Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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Drawing by Katarina Countiss 

Excerpt from Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking by John-Steiner, Vera (Book – 1997) p.72

The development of self-knowledge– the realization of one’s special talents and the best way to use them– doesn’t necessarily follow a simple linear progression. Students of creativity have identified cycles in lives of productive individuals. At times a person spends years absorbing new experiences, styles, or theoretical ideas without making his or her contributions to a field, only to be followed by a period of intense bursts of productivity.

An apparently fallow few years in the life of the great French novelist Marcel Proust were described as part of such a cycle by his biographer André Maurois:

“Superficially considered, the four or five years that followed Marcel’s military service were lost years. The truth is that he was absorbing his honey and filling the pigeonholes of his mind with characters and impressions.”

At the end of his lengthy years of apprenticeship after the death of his parents, Marcel Proust “had developed a prodigious memory peopled with scenes and conversations. He had not frittered away the harvest of his childhood and his adolescence… he had reached the age of great undertakings with his granaries filled to bursting.”

The live, active use of memory reported by artists and scientists forces us to use some caution in our language describing this central mode of thought. In the professional literature of psychology, we often use terms such as memory storage, which implies that humans file their experiences, the yields of their lives, into a dark and dusty back-chamber of the mind. A different process emerges from the accounts of poets, such as Stephen Spender, who have described the many ways in which they attempt to maintain the freshness of their perceptions throughout long periods of time. In a similar vein, Stan Ulam has commented on the importance of keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights. Memory, then, is an ever present resource, a potential source of raw materials that are reworked in art and science…

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual—active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

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Photo by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Brown, Tim (Book – 2009) page 106-107

Prototyping is always inspirational—not in the sense of a perfected artwork but just the opposite: because it inspires new ideas. Prototyping should start early in the life of a project, and we expect them to be numerous, quickly executed, and pretty ugly. Each one is intended to develop an idea “just enough” to allow the team to learn something and move on. At this relatively low level of resolution, it’s almost always the best for the team members to make their own prototypes and not outsource them to others. Designers may require a fully equipped model shop, but design thinkers can “build” prototypes in the cafeteria, a boardroom, or a hotel suite.

One way to motivate early-stage prototyping is to set a goal: to have a prototype ready by the end of the first week or even the first day. Once tangible expressions begin to emerge, it becomes easy to try them out and elicit feedback internally from management and externally from potential customers. Indeed one of the measures of an innovative organization is its average time to first prototype. In some organizations it takes months or even years—the automobile industry is a telling example. In the most creative organizations, it can happen within a few days.

In the ideation space we build prototypes to develop our ideas to ensure that they incorporate the functional and emotional elements necessary to meet the demands of the market.  As the project moves forward, the number of prototypes will go down while the resolution of each one goes up, but the purpose remains the same: to help refine an idea and improve it. If the precision required at this stage exceeds the capabilities of the team, it may be necessary to turn to outside experts—model maker\s, videographers, writers, or actors, as the case may be—for help.

In the third space of innovation [first one being inspiration, and second, ideation] we are concerned with implementation: communicating an idea with sufficient clarity to gain acceptance across the organization, proving it, and showing that it will work in its intended market. Here too, the habit of prototyping plays an essential role. At different stages, the prototype may serve to validate a subassembly of a subassembly: the graphics on a screen, the armrest of a chair, or a detail in the interaction between a blood donor and a Red Cross volunteer. As the project near completion, prototypes will likely be more complete. They will probably be expensive and complex and may be indistinguishable from the real thing. By this time you know you have a good idea: you just don’t yet know how good it is.

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Visual Thinking

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Brown, Tim (Book – 2009) page 80-81

Visual thinking takes many forms. We should not suppose that is restricted to objective illustration. In fact, it is not even necessary to possess drawing skills. In November 1972, relaxing in a late-night deli in Honolulu at the end of a long day of conference proceedings, a couple of biochemists took out a cocktail napkin and shared some crude drawings of bacteria having sex. A few years later Stanley Cohen was on a plane to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize and Herbert Boyer was pulling his red Ferrari into the parking lot of Genentech.

All children draw. Somewhere in the course of becoming logical, verbally oriented adults, they unlearn this elemental skill. Experts in creative problem solving such as Bob McKim, founder of Stanford’s product design program, or the United Kingdom’s prolific Edward de Bono, devoted much of their creative energy to mind maps, two-by-two matrices, and other visual frameworks that help explore and describe ideas in valuable ways.

When I use drawing to express an idea, I get different results than if I try to express it with words, and I usually get to them more quickly. I have to have a whiteboard or a sketch pad nearby whenever I am discussing ideas with colleagues. I get stuck unless I can work it out visually. Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks are justly famous (no less a collector than Bill Gates snatched up the Hammer Codex when it came up for auction in 1994), but Leonardo didn’t just use them to work out his own ideas. Often he simply stopped in the street to capture something he needed to figure out: a tangle of weeds, the curl of a cat sleeping in the sun: an eddy of water swirling in a gutter. Moreover, scholars poring over his mechanical drawings have punctured the myth that every sketch depicts his own inventions. Like any accomplished design thinker, Leonardo da Vinci used his drawing skills to build on the ideas of others.

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Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Brown, Tim (Book – 2009) page 66-67

To experience design thinking is to engage in a dance among four mental states. Each has its own moods and manners, but when the music suddenly starts it can be difficult to recognize where we are in the process and which is the right foot to put forward. The best guide, in launching a new design project is sometimes just to choose the right partner, clear the dance floor, and trust our intuition.

Woven into the very fabric of our culture is an emphasis on thinking based upon logic and deduction; the psychologist Richard Nisbett, who has studied approaches to problem solving in Western and Eastern cultures, has gone so far as to suggest that there is a “geography of thought.” Whether the problem lies in the domain of physics, economics, or history, Westerners are taught to take a series of inputs, analyze them, and then converge upon a single answer. At times we may find that the best—as opposed to the right—answer will have to do or that we may have to choose among equally compelling alternatives. Just think about the last time you and five friends had to agree upon where to go out for dinner. Group thinking tends to converge toward a single outcome.

Convergent thinking is a practical way of deciding among existing alternatives. What convergent thinking is not so good at, however, is probing the future and creating new possibilities. Think of a funnel, where the flared opening represents a broad set of initial possibilities and the small spout represents the narrowly convergent solution. This is clearly the most efficient way to fill up a test tube or drive toward a set of fine-grained solutions.

If the convergent phase of problem solving is what drives us toward solutions, the objective of divergent thinking is to multiply options to create choices. These might be different insights into consumer behavior, alternative visions of new product offerings, or choices among alternative ways of creating interactive experiences. By testing competing ideas against one another, there is an increased likelihood that the outcome will be bolder, more creatively disruptive, and more compelling. Linus Pauling said it best: “To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas”—and he won two Nobel Prizes.


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The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

Painting by Katarina Countiss

The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

By at 10:46 am Tuesday, Oct 18

After just having read Seth Roberts’ blog post about The Willat Effect (the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things), it was interesting to see 31.

I discovered the Willat Effectwhen my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Via BoingBoing


Metaphor, Structure and Understanding

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Bayles, David (Book – 1993) page 109

Making art depends upon noticing things—things about yourself, your methods, your subject matter.  Sooner or later, for instance, every visual artist notices the relationship of the line to the picture’s edge. Before that moment the relationship does not exist; afterwards it’s impossible to imagine it not existing. And from that moment on every new line talks back and forth with the picture’s edge. People who have not yet made this small leap do not see the same picture as those who have—in fact conceptually speaking, they do not even live in the same world.

Your work is the source of unaccountably large number of such relationships. And these relationships, in turn, are a primary source of the richness and complexity in your art. As your art develops, conceptual relationships increasingly define the shape and structure of the world you see. In time, they are the world. Distinctions between you, your work and the world lessen, grow transparent, and finally disappear. In time, trees are once again trees.

Viewed over a span of years, changes in one’s art often reveal a curious patter, swinging irregularly between long periods of quiet refinement, and occasional leaps of runaway change. (And though it’s beyond our purposes here, we can’t help but note the tantalizing similarity between this pattern and the manifestations of chaos theory in mathematics.) Sometimes our perception of the world flows smoothly and continuously from one state to the next, and sometimes it flips over unexpectedly (and irrevocably) into a different configuration entirely. As school kids we memorize the famous examples—like Newton’s apple delivering him the Law of Gravity—but always with the caveat that such events are rare, probably excessively rare. After all, how often does anyone get the chance to rewrite the underlying laws of physics?

Yet it’s demonstrably true that all of us do (from time to time) experience such conceptual jumps, and while ours may not affect the orbit of planets, they markedly affect the way we engage the world around us. Study French, for instance, and you’ll likely spend the first month painstakingly translating it word by word into English to make it understandable. Then one day—voila!—you find yourself reading French without translating it, and a process that was previously enigmatic has become automatic. Or go mushroom hunting with someone who really knows mushrooms, and you’ll endure some downright humiliating outings in which the expert finds all the mushrooms and you find none. But then at some point the world shifts, the woods magically fill—mushrooms everywhere!—and a view that was previously opaque has become transparent.

For the artist, such lightning shifts are a central mechanism of change. They generate the purest form of metaphor: connections are made between unlike things, meanings from one enrich the meanings of the other, and the unlike things become inseparable. Before the leap, there was light and shadow. Afterwards, objects float in a space where light and shadow are indistinguishable from the object they define.

Excerpt from The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in your Own Life by Fritz, Robert (Book – 1989) page 6.

“Amy C. Edmundson in her book A Fuller Explanation describes the concepts of R. Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetic Geometry:

Thinking isolates events: “understanding” then interconnects them. “Understanding is structure,” Fuller declares, for it means establishing the relationship between events.”

Quote from Decoding Design: Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication by Maggie Macnab

“Time is intimately tied to space and we travel through pattern to grasp our sense of being.”

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Creativity, Words from Blackmore

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 239

Tamarisk has written a science book. This suggests that she consciously authored the book, but there is another way of looking at it Tamarisk is a gifted writer because the genes have created a brain that handles language well, and a determined individual who likes solitary work; because she was born into a society that values books and pays for them; because her education gave her the opportunity to discover how good she was at science; and because she has spent years studying and thinking until new ideas came out of the combinations of the old. When the book was completed it formed a new complex of memes; variations on old ones and new combinations created by the complicated processes inside a clever thinking brain. When asked, Tamarisk might say that she consciously and deliberately invented every word herself (though she is quite likely to say that she has no idea how she did it). I would say that the book was a combined product of genes and memes playing out their competition in Tamarisk’s life.

The view of creativity is alien to many people. In discussions of consciousness it is common to raise the issue of creativity, as though it somehow epitomizes the power of human consciousness. How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? – people ask. This view of creativity betrays a commitment to a false theory of self and consciousness, or to Dennett’s Cartesian Theatre (225). If you believe that you live inside your head and direct operations, then creative acts can seem especially good examples of things that “you” have done. But, as we have seen, this view of self does not hold up. There is no one inside there to do the doing – other than a bunch of memes.

I am not saying that there is no creativity. New books are written, new technologies invented, new gardens laid out, and new films produced. But, the generative power behind this creativity is the competition between replicators, not a magical, out-of-nowhere power such as consciousness is often said to be. The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are products of genetic evolution. Replicator power is the only design process we know of that can do the job, and it does it. We do not need conscious human selves messing about in there as well.

Of course selves are not irrelevant. Far from it. By virtue of their organization and persistence, selfplexes are powerful memetic entities that affect the behavior of the people who sustain them, and of all those who come into contact with them. But as far as creativity is concerned selves can often do more harm than good, for creative acts often come about in a state of selflessness, or loss of self0cinciousness, when the self seems to be out of the way. Artists, writers, and runners often say they are at their best when acting spontaneously and without self-consciousness. So selves have effects but not as the originators of conscious creativity.