Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

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.

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.

Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!

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

Another example of visual thinking

In Beauty, Creativity, Education, Process, Simplicity, Transformation on 2010/04/18 at 6:46 pm

Visual thinking can often simplify a problem to be solved. Take the case of the simple area calculation, below, by shape rearrangement and inversion. Jumping in with brute force math is for the ‘left-brainers’!

[Click here for alternative link to YouTube animation]

There are many exciting possibilities of being able to think visually. They are divergent, exploratory and do not attempt to be ‘correct’; pace Gestalt Psychology. Watch this space.

Visual Thinking in Practice

In Beauty, Creativity, Simplicity, Transformation on 2010/04/03 at 11:37 pm

Many know about visual thinking or “visual literacy” but consider it unreliable and ‘fuzzy’. It’s not.

Take Pyhtagoras Theorem (arguably the most useful) – given a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), c, is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, b and a—that is, a²b²c².  Using it in everyday is one thing but try to prove it.

You actually need to know a few more theorems if you try the Eucliden way, and a lot of math if you go algebra.

So, how about this for a proof by visual arrangement and emergence:

The False Hard-Soft Dichotomy in Education

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education on 2010/03/13 at 5:09 pm

The Singapore education pendulum swung again this week with the Ministry of Education (MOE) announcing in Parliament that “hard skills” of mathematics and science are insufficient in the 21st Century. Greater importance will now be placed on the “soft skills” of art, music and physical education.  To be sure this is not a new conundrum.  In November 2009, the Singapore Competitiveness Report by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy warned that Singapore’s lagging competitiveness in innovation may be attributed to the fact that “Singapore focuses too much on the type of repetitive memorarisation of knowledge that generates high performance on standardised tests…(but this) is not necessarily the best driver of intellectual capabilities”.

Girl in a Public Fountain

To redress the imbalance, more school time and resources will be given over (read: zero-sum) to the “soft” side. MOE would nearly double the current pool of 2,500 art, music and PE teachers to 4,500 by 2020, many of whom will be specialists and teaching only these subjects.

The hard-soft dichotomy is false. That is, one cannot account for the lack of the other. They are certainly not mutually exclusive.  Further more, neither can account for the extensive middle ground that is concerned with character, values, networks and capacity (as distinct from capability).  These are qualities that cannot be taught, but can be coached and mentored. But these raise the critical question of who and what are the ‘teachers’?  Is it too much to expect students to acquire the blended “hard skills” and the “soft skills” when such an exemplary quality is a rarity in teachers who are usually from the hard or soft side?

This is clearly not a simple issue.  One way to understand the false dichotomy is to look at another context that “hard” and “soft” are used to divide the industry: computing.  It is by now quite clear to most people what is “hardware” as distinct from “software”.  But what baffles many is the Operating System (OS) (on which Bill Gates got famously rich).  Is OS software?  Well, yes and no.  An OS is not an application; it enables applications to run properly on hardware, be it the desktop, laptop, mobile phone or machine.  The OS manages resources (processors, memory, display, communications, etc) and controls traffic to and from peripherals (keyboard, mouse, disk drives, modems, printers, video camera, etc).

I suggest that the OS in education is its culture.  It exists by virtue of the community with all its overlapping interests.  These interests may swing from “hard” to “soft” issues, but in the centre of it all is the culture that is both active and reflective. For a balanced outcome that the Singapore education system now yearns for, that needs to be a creative culture.  The Minister of Education quoted the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child”.  It has the right connotation that the village culture — its OS — is what ultimately shapes the whole person of the child.