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31 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best of Brain Pickings 2012

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Everything you missed and everything you’d want to revisit, in one place.

On this last day of the year, what better way to send 2012 off than with a look back at the its most stimulating reads? Gathered here are the most read and shared articles published on Brain Pickings this year, to complement the recent omnibus of the year’s best books. Enjoy, and may 2013 be inspired in every possible way.

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31 DECEMBER, 2012

Creativity Is Like a Slot Machine

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“To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience.”

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (UK; public library), Debbie Millman (previously) sits down with 20 of today’s most celebrated graphic designers to unravel the secrets of their creative process, work ethic, and general philosophy on life. The result is a kind of modern-day equivalent of the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, presenting a rare glimpse of the creative machinery behind some of today’s most talented and influential designers through conversations that reveal in equal measure their purposeful brilliance and tender humanity.

One of the most stimulating interviews is with the inimitable Paula Scher — identity and branding goddess, Pentagram partner, maker of magnificent hand-drawn maps, tireless champion of combinatorial creativity — who echoes Thoreau in this beautiful, poetic definition of success:

If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.

Like many of history’s greatest scientists, Scher speaks to the power of intuition and additive knowledge in sparking those creative Eureka! moments, stressing the importance of what novelist William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture.” She illustrates the point with an exquisite metaphor:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But rather than willing the cherries into alignment, the essence of creative alchemy, says Scher, is in allowing for unconscious processing — that intuitive incubation period, to use T.S. Eliot’s term, that allows for all the combinatorial pieces gathered over years of being alive and awake to the world to click into place, to congeal into what we call “invention”:

I am conscious of resolving the brief, but I don’t think about it too hard. I allow the subconscious part of my brain to work. That’s the accumulation of my whole life. That is what’s going on in the other side of my brain, trying to align with this very logical brief.

And I’m allowing that to flow freely, so that the cherries can line up in the slot machine. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’ve had periods of time when the cherries never line up, and that’s scary, because then you have to rely on tricks you already have up your sleeve — the tricks in your knowledge from other jobs. And very often you rely on this.

But mostly what you want to do is invent. And to invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense. And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.

When you succeed, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t always happen. But every so often, you take a bunch of stuff from one side of your head, and a very logical list of stuff from the other side, and through that osmosis you’re finding a new way to look at a problem and resolve a situation.

Perhaps George Lois was right, after all, when he stated that creativity is discovering ideas rather than “creating” them and John Cleese correctly defined it as “a way of operating” rather than a mystical talent.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

Photograph via AIGA

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31 DECEMBER, 2012

British vs. American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics

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A visual time-capsule of political parallels and contrasts.

This month marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics. After recently coming upon some fantastic mid-century ISOTYPE infographics comparing and contrasting Great Britain and the United States, I embarked upon a quest to hunt down one of the last surviving copies of the book from which they came — America and Britain: Three Volumes in One (UK; public library), originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

With 53 ISOTYPE charts in color created by Neurath himself and 97 black-and-white photographs from various government archives, the book “brings together all the more important aspects of America and Britain” in three different sections: Only an Ocean Between explores “how Britain and America are alike or are different in their climate, their geography, their natural and human resources, their transport facilities, and other basic conditions of life and work”; Our Private Lives contrasts family life in both countries — “domestic habits and customs, how the British and Americans court and get married, build and furnish homes, shop, cook and eat, work and play, go to church and school”; Our Two Democracies at Work examines political structures in Britain and America.

This having been an election year in the U.S. and thus a boon for political design, I was particularly intrigued by the infographics in the third part of the book. More than a mere treasure trove of vintage graphic design, however, these charts present not only a parallel time-capsule of mid-century politics in Britain and the United States, but also a fascinating and rather visceral reminder of how much has changed over the past half-century — and how much has remained nearly the same.

D. W. Brogan writes in the foreword to the section:

Luck has played its part in the history of Britain and of the United States. Much of their success is explicable in terms of geography, natural resources, the happy conjunction of time and place. But there remains an element that it is and was easy to underrate, especially when a bogus realism and a naive materialism led to a depreciation of the traditional importance given to politics.

It is the basic merit of this book that it calls our attention to the role of political institutions and American and British life. It is made plain here that much of the success of the British and American peoples has been made possible because they found or made institutions that not only suited them at the beginning, but continued to suit them — with necessary and sometimes very expensive adaptations. But a consequence of this process of continuous adaptation is that as each system of government has been modified by historical experience — and has affected the historical development of the country concerned — the political habits of the British and American peoples have diverged more and more.

For a nitpicky observation of the era’s characteristic gender bias, note that all the Senators and Representatives are depicted using the male-figure pictogram — a choice that would be particularly anachronistic today, in the year of binders full of political diversity:

As a lover of famous city grids, I was also delighted by these two maps of London and New York’s growth:

Complement these vintage gems with the story of ISOTYPE’s birth.

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