University classes are just about done but, just across the river, students in my pastel class are still in high-gear, clearly in no hurry to have this series of classes end. Here is a practice pastel worked up in the studio class after some sketches made not long ago. In the ever-expanding armory of art supplies, NuPastels have been joined now by Sennelier half-stick pastels in 120 colors. This is a messier medium than watercolor, for sure, and a whole lot more “forgiving.” It is just about as different as it could be, in fact. But, how do people go “urban sketching” –especially if traveling abroad–with such an array of tools–hard and soft pastels, paper of all kinds, etc? More “problems” to solve! 🙂
As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,” increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected. We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here. (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train: How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action” at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)
But, our classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch. This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or even the exact facts on the ground (simulating reality). The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes. Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially. Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester. We all learn something in the process.
We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.
Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.
Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!
But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished. Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented. (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)
It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes. Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.
How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions. Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles. But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt. It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary. Would we better off if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school? One wonders. Meanwhile, it’s no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire: sketch away!
At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like. With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future. (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)
We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy. Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.
None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero. He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas. (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.
Already in our class there is focus on the social, institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale? What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity? Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system? While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off? Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things? (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)
Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements. They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace. But who knows how to do this? And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions? It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators. But that may be too late for most people. The concepts involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.
In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (Random House, 2014). Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least. So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.
Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974, with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.” Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA). The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.” One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was: “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.” He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away. When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.
Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment. Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as: “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.” The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry. There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.” By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]” (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?) Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”
As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach. He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.” Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.
To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:
- “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
- Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
- “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
- “Originality is fragile.”
- “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
- “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
- “Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
- “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
- “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
- “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
- “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
- “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
- “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Dealing with “The Hidden” Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist. He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown. Catmull writes, for instance:
“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models? Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.” This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”
In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.” People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that. His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.
In Sum: It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience. It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.) Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them. Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.
Things have been quiet(er) on this blog as the new school semester gets underway, and snow and icy conditions have made our class schedule slip and slide a bit. But in that class, despite a delayed start, we are putting our best foot forward on some challenging subjects.
In addition, “feeding the beast” (more on that soon) tends to get in the way of efforts to sustain a creative environment (the promised look at obstacles to creativity is therefore still pending). On top of this, learning how to do portraits in watercolor (a very high bar to cross) is taking up considerable time and effort these days; getting those skin tones just right, and learning what to leave in and what to leave out is super difficult. But our teacher is inspiring, to say the least, and some colleagues in class are taking this course for the third time! I myself am in it for the second time. It makes sense, though, that capturing the reality of the human spirit with a few dabs of cadmium red and yellow (with some yellow ochre for good measure) and raw sienna, and perhaps some cerulean blue for the shadows, would not (and should not) be easy.
When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that? If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source? Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?
Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all… Is that what we must accelerate? Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ? There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.
With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014). Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future. How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon. Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation. Coming up next…
A recent two-day artists’ workshop in “wax-resist techniques” provided loads of food for thought not just about this artistic process but also about the importance of thinking ahead to what you are trying to achieve…and how to get there.
It is normal to fall back too readily on what we think we know and on what we expect to see, and this blocks our ability to learn new things and see things in new ways– which is so fundamental to art, innovation, business success, and progress. As Ed Catmull, the author of Creativity, Inc. (Random House, New York, 2014) writes, “the best managers make room for what they do not know… not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”
As a newcomer to the wax resist technique, however, I found myself falling back onto old habits and ways of thinking. Without a doubt, these were blocking my ability to internalize and apply these new approaches. The wax resist approach, like any other truly artistic approach, benefits from taking a great deal of time studying the subject first.
“This process insists that you have a goal or else you get into trouble,” warned the instructor. “The wax is not forgiving,” he said. “Everything you don’t plan” comes back to bite you.
The process involves repeated washes, first with plain water, and then ink washes, and a lot of intervals of drying the paper.
This activity needs a large workspace that is forgiving of water drips and ink splashes! The stipulated paper dimensions in this workshop were large too, so as to better capture details with the wax. This paper takes a beating, with multiple washes, and being hung to dry on a line after each wash (often after some time on the floor so that still wet ink wouldn’t run down the page.)
What is difficult to realize ahead of time is the repeated and gradual nature of the process of building up the darks and the clever use (not over-use as in the example here) of the wax. This is not about painting or “rendering”, but it takes a while for the novice wax resist-user to grasp this.
Now that class is out, there’s so much to practice. Fortunately, the necessary supplies are readily available–such as Gulf Wax which can generally be found in a grocery store. It’s the thought process that is more difficult to acquire. It takes time and guidance, persistence, and, for the best results as demonstrated by our instructor, clearly some enormous talent that few of us can assume.
This workshop was an extraordinary learning experience relevant to much more than art. It underscored the huge gaps in our thinking processes when it comes to learning how to re-perceive what is right in front of us. Such ability to reframe the obvious in new lights (and darks) is key to achieving anything artistic, let alone the sort of breakthrough innovations we increasingly acknowledge are needed for (nothing less than) the future of the planet. Strategic and design thinking come together in use of wax resist in this process, as well probably in other applications, such as watercolor painting.
For goals of still larger scale, such as enabling a global transition to a low-carbon economy, how to create environments that can accelerate our ability to grasp these ways of thinking will be the subject of future posts. The experienced artist who also is an effective teacher has a crucial role to play in the transition to the needed new thinking.
Today begins a new month, a new fiscal year even, and fall is in the air. Since every now and then, someone asks what I am reading, I have turned my attention to the question myself. Some books on innovation have been covered earlier on this blog, particularly here. But, why begin with innovation if we are not sure where, when or why, it matters? Context can be helpful.
Upcoming on this blog, therefore, will be a few brief overviews of some important, and possibly even provocative, books which provide fresh optics on historical contexts, and which were published in the last year. Some of these books review how we got to now and make suggestions for how to move forward.
The Shape of the New: Four Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot.
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein, who may be familiar to some for her investigation into “disaster capitalism.” This book is so sweeping “and of such consequence,” in the view of The New York Times, that it is “almost unreviewable.”
But, to lighten the load, some fun reading is also in order. I recommend:
A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, a book which also came out last year. It is based on the true story of an apartment the contents of which came to light in 2010, 70 years after its tenant had hurriedly left Paris.
In the apartment among antiques and other valuables, which had been untouched or unseen by anyone in all this time, was an original painting of a beautiful lady. Martha de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini. Boldini was a contemporary of Edgar Degas, whose life and works was discussed earlier on this blog, in mid- and late-19th century Parisian artistic circles.
The painting depicts Madame Marthe de Florian whose diaries also were in the apartment when it was opened in 2010.
The novel, A Paris Apartment, recreates this true story in a fictional modern context. The author has a fresh writing style which makes the most of her talents for creating realistic dialogue and alternating between periods of time separated by more than a century. Boldini himself–not to mention Madame de Florian–come alive here in a story that includes other better known figures of their time. All this…a true story…and a fictional story…because of one real-life dusty old apartment filled with stuff no one wanted for nearly a century.