Archive for the ‘Creative Culture’ 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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.