator and a designer. And today I’m gonna give a talk to you called Look Around You, which is about the power of noticing and observation and how that really simple thing can be translated into some fun activities that help fortify the creative self and connect you back to your communities. So have you ever thought about all of the little things that you take in passively on a daily basis like my bedroom is this really really dark twilight blue and when I wake up in the morning, I don’t ever think this bedroom is blue, this furniture is a color of gold. I don’t ever think about those things. I wake up in the morning and I take however many steps it is to get to the bathroom to brush my teeth and fumble down the stairs to make my first cup of coffee. That’s just like, that’s how my morning goes.

But there’s so many little intricacies in, you know, the architecture of the house that I live in, the intentionality of the colors that I’ve put around the artwork that I’ve hung up any of that, that I’m sort of just passively taking in at this point. But there was a moment where I had been really intentional about that. So if you were to open your explore page on Instagram, and see the grid of images that’s recommended to you for things you might like, those are images that you also passively take in every day. I know I do. And for me, I happen to have a grid full of lots of cute dogs, German Shepherd puppies, I love them. They’ve got these floppy ears and I just wanna, I wish I had one and that you know they’re German Shepherds are Velcro dogs, they stick with their people. They’re protective, they’re loving, I love that. So I happen to spend time looking through Instagram searching that, liking those images. And those images are being fed back to me. And I wanna see that.

I also am a huge basketball fan. I miss the NBA. And in this time in particular, I’m doing a lot of searching of highlights and liking those things just to get a little taste. And, you know, my explore page is feeding that back to me because it knows at some point, I chose to search for those things. And so this machine intelligence says, hey, you might like this. I’ll send it your way. So I’m not necessarily actively searching for these things, but I am actively engaging and happy to see them. I love Zion Williamson, he’s a power dunker. I got to see him here in Portland. And I was hoping for a shatter backboard and I still hope that can happen someday when he gets back to it. But in the meantime, these are images that I’m taking in every day and not necessarily thinking about why but just feeling the enjoyment when I see them.

Spotify is another one that knows me all too well, I think I can click into the app and see records that I haven’t listened to in maybe 20 years that Spotify is recommending to me and like, yes, I wanna listen to a b-side Wu-Tang record. Yes, I want to hear some industrial record from the early 90s. And I love that. So, like, isn’t it wonderful that the internet already knows me, really knows what I want and like, just really gets me. These networks output this eerily accurate portrait of who I am from, you know, basketball to German Shepherd puppies to Wu-Tang. And I think that’s great. There’s this really beautiful portrait of myself that’s being painted and given to me, without me really having to think about it.

But you know, this portrait wasn’t passively created in the first place, I helped create it. I made queries about songs that I liked, or I, you know, I searched for certain kinds of sports highlights, I helped create that. And, you know, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I have a proposition that there’s a little bit of danger in passively experiencing imagery and music and anything every single day. And I’m not gonna stop using like Pinterest or Instagram or Spotify as ways for learning about new music.

But I, you know, have a bookshelf full of art books that I can really spend time, you know, with an artist and understanding something about them and what it is that they made and why it is that they made it and how it is that they made it and how their practice came to evolve and getting deeper into the story of an artist. I think helps me understand how I can get deeper into my own practice. I also have a shelf that’s building of records where I can just take 20 minutes and put an actual record on the record player and lay on the floor and listen to an entire half of a record or the whole one if I’ve got time. And dedicate that time for this artist who has created this music to come into my ears, into my body, my brain, my feelings and just absorb that, that time with that artist is really powerful.

So if our daily feeds of inspiration or music are shaped by algorithms telling us what we like, I think we have a really important responsibility to continue to investigate for ourselves what it is that we like, not just letting something else tell us but for us to do personal investigation and say, why is it that I like this thing? Or how is it that this is affecting me? We have this responsibility to shape these algorithms that shape us. And I call that creative autonomy which is your own sensibility, the things that you like the things you don’t like, you don’t have to like everything. But just kind of knowing why and being able to, you know, have conversation around that is important.

You know, your input affects your output everything you take in if you think about like, when you’re creating a project, like a design project, or an illustration project, or really anything, typically you’ll do a lot of research, you’ll look at what’s out there, you’ll find inspiration, and all of that stuff that you’re taking in is what’s gonna affect what you’re making. But I don’t just mean that, I mean like the things that you read, affect maybe the way that you act, the music you listen to can affect how you feel you can set the tone by putting on like a really hyped record and you know, it’s gonna make you feel good and you start dancing around and it uplifts you or maybe you’re in the mood to just like revel and feeling sad, and wanna put on some sad songs and let it out.

All of the things that you take in affects sort of what you put out and that can be within your work. And it can also just be how you feel every day. And it’s bigger than data. It is the conversations you have the you know, way you design your house, again, the music you listen to the books, you read all of that. And really, this is just a reminder that your output is controlled by one common factor. And that is you, it’s you. What you take in affects what you put out. And when I talk about like the power of noticing and the power of observation and slowing down, it’s taking the beat to think the things that you care about. The things that you become intentional about, the things that you take some time for, will be the things that are coming in to you and affecting your relationships, your work and all of that.

So how do we hone this power of noticing? It is so simple and sometimes simple things are the hardest things. You know, I think that life can be really complicated. And we accept it as that and boiling things down is way more challenging. But I think starting small and understanding that just like this simple pillar is, I don’t know useful is worth trying. And you know, it may seem really obvious, but just the simple act of noticing and observing is a skill to be honed. And it’s something that every designer and successful creative has done or continues to do. You know, when you’re first in school, if you went to school, for art or design, you learn about color and juxtaposition, and how to frame things up in a way that are pleasing. Those building blocks, we maybe kind of come to passively just do, but are really powerful to our creative process and I don’t mean like color composition or whatever you could be a musician and this act of noticing still applies.

So it’s late spring here in Portland, Oregon where I live and it is like a key time for observation and noticing, just naturally, we are evolving from the dark, rainy winters to, you know, flowers and color bursting out on everyone’s gardens that you walk by in the streets. We start to sort of peel off those big, puffy layers from winter and realize like wow, I have a body that exists outside of just my coat and my hoodie. So spring is just like this perfect time to say, okay, my sensitivity is dialed in to notice the things around me, because they’re changing around me, you know I would be remiss if I didn’t sort of bring up the point of this very specific time that many of us are in, which is, you know, shelter in place and quarantine. And I think we’re even more heightened to notice the things around us because our surroundings are so limited. Maybe you’re sitting on your couch every single day and starting to notice like wow, that picture frame is actually really crooked. Whereas if you had been passively walking by it every day, like I was talking about getting up out of bed and running to brush my teeth in the morning, if I suddenly was only limited to that space, maybe I would really start to notice how the artwork on the wall is hanging or maybe there’s like dust on the baseboard starting to develop.

You know, there’s really big challenges in being limited in our you know, mobility and access to other people in terms of the physical world, but I think also there is a little bit of an opportunity in this time of being forced to slow down and limit our space to honing that notion of noticing. I started writing this talk in January, and I could not have imagined what has happened in our world. But my own life circumstances had led me to realize that I needed to slow down and that I needed to just find some new creative tactics for connecting back to myself.

So what are these things? Let’s get into it. There’s a couple things to try. And it’s a focus on listening and looking. But I think underneath that there’s this layer of describing what you are experiencing, seeing, understanding, feeling. And I think that’s a really important component. So there’s this passive act of seeing things go by you every single day or scrolling through your phone and seeing things go by every day, but if you were to stop look at something and then have to describe it and maybe even evaluate how it makes you feel or you know what it reminds you of. Now you’re starting to get into this like, you know, relationship with color or painting or design or anything like that to understand like, what it is that’s resonating for you. And for me, that’s been the act of how I can connect back to myself while looking at art. And, you know, creative connection for me has always been just like visceral and tangible.

I grew up in a community of friends who were all artists and musicians, if someone was playing in a band or DJing in the block party, someone else was drawing the flyer and silk screening the T-shirt, or even if someone was a car mechanic, they were figuring out some really cool way to you know, customize a pinstripe or a little logo that they could have in their car club. There was always this sense of community around creativity for me. And I noticed late last year I was working so much. And that’s where my main focus was. And my life kind of took a major pause because I both my parents got very sick and I had to go home, I had to fly back to the east coast and spend a significant amount of time there. And my life went on pause, you know, my design life, my illustration life, this creative world that I was a part of everything just stopped. And the only thing that really mattered was my connection with my family and that is truly important. I also went through a pretty extreme heartbreak and the future vision that I thought was gonna be my life wasn’t, so the ground beneath me was gone, and the vision ahead of me was gone. I wasn’t in my own environment, and I felt truly untethered from being a creative person, which is sort of who I’ve defined myself as. And I had to figure out a way to jumpstart it. So there’s a lot of lessons I learned from that time.

But, you know, if I was to think about the lessons that could translate from that time of, you know spending day in and day out with my dad in the hospital, and then evenings with my mom, who was also going through something, I have a list of things that I learned when my dad was in the hospital, which is slow down, and it’s not just like slow down as a demand like it is okay to slow down. And to look around you and to observe what you see in a person in you know, your environment. Ask the question, why, why do you like something? Why is something happening? What is the intention behind something? Engage with the people that you love, know and admire, understand different contexts. You know, we come from different places and as people but I think that there’s often a common ground we can find. And listening, I think, you know, there’s the ability to hear and then there’s listening.

So I think that the difference is where you’re having this intentionality and care around taking in what someone is saying. Okay, so on that note of listening, I started this experiment activity. I don’t really know what you will call it. It’s not really a game, but it’s just something I started to do in the beginning of this year after I was feeling like, whoa, I haven’t been around my friends in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I was on a dance floor with someone. I was just feeling really disconnected.

So I started this experiment or project or whatever you wanna call it. It doesn’t have an interesting name. Just “one week, two records” is what it is. And what that entailed was every week starting January 2020 and I’m not a person to make resolutions, it just happened to be like, the week that I started is I would ask a friend to give me two records that they are really feeling right now or that they’ve loved for their whole life, or that they thought I might like, and you know, didn’t have to be physical, it could be digital. There’s like, basically everything’s available now on the internet. So a friend would give me two albums that I would listen to, and I would pretty much exclusively listen to those records for the entire week. So I would listen to them once and I would listen to them again. And it was fascinating how I would immediately get more connected to this person.

And to be real, like I didn’t ask my bestest friends, what they were listening to or what their favorite thing was, because I kind of already knew that. So I identified people in my life who I love and admire and wanted to get closer to, which took a little bit of vulnerability for me, there’s this tech director at my job named David Brewer and David Brewer is so intelligent and such an interesting character. And I know that he used to play the saxophone and I knew that he was into jazz and I was really curious about that. So I just asked him one day, I was like, hey, Brewer, what we call him I was like, hey, Brewer can you give me a record or two that you really love. And I think it turned out to be a little bit of a daunting task because there’s so much that he loved but he was able to share with me this Stan Getz live record that I spent the week listening to and instead of talking about work at lunch, we then started talking about music.

And it was just a wonderful way that our connection got deeper with this person that I knew had something great that I could learn from and connect about and we did. It was awesome. Another person that I asked about “one week, two records” was my mom. And I have never asked my mom about music. There’s always been music in the house. But I’ve never asked my mom about music. It was just always present. And you know, like this extra layer of experience growing up. So I asked my mom, I was like, mom can you give me like one or two records that are your favorite? And she did not miss a beat. She texted me back immediately. And she said, Barsaat Ki Raat and I was like, wow, she was so definitively ready with that answer. I felt like when I had asked other people when I had asked Brewer, it was a little bit of like, there’s so much stuff out there but she knew immediately.

So Barsaat Ki Raat is a Bollywood film that came out in the 60s I think. And the soundtrack has Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi who are basically the pinnacle of that sound of that time. So, I found the record on Spotify, I put it on, and I was immediately transported to my mom’s kitchen. I could, I felt like I was there right with her in her kitchen, I could smell the onions cooking in with the cumin seeds crackling, and the black mustard seeds starting to simmer. And I was in this thick cloud of warm smelling masala in her kitchen 3000 miles away from exactly where I was and I was suddenly like face to face with my mom. I was 12 years old hearing these songs at 40 for the first time. And you know, it made me think that there’s something about connecting through music and art or just any artifact that’s given from one friend to another or a family member to another that adds value. These memories that were so visceral to me, had already been embedded in my life so many years ago, but I never intentionally understood it, until I asked my mom that question. Hey, mom, do you have a favorite record or song that you could share with me? And she was able to share this record, which was actually a conduit for time travel.

So how do you do that? How do you get into this one week two records practice and connect with people in this way through listening and slowing down and noticing. So just identify someone you’re close with and or someone you wanna get closer to. You know, in the case for me, it was like the really cool smart jazz nerd at work and my mom and also some other friends who I used to see a lot but don’t see very often anymore. I felt like kind of choosing from that pool. I knew I was gonna get a rich variety have recommendations. I also happen to be blessed with a really wildly mixed group of friends and people in my life.

So I was gonna get a wild mix back, which in turn was going to help dimensionalize me even further. Just ask them for a full record. And it doesn’t have to be physical. I mean, if you are a record collector, and you are able to trade records, that’s awesome in this time, but everything is available on the internet, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, whatever you use, and just listen to it from end to end. I think like we are in a lot of patterns of just listening to one song at a time, but I kind of dare you to listen to a full record. This artist spent a lot of time making that and we, as listeners and as an audience, should spend time respecting that I think, you know, music is an interesting art form because it does require your time when I talk about putting on a record and you know, listening to a whole side of it, I know I’m making a certain time commitment.

But it’s almost a gift of exchange that I’m committing to with that artist. So listen to the whole record. And, you know, notice how you feel, what do you like? What don’t you like? This music is kind of a membrane for conversation with the friend that recommended it to you and yourself. Ideally, when you’re listening to it, who knows where you’re being transported to, if it’s to the kitchen you grew up in when you’re 12 years old, or just to, you know, a future vision of what romance can be, I don’t know. But that friend recommended that music to you for a reason. And you can start to unpack that a little bit. So listen to it and, and start to think about like, what are you hearing? What are you learning? What are you feeling? How are you thinking about that friend, who else is it making you think about, start doing an inventory of all of those things and then talk to your round about the record.

I think that’s the best part like this is a place where you can engage about, you know, this material, this music and talk about all of these different things you know, feelings, storytelling, time travel, wherever it took you. And you know, be vulnerable with your approach. Allow yourself to be transported to this new place or a new feeling. Allow yourself to get closer to the people that you do this with. Allow yourself to be yourself in order to find yourself and what I mean by that is be honest, as you’re listening and take the time as you’re listening. Maybe something doesn’t move you and you can be honest about that. Maybe your friend is like this thing makes me feel all the feelings I cry and you know, I feel like someone finally gets me and you listen to it. You’re like, I don’t get it. That’s okay too. But at least you can consider your friend as your are listening to it and start to understand them and understand that this art form this music has really moved them. And ideally, you can get them a little more, maybe it’s gonna turn you off and you’re like, wow, I don’t know how that moves you.

But I guess I’m asking you to be vulnerable and try to open up and think about how you know that input affected them. You know, a rekindling of community through medium that naturally evokes emotion is kind of harder and harder to come by right now. I think leveraging conversation with your community and just like carving out the time to spend is a rich place for sparking something new in your mind. So the other activity I have is about looking. And you know, I’ve mentioned this a little bit before, but we just take in millions of images every day without even looking at our phones. I think once we pick up our phones, the numbers just exponentially raised. How can we just slow down and notice what we’re seeing again, I have the simple game I like to play at art shows.

And I made it up because a lot of times I would notice I would like go to art shows or go to a gallery. And people were there convening and talking and partying or taking pictures of themselves, but I noticed less and less people were spending time with the artwork. And I wanted to find a way to you know, be with the people that I was with and the gallery and also engage with the art that was the reason that we were there. So in this time, you can play this with your family or your partner or if you’re alone, I can talk through also how you can play this you know, over Zoom or there’s, ways of connecting through art in this game, whether you’re with someone or without, and you can leverage the world’s art collections, all kinds of museums all around the world have their collections available online, or just some of them and I’ve got a link that you can check out.

Okay, so the looking exercise or game or activity is called PickyTalky. So PickyTalky is essentially where you are looking at a grid of paintings or drawings or art or shoot, it could be flowers in a garden. It could be cars in a driveway, it can be so many different things but for the sake of art, I’ll talk about it that way. But don’t be afraid to get creative with what you’re looking at and observing. I threw together a bunch of illustrations that I did kind of randomly. So take this grid of images in front of you and find somebody who you wanna play this with, or just imagine the person you wanna play it with. If it’s your family member, your partner calls somebody on Zoom, y’all can chat about it.

So I’m gonna pick my favorite and you pick your favorite, it’s how you’re gonna set it up. Each person picks their favorites, but nobody discloses what they like the most. And then the goal is for you to try to guess your friend’s favorite and you’re not just gonna try to guess it by being like, I think you like that one, period. That’s not engaging your, sort of, noticing and observing brain. You wanna say like if I was looking at this grid in particular, and I was thinking about my friend Ravi, I would say, okay, I think about Ravi and I would think about what do I know about him, and what do I know about the things that he likes and the things that he responds to. I would say, okay, I’m looking at this grid of images and Ravi I think that out of all of these, I know that you like basketball, and I know that you’re like, really playful person. So I think you would pick the one that’s got the basketball hoop with the ball coming into the hoop and the eyes looking up really excited because it’s playful, it’s basketball, it’s like really you.

So really, what I’m doing is I’m delivering a little bit of a portrait of what I understand about this person through this art. And, you know, I’ve played this game many times with friends and who knows, maybe I was wrong. Maybe Ravi is like, hey, no that’s not what I picked. Actually I picked the horse with the basketball. So you were sort of right. But I liked the really strong imagery of this horse and kind of weird juxtaposition of the two things together. Now, the thing about this is I don’t care that I’m wrong. It’s not about winning. This exercise is really about learning about your friend’s sensibilities and also your own, to be able to describe what you see in a piece of artwork and how you see another person in it. It is, I think, really fun, and I hope that you try it out.

There was one time that I was playing this with a friend and we were in a gallery. It was a Tim Lahan show, and he’s one of my favorite artists. And we were looking at, you know, this grid of drawings, and I picked my favorite and they pick their favorite and then the person said to me, “Nishat, I think this one is your favorite.” And it was this drawing of a tire, it almost looked like a tractor trailer tire, like the kind that’s so hard that you like if you punched it you would be like it would hurt your hand like there’s no way you could penetrate it. So it was this really, really thick kind of tire, but it had melted or deflated and there was some text on it. I can’t remember what that said. My friend said “Nishat, I think you like this drawing, because it reminds me of you. It’s this really hard, impenetrable thing that is showing itself to be vulnerable that it can collapse, it can deflate.”

And it was not what I had picked. It was not what I had picked. But that portrait of myself that this person had said to me and had seen through this piece of art really kind of pierced right into my heart because I was like “whoa yes, I’m tough on the outside and soft on the inside”, but you just broke that down through a piece of artwork that I was ready to kind of dismiss because I was in love with this garbage bag instead. And you know, this is really a practice of knowing yourself and knowing others through that common medium. It’s a practice of dissecting what you see and reframing it. And they may seem overly simplified, but they help us understand who we are, what we like, and how we can like something.

So in playing this game, I learned that there are people that know things that I haven’t even really said about myself. And listening to the music I asked for, I was able to transport in time. And by taking this look around, I think I was also able to take this look within. I fortified my own creative self, I connected with my community, and deepened existing relationships and cultivated new ones.

And through these activities, just fortified my creative autonomy I actually wanna make two album recommendations to you just to start this conversation. So if you’re alone like me, and you don’t have somebody to talk to about this, let me be the first person to give this to you.

The first record I’m gonna recommend is Silsila, which is a 1970s Bollywood film, which is a beautiful soundtrack, check it out. And then the second one is from an R&B duo in Chicago called Drama and their first record Gallows. So have a listen to those two.

So I’m gonna leave you with one last thing, which is a song from this film Barsaat Ki Raat that my mom had recommended. Thank you so much. I hope that you try these activities and games out for looking around yourself and looking within.

So thanks so much, y’all.

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