Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

14 AUGUST, 2013

How Einstein Thought: Why “Combinatory Play” Is the Secret of Genius

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“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own” “original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call “intuition” is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.

The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it “combinatory play.” (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.) From his Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the same invaluable volume that gave us the beloved physicist’s timeless wisdom on kindness and our shared existence — comes Einstein’s single most succinct articulation of how his mind works, driven by this powerful combinatorial creativity. The 1945 letter was written in response to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard’s survey of the mental processes of famous scientists, inspired by polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous meditation on the subject and published as An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, with Einstein’s missive included as a “testimonial”:

My Dear Colleague:

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

Ideas and Opinions is superb from cover to cover, the kind of book you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning with each reading. Complement it with this vintage technique for producing ideas and Einstein on the secret of learning anything.

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25 JUNE, 2013

Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop, on Human-Centered Design

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“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed.”

Legendary British industrial designer and educator Bill Moggridge (June 25, 1943–September 8, 2012) championed interaction design, co-founded IDEO, served as Director the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and designed the very first laptop. In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) — the same compendium of fascinating interviews on life in a material world with such celebrated thinkers as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally OlinsDebbie Millman sat down with Moggridge in 2010 to peel the curtain on the extraordinary mind that heralded the modern movement of human-centered design and brought into focus the relationship between people and objects.

Of his fascination with what people want from everyday things, Moggridge says:

If there is a simple, easy principle that binds together everything I’ve done, it’s my interest in people and their relationship to things. … I’m interested in why people like things, and what gives them a feeling of long-term reward, what gives them pleasure, and what excites them. Ultimately, my interest centers on the effect that design has on someone.

Brands, Moggridge argues, are the vehicle for precisely those relationships:

DM: Why do you think people like certain brands or certain things? What is the primary reason someone will choose one thing over another?

BM: I think you build a relationship with something that you know and use. At the moment you buy it, you may not be quite certain about it. But as you get to know it better, if your relationship gets better, then you enjoy it more. You may not notice the change, but after a time, a sort of satisfactory relationship between you and that thing emerges. That is the foundation for a brand relationship.

More than a mere relationship, however, Moggridge sees the brand as a sensemaking and navigation tool that eases our cognitive load amidst the paradox of choice that is modern life:

DM: I recently read that the average supermarket has about thirty-five thousand different products in it, and that— believe it or not— there are over one hundred brands of nationally advertised water.

BM: When you do a Google search, it’s very tempting to go for the “I’m feeling lucky” option, so you get the single page that comes up. Similarly, the brand is the thing that allows you to recognize that particular kind of water that you had before, and that you probably don’t mind having again.

So it simplifies your relationship to this confusing morass of possibilities. And although I wish that water wasn’t bottled, the fact that there’s a choice of brand helps us get through that confusion.

Turning to the heart of his philosophy, Moggridge defines what he means by “human-centered design”:

If you think of innovation as being depicted by a Venn diagram, human- centered design is the overlap between technology, business, and people. If you look at people who are going to business schools, they tend to start with a business proposition, but in order to innovate successfully, they have to find the right technology and the right customers. If you look at people in science and technology, they tend to start with a new technology, which is true of many Silicon Valley companies. Then they go to a venture capitalist and try to get some money, and they think about what kind of customer is right for the product. We were interested in the “people first” point of view.

In fact, one of the greatest affronts to the social value of design is the solipsism with which many of its practitioners approach it, placing ego over empathy:

[A]s designers and engineers in general, we’re guilty of designing for ourselves too often. One of the things that we have to be careful to remember is the very simple principle that not everybody is like us. For example, if you’re designing something like a chair, you’re not going to design the height of the seat only for the average person, are you? You’re going to design it for an adjustment, so that it can accommodate the smallest person that might sit in it, or the tallest, as well as the heaviest person and the lightest person. So, we’re always looking at a range that accommodates extremes, and for that reason, looking at the extremes is usually very useful.

One of Moggridge’s most timeless and timely insights has to do with that peculiar way in which new technology can flounder, only to flourish once reintroduced at a later time — proof that “successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.” He observes:

This is often the case with new technologies. They seem as if they’re about to work, and somebody creates an experimental version that looks great. But then nothing happens. And then the right time comes along, and the right set of attributes come together, and suddenly the new technology flourishes.

Among Moggridge’s greatest accomplishments, however, is his remarkable legacy as an educator and the persistence with which he invited the general public to understand the profound value of design as a cross-pollinator of art, science, and everyday life. He tells Millman:

The important characteristic of design is that it creates a bridge between the sciences and the arts. People understand the necessity of education for the sciences, and there is a renewed movement to bring that back into education. They understand something about the arts. But I don’t think many people understand the power of design to join these two things together. Why do you think that there is such a barrier to the public’s understanding of design? I don’t think that anyone has really told them what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now.

[…]
… So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control too. That’s a nice ambition.

At the crux of interaction design, which Moggridge helped pioneer, lies a deep understanding how necessary cross-disciplinary collaboration is to innovation and creative progress. Moggridge reflects on the crucial role of leadership in fostering that:

I’d like everyone to have the mind-set that whenever you have a challenging, seemingly intractable problem, then you need to solve that problem with an interdisciplinary team. No individual can succeed alone. In order to help business leaders succeed, we need to put together those interdisciplinary teams, and they need to use design processes. We can help explain that and help make leadership aware of it.

Referencing Moggridge’s oft-cited assertion from his groundbreaking Design Interactions“What makes humans special first and foremost is that we can model the world, and we can predict the future. Then we can imagine the future.” — Millman inquires about his own vision for the future, to which he responds with a beautiful model for design’s concentric circles of cultural relevance:

I think the context of design is changing and expanding. And you can think of that in three concentric circles.

Think of the inside circle as the individual. The second circle is the built environment, and the one around that is the overall, holistic environment. Each concentric circle is changing and moving in a design context that is itself expanding.

In the past, we thought about designing things for the circle at the center. So your PDA, for example, is something that you use as an individual.

The slightly more expansive context is to think about the health and well-being of the individual, rather than the specific things the individual uses. This more comprehensive view requires broader thinking about people. Rather than thinking about the things in isolation, we’re thinking about the whole person.

Similarly, when you think about the built environment, we historically have thought about architecture. But as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions and innovations as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing the other — it’s that the context is simply expanding. Now we’re thinking about social connections as well as the built environment we’re living in.

And then when we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past, we thought of sustainability as being about materials: choosing the best material and designing for disassembly. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s completely connected.

Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is of planetary concern. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include a consideration of the entire planet. And that, again, is an expansion of context.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, the follow-up to the equally fantastic 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, is indispensable in its entirety. Pair it with Moggridge on design, knowledge, and human intelligence and his fantastic final book, Designing Media.

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23 MAY, 2013

Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Dot-Connecting Is The Key to Creativity

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“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in the fantastic 1957 tome The Art of Scientific Investigation. “The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection,” legendary graphic designer Paul Rand seconded. Indeed, longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our “original” creations. Paula Scher has likened the process to a slot machine; Dorion Sagan has asserted that science is about connections; Gutenberg has embodied it. And some of history’s most celebrated creators have attested to it with the nature of their genius.

A slim and near-forgotten but altogether fantastic 1991 book by Denise Shekerjian titled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library) synthesizes insights on creativity from conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant — artists, writers, scientists, inventors, cultural critics.

In the first chapter, titled “Talent and The Long Haul,” Shekerjian seconds the notion that a regular routine is key to creativity:

There’s no use trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment. … The cultivation of aptitude, far more than coincidence or inspiration, is responsible for most creative breakthroughs.

[…]

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. Everyone has an aptitude for something. The trick is to recognize it, to honor it, to work with it. This is where creativity starts.

Among the geniuses illustrating her point is the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom we lost eleven years ago this week and who has done more for the popular understanding of science than anyone since Carl Sagan by demonstrating why science and philosophy need each other with his singular blend of a humanist’s sensitivity and a scientist’s rigor. But Gould’s greatest gift, per his own account, is what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which lies at the heart of innovation, the kind of pattern-recognition science says fuels creativity and is the architecture sustaining all “original thought.” Gould tells Shekerjian:

My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers. When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.

But this gift — the same crucial talent-of-the-future that Vannevar Bush identified in 1945 when he presaged “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” — wasn’t, perhaps because of its abstract and thus intangible nature, easy for Gould to identify at first:

It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.

Gould notices another aspect of his poorly understood kind of genius — people’s tendency to conflate it with a kind of general-purpose, omniscient intelligence:

A lot of people think I’m very well read because I quote all these sources and they’re reasonable quotations. They’re not hokey. They’re not pulled out. And I keep telling them, ‘I’m not particularly well read. I just don’t forget anything.’

I’m not badly read — I’m just sort of an average intellectual in that respect — but the thing is, I can use everything I’ve ever read. Most people cannot do that. They’ll probably access just a couple of percent of what they have. So, therefore, when they see me citing so much they assume I have fifty times more but I don’t. I’m using a hundred percent of what I have. They’re using two percent of what they have.

With a sentiment Steve Jobs would come to echo just a few years later in his famous proclamation that “creativity is just connecting things,” Shekerjian summarizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

But she concludes by emphasizing something celebrated creative minds like Alexander Graham Bell (“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”) and Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”) also knew — the idea that genius is nothing without consistent effort:

Stephen Jay Gould’s talent for forging vital connections happens to go to the heart of creativity, but, even so, it’s a talent that wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t work at it. Endurance counts for a lot in cultivating talent to the point of being able to do creative things with it — endurance and a concentration of effort to a specific sphere of activity. As D. N. Perkins, another researcher in the field of creativity, put it: Be creative in a context, for to try to be original everywhere, all at once, all the time, is an exhausting proposition.

For more of Gould’s genius, see the indispensable I Have Landed — the tenth and final of his timeless essay anthologies, originally published in 2002 mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer. As for Uncommon Genius, it is uncommonly excellent in its entirety.

Thanks, Ken

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