Archive for 2010|Yearly archive page

Intermediate Places in Urban Life

In Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/17 at 9:41 pm

Place matters. Even in highly-urbanised and highly-regulated Singapore, there are some interesting places of human scale:

Intermediate places are like sketches. Their tentative and re-configurable nature resonates better with creative activities. More such places are needed, especially at the personal and institutional level. Schools, polytechnics and universities, in particular, should allow for more undesignated places that are friendly to “hanging out”, tinkering, and spontaneous activities.


William J. “Bill” Mitchell 1944-2010: my teacher, mentor and friend

In Uncategorized on 2010/06/14 at 12:02 am

I just lost my teacher, mentor and friend, Bill Mitchell. He passed away on 11 June 2010, after gallantly battling cancer for over a year.

I first met Bill when he accepted to be a keynote speaker at “The Architect’s Computer” conference that I organised in Singapore in 1985.  I had found him from a library search (no Google in those days) that turned up only one book: Computer Aided Architectural Design (1977), the only major publication on design and computation at the time.  Over drinks one evening at the Mandarin Hotel, I told Bill that NUS (National University of Singapore) wanted me to undertake a PhD but, like all architecture graduates then (trained for practice rather than academia), I had the faintest idea how to go about it.  Even at that initial meeting, Bill was gracious to take me on as his PhD candidate despite my ignorance. He was at UCLA at that time.

In 1986, I set out to LA with my wife and our two young boys. Bill had a number of interesting things going at UCLA that benefited me immediately: shape grammars and parametric variations in particular.  Bill always have a pool of talented graduate students that I also benefited from.  He loved teaching and research, and treated us as collaborators.  That inspired all of us.

In 1987, Bill left UCLA for Harvard, and arranged for me to transfer together with him as his first PhD candidate at Harvard. It was such a privilege for me to first tap on his cumulative wisdom at UCLA, and then to follow him to pioneer a computer-aided design program at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Computers were alien at the GSD then! We unpacked the first shipment of Apple Macs in a storeroom at the GSD which was my makeshift workplace.

Bill always had time for me and the other students that he supervised.  On several occasion he would come to see me straight from Logan airport with new ideas for my work that he had figured out on the flight.  It was the clarity and simplicity of his ideas that always impressed me.  He was also able to write and draw it all out, often in single sittings on a blank sheet of paper.  His book, Logic of Architecture: design, computation and cognition (1990) was our benchmark in writing.  Bill freely gave us his drafts for reference. Only after I graduated and interacted more generally with Bill, that I find him enormously multi-disciplinary and visionary — aspects that I did not fully appreciated when I was cocooned in my specific PhD thesis.  The amazing thing about Bill is that he always carried with him a witty and persuasive “big picture” of the future; it was always so refreshing and exciting to talk to him about “the next big thing” not because of isolated innovations, but revolutionary changes such as pervasive democratisation from digital imaging.  His book, The Reconfigured Eye: visual truth in the post-photographic era (1992), was thought provoking.  Bill even had a regular column in the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Journal, which culminated in his book, Placing Words: Symbols, Space and the City (2005).  I managed to get Bill to be on the international advisory panel for the development of OneNorth — the 200Ha R&D district, formerly known as Science Park, in Singapore (master planned by Zaha Hadid).  My copy of his book, e-topia (1999), still have the numerous bookmarks that relate his articulation of “the networked-mediated metropolis of the digital electronic era” to OneNorth.

When I was Head of Architecture at NUS, I sought advice from Bill on setting a mission statement. He shared that his implicit mission is “to change the world”, no less!  I asked him how he went about this. In reply he said, “hire the best people you can find, and then leave them to work”.

I had the privilege of commissioning Bill as one of nine Design2050 Studio Masters to present aspects of life in 2050 at the ICSID World Design Congress in Singapore in November 2009.  Bill could not come to Singapore as he was undergoing medical treatment, but he went out of his way to make his presentation, Reinventing the Automobile 2050, with a video recording. As usual, he was totally committed to make a good presentation, complete with simulations and working demonstrations.  This was supposed to lead to a MIT-NUS mirror research project on urban mobility in Singapore.

I will miss Bill, but his prolific writings and memories of all the good times that I had with him will live on. Thanks, Bill.

To Brand a Design or To Design a Brand

In Branding, Concepts and Cateogies, Design on 2010/06/09 at 12:54 pm

Brands are designed.  I dare say many designers do not even realise this.

A design — a chair, or a lamp, say — can be made into a brand.  In fact, it can be argued that the design is already implicitly a brand by default; without having to explicitly subject it to a “branding” process.  This is because a brand is fundamentally the distinguishing mark for a product or service, so a particularly “memorable” object, place or experience — by virtue of its distinctive design — brands itself.  Remember that branding has its origins in scorching a mark on the hide of cattle to show which ranch it belongs to.

Even in its origins, a brand as a distinguishing mark had to be designed — in the most general and obvious definition of design as a cognitive and physical process of making.  The appearance of the brand is a unique visual identity, often of graphic and artistic quality, and not merely a serial number.  The indiscriminate proliferation of superficial logos today undermine the significance of our abilities to use symbolic representation to make distinctions in what otherwise would be a world of sameness around us.

Those who understand branding today, subject the “branding process” to design thinking.  This includes “up-stream” ideas for the design of the “brand strategy”, through to the design of the “brand experience” and the design of many aspects of “brand loyalty”.  The brand is designed from inside to out, head to toe, end to end.  Whilst it is possible to brand a design, it pales in scope and possibilities when compared to designing a brand.

Many Ways of Seeing

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, No Readymade World, Process on 2010/06/03 at 10:40 pm

In 2003, I introduced ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS), a pilot project on perception and design to three schools in Singapore. Since then, many schools have also participated in this project (through the Singapore Polytechnic) and one has a permanent MWOS base: St Andrews Secondary School.  Here is the original MWOS ‘blueprint’:

MWOS is a design appreciation project positioned in between the troublesome extremes of design “form” and “function”.  It uses hands-on exercises to reveal the exciting processes of enabling students to imagine possibilities and to gain insights into how form and function are negotiated and integrated into designs.  As an open exploration of design concepts, it does not primarily aim to make students into designers.  Instead, it aims to provide participants with a lasting experience that is scalable and transferable to other lifelong skills and attitudes whether or not the participants become practising designers.

Students collaborate with a teacher, a designer and a mentor in small project groups equipped with digital cameras and multimedia computers.  Groups prepare video clips and posters to express their observations and insights of the world around them. Their design collaborators then take these material and come back with sketch designs inspired by the many ways of seeing.

The ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS) project is inspired by the work of the late Nelson Goodman, the Harvard Philosopher who started Project Zero in 1967 “to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels”.  In one of his most famous writing, “Many Ways of Worldmaking”, Goodman argues that much of what we presume as the “real world” is made up in our minds through a complex process of perception, postulations and concept formations; the world as we know it is not ready-made or to be taken as given. Much of reality depends on how we decide, or are conditioned, to see.  Our future reality depends on the emergence of new insights — new ways of seeing.

Early modernist thinking from the early 20C debunks decoration and embellishments as “untruthful” to the purity of material and function in design.  “Form follows function” has been a compelling and dominant dictum that guided generations of designers.  An extreme interpretation of this view relegates human and cultural factors below those of technical and even economic functions.  Not surprisingly, this attracted some equally extreme reactions.  From the 70s a vibrant “Post Modern” movement attempts to reconnect contemporary culture to historical forms and symbols.  “More is more” is touted as the anti-minimalist slogan to “less is more”.  By ascribing totally new and sometimes conflicting uses for old forms, Post-modernism reopened the agenda of “function follows form”.

Talent is not Creativity

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, Talent on 2010/05/31 at 6:33 pm

It is of concern that many — especially those in education — do not make a distinction between talent and creativity.

Talent is that special ability to perform a task, be it physical, artistic, or intellectual, at a very accomplished level, the extreme of which we call prodigious or genius. This can be in the arts (dance, music, painting), crafts, sports, games (chess, world of warcraft), mathematics, science, economics, business, etc. It is clear that not all children are born equal when it comes to talent. Some are simply better endowed (genetically, perhaps) to learn and scale the heights of specific fields many quantum leaps ahead of their peers. Anyone who teach pre-schoolers will see this in any context. Some kids simply shine.

Talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity.  This is because, whilst talent is person-centric, creativity however is community-centric.  You can be a very talented pianist, but unless you perform and are reviewed favorably as going beyond the given, you are not deemed “creative”. Creativity is not determined by the individual.

The implication of creativity defined by the community is crucially significant.  It means inter alia that strategies, institutions and policies need to foster the appropriate milieu and creative culture for talents to thrive beyond performance to recognition and domain-changing propositions.  Grooming talent and fostering creativity are therefore two very different pursuits.

Rabbit-Duck Figure Revisited

In adaptability, Creative Culture, Creativity, Emergence, No Readymade World on 2010/05/22 at 11:09 pm

The Rabbit-Duck Ambiguous Figure (Jastrow, J. 1899)

This figure by Jastrow in 1899 has been in the centre of many discussions and inquiries in art, design, creativity, perception, psychology, and philosophy. The famous philosopher, Wittgenstein, referred to this figure in his discourse on why entities can have more than one identity, ie multiple existences. Many people even today expect a stable, cut-and-dry and verifiable world and are therefore uncomfortable with such ambiguities in life. The creatives however thrive on them.

Depending on which way you perceive the creature as looking, all the graphics of the figure ralliy around the form of a rabbit (looking to the right) or a duck (looking left). It is exclusively one or the other, and you can switch between the two at will. Why? The best and simplest explanation I have is the way we label parts of the figure. If we label the appendage “ears”, than we have a rabbit, but if we label it “beak”, then we have a duck. This labeling of objects and their parts is, I believe, at the heart of conceptual thinking and primal to the way our perception system works syntactically to make coherent worlds (eg of rabbits or ducks in the case in point).

The ability to label parts of a object and obtain a coherent whole is so powerful that we often do not need all the defining information to make and act on the incomplete.

The above two words has the same centre letter-figure, but it takes little to treat the second as an “A” rather than a “H” because it makes sense. This contextual labeling is the reason why machine reading, let alone language translation is so intractable. Below is a more complex and interesting example from Wired magazine’s (UK June 2010) article on patent litigation, “Apple vs Nokia vs Goole vs HTC vs RIM”:

"Apple vs Nokia vs Google vs HTC vs RIM" (Wired UK, June 2010)

But the really interesting issue is not so much that we get things correctly labelled (as with pre-school flash cards) but that we can imaginatively label things differently and chart the courses of different outcomes. This is seeing things differently and the critical stuff of creative thinking.

Leonardo’s Rap

In Creativity, Emergence, Process, Transformation on 2010/05/16 at 11:23 am
Leonardo da Vinci: Neptune

Leonardo da Vinci: Neptune (c. 1504)

Leonardo da Vinci had a thing or two to say to his contemporaries about their confusion between creative designing and drawing skills [Da Vinci 1956, fols. 61v-62r]:

“You who compose subject pictures, do not articulate the individual parts of those pictures with determinate outlines, or else there will happen to you what usually happens to many and different painters who want every, even the slightest trace of charcoal to remain valid; this sort of person may well earn a fortune but no praise with his art, for it frequently happens that the creature represented fails to move its limbs in accordance with the movements of the mind… So, painters, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your fingers and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your picture rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.”

Leonardo had used a simple but effective technique for working out compositions which deviated radically from the prevalent method then of the “unfailing line which needed no correction and no second thoughts”. The novelty of his method involves working literally on top of schematic sketches, using them as frame of reference to develop more detailed versions and variations (see figure).

Leonardo’s method can be considered the forerunner of the use of the tracing paper, now common among artists and designers to explore design alternatives by sketching on superimposed layers of translucent media. The tracing paper is both transparent enough for the preceding sketches to show through as guidelines or framework, but at the same time opaque enough to uphold the overlaid sketch.

This is perceptual emergence in practice (see also my blog on Emergent Subshapes). If indeed emergent thinking is the key to creativity, the tracing paper is the prime creative designing tool; not the drawing board, modeling (in all media), CAD (and all current computer graphics ‘special effects’), nor even the sketchbook per se.

Designed by Hand

In Design, Process on 2010/05/13 at 12:48 pm

“Hand-made” used to be an indication of quality workmanship.  A hand-made object was expected to be well-crafted and skillfully executed.  Except for mostly collectibles and bespoke works, it no longer is.  This is because our increasing detachment from do-it-yourself hunting and farming — first accelerated by the agricultural revolution, and then by industrialization and more recently by the information web — has been made possible by tools and processes which are superior replacements for our hands.  Nowadays who expects to buy a hand-made computer, or tennis racket?

However, despite increasing scarcity the hand-made thing will always command our attention and respect — one-off pottery, bespoke furniture, the tailored dress, a sculpture, native basket, vernacular architecture, custom jewelry, the Ikat, hand-made teddy bears, etc.  We treasure these perhaps because we are naturally nostalgic of our human capabilities; and acutely conscious of our human limitations.  More importantly, we sense that these are shaped not only by the hands, but also by the human minds that we imagine could well have been ours.  There is satisfaction in being able to dwell among ideas designed by hand.

Alternative Value Propositions

In adaptability, Change, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Process, Strategy, Technology, Value, Vision on 2010/05/11 at 2:06 pm

Designers can do better than offer “professional services for a fee”. They can lead by alternative value propositions.

Many creative projects get axed prematurely by key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are typically controlled by ‘creative’ bean counters (oxymoron?) who are clients or their agents.  They typically shun change and collaboration. Their standard tool is divide-and-rule. eg train stations are transport engineering infrastructure, whilst art and sculpture is culture; therefore there is no budget for the arts as part of station development. That is somebody else’s core business. Familiar?

Designers are in a good position to propose alternative value propositions. But they need to be laterally creative and not be so naive about how bureaucrats and bean-counters work. A creative win-win is often the only way.

Take the task of designing an Expo exhibition pavilion. The no-brainer is to put up a building simply for the duration of the Expo — closing both eyes to what happens after the show is over, and visitor-ship KPI is history. Better still, have the pavilion built by somebody else and “leased back” for only the exhibition season; this way it shows up in the books as rental and not a capital-intensive inventory item!

What if the Expo building is designed in the first place for a permanent use, even if it means designing a kit of parts to have the pavilion become a school building or library where it is needed badly, say in an isolated rural location or disaster-relief area.

The challenge for designers is to find a way to collaborate with the initial client to include stakeholders who can take over the kit of parts. In return, the emotional and social benefits of the cause can be a powerful differentiating feature of the pavilion’s presentation. In Expos such as the one in Shanghai now concerned with “better cities, better life”, such an action will speak louder than the words and demos so typical of those who only think of the Expo as only a glorified sales pitch.

Creative Peloton

In Awards, Creative Culture on 2010/05/02 at 4:26 pm

This is a key reason why awards and competitions are critical in design and creativity.

A creative community is like the peloton in a long distance bicycle race.

In the race, a large group of cyclists — the peloton — would tactically bunch up to tap the advantage of the slipstreams created by the ones in front.  The reduction in drag can save a cyclist as much as 40% of peddling energy.

The Peloton of the Tour de France, 9th of July 2005 at the begin of the ascend to Cote de Bad Herrenalb. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nature knows this ‘trick’ well.  Migratory birds fly in V formations in which members of the flock take turns at the front to initiate the upwash or “draft” that provides additional uplift to the rest.  By just being in formation, the cyclist and the bird attains a capacity to cover a far greater distance than they can achieve by going solo.

A similar phenomenon exists in the creative process.  Leading designers in our community, like the lead peloton cyclists, generate the creative slipstreams that help to carry the other designers forward.  I believe this is best demonstrated in awards and competitions (closed or open), including curated exhibitions.  Clearly, competition for competition sake can be mindless, self-indulgent, and even misleading; many designers shun competitions because of this.

On the other hand, there is no denying that awards and  competitions as part of design practice is a good way to recognise the extraordinary achievements attained by our leading designers and creatives.  Greater spread and pace set by recipients and nominees can further sustain a strong creative slipstream that will inspire the next wave of leading designers.  They will, in time, lead the peloton and help sustain the whole creative community and keep it competitive.