A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.
By Maria Popova
It’s that time again, that very special day on which we turn back on the year whose end we celebrate tonight and take a look at the tastiest tidbits of interestingness that made our radar during the 4,500+ hours we poured into Brain Pickings in 2010. (And if you found any of them marginally interesting, stimulating or smile-inducing, please consider supporting us with a marginal donation — it’s what keeps the cogs a-turnin’ here.)
We kicked off the year with an uncovered gem: Steve Jobs on working with Paul Rand, the iconic designer perhaps as famous for his infamous temper as he was for his legendary work. We wanted to remember 100 places before they disappear.
Photographer Michael Benson took us on the real Space Odyssey with his magnificent images of the cosmos. MIT’s FaceSense read our minds through a webcam. Google Creative Lab director Ji Lee echoed our belief in the transformative power of personal projects. Alex Lundry showed us how our pre-wired visual bias allows data visualization to steer the public in politics. Michael Deal charted The Beatles.
Kirstin Butler took a close look at The Red Book, the fascinating illuminated-manuscript-meets-personal-journal by iconic Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, then curated 5 fantastic resources for the lifelong learner.
Photographer extraordinaire Andrew Zuckerman captured the wisdom of 50 of the greatest living luminaries over the age of 50. A wonderful art project invited us to live in the moment. Our triad-taxonomy of mythical beasts and modern monsters became our most-read viewed page this year.
In February, BBC’s The Century of the Self took us deep into the roots of consumerism and democracy. 88 Constellations delivered the biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in spellbinding interactive storytelling. Matthew Albanese’s miniature condiment landscapes blew us a way.
We looked at 6 ingenious creative derivatives of the London tube map plotting everything from personality types to the Milky Way as a subway system. We found 10 more must-attend cross-disciplinary conferences. We went to the mother of all conferences, TED, and came back with photos and soundbites. We curated six fantastic places to buy affordable art from emerging artists. (And later found five more.)
We explored creationism vs. evolution in a brilliant split-screen animation. We celebrated 5 blog-turned-book success stories, and later added another five. We applauded Kopernik, the new microfunding platform for world-changing design that improves lives in the developing world.
We peered past the Burton hype and saw some wonderful art inspired by Alice In Wonderland. In an original interview, legendary anthropologist Robin Dunbar distilled our psychosocial capacity for Facebook friends. We explored the history of the Rube Goldberg machine as a cinematic technique long before OK Go viral videos.
People loved our omnibus resource of 11 ways to micro-fund your creative project and our three alternatives to the traditional business card. In another uncovered gem from 1960, iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan explored his notion of “the global village.”
Photographer Zed Nelson explored the cross-cultural manufacturing of beauty in an arresting series and designers gave mundane notices ingenious makeovers. We explored the past, present and future of magazine publishing. Our omnibus of vintage posters for modern movies became one of our most-shared articles this year.
Artist Steve Powers wrote a graffiti love letter across 50 building facades over 20 blocks. A global art project constructed a hand-illustrated collaborative video for Johnny Cash’s final studio recording. We took some vintage lessons on design and government from the Works Progress Administration. We looked at some remarkable book sculptures.
Natalie Merchant came back from obscurity to blow us away with her musical adaptations of Victorian children’s poetry. We looked at distorted maps as a storytelling device. Two filmmakers set out to make one documentary per month, every month, for a year. The eerie and fascinating Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia was a big hit with readers.
In may, we celebrated our 500th anniversary with original artwork by the talented Len Kendall. Leonard Bernstein dissected the anatomy of music. The world’s leading data visualization masters pooled together in a stunning new anthology. Nina Katchadourian made wry comedy out of stacked books. In another uncovered gem from 1959, Ayn Rand gave Mike Wallace a piece of her mind on love and business.
We curated 5 iconic children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups. A fascinating documentary explored the state of remix culture and the history of copyright law. Designer Mico Toledo created beautiful typographic art out of famous song lyrics.
We looked at 7 experimental music projects of incredible ingenuity. Spam became art. Marcus Chown shared some insights on what everyday objects tell us about the universe. Designers set out to give every city in the world a (type)face.
Helen Fisher took a fascinating look at your brain on love and one filmmaker wrote an HD love letter to New York. The BBC explored the genius of design and we celebrated the unsung heroes of the information age. We looked at some fantastic vintage Russian animation and marveled at some incredible art made of office supplies.
We launched our very own curated art portal with work from emerging artists. The Museum of Moving Image gave us a fascinating video-essay about the manufacturing of fame and filmmaker Oliver Laric the tensions of sampling and borrowing media in an eye-opening visual essay about the appropriation of images.
An animated adaptation of Mark Twain’s The War Prayer gave us pause about the state of the world today, more than a century after Twain’s poignant reflection on war and morality. These 7 must-read books by TED speakers became one of our most read articles all year and MoMA’s Paola Antonelli echoed our own philosophy on design and innovation in her metaphor of the “curious octopus.”
We were swept away by a spellbinding original soundtrack for Andy Warhol’s little-known silent films and chuckled at some quirky art inspired by Law & Order one-line episode summaries. We loved Robin Moore’s string math portraits and unearthed 5 ½ gems “from” the iconic, delightfully dark German director Warner Herzog, on whose advice one man walked 5,000 kilometers from Madrid to Kiev. We took a journey around the world in 80 diets.
A poetic short film about art of being alone became our second most-shared article this year. We were excited for an upcoming documentary about happiness and rallied behind a delightful language conservation effort to save the world’s words. We curated 7 must-see episode of the iconic vintage gameshow What’s My Line, featuring luminaries like Salvador Dali, Walt Disney and Eleanor Roosevelt.
We explored post-consumerism with 7 ways to have more by owning less. 100 artists played a collaborative game inspired by 1920s ideology. We looked at what it means to be human from three cross-disciplinary perspectives. The Mona Lisa Curse traced historical tensions between in art and commerce. We bowed before what remarkable creatures bees are and curated 5 fantastic animations about capitalism.
We looked at how famous creators got their start and listened to a 100-year old tree tweet. We agreed that everything is a remix, a reflection of our philosophy of combinatorial creativity. IDEO reimagined the future of books and, later, the music player. Two icons converged in a lovely new collaboration between Maira Kalman and Lemony Snicket.
Steven Johnson explored where good ideas come from and we looked at the Arctic through the eyes of the Vikings. We celebrated the opening up of the iconic Paris Review archives with 10 priceless quotes from cultural luminaries. The BBC pitted God against science and one designer mapped European stereotypes, which became our most-shared article of all time.
We found 5 quirky and wonderful cross-disciplinary cookbooks and explored journalism in the age of data with a fantastic free documentary from Stanford. We couldn’t resist the autobiography and sex life of Andy Warhol. Our list of 7 image search tools that will change your life went viral on Twitter.
We wanted these literary action figures and were thrilled to watch the aurora borealis from home. We celebrated the launch of a new data visualization portal and the return of 30 Conversations on Design. We peered into the audio archives of the Kelly Writers House, full of rare talks by iconic authors and listened to some conversations with iconic art director George Lois, charmingly profane and curmudgeonly as ever.
We explored 5 perspectives on procrastination and swooned over a limited-edition of Moleskine celebrating 30 years of Pac-Man. We tried to understand the scale of the universe, then tried to put it in our pocket. 50 people answered one question. We were thrilled to see Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic Powers of Ten adapted in a flipbook and agreed that all creative work is derivative.
We looked at the history of uncommissioned street art and listened to abstract artists try to explain what they do to their parents, to a delightfully amusing effect. We were sad to lose the great Benoît Mandelbrot, father of fractals, and celebrated his contribution to the world. Marian Bantjes’ I Wonder became our favorite typography project of all time.
We helped our friends at Acumen Fund search for the obvious and bowed before TED as they, in a highly usual move, awarded street artist JR the annual $100,000 TEDPrize. Sir Ken Robinson talked, compellingly, about changing education paradigms.
Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson
We dove into cultural nostalgia with 7 poetic short documentaries about dying occupations and applauded a wonderful project helping children heal through contemporary art. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts became readers’ favorite book this year.
We explored the secret stories of words and listened to a composer reimagine Beethoven as jazz. We were blown away by this interactive version of Don Quixote from the Spanish National Library. We looked at some fascinating portraits of the mind from antiquity to modernity and were stunned by Cedric Pollet’s intimate portraits of the world’s trees.
We explored the psychology of choice from five perspectives and rushed to grab Bill Moggridge’s ambitious new book on media innovation, featuring interviews with some some of today’s most celebrated media thought leaders.
Brené Brown’s talk on wholeheartedness was the best TED talk we watched all year. We discovered The Cassiopeia Project, a fantastic free resource for science education online. BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes was an instant hit. Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything was one of readers’ favorite books this year.
We looked at some incredible edible landscapes and marveled at Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, positively the year’s most ambitioius publishing project. Roger Sterling’s fictional Mad Men memoir was, in our book, the year’s most ingenious example of transmedia storytelling. Arts & Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton offered a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty mere months before he passed away.
The alphabet became art. We were fascinated to learn that Facebook has nothing on Voltaire as we watched Stanford scientists visualize Enlightenment-era social networks. The past once again one-upped our present bias in a photographic history of bromance.
Composer Alexandra Pajak made music from the HIV virus and iconic designer Paula Scher eloquently captured our own belief in creativity as a combinatorial force. We were enthralled by Coralie Bickford-Smith’s covers of literary classics. We looked at changing views of the family as a social unit and celebrated the great Mohammad Ali.
We launched a shoppe full of curated design goodies, quirky gifts and favorite books and applauded a new platform allowing causes and nonprofits to crowdfund media space via microdonations from supporters. We immediately loved All Facts Considered from NPR’s charmingly librarianly librarian and bowed before this Englishman who posted himself.
We were thrilled for the launch of HeyKiki, a new platform for crowd-accelerated learning and revisited the do’s and don’ts of photography, which really apply to any creative discipline. We watched our favorite statistical stuntsman synthesize 200 years that changed the world in one minute, using augmented reality and celebrated the first 40 years of NPR.
We visited the MIT Museum and came back with pearls of wisdom on the 5,000 steps to success from Polaroid inventor Edwin Land. We upped our snark game and were spellbound by the year’s most beautiful animation.
We learned how music works and explored 3 ways to visualize Infinite Jest. Actor Rainn Wilson stepped outside his Dwight character to surprise us with some keen insight on overcoming creative blocks. We took an unusual tour of New York City with author Ayun Halliday.
This month, we curated the best albums of 2010, our favorite books in Business, Life & Mind and Art, Design & Photography, the year’s loveliest children’s literature, and the smartest apps that launched in 2010.
We were thrilled that James Burke’s iconic Connections series, a BBC history of innovation, was released online for free. We celebrated Christmas with a fascinating documentary about the history of the holiday and a heart-warming story of humanity amidst war from 1914. We commemorated the 6th anniversary of our favorite author’s death with a trifecta remembrance and took a delightfully dark, beautifully illustrated look at Armageddon.
We had a fantastic year thanks to your readership and support — a big THANK YOU for that and here’s to an even more inspired, stimulating, curiosity-filled 2011.
Now, just for kicks, why not enter our cultural time machine and revisit the best of Brain Pickings 2009?