The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Japan’s Educational Reforms – Paving the Way for Better Problem Solvers

In 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister made education his nation’s top agenda.


Innovation – is the transformation of knowledge and ideas into commercially successful products. Innovation has been the key factor behind the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. We talk of the knowledge society and knowledge worker as a result.

The problem is solved only temporarily - the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The problem is solved only temporarily – the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The driver behind transforming ideas into products is creativity and the process is one of solving a problem – in this case it is one of innovation.

Getting back to Japan. The country has a long history of importing ideas from the rest of the world. It has been good at adapting and transforming ideas – it was essentially an incremental innovator.

Japan improved and tweaked products and processes that had been developed by other countries. This took place in closed networks of organisations, where promotion was seniority-based. There was lifetime employment, internal research and the norm was to have in-house training. The system worked for awhile, however, like any relatively closed system, it cannot adapt to change. The destiny, as Prigogine would say, is for the organization to fail.

After the 90s, Japan started to invest seriously in research and innovation. It spent 3.2% of GDP on R&D. Japan knew that it needed to shift from catching up with the rest of the world towards developing its own fundamental product innovation through creativity. Despite this goal, its leading organisations like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are struggling.

There are some fundamentals at play here. Japanese culture is conservative. Its educational system has been one of rote learning; its researchers are not the best in the world. The companies remain bureaucratic and hierarchical and lack the dynamism and agility that is required for innovation to flourish.

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

The Japanese Prime Minister identified that the schooling system had to shift from rote learning (maintenance of the status quo) to one where the emphasis was on learning to solve problems. This is a very important and fundamental shift. It recognizes that a healthy reality is an open, dynamic and complex system. The map to guide any enterprise into the future is not cast in stone. It emerges and gets addressed constantly where the attitude is one of solving problems creatively. Knowledge is temporary – projects are the new organizational structure – they are temporary knowledge organisations. This term was coined by me (Rui Martins) and Kim Sbarcea in 2003.

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Humans are Highly Rational – Really?

Last week, I proposed that it is fallacious to believe that we can manage change by design and control, coupled with the belief that humans are perfectly rational at all times.

To shed some light on just how rational we humans are, I will look at what Daniel Kahneman has to say on the topic.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. I am reading his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011). It is a visual feast – I could not agree more with Kahneman’s thesis.

Firstly, the prevailing economic assumption is that all our thinking on decision making and planning is based on the following assumption: …agents are motivated by pure self interest, are capable of making rational economic decisions even in very complex situations.


There are a few problems with the above statement. Perfect knowledge does not and will never exist, nor will any individual have access to all knowledge. This means that all economic activity implies risk – we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and limited information, particularly relating to the future.

Secondly, humans are individuals. We do not all like the same things; we are culturally different and so on. Utility function is not a constant but a variable. The other major problem with the statement is that it ignores the reality that humans have inner conflicts. We struggle between short-term and long-term goals (e.g., eating chocolate cake and losing weight) or between individual goals and societal values. Such conflicts may lead to “irrational” behaviour involving inconsistency, psychological paralysis, neurosis and psychic pain. Further irrational human behavior can occur as a result of habit, laziness, mimicry and simple obedience.

Kahneman’s central message is very important – human reason, if left to its own devices, is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors. Rational behavior in decision making and planning is a ridiculous premise to build any theory on. Yet, many theories and models are anchored in this fallacy.

Let me give you a very simple example – it is called the law of small numbers – people seem to be very comfortable to draw very important conclusions from little evidence. We are really talking about rules of thumb also known as heuristics. The issue stems from the fact that people are not comfortable with uncertainty, coupled with the fact that as humans we are constantly seeking patterns. We have a tendency (referred to as system one thinking – also known as spontaneous non-reflective thinking) to draw conclusions and have a bias for small non represented numbers.

A good example of this is the ‘Mozart effect’. A study proposed that playing classical music to babies and young children might make them smarter. This study triggered a massive industry of books, CD and videos overnight.

The study by psychologist Frances Rauscher was based upon observations of just 36 college students. However, the test was only conducted once where students who had listened to Mozart “seemed” to show a significant improvement in their performance in an IQ test. Before long, the media got wind of this and people were convinced that listening to Mozart made them smarter. However, in 2007 a serious and rigorous extensive study was conducted by the Ministry of Education and Research in Germany, they concluded that the phenomenon was “nonexistent”.


If we think of this, we seem to do this all the time. We are prone to generalizations and biases. The amazing fact is that we actually believe this stuff and act on it. The risk is huge, particularly if we are going to build a discipline like change management around very fragile theory and assumptions.

We have the capacity to be rational – it is referred to as system 2 thinking, but the problem is that it is slow. We of the human species like fast thinking. We like decisive people, people who think on their feet. We see that as being ‘smart’. Yet, Kahneman proves that is not correct. It is a very important discovery that Kahneman bring to us – if we want to make better decisions in our society and personal lives, we must become aware of the biases built in to us. I seriously recommend this book, we will start to select better leaders and make better decisions.

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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 2

How do we make sense of beauty in our tech age?

It is unavoidable but, in order to explore this concept, we need to set the context by having some understanding of how beauty has been perceived throughout history.

In the Renaissance period, beauty and nature were tightly interlinked concepts. The purpose of art was to represent natural beauty – this included notions of godly, romantic and scientific nature – all intertwined.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

During the Industrial Revolution, beauty was associated with the idea of nature as pure, whole, intelligent, soothing and, above all, the expression of truth. This obviously was emerging within the context of cultural and economic settings of the time.

These paradigms were strongly challenged by modernity and, as a result, we see the disappearance of the notion of ‘artistic beauty’.

Brutalism, Dadaism, abstract art, pop art and the Bauhaus, were movements that challenged our concept of beauty. At the peak of modernity, we start to emphasize (I say emphasize because this distinction was not new, it has roots in ancient Greece) the notion of high art on the one hand and craft as a lower form of activity on the other. Craft was seen as the creation of functional objects, whereas art was associated with the notion of ideas – the end destination was the object (high art) and not the means for something else (craft) as defined by Stephen Davies.

MAN RAY (1890-1976) 'Cadeau (Gift)' 1921 (Flat Iron with Brass Tacks)

MAN RAY (1890-1976)
‘Cadeau (Gift)’ 1921 (Flat Iron with Brass Tacks)

Today, these distinctions between art and craft are collapsing. We see artists like Gwendolyn Magee (quilt maker) celebrated as a great artist and Tacita Dean’s FILM for Unilever’s 2012 series, where she engages directly with the tactile skills and crafts of making moving images through film.

Technology has been used throughout history in the creation of ‘beauty’. However, never before has it been deeply incorporated with the creation of ‘beautiful’ things as it is now. The postmodern movement saw the turning point from where previously technology was regarded as ugly, disruptive and alienating. Technology was more associated with the crafts – work and utilitarian performance. Today, the notion of beauty has to be addressed against the backdrop of the electronic age.

As we can see, the notion of ‘beauty’ is constantly shifting and today it is simultaneously adapting to both a local and global context.

In our technological age, the new notion of beauty has been extended to performance – referred to by Falk Heinrich performativity beauty. Beauty has now migrated into fields like consumer markets and the anesthetization of everyday life. The notion of beauty is reformulated by technology – the very technology that is shaping our society.

Beauty is no longer solely linked to both aesthetics and to representation. It has evolved to recognize the fact that beauty is dependent on the societal context, which includes science, commerce, the wellness industry etc. In this respect, participatory art and other participatory artifacts are real and contain the experience both I terms of visual tactile beauty.

A great example of this is Dreams of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, created in 1999 by the German artist Kirsten Geisler. It is an interactive art piece that deals with female beauty.

Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, 1999 by Kirsten Geisler

Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, 1999 by Kirsten Geisler

The piece forms part of a series of works people can interact with created by Geisler and entitled Virtual Beauties. The theme of the series is that of a bold young woman’s face created in a computer program that generates 3D images. The series depicts the virtual female projected onto the gallery wall. The female has been created following mathematical rules of perfect symmetry and proportion, giving the face a quite unreal and untouchable beauty, which is spotless and without wrinkles or blemishes.

The 3D simulations are that of the puppet-like ideal of the type of beauty created by modern advertising and the beauty industry. The work is a criticism of an unobtainable and impersonalized ideal of beauty in the age of digital technologies and mass media.

The installations in the series experiment with different forms of interaction between the depicted beauty and the onlooker. The piece Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, for example, consists of a small touch screen that allows the viewer to interact with the women’s face. She reacts by crying, laughing or frowning. Touching her lips can even make her blow a kiss.

On another dimension by allowing the viewer to interact with the virtual female, does it change our understanding of beauty? The issue that is emerging with our conception of beauty in the technological era therefore is not only the interaction with a representation of a proto-beautiful female body, but also the beauty (pleasure and feedback) of the act of interaction.

In the technological age, beauty now has the added dimension of performance and participatory – the one-size-fits all is gone. Beauty is a dynamic and found in diversity. On another level, beauty can be understood as an emergent property that manifests itself as a reflective sentiment i.e. as a result of the interaction. The notion of beauty is an emergent dynamic phenomenon that manages to slip the rigid limits of algorithmic coding.

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And There Was Saul Bass

I have been fascinated by the work of this man for a very long time.

Image: Saul Bass - collage by Rui Martins

Image: Saul Bass – collage by Rui Martins

The original quote: Design is Thinking Made Visual.

Bass was a graphic designer and filmmaker, who was known for his design of motion picture title sequences, film posters and corporate logos. He was born in the Bronx in New York (1920-1996) to Eastern European (Russian Jew) parents.

This worldwide logo was designed in 1971 By Saul.

This worldwide logo was designed in 1971 By Saul.

Bass left school at 16 and worked for an advertising agency while attending art classes at night. In 1944, György Kepes (see previous post), who was a teacher in Brooklyn, became Bass’ mentor.

Kepes was instrumental in channelling Bass’ ideas on modernism, psychology and the social responsibility of designers and turned Bass into a highly articulate and outspoken member of his profession. Bass was a man who did pro-bono work for organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America, Human Rights Watch and the Special Olympics.

In 1946, Bass joined a major advertising company in Los Angeles whose accounts included TWA and Paramount. This was a marriage made in heaven. He flourished in the city that was an important center of modernity both in architecture and design. Together with wealthy clients, his career took off. He became a regular speaker at conferences where he articulated his vision of the way society could be transformed ethically by the aesthetic improvement of the environment.

His work encapsulates his vision and philosophy of the future for society and his unique distilled poetry of modernity and the industrialized world. His work remains fresh, somehow remaining elusive of the tyranny of the stamp of time – the modern aesthetic. His work is full of symbolism and meaning.

‘Design is Thinking Made Visual’ – this is one of his statements. Bass is known for being a great master of engaging with people in a visual language that is familiar and able to entice people to understand an old thing in a new way, or grasp a new idea by making references to existing signs and symbols from cultural history.

This quote captures this idea of using the ‘familiar’ to create ‘new’: “ … tiny remains of ancient human civilizations, in addition to their intrinsic beauty, bring with them a special kind of mystery—a quality of the distant past, the unknown and unreality of it all. Like the best kind of design or film work, they communicate on two levels: the visceral or emotional level and the more complex intellectual level. The goal, and the ultimate achievement, is to make people feel as well as think.”

Without a doubt, Saul Bass was a great designer, communicator and a master at visual thinking.

LP sleeve for Tone Poems of Color  by Sinatra.

LP sleeve for Tone Poems of Color by Sinatra.



Saul Bass- It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, 1963

Saul Bass- It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, 1963

Detail from Saul Bass's movie poster for Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Detail from Saul Bass’s movie poster for Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

I end this post with a video of Bass’ other huge talent – filmmaker – a talent for which he received Academy awards.

This YouTube video is the Title sequence, designed by Saul Bass, from the film “Anatomy of a murder” (1959), directed by Otto Preminger.

For those who would like a better appreciation of Bass’ work, the Vimeo video below by Ian Albinson, is an excellent summary of some of Saul Bass’ most celebrated work.

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György Kepes – A Highly Influential Unknown!

A “highly influential unknown” seems like a paradoxical statement. However, there are many such people – people that ‘do’, write, speak and teach, because they are compelled to do so and because they are consumed by their passion.

György Kepes  a Master of Image and Information

György Kepes a Master of Image and Information

György Kepes (1906-2001) is one such brilliant person of the design discipline. The fact that he was an introvert might explain his obscurity.

I suspect that this unknown figure is about to become known to a broader audience, not only because we are becoming more literate and interested in design, but also because the topics that he pioneered in his lectures and writings — the fusion of design with other disciplines (a topic I have explored in various posts) — are now coming of age.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, considers him to be an important figure in our contemporary society: “He had a holistic approach to knowledge, and the links he made between art, design and other disciplines, especially science, are so important now.”

The quote from his book ‘Language of Vision’ reinforces what he strongly believed in:

“The language of vision, optical communication, is one of the strongest potential means both to reunite man and his knowledge and to re-form man into an integrated being. Visual communication is universal and international: it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate. Visual language can convey facts and ideas in a wider and deeper range than almost any other means of communication. It can interpret the new understanding of the physical world and social events because dynamic interrelationships and interpenetration. Vision is primarily a device of orientation; a means to measure and organize spatial events.”

The quote above reinforces many points I make throughout this blog.

On arriving in the USA, Kepes founded a design school “New Bauhaus” in Chicago, together with his mentor Moholy-Nagy. In 1942, he was offered a teaching position at the Brooklyn College where he met and mentored Saul Bass (the topic of my next post).

In 1945 he moved to MIT and surrounded himself with scientists, architects and technologists, who helped him to refine his thinking and work. In 1967, Kepes founded M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies to conduct research in the development of what we now call digital imagery. This structure has become a model for art and technology programs through the world.

In 1956, he published his book ‘The New Landscape in Art and Science’, in which Modern-era artwork was paired with scientific images that were made with devices such as x-ray machines, stroboscopic photography, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, high-powered telescopes and infrared sensors.

One Integrated Flow of Production from the Early Series (Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington DC)

One Integrated Flow of Production from the Early Series (Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington DC)

From The Nature and Art of Motion, Edited by Gyorgy Kepes, Published George Braziller, New York

From The Nature and Art of Motion, Edited by Gyorgy Kepes, Published George Braziller, New York



György Kepes, Balance, 1942

György Kepes, Balance, 1942

Kepes’ work has influenced many people who have become influential figures in the development of digital images, which now fill our computer and phone screen – Muriel Cooper, John Maeda, Ben Fry and Casey Reas. He was also had strong influence on Saul Bass.

His theories on visual perception and, in particular, his personal mentorship, had a profound influence on young MIT architecture, planning and visual art students. These include Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City) and Maurice K Smith (Associative Form and Field theory). I will devote future posts to exploring the work of these fascinating people and how they have contributed to visual thinking. For now, I include an image from each of them below.

Muriel Cooper: Information Landscapes

Muriel Cooper: Information Landscapes


Book cover by John Maeda

Book cover by John Maeda

BEN FRY - alternative web browser called "tendril"

BEN FRY – alternative web browser called “tendril”

Casey Reas – Process, Transformation, Growth

Casey Reas – Process, Transformation, Growth

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Thinking in patterns comes naturally to us.


This is how we make sense of things – we look for the underlying patterns.

Consider this excerpt taken from Robert Burton’s book ‘The feeling of Knowing’.

Read the text at normal speed and do so only once at first.

textYou are probably a bit confused. Does it make sense? You might even be feeling annoyed.

Now, you can read it as many times as you like. Has anything changed?

I can assure you that the solution is in a single word not found in the text but what the text describes.

You are looking for a picture or a pattern that will make all the pieces fit. In fact, that is what we are always doing. We are looking for meaning in the things we do and the patterns in the world around us.

Our aptitude for patterns is remarkable. I will post the solution in next week’s post – you will see how everything just falls into place.

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Visualisation is a powerful skill for solving problems – Yes it is

I have often said that our human brains were primarily designed for cognitive visuality but that we’ve developed mistrust for this skill. For this reason, I suggest research into exploring our cognitive visuality has been scant and we only have a relatively primitive understanding of how our cognition operates.

Recently, we have a revived interest in the brain and there is very exciting evidence that is emerging to support our amazing abilities to think visually.

This post is not about that new research, rather it is about showing how much better we are at solving problems visually.

Simply put, the best way to solve problems is to convert the problem situation as much as possible into visual elements i.e. pictures. This is why many people naturally use pen and paper or any medium that helps them make sense of the problem situation and, in the process, visually come to a solution.

Image source: MsBuchman

Image source: MsBuchman

To try and do things in your head is clumsy, especially if there are quite a few relationships and variables involved. It improves if you talk about it – the verbal discourse allows for emergence and is a good trigger for complex adaptivity but still not as powerful as visuality.

I think the reason we try to do things in our heads is mostly vanity and relates back to being praised for doing mental maths at school.

There is no reason or even suggestion that people who use visualization techniques are not smart. On the contrary, those who have developed and perfected their visualization skills ‘see’ things that those who do not use such techniques do not ‘see’. The great minds, and those who have made substantial contributions to our civilization, describe their methods and approaches to problem solving as being highly visual.

Einstein, for example, said that he never thought in terms of symbols or equations. Instead, he thought in terms of images, feelings and music. The pictures came first and the descriptions came later. I have a previous post that explores how a few others used visuality.

“Discovery [as stated by Einstein] is not a work of logical thought, even if the final product is bound in logical form”.

It is relevant to note that Einstein did not receive a conventional education. His mastery of visualization started at the Aarau School in Switzerland. The school’s teaching was based on the philosophy of the educational reformer, JohannPestalozzi, who believed that “Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly,” and “the learning of numbers and language must be definitely subordinated.”

Einstein’s school helped students move through a series of steps from hands-on observation to intuition, conceptualization, imagination and visual imagery.

We all have the ability for visualization but what we need to develop is respect for that skill and put it to work.

We are very good at pattern recognition. Herbert Simon proposed that humans are wired to recognize patterns and think visually. According to him, we are naturals at this and, in fact, we are able to process visuals in a way that a computer is not able to. Computers are good at processing symbols but not patterns and are far less able to make sense of visual information and extrapolate unique novel meanings from such visuals.

In a paper entitled “Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand words”, Simon compares two approaches to solving a problem; a symbolic one and an approach that uses a diagram. The symbolic approach is sequential and can run to several pages; whereas a diagrammatic approach is highly efficient, information is organized visually, it is explicit and organized by physical location.

image source:

image source:

Additionally, cues to other issues or steps are often present at an adjacent location. Diagrams are better because they are efficient and convincing. This is not rocket science – it is simply because we can see it and we are using our innate natural abilities of pattern recognition when approaching a problem visually; whereas if we use the ‘proof’ or long approach, we can easily get entangled in contrived logic.

My bugbear is that we are taught not to trust our visual skills and are forced into believing that the only possible or correct way to argue logically is to use symbols and sequential linear logic. I am not suggesting that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, I am saying that we need to learn to use both and explore other personal options – creativity needs to be encouraged not annihilated, especially at school and yes even in the mathematics class.

Thinking visually is a powerful and highly efficient way that requires very little effort compared to the computational approach like that of a symbolic exploration of a problem, which is typical in mathematical calculations and computers.

The unquestioned assumptions to problem solving methods is that one needs to go about solving problems the ‘right way’ with the ‘right method’, implying that there is one and only one way of doing things. It has reached a point, even common practice in many business MBA’s ethos, that you simply need to match a method to a problem. Honestly, how have we allowed things to become so simplistic?

We seem to have lost the ability to be creative and recognize that when we are taught ‘methods’ we are not being given the key to unlock access to all ‘knowledge’ or, as Condorcet believed, that methods are a universal instrument to solve all problems, giving one access to all: ”combination of ideas”. That statement was made in 1793 and unfortunately it still dominates today in varying degrees.

I have a serious problem with this attitude. I agree that it is invaluable to learn about the various methods because they give us a perspective, a rigor and deep grasp of how to create knowledge whilst being critically aware of the ‘worldviews’ associated with the method.

However, creativity cannot be lost in the process. You must not become indoctrinated into ‘the right way’ or so paralyzed that you cannot freely explore without fear of the consequences of falling off the ‘edge of the earth’ or dare to experiment with the unknown.

Visualization is the conceptual skill of insight that enables you to ‘see’ the fuzzy ‘stuff’ that does not necessarily have a label and has not been articulated and categorized; the acknowledgement and audacity to act on our visual insights; even fleeting at times as they might be.

To illustrate the point: Pythagoras originally visualized the solution to the Pythagorean theorem visually by manipulating shapes. He did not use any Maths.

As described in Wikipedia, “… the Pythagorean theorem is a relation in Euclidean geometry among the three sides of a right triangle. It states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The theorem can be written as an equation relating the lengths of the sides a, b and c, often called the Pythagorean equation:


where c represents the length of the hypotenuse, and a and b represent the lengths of the other two sides.

Simply put, the theorem claims that the sum of the areas of the two small squares equals the area of the large square always.

One can find many ways to prove this theorem. Below is one way taken from

Unless you use mathematics on a regular basis, I suspect that it could be difficult to follow the proof below and to be convinced by the solution. You might glaze over it and possibly zone out.

A visual way to solve this theorem is shown below. Not only is it extremely clear but also there is no ambiguity in its communication. By simply manipulating shapes (no mathematics) you can demonstrate that the area of the two smaller squares are equal in area to the large square, which is precisely what the theorem claims.