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01 AUGUST, 2011

Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

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Why creativity is like LEGO, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Susan Sontag and Gandhi.

In May, I had the pleasure of speaking at the wonderful Creative Mornings free lecture series masterminded by my studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame. I spoke about Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, something at the heart of Brain Pickings and of increasing importance as we face our present information reality. The talk is now available online — full (approximate) transcript below, enhanced with images and links to all materials referenced in the talk.

TRANSCRIPT

These are pages from the most famous florilegium, completed by Thomas of Ireland in the 14th century. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.

In talking about these medieval manuscripts, Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker:

Our minds were altered less by books than by index slips.”

Which is interesting, recognizing not only the absolute vale of content but also its relational value, the value not just of information itself but also of information architecture, not just of content but also of content curation.

You may have heard this anecdote. Picasso is sitting in the park, sketching. A woman walks by, recognizes him, runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. He’s in a good mood, so he agrees and starts sketching. A few minutes later, he hands her the portrait. The lady is ecstatic, she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful, beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “$5,000, madam,” says Picasso. The lady is taken aback, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

Here’s the same sentiment from iconic designer Paula Scher on the creation of the famous Citi logo:

(You’ll see, by the way, a number of QR codes – these link to the content being mentioned, so you can read the full article or watch the full interview later.)

Both of these stories captures something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.

This is what I want to talk about today, networked knowledge, like dot-connecting of the florilegium, and combinatorial creativity, which is the essence of what Picasso and Paula Scher describe. The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.

Kind of LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.

Einstein famously attributed some of his greatest physics breakthroughs to his violin breaks, which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways.

And iconic novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a secret lepidopterist — he collected and studied butterflies religiously. And he believed this scholarly obsession is what helped him develop his deep passion for detail and precision, which is what made his writing so crisp and vivid.

This concept of combinatorial creativity and the cross-pollination of disciplines, of course, isn’t new. In the past century alone, it’s been iterated and reiterated, over and over and over again, in just about every cultural discipline.

In 1952, iconic designer Alvin Lustig wrote in an essay:

I have found that all positions men take in their beliefs are profoundly influenced by thousands of small, often imperceptible experiences that slowly accumulate to form a sum total of choices and decisions.”

In 1964, neuropsychologist Roger Sperry drew an analogy between neurons and ideas:


Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains.”

In 1970, French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual place analogous to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate much like organisms do in the natural world.

Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content.” ~ Jacques Monod

Monod said ideas have “spreading power” and propagate “infectivity” — we see this today with the language of “viral” ideas.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, in his iconic book The Selfish Gene, which by the way I highly recommend, coined the word “meme” for a similar concept:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

And I like this last part. Because it makes me think about the cliche we’ve all heard a million times, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But in the context of this domino effect of ideas, it seems imitation might well be the sincerest form of ideation.

In 2010 Steven Johnson writes in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From:

The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

I like to think of it this way: We take information, from it synthesize insight, which in turn germinates ideas.

And then we take these ideas, ours and those of others, we toss them into our mental reservoir…

…where they sit and sort of just float around until one day they float into just the right alignment to click into a new idea.

Now, implicit to this idea of combinatorial creativity is the admission is that nothing is truly original, at least not in the sense of being built from scratch, and that can be hard. There’s a lot of resistance in the creative ego to that idea. But there is plenty of evidence for this ecosystem of influences and inspirations.

In art, Nina Paley photographed archaeological artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and animated them to illustrate her point: All creativity builds upon something that existed before and every work of art is essentially a derivative work.

In animation — in his visual essay entitled Versions, Oliver Laric explores the reappropriation of images by looking at how Disney recycles animation.

In design — there’s a Flickr set called Similarities that exposes examples of graphic design that borrows heavily from older work.

Just recently, this brilliant Joy of Cycling poster for the Transport of London made the rounds. It’s based, of course, on illustrations from Alex Comfort’s iconic 1972 manual, The Joy of Sex.

And of course, the mother of all remix culture studies, Kirby Ferguson’s excellent 4 part series, Everything Is A Remix, in which he explores influences across just about every genre and art medium. Here’s a short excerpt from Part 2, that drives the point home with one of the world’s most celebrated examples of creativity in entertainment.

There’s so much buzz and excitement about the open-source movement today, and many of these principles are hailed as revolutionary, as a sign of the times. But at their core lies something ancient. I believe creativity itself is the original open-source code.

So what enables this derivative creativity and cross-pollination of ideas is a rich pool of mental resources to derive from. And I believe the two main mechanisms of how we fill that pool are curiosity…and choice. Curiosity is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Just look at little kids – this hunger to know the world is deep in our species’ DNA.

Jim Coudal, one of my big creative and curatorial heroes, once said:

Our number one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. It’s that we’re essentially curious.”

But curiosity without direction can be a taxing and ultimately unproductive endeavor. Choice is how we tame and channel and direct our curiosity, where we choose to allocate our time and energy, and ultimately, what we choose to pay attention to.

Harvard’s Clay Christensen writes:

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”

Here’s Susan Sontag, one of my absolute favorite authors and minds:

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

Much of Buddhist philosophy centers around this same idea, this balance between what’s being phrased as “intention” and “attention” – our intentional curiosity about knowledge and growth, and our choice of where to focus our awareness, what to pay attention to.

So that, I think, is the role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas, who lead us to things we didn’t know we were interested in until we, well, until we are. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them, and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources, and they become a part of our networked knowledge and another LEGO piece in our combinatorial creativity.

So if information discovery plays such a central role in how we fuel our creativity and thus in our creative output, then information discovery is a form of creative labor in and of itself. And yet our current code of ethics for respecting and crediting this kind of labor is completely inadequate. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative products across text, image, video, and different media, from image rights to literary citations. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. And yet, in a culture of exponentially increasing overload, it’s through these nodes in the information ecosystem, these human sensemakers, human synapses if you will, that this very text or image or video finds its way into our mental pool of resources.

So when we choose to take that recognition away, to not acknowledge content curation or information discovery or whatever we call this, we’re essentially robbing someone of their creative labor, and perpetrating another form of piracy. Whether we call it link love or the via crediting, giving credit online is incredibly simple, it’s much easier than doing a proper literary citation or clearing image rights, and yet there’s precious little of it online. And for publishers and curators, it’s not about “getting traffic” or “monetization” or any of those dreadful SEO terms. It’s about something much more deeply human, the same thing that I believe underpins every human aspiration and action, and it’s as true of suicide bombers as it is of the greatest artists and poets: And that is the desire to matter in the world, to be seen, to know that our existence makes a difference, that our creative and intellectual labor is of value to the world.

It’s quite telling, I think, that the amount of work that went into florilegia in the Middle Ages made them the most lavish and expensive books to produce at the time. And I have to wonder, when did we lose this sort of creative meritocracy in how we treat dot-connecting content curation and today’s culture? When did we stop valuing the enormous amount of effort and time and thought that goes into culling and connecting ideas that shape humanity’s creative and intellectual direction?

Here’s Kevin Kelly, futurist and Wired founder and brilliant, brilliant man, pondering the future of the book:

Over the next century, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea, stands alone, but that all good, true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.”

So it’s my hope that we’ll find a way to respect these human synapses of networked knowledge and enablers of combinatorial creativity, and to codify that respect, and indoctrinate it and integrate it with our cultural framework, with how we think about creativity and intellectual property and human labor.

We live at a time when we have a rare opportunity to make up the rules, because they haven’t been invented yet. To set the standards and the norms and the honorable way of doing things. And this, I believe, is our responsibility as publishers and curators and consumers of information. Again, it comes down to choice: The normative models we choose today will shape how much our culture will value this form of creative labor tomorrow.

I love these words from Gandhi:

Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny.”

How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world. And, in my mind, there’s nothing more important than that.

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01 AUGUST, 2011

10 Essential Books on Typography

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What Arab culture has to do with industrial ideals, midcentury design and Victorian hand-lettering.

Whether you’re a professional designer, recreational type-nerd, or casual lover of the fine letterform, typography is one of design’s most delightful frontiers, an odd medley of timeless traditions and timely evolution in the face of technological progress. Today, we turn to 10 essential books on typography, ranging from the practical to the philosophical to the plain pretty.

TYPOGRAPHIE (1967)

In 1967, iconic typography pioneer Emil Ruder penned Typographie: A Manual of Design — a bold deviation from the conventions of his discipline and a visionary guide to the rules of his new typography. From texture to weight to color to legibility spacing and leading, the 19 chapters gloriously illustrated in black-and-white with some in red, yellow and blue explore insights from the author’s studies and experiments. More than half a century later, the book, now in its sixth edition, remains a timeless bastion of typographic innovation across generations and eras.

Images via Display

CULTURAL CONNECTIVES (2011)

In an age when we frequently encounter the Middle East in the course of our daily media diets, our true knowledge of the region remains impoverished amidst these often limited, one-note and reductionist portrayals. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives tries to remedy this with a cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture. Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran

Our full review, with more images, here.

THE ELEMENTS OF TYPOGRAPHIC STYLE (1992)

In 1992, Canadian typographer, poet and translator Robert Bringhurst set out to create “the Typographer’s Bible.” And he did — two decades later, his The Elements of Typographic Style prevails as the most ambitious history of and guide to typography. TypeFoundry‘s Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones have called it “the finest book ever written about typography.” Covering everything from rhythm and proportion to harmony and counterpoint to analphabetic symbols, the tome remains a brilliant convergence of the practical, theoretical and historical. Sprinkled across the pragmatic guides are compelling, almost philosophical insights about the role of typography in communication, visual culture and society, making the volume as much a handbook as it is a meditation.

THINKING WITH TYPE (2007)

The use of typography in visual communication is evolving rapidly, and often radically, as we shift from print culture to screen culture, and at the same time certain foundations of typographic creativity and visual eloquence remain fundamental. That’s exactly what Ellen Lupton explores in the 2010 revised and expanded edition of the now-classic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, originally published in 2007 by Princeton Architectural Press. From the latest style sheets for print and the web to the essentials on mixing typefaces and hand lettering, the book is a visually-driven blueprint to typographic style and originality by way of knowing the rules in order to break them creatively.

The book’s excellent companion site features a wealth of materials and resources for designers, students and educators alike.

I WONDER (2010)

Marian Bantjes, whose magnificent map of human knowledge you might recall, is no ordinary creator. Trained as a graphic designer, with a decade-long career as a typesetter under her belt and a penchant for the intricate beauty of letterform illustrations, she calls herself a “graphic artist” and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister has called her “one of the most innovative typographers working today” — with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that P. Diddy recently felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off.) I Wonder capture Bantjes’ exceptional talent for visual delight and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in a breathtaking yet organic way.

I exist somewhat outside of the mainstream of design thinking. Where others might look at measurable results, I tend to be interested in more ethereal qualities like does it bring joy? is there a sense of wonder? and does it invoke curiosity?”

I’m using my own writings as a kind of testing ground for a book that has an interdependency between word and image as a kind of seductive force. I think that one of the things that religions got right was the use of visual wonder to deliver a message. I think this true marriage of art and information is woefully underused in adult literature. And I’m mystified as to why visual wealth is not more commonly used to enhance intellectual wealth.”

Our full review, complete with Bantjes’ excellent TED talk, here.

JUST MY TYPE (2011)

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield, published in the UK in 2010 and dropping the U.S. on September 1 this year, is a genre-bender of a typography book — part history textbook, part design manual, part subtle stand-up comedy routine. From the font that helped pave Obama’s way into the White House to the “T” of the Beatles logo, Garfield dances across 560 years of typographic history, sprinkled with fascinating anecdotes and vignettes, to infect you with his own inability to walk past a sign without identifying the typeface and some curious factoid about it. Funny and fascinating, irreverent and playful yet endlessly illuminating, the book is an absolute treat for the type-nerd, design history geek and general lover of intelligent writing with humor.

Did I love this book? My daughter’s middle name is Bodoni. Enough said.” ~ Maira Kalman

AN ESSAY ON TYPOGRAPHY (1931)

When Eric Gill wrote An Essay on Typography in 1931, he probably didn’t anticipate it would live on to become not only the most influential manifesto on typography’s cultural place ever written, but also a timeless reflection of art and man in industrial society. He later described his chief objective to “describe two worlds that of industrialism and that of the human workman & to define their limits.” Gill himself was a Renaissance man — a sculptor, engraver, illustrator, and essayist — known for his successful Gills Sans and Perpetua typefaces, and he designed the typeface Joanna to hand-set the book. He was also a creature of dichotomies — a deeply religious man who produced a number of erotic engravings.

While the book has been out of print and fairly hard to find for a number of years, you can get your hands on a used copy with some sifting around the web or your local (design-savvy) bookstore.

Letters are things, not pictures of things.” ~ Eric Gill

SCRIPTS (2011)

From iconic design writer Steven Heller (previously: I II III) and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships and acclaimed designer Louise Fili comes Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age — a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century. Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.

Our full review here.

TYPE (2009)

Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, Vol. 1, from lavish-book-purveyor Taschen, explores the most beautiful and remarkable examples of font catalogs from the history of publishing, with a sharp focus on the golden age of color catalogs, the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Culled from a Dutch collection, the book’s magnificent and vibrant type specimens — roman, italic, bold, semi-bold, narrow, and broad — are complemented with a thoughtful look at ornaments, borders and other type-adornments. Victorian fonts, with all their richness and complexity, are a central fixation. The book comes with exclusive access to Taschen’s online image library, featuring over 1000 high-resolution scans of type specimens downloadable for unrestricted use.

THE 3D TYPE BOOK (2011)

From London-based design studio FL@33 comes The 3D Type Book, dubbed “the most comprehensive showcase of three-dimensional letterforms ever written.” With more than 1,300 images by over 160 emerging artists and iconic designers alike, it spans an incredible spectrum of eras, styles and mediums. From icons like Milton Glaser and Alvin Lustig to contemporary Brain Pickings favorites like Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Ji Lee, Stefan G. Bucher and Marion Bataille, it’s a treasure trove of typographic treasures.

From toothpaste typography to sperm alphabet to typonoodles, the book’s typographic specimens both make us see with new eyes the seemingly mundane building blocks of language and reconsider ordinary objects, materials and media as extraordinary conduits of self-expression.

Our full review, complete with an a video preview and more images, here.

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01 AUGUST, 2011

Circles of Influence: Visualizing Creative Debt Throughout History

By:

What 48 hours of sleeplessness have to do with Kafka’s influence on Lemony Snicket.

UPDATE: The flowchart is now up on Etsy as an 11×14 high-quality digital print on matte paper, with over 50% of proceeds going to support Longshot! (Behold the first-ever exclamation point in Brain Pickings’ six-year history, that’s how excited I am.)

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of partaking in Longshot Magazine, a brilliant grassroots collaborative project enlisting some of the country’s top publishing talent — writers, editors, art directors, designers, photographers, radio producers — and unreasonable amounts of coffee to put together — write, edit, lay out, publish and distribute — a full-fledged magazine in 48 hours. Those of us who have worked in the traditional magazine industry, with its two-month publishing cycles and massive budgets, instantly get the utter insanity and audaciousness of what’s indeed a long shot of the most daring kind. (Not in the least alleviated by the fact that, besides the print magazine, we also have a beautiful website and a radio station with behind-the-scences stories and featurettes, produced by the crew at WNYC’s Radiolab.)

This issue’s theme was Debt and, in the spirit of combinatorial creativity, I collaborated with Michelle Legro of the wonderful Laphams Quarterly and illustrator-extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton on Circles of Influence — a visualization of literary, scientific and artistic influences. It’s designed to illustrate the enormous creative indebtedness that permeates humanity’s proudest intellectual output, while also demonstrating the cross-pollination of disciplines across science, art, literature, film and music. While some of the connections might be more obvious (Shakespeare to Victor Hugo? But of course!), others (Marie Curie to J. J. Abrams?) may require some thinking, some Googling, and some general neuron-flexing — and that’s the point, to challenge you to examine how these creators might have influenced each other, tickling your curiosity with the urge to look something up, learn something new, and end up more attuned to creative cross-pollination as an agent of intellectual progress. (And, of course, a timely wink at Google Circles.)

For more on the thought and creative process behind Circles of Influence, catch Michelle, Wendy and myself talking about it in this Longshot Radio interview.

Longshot is the brainchild of my dear friend and freelance rockstar-writer Sarah Rich, Mat Honan, senior editor at Gizmodo and former Wired staffer, and Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, also a Wired alum.

Longshot, like Brain Pickings, relies on the pay-what-you-will model, so be sure to chip in if you find any delight and illumination in the 42 wonderful stories and, better yet, grab an actual print puppy for just $12.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.