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Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

One of my favourite accounts on creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design on 2010/10/11 at 2:51 pm

Pablo Picasso painted a rare portrait of Gertrude Stein, his patron and friend, in 1906.  Despite some 90 sittings, Picasso completed the painting largely off-site, ending up with a figure with simple masses, and a face that bear more resemblance to an African mask.  It was a visionary work that pre-empted his radically-abstract cubist phase.  When someone commented that the painting did not resemble Stein, Picasso famously replied, “But… she will”!

Creative people alter the way we see the world.  They introduce the surprising, even shocking, alternative to the things we take for-granted as permanent and unchanging.  It must be said that it does not always work, but when it does, our world gets turned on its head.  Suddenly, we wonder how we had put up so long with the bad and the ugly.  Often, we even cry, “Why didn’t I think of that?”, or, “I could have done that!”.  But the sad fact is that we did not, and the truth is that creativity is much harder than it seems.

Creative designers are reconfiguring our world everyday.  They constantly re-visit old problems — such as the way we live, our furniture, clothes, and the tools we use — but frequently re-frame new ones — such as our response to climate change, the ageing population, and security; all striving to make our world a better, safer and happier place.

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Can Creativity be Taught?

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education on 2010/09/30 at 2:58 pm

I seldom use this expression but I sincerely think it is the best answer to this loaded question: “yes and no”!

A related question, “Can thinking be taught?”, would attract the same response.  Creativity to a large extent is thinking, although we tend to expect it to have more tangible outcomes (such as art, music and design) compared to more abstract or conceptual thinking.  But both creativity and thinking share the need to be practised for them to make sense for the rest of us.  Both are fascinating subjects for lectures and discourses but mean relatively very little until they are applied to the real world.

The thing with creativity — and thinking — is that is an innate attribute, like language, that is unsanctioned.  We do not need to be formally taught creativity, thinking or language, but it helps if we want to take it to a higher level.  For example, creativity, like thinking, is contextual; but many fight for “more creativity” as if it were fresh air or clean water.  The funny thing is that cognitive psychologists, sociologists, neuro scientists, philosophers and linguists trip over themselves to explain what is practised billions of times everyday since the beginning of time without the slightest awareness that these are subjects of deep inquiry that may be taught.

Have all the probing made any impact on creativity?  Well, yes and no.

Stay tuned for cases of “yes” and “no”.  Send me a note on your yes/no encounters.

Categorical Error as Creative Insight

In Concepts and Cateogies, Creativity, No Readymade World on 2010/08/30 at 8:11 pm

The Gelman Test: Which is the Correct Pair?

There are many psychological tests that attempt to measure our ability to categorise things for accuracy and speed.  One such test is shown above.  Out of curiosity, I decided to try it on my son when he was 3 years old.  He did not hesitate to say that the correct pair is 2 and 3, ie cat and wheel.  Since the “correct” pair by the majority of subjects is truck and wheel, I asked him why he thought otherwise.  I was expecting him to say he was just joking, but instead he surprised me by saying that both and cat and wheel were black!

The pairing of the black cat and the black wheel is technically a categorical error.  In other words you would have got it “wrong” in an examination.  But the categorical error is also a creative insight, albeit hidden from most.

“Errors” are often relative and can open up alternative lines of reasoning and creative thought.  On the contrary, an obsession to be “correct” can be stifling, and promotes a herd mentality.

Architect Charles Moore famously collected paraphernalia from all over the world and placed them in unusual juxtaposition in his home to stimulate new relationships, connections and ideas.  He was deliberately inducing categorical errors to turn them into creative insight.

The Eternal Value of Emergent Ideas*

In Creativity, Emergence on 2010/08/13 at 4:30 pm

Creativity can never be adequately explained as problem solving.  Designers know that ideas are seldom formed in sequences of converging chess-like moves.  Instead, they tend to emerge passively from circumstances — natural or artificial — as if from a clearing mist.  In fact, experienced designers would deliberately liven (read: mess up) their surroundings with contrasting, contradicting and disjointed objects to induce new and surprising possibilities.  This may explain why many designers (in addition to being chronically messy) are avid collectors of all sorts of things.  They would typically arrange their collection in ways that defy rationale and conventions.

Manipulating one’s conceptual environment at will is one thing, but having it change by external circumstances is something else.  For decades, we religiously pursued the North-South facing orientation as the unquestioned solution to minimise the solar impact of the hot tropical sun on our building facades (because the daily path of the sun is East-West).  However, with the increasing pressure today to switch to renewable energy sources, the preferred orientation to catch the sun for solar energy is the opposite, ie East-West.  All of a sudden, North-South is now ‘wrong’.

Value propositions are being switched around.  It was not so long ago that one gets its free digital download for purchasing a music CD.  Today one gets a free CD or DVD for purchasing music online.  Even the idea of paying for music may soon be obsolete.  The born-digital generation do not expect to pay for using Google, MSM, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Wikipedia, etc.  Everything digital may eventually be free to end-users [See Chris Anderson, Free: the Future of a Radical Price. New York: Hyperion, 2009].

What is perhaps of greater concern to changing circumstances, are “categorical errors” committed by those who are deemed less intelligent for failing to correctly label or name things.  Ambitious parents and teachers drill children with flash cards to improve their chances of getting them right in a snap.  But creativity, by definition, pushes and breaks established boundaries.  All creative move, therefore, involves categorical errors.  (Of course, the converse of all categorical errors being creative is simply not guaranteed; the same goes for rebellious acts being creative.)

So why do we still go on as if the world around us is fixed and permanent?  Why do we consider it abnormal or unacceptable when change occurs? How do we inculcate a creative culture that manages change and accepts errors?  It is by first understanding that the irremovable conceptual filters of our mind are culturally motivated — we see things not as they are, but as they seem to make sense to us.  When we can “see as”, the rest is history.

* published in William S.W. Lim (ed) 2009. Collection of Essays on Asian Design Culture. Singapore: AA Asia.

Devoting Money to Culture and Creativity

In Creative Culture, Uncategorized, Vision on 2010/08/04 at 1:45 am

Monocle’s July/August 2010 issue commented on Singapore’s global ranking of the world’s most liveable cities (p 19): “Dropping from 18 last year, small-scale Singapore could do with devoting some money to culture and creativity instead of casinos and shopping malls“.

The comment opens up the old wound of funding culture, the arts and especially that enigmatic thing called creativity. It also propagates the stereotypical view that Singapore is dominated by casinos and shopping malls.  Lets take a quick look at these issues and why it leaves us less than satisfied.

First the two casinos are, by planning decree, less than 10% of the total built-up area of the two respective multi-billion “integrated resorts” and are not allowed to predominate the development; ie no Las-Vegas-style neon signs, and no lavish entrances.  The Marina Sands Integrated Resort, designed by Moshe Safdie, has a 2,560-room hotel, a 120,000 sq.m. convention-exhibition center, an Art & Science museum, two Theatres, six “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating pavilions and a 340m-long “SkyPark”.  The Resorts World Integrated Resort, designed by Michael Graves, has 6 hotels, a Universal Studios theme park and Marine Life Park, which includes the world’s largest oceanarium. The casino parts are not conspicuous, contrary to sensationalisation by the media. In any case both IRs have been developed by private business consortia.

Second, the shopping malls are private developments in response to market demands and business opportunities of the local and global retail trade. Like the IRs, malls are not in a zero-sum game with promoting culture and creativity; they are separate and independent issues.

Third, contrary to the impression made by the Monocle comment, Singapore has one of the world’s highest public funding for the arts and design. For example, public funding for the annual Singapore Arts Festival is about S$8m which approximates S$2 (US$1.50) per capita of population. The global survey by Cambridge University for the UK Design Council reported in 2009 that Singapore has the highest level of funding for design worldwide after correcting for size.  Not many cities have anything close to these. Moreover, the Singapore government has consistently devoted its prized building to the arts and culture; the old Parliament House as an arts centre, the City Hall and Supreme Court as the new National Arts Gallery. Perhaps the Monocle comment is about non-government devotion of money to culture and creativity?

The relativity argument of the Monocle comment — of malls and casinos in lieu of culture and creativity — is weak. The implied case of Singapore’s lack of culture and creativity is a different matter. let alone if they can be improved by “devoting” more money — a subject for a future blog.

Choosing to be Painfully Generous

In Beating the Odds, Change, Education, Transformation on 2010/07/14 at 7:37 pm

Real generosity demands costly sacrifice, but has the power to change lives.  The contrary default costs little and yields correspondingly low impact and may even stifle.  It is an intentional choice to be painfully generous.

Let’s look at the easy default first.  My son’s secondary school principal told us in a matter-of-fact way that it is ok to have a “normal” kid who will not make university. She said, “after all, Singapore needs menial workers”.  We refused to believe her, pulled him out of her school, and tightened our belts to send him to a private college instead.  He graduated from university ahead of his “express” peers, and has recently received performance bonus and early promotion in a Singapore Statutory Board.  Generosity is critical to enhance unlimited human potential.  There is no excuse for principals, teachers and parents to doubt this.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of a lady who lost her husband and four others in a horrific accident on the Malaysian North-South highway recently.  She unhesitatingly forgave the driver of the lorry that had crashed into their MPV.  I reflected long and hard on what I would have done in a similar tragedy.  The default would be to seek “justice”.  It seems obvious, logical, and expected; not unlike the need for menial workers.  But she chose instead to break the cycle of blame and escalating the tragedy.  She was painfully generous.

Most of us default to the rational and logical most of the time.  We even refer, consciously or otherwise, to precedence and “best practices” at work or in life choices.  To be sure, progress and transformations in life can only come if we are strong and courageous enough to be painfully generous to help open the pathways of change.

Offside Rules Stifle Creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, Simplicity on 2010/07/06 at 9:56 pm

The offside rule in football (soccer) dates back to the early 18oos.  It is designed to curtail creative moves by the advancing team by penalising its active player if he has the ball ahead of all but one of the defenders:

“Offside position: It is not an offence in itself to be in an offside position.  A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.  A player is not in an offside position if he is in his own half of the field of play, or he is level with the second-last opponent, or he is level with the last two opponents.

Offence: A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position.

No offence: There is no offside offence if a player receives the ball directly from a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner kick.” — FIFA Laws of the Game

With improved ball-handling techniques and fitter players (who can cover over 10km in a game), the offside rule has become an increasing restriction to game flow and goal scores.  It may be time to ditch it and have the referees better spend their time watching the goal line instead.

Another offside rule that stifles creativity is arts-science streaming in schooling.  It generally goes by the rule that the academically inclined should pursue the sciences and downplay or even ignore the arts, which usually includes the humanities.  This ‘rule’ is becoming increasingly ridiculous in our multi-disciplinary world where creativity is best found in intersections of disciplines.

I was fortunate to escape the arts-science offside rule.  When I was studying for “o-Levels” in 1971 at a small public library in Kuching, Sarawak, I fortuitously came across a book on american architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  A picture of his “Fallingwater” house cantilevering over a waterfall at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, leap out the pages at me.  I remember rushing back to speak to my Principal, Nigel Heyward, about it.  He made an exception for me to study both science (physics, maths and chemistry) and art.  I went on happily to study architecture in Nottingham, England.  Needless to say, I am an advocate of removing the arts-science offside rule.

I have also not forgotten the librarian who probably went against the wisdom of the day by placing an architecture book in the midst of hard-core science and technology dominated bookshelves.  We need more such agents of creativity to beat offside traps.

The Changing Brief

In adaptability, Change, Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/23 at 5:59 pm

Wouldn’t you naturally feel disgusted if your design tutor or client kept changing the brief?  But then again, isn’t this the real world?  We seem to have no problem accepting and propagating change, so long as we are not the ‘changee’ — the victim of change.

When I was last in Penang, I was impressed by ordinary people who were adaptable to immediate change:

  • Our bus driver agreed to drop us off an unscheduled stop despite the inconvenience of manipulating the big coach in heavy traffic;
  • A coffee shop owner whisked around to rearrange several tables and chairs for a big group of us in a very crowded hour; and
  • A hotel barman zoomed around to look for fresh coconuts for us even though coconuts are not on the menu.

There is a precious simplicity in being able to give and receive spontaneous action.  In an increasingly mass-production and out-sourced world — where one size fits all, and good management means getting someone else to do it for you — it is good to be reminded of the value of the personal touch and spontaneous initiative.

A creative culture should not only be resilient to the changing brief, but thrive on it.  It should not expect the brief to be fixed nor fully formed at the outset. Many factors can suddenly change the brief — from a change of mind, personal crises, business competition, to external circumstances such as financial collapses, disasters, change of government policies and laws, etc.  A pro-active creative culture should engage in the development and evolution of the brief.  To be sure, this would be a messy and complex affair, but design and education in general would do well to inculcate the ability of creatives to think on their feet and not presume that the brief is like an exam paper.  The changing brief should be a regular exercise in design schools, and a pervasive mindset in design practice.

In Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon related a parable of two highly regarded watchmakers, one of whom prospered while the other declined, all because of they way they managed the assembly of their design. The successful one had a modular system of sub-assemblies that did not all had to be abandoned to start form scratch every time he had to answer the phone.  In the case of the unsuccessful one, the watch was a single entity that fell to pieces each time he was interrupted.  This is a lesson in managing complexity and a step towards managing the interruptions from the changing brief.

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.

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”.