Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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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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A History, Bayles and Orland

Excerpt from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Bayles, David (Book – 1993) page 103.


It is an article of faith, among artists and scientists alike, that at some deep level their disciplines share a common ground. What science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively—that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms of nature. Science does not set out to prove the existence of parabolas or sine curves or pi, yet where phenomena are observed, there they are. Art does not weigh mathematically the outcome of the brushstroke, yet whenever artworks are made, archetypal forms appear. Charles Eames, when asked just how he arrived at the curves in his famous molded plywood chair, was clearly baffled that anyone would ask such a question; finally he just shrugged and replied, “It’s in the nature of the thing.” Some things, regardless of whether they are discovered or invented, simply and assuredly feel right. What is natural and what is beautiful are, in their purest state, indistinguishable. Could you improve upon the Circle?

In the day-to-day world, however, improving the circle is different from, say, improving the wheel. Science advances at the rate that technology provides tools of greater precision, while art advances at the pace that evolution provides minds with greater insight—a pace that is, for better or worse, glacially slow. Thus while the stone tools fashioned by cave dwellers an Ice Age ago are hopelessly primitive by current technological standards, their wall paintings remain as elegant and expressive as any modern art. And while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills, or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.

All that is not meant to cast art and science into some sort of moral footrace, but simply to point out that in art as well as in science—the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. Where the scientist asks what equation would best describe the trajectory of an airborne rock, the artist asks what it would feel like to throw one.

“The main thing to keep in mind,” as Douglas Hofstadter noted, “is that science is about classes of events, not particular instances.” Art is just the opposite. Art deals in any one particular rock, with its welcome vagaries, its peculiarities of shape, its unevenness, its noise. The truths of life as we experience them—and as art expresses them – include random and distracting influences as essential parts of their nature. Theoretical rocks are the province of science; particular rocks are the province of art.

The richness of science comes from really smart people asking precisely framed questions about carefully controlled events—controlled in the sense that such random or distracting influences don’t count. The scientist, if asked whether a given experiment could be repeated with identical results, would have to say yes—or it wouldn’t be science. The presumption is that at the end of a scientific experiment neither the researcher nor the world have changed, and so repeating the experiment would necessarily re-produce the same result. Indeed, anyone performing the experiment correctly would get the same results—a circumstance that on occasion leads to multiple claims for the same discovery.

But the artist, if asked whether an art piece could be remade with identical results, would have to answer no—or it wouldn’t be art. In making a piece of art, both the artist and the artist’s world are changed, and re-asking the question—facing the next blank canvas—will always yield a different answer. This creates a certain paradox, for while good art carries a ring of truth to it—a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear—the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person and one time. There is a moment for each artist in which a particular truth can be found, and if it is not found then, it will not ever be. No one else will ever be in a position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made, not found. Our understanding of the world changed when those words were written, and we can’t go back… any more than Shakespeare could.

The world thus altered becomes a different world, with our alterations being part of it. The world we see today is the legacy of people noticing the world and commenting on it in forms that have been preserved. Of course it’s difficult to imagine that horses had no shape before someone painted their shape on the cave walls, but it is not difficult to see the world became a subtly larger, richer, more complex and meaningful place as a result.

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But, Is it Art? Words from Feynman

 Excerpt from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Feynman, Richard P. (Book – 1997) page 260. Note: I left a cliffhanger. Read this book. It’s inspirational.

But is it Art?

Once I was at a party playing bongos, and I got going pretty well. One of the guys was particularly inspired by the drumming. He went into the bathroom, took off his shirt, smeared shaving cream in funny designs over his chest, and came out dancing wildly, with cherries hanging from his ears. Naturally, this crazy nut and I became good friends right away. His name is Jirayr Zorthian; he’s an artist.

We often had long discussions about art and science. I’d say things like, “Artists are lost; they don’t have any subject! They used to have religious subjects, but they lost their religion and now they haven’t got anything. They don’t understand the technical world they live in; they don’t know anything about the beauty of the real world—the scientific world—so they don’t have anything in their hearts to paint.”

Jerry would reply that artists don’t need to have a physical subject; there are many emotions that can be expressed through art. Besides, art can be abstract. Furthermore, scientists destroy the beauty of nature when they pick it apart and turn it into mathematical equations.