The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Visual story telling

The image – of whatever the medium might be – is a vehicle to tell a story (I refer to story in the broadest possible sense  – including information).

The person creating the image will have an impact on the observer of that image. It can stimulate change, influence emotions and educate the viewer in ways that cannot be achieved by words alone. Once the image has been created, it takes on a life of its own. The creator loses control – all s/he does is set the plot through the visual and the stories that emerge take on a life of their own through the different viewers.

We are constantly looking at the world, attempting to create meaning and navigate our way through the influx of visual information that surrounds us in all its complex detail.

Images are created to provide viewers with the option of meaning making within the culture we exist.

In a single glance of an image, we can recognize and categorize many of the individual objects; identify the different environments; as well as perceive complex activities and social interactions captured within the visual.

Visual commentary is powerful and enables the viewer to construct meaning to a finer granularity not permitted with text or the spoken word.

If we were asked to tell the story of each image below, the point of departure will most probably be similar (stimulated by the basic elements of the image). But, very quickly, we will have unique stories flowing and there will be as many stories as there are viewers. The deeper meaning is dependent on individuals’ unique reality and worldview. The story that we reconstruct around the image is uniquely different and personal.

This is essentially the poststructuralist’s claim – there is no grand narrative. Reality is subjective and, as humans, we negotiate our understanding of the world amongst each other. This sense making process never ends. We tell stories and retell them in order to keep abreast of change and we use creativity as the rudder through our visual sense making world through stories.

The images below are by the Dutch photographer, Teun Hocks. What stories do you construct around each visual? Does your friend tell the same story? Is this a problem or has the world just become more interesting because of the difference between two views of the world? Also, we will become better critical thinkers and that is because we are forced to engage rather than simply be passive and accept what others will have us believe.

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

Image by Dutch photographer Teun Hocks

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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui

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A Visual Essay

In this video, Paul Jenkins tells the story of a photograph. There is great skill in deconstructing meaning and putting the story together that is captured in the metaphors in the photograph.

The video is about 14 minutes long.

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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What is visual thinking? Part 2

Following Part 1, in this post I will further explore perception and the link to Gestalt psychology. In Part 3 I will look at visual thinking from a complexity science perspective. It will be awhile before Part 3 is posted as I think some examples and explorations in actual visual thinking will be more useful before more theory is presented.

Gestalt psychology deals primarily with sensory psychology and the perception of form. This school of thought originated in the work of Max Wertheimer (influenced by people like Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) and was formed in response to the dominant paradigm of structuralism.

In 1924, Wertheimer explained Gestalt theory as: There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.

Traditional science is reductionist. Scientific investigation operates by breaking down the object of study into single parts and defining them. The sum of the parts then corresponds to the object. In comparison, Gestalt theory emphasizes the connections between humans and nature, where the whole consists of the interrelationship of the parts and the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. The principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (also a central principle to systems in general) can simply be explained with the image of a car. The picture of a car has a very different meaning to any of the individual parts, such as the door, tyres, paint and so on. By considering the whole, a cognitive process occurs. The mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole.

For Gestalt theory, perception is structured and ordered. The world is understood as a structured whole and not as a random collection of sensory data. For Arnheim, shape perception operates at a high cognitive level of concept formation and images are only meaningful within a specific context. We attempt to make order out of chaos and create a meaningful form from seemingly disconnected bits of information.

Arnheim also challenged the traditional distinctions between thinking and perceiving and between intellect and intuition. Thought can only be productive if it disregards the boundaries between visual perception and the intellect. He argues that all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention. Form creation is an aspect of reasoning in which perceiving and thinking are inseparably intertwined.

The Gestalt principle of figure and ground, developed by both Koffka and Wertheimer, shows our perceptual tendency to separate whole visual images from the background. In simple compositions, there tends to be only one figure. In more complex structures there will be more things to notice. In both cases, as we shift our vision from one to the other. The form can go from figure to ground and then back again. The ground is sometimes referred to as negative space – a concept I will explore in a future post with reference to Renaissance architecture and how it can be applied to the emergence of meaning and the dynamics of creativity.

The famous ambiguous figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rabin

The famous ambiguous figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rabin