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Archive for the ‘Emergence’ Category

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.

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.

Emergent Subshapes

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Emergence, No Readymade World, Strategy, Transformation on 2010/04/19 at 5:11 pm

Visual perception is a key to creative thinking. If there is a ‘correct’ way to see every thing, our world will be uninteresting. Gestalt Psychology tries to explain the perception of the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”. In creative thinking, this largely misses the point of discovering ‘hidden’ sub-shapes of the entity, many of which would be surprising and full of potential to develop new ideas.

Take the simple case of “two intersecting rectangles”. The interesting emergent subshapes do not come from a reductionist approach. My favourites are “four rotating chair”, and “four zig-zag paths”! (look for them in the selection of emergence below). There is nothing “correct” about discovering emergent subshapes, but they are hot houses of creativity.  The implications go beyond art and design. It is about profound thinking itself.

Emergent Subshapes