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Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

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”.

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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.

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.

Singapore Plans for 2050!

In Design, Process, Vision on 2010/01/24 at 5:22 pm

Singapore transformed to a F1 circuit in Nov 09 (Photo: STB)

Yesterday (Sat 23 Jan 10), the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore (URA) launched a public consultation to revise its 2011 masterplan for the whole island-nation of Singapore (about 700 sq km) for the next 40-50 years; see URA Press Release.  The new masterplan will define Singapore’s idea of “quality of life”.  Specifically, it will deal with with economics, demographics and the environment.  This is often referred to as the “triple bottom-line” by planners and economists.

But how is the public to participate in this humongous task?  Will the usual “focus groups” (read: market survey) deliver on an issue that even futurists have trouble?

Perhaps everyone should take a leaf from the recent “Design2050” exercise by the DesignSingapore Council (Dsg) who commissioned nine teams of of top designers and architects in Europe, US, South Africa and Singapore to each make propositions on an aspect of life in the year 2050.  The Foster & Partners team led by Head of Design David Nelson and Stephan Behling looked at “the Sustainable City 2050“; the Philips team led by CEO Stephano Marzano looked at “Healthcare 2050“; Chris Bangle (former director of design at BMW) looked at “Personal Emotional Mobility 2050“; Prof Bill Mitchell and his team at the MIT Media Lab looked at “Reinventing the Automobile 2050“; Ravi Naidoo and the Design Indaba team looked at “Protofarm 2050“; Toshiko Mori and her team in NY looked at “Design Blindspots 2050“; Feng Zhu and his FZD team in Singapore looked at “Entertainment 2050“; Chris Leubkeman and this Arups Foresight and Innovation team looked at “Life @ 1 Planet in 2050…or Naught: drivers of change 2050“; and WOHA Architects Singapore looked at the impact of rising sealevel on Singapore in “Architects Save the World and Bring Joy to Millions 2050: Singapore 2050“.

Design2050 begins with the premise that it not possible to predict 40-50 years into the future.  Futurists — such as Ged Davis, Chris Leubkeman and William Halal, who spoke at the presentation of Design2050 Studios — agree. But design is generally about propositions for a better future, and less interesting as problem solving, although it can do that too. So, why not get design to make propositions of normative futures which are beyond the reach of technological and other forecasting? The 9 propositions presented in November 2009 by the Design2050 Studios were awe-inspiring. Take a look, below for WOHA’s presentation. Watch out for a DVD/TV series later this year. Most importantly, be a part of this growing Design2050 community who subscribe to PARC Alan Kay’s dictum, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.