The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 1

The notion of beauty is one of those cyclical arguments; we will never have a universal set of rules that defines beauty.

The reason for this is really not too complicated – we are all individuals and culturally diverse. The problem is that humans have a tendency to be imperialistic, controlling and arrogant. In our ignorance, we seem to be quite comfortable imposing our value system onto others. Possibly, this is the reason for many of the problems we are faced with today (such as wars and national conflicts) but this is another conversation.

The structuralist paradigm of ‘one size fits all’ is a form of small-minded parochial thinking. For some reason, we are threatened by ‘otherness’. We seem to want to force everyone else to our way of thinking. This is the case with politics and religion, even music. My opinion, my taste, my view is better, correct and the only one acceptable. Why is this the case? I will not attempt to explore this complex question in this post. Rather, I am hoping that we are now in an age where it is not only okay to be unique but, also, we have come to see cultural diversity as something that should be encouraged, respected and celebrated.

Globalization does not help but rather than seeing it as a destructive force, we can see it as a reason to strengthen, invigorate and give us a conceptual base to reinterpret our unique traditions and evolve them within this new context of globalization and technology.

iToday, diversity is ‘beauty’. If we were all exactly the same, that would be a terrifying ‘desert’ and the ‘ideal’ human would very quickly become ugly and boring to us. Beauty is a consequence of the times we live in. It has shifted to being of a passive nature to one where we, as a society, are participants and co-creators.


We need to mature further as humans to accepting and appreciating the pleasure of what other people see and treasure as beautiful.

I will explore beauty in the age of technology next week in Part 2.

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What about Design and Visual Thinking?

Design has certainly become the new black in business. It has become fashionable as has Innovation. These are new buzzwords. They are the terms of the decade. They have taken over from the term ‘quality’, which was the buzzword of the 80s and 90s.

We could say that design has become the holly grail for business. Without any doubt Bruce Nussbaum, Assistant Managing Editor of BusinessWeek, is to be credited for the attention he has brought to design and innovation.

In 2006, Google referenced approximately 3 million instances of the word ‘innovation’ within the domain. Companies were in a frenzy to find ways to integrate creativity into their product development processes.

The terms design and innovation are being used interchangeably but they are distinct activities. I will consider the term innovation in another post but, for now, I will say that that it is essentially an action-oriented activity that translates an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which consumers are prepared to pay for. I too have been guilty of this blending of the two terms for the sake of simplicity but this needs to be corrected.

C. M.Vogel views innovation as a thoughtful and insightful application, delivery, extension, or recombination of existing technologies . . . the key is that an innovation is a valued leap from the viewpoint of consumers whether or not it is incremental from the producer’s standpoint.

This post will explore what design is. Design is distinctly different to innovation and is the vehicle through which innovation is expressed.

There is a lack of understanding about design. We see the results of ‘design’ everywhere but we seem to have a problem defining it. Is it difficult because it is one of those things that humans do naturally – does it have anything to do with the way we think? Is the process of design similar in any way to the process of thinking, which we also have difficulty in defining?

Peter Lawrence explains: Design is the term we use to describe both the process and the result of giving tangible form to human ideas. Design doesn’t just contribute to the quality of life; design, in many ways, now constitutes the quality of life.

Design is linked deeply to providing a framework for human life and activity -from culture through to relationships and communication.

Is it ‘design’ or ‘Design’? There is a difference. Design with a capital ‘D’ indicates that it is a discipline of its own and not a small part of a larger discipline of business, engineering or science.

I am not suggesting that it should not be intertwined with other disciplines, such as innovation, but it does need to be recognized as a discipline on its own so that we fully appreciate the potential of this thing called Design.

The intertwining of design and innovation. Image source: JOSE BALDAIA

The intertwining of design and innovation. Image source: JOSE BALDAIA

Back in 1976, Bruce Archer described design as being distinctly different to both art and science. More recently, Fatina Saikaly, Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman agree that design is not a subset or derivative of science, or a form of art, nor is it a mid-point between the two. We hold the idea that design is its own tradition of inquiry, as well as action, and is among the oldest of traditions.

Herb Simon notes: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are . . . design on the other hand is concerned with how things ought to be”

While those working in science and humanities rely heavily on inductive and deductive reasoning, those engaged in design activities embrace abductive reasoning (see previous post). This is a very important distinction. This type of reasoning is concerned with shaping, form-giving and articulating reality into the unknown. Abductive reasoning manifests itself in an iterative application of a theory to a real-world problem – a process of creation made up of both inductive and deductive influences.

Design is emotionally charged and very human. The structuralists amongst us will have difficulty with this; for them only the strict ‘logic’ devoid of humanity is acceptable. This is where the problem arises. Logic is a human activity, not a utopia.

Design requires both analytical thinking and reflectivity. These are universal human characteristics, yet people seem to have difficulty with the unified duality. The combination of logic and illogic is where the power and energy of design lies and this is one of the major differences between design and disciplines like science and engineering.

Design is the physical manifestation of thinking – something that Saul Bass firmly believed in.

I think there might be a case to explore the explicit link between design and visual thinking.

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Data Tells Stories

Still keeping with the theme of the power of data, the video below by Dataveyes is a beauty. It is a promotional video but it is well done and illustrates the point very well.

“Dataveyes is a start-up focused on interactive data visualization.

Data visualization turns large volumes of raw data into a meaningful piece. It creates a visual, esthetic and kinetic interaction, which directly reaches out to the user’s intelligence.

At Dataveyes, we want to create a new visual grammar, a new way of telling stories with data. We think this appears as necessary, for complex information is better memorized by the human brain through a visual form than words could ever be.”

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The Consecration Ritual of a New Building at RUB (Royal University of Bhutan).

In this post, I briefly explore what the Bhutanese form of Buddhism is and how it influences all aspects of daily life in Bhutan. As a way of explanation, I will capture an event – the blessing of a building. I conclude that symbolism acts as a loose guiding structure in events that are visual expressions of a sense making process, where meaning is an emergent property that results from the dynamic interaction between the adaptive agents and rich historic cultural symbolism.

Bhutan retains the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion, also called Vajrayāna (the diamond or thunderbolt way). This plays a strong and central role in the life of the Bhutanese people. It is far-reaching and influences all aspects of cultural and even secular activities. such as the cleansing of buildings and even reverence for the land and its well-being.

Rituals like cleansing of buildings are dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche or protective deities. The essence of the ceremony is to banish bad spirits and invite positive, auspicious new spirits into the building and to bless all activities that will take place within the structure.

After being in Bhutan for a month, I was constantly reminded that the Bhutanese form of Buddhism is different. This insistence led me to attempt to clarify.

The distinctive feature of Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations. Vajrayana Buddhism claims to provide an accelerated path to enlightenment. This is achieved through use of tantra techniques, which are practical aids to spiritual development and esoteric transmission (explained below). Whereas other forms of Buddhism provides ways to achieve nirvana over the course of many lifetimes.

Vajrayana techniques lead to full enlightenment – possible in a shorter time – the belief is that it might be possible even in a single lifetime. I am informed that Theravada (practiced in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand) or Mahayana (umbrella body for a great variety of schools) practices are not invalid; the difference is that they represent slower paths to enlightenment. Interesting to highlight that the goal of the Mahayana and Vajrayana sects is to become a bodhisattva; whereas the goal for Theravada practice is liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) by achieving nirvana. For those interested in understanding the differences, I found this interesting website.

Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book.

I know I cannot possibly understand all the rituals that took place and their symbolism in relation to the culture and the religion. I might have an excuse; it is only deeply understood through esoteric learning. The point that interests me, however, is the fact that symbolism is strongly visual, not only in the form of an image but through rituals that use objects, movement in space and temporary activities. These activities are not necessarily strict and precise as in military precision – the impression we would be left with if we were to follow though text. When something is described in the form of text, the tendency is to understand the event, ceremony or ritual as a linear and strictly orchestrated process, with no room for interpretation and emergence.

My observation and experience from the blessing ceremony of the building was that there was a very loose set of symbolic principles that acted on the structure within which the system (ritual) was enacted. However, there appeared to be room for learning and adaptation within the specific context. There were quite a number of guests (non-Buddhists) that were part of the ritual. They impacted on the system yet the system adapted and adjusted as the ignorant agents learned the principles and in turn changed and adapted the ceremony.

The ceremony started at 6.00am on 12 December and concluded with a marvellous dance with all participants at 2.00pm on the same day. The dance in a square circle was truly wonderful – the photos do not do justice at all.

I decided that I would let the images speak for themselves and treat this post as a visual essay. Unfortunately, my camera wanted to play by its own rules and some settings changed at some point and so the quality of images are not the best. I think the camera might have been thinking that it too was an active participating agent!

If you click on the images, you should be able to see them in a separate window in more detail. If you press back-arrow on your browser, you should be able to return to the post – sorry for the inconveniance.

Sequence 1

Sequence 1

Sequence 2

Sequence 2

Sequence 3

Sequence 3

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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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Interface as Culture

To make better sense of this post – I suggest you read the previous one here.

“The 19th century culture was defined by the novel; the 20th century culture was defined by the cinema; and the 21st century culture will be defined by the interface.”

Previously, I looked at this statement from an economic point of view. Admittedly this was from a poststructuralist perspective and it was more of a critique. In this post, I will explore the interface as evolutionary culture and visual artefact.

Firstly, culture is a complex term and carries specific meanings in different disciplines. I will restrict myself to exploring culture as a sociological concept. From this perspective, culture refers to the entire texture of a society. This includes how symbols, meanings, beliefs, values, language and rituals organise social behaviour.

Mexican Dancer by Lemonpink

Mexican Dancer by Lemonpink

The question one has to look at in order to address the statement above is: how do cultures change? To do this, and considering how sociologists explain cultural change, the issue that stands out is that in attempting to analyse patterns of behaviour in any society, one needs to consider how individuals communicate, think and create meaning. This is a massive undertaking and it would also be necessary to extrapolate what the individual does and then relate it to the wider social structure.

One needs to refine the definition of culture and look at a more contemporary one. Briefly, it has evolved from meaning:

  • the tending of crops – cultivation – in the 15th Century;
  • the cultured mind, manners and a high standard of civilisation – 16th Century;
  • social class particularly reserved for the wealthy Europeans – 18th Century;
  • this meaning has extended into the 19th-20th Centuries, especially with reference to painting, sculpture, literature, music, film and sometimes philosophy. There being a distinction between high and popular culture;
  • popular culture referring to mass media, TV, sports, popular music, newspaper and magazines (the argument gets complicated – but not for this post);
  • starting in the 18th Century, and stemming from the Enlightenment, culture was used to describe the secular development of social life;
  • Herder qualified this and emphasised the notion of cultures (plural) – acknowledging the fact that there are many cultures who share different values – this was in contrast to the then prevailing worldview of Europe as being the superior, dominant civilisation;
  • The late 20th Century meaning of culture focused on shared meanings within groups and nations within which there are sub-cultures. It concentrates on the symbolic dimension, as well as what culture does rather than what culture is. It is a state of being. This way of thinking of culture is rooted in language, which is seen as fundamental to the production of meaning (Saussure).

The current 21st Century definition of culture takes the 20th Century definition and adds to it. Firstly, the notion of communication is central; and secondly, the notion of language is extended (not written and verbal only) to include signs and symbols (Lévi-Strauss).

Visuality (in the sense explored in this blog) takes centre stage – a process of symbolisation, which enables humans to communicate meaningfully about the world. The focus of culture being about the practice of meaning production.

Could this be a memory from the future? Pop-up book by Phillip Ficklingpaper engineer/illustrator — New Zealand

Could this be a memory from the future? Pop-up book by Phillip Fickling
paper engineer/illustrator — New Zealand (I have seen Philip’s work, it is fantastic). Source:

Now that we have a better idea of what culture might be, let’s analyse the statement above. From the brief survey of culture, we can easily see how the novel and film dominated society.

With the celebration of secularisation and science, culture became more about the general process of social development. The ‘novel’ became the vehicle for the spreading of ideas and those associated values for the betterment of the individual.

As society on mass became aware of itself as a quantity with shared values, meanings and ways of life, the cinema became the perfect carrier of such shared meanings in society – the key form of expressing cultural content.

The part of the statement that is of particular interest to me is ….21st century culture will be defined by the interface. Let’s explore this. Culture of the 21st Century concentrates on the interrelationships between the components that make up the cultural practice in question. The how has become important – how is the interface to express culture?

At this point, one needs to do a sidestep and confirm what is meant by interface?. Steven Johnson proposes that it is a defining metaphor of our times that art and technology have become inseparable. There are many types of interfaces. For this post, I am referring to the GUI (graphical user interface), which has become the standard computer interface.

It refers to software that enables people to communicate with a computer through the use of symbols, visual metaphors and pointing devices. I would agree that its components have themselves become unmistakable cultural artefacts. It is ubiquitous.

It can be argued that the interface as an innovation has and will continue for some time to shape our cognition, interaction and communication with each other. Steven Johnson argues that it is a new spatial environment where the new landscape is worth living in. Its visual illusions being as important as the functions they signify.

Interface designers translate the raw digital data that we do not understand by using metaphors. The metaphor of architecture is one. Another is where documents and folders are located spatially as in a galaxy around planets (Apple’s Planet X).

Using spatial visual relationships allows us to imagine and create meaning. We therefore have a way (the how) of how we create new culture. Visuality has now taken centre stage in the culture of the 21st century. We need to look for meaning in the arrangement, the patterns, the symbolic structure of the interface.

Visuality is not only about image. It is also about metaphor and space. The space between is not empty – it has meaning. We have a new set of values that are created and shared at a rapid pace where time space is compressed. All this is new and it will define who we are becoming.

Eye of the machine by Agsandrew

Eye of the machine by Agsandrew

The interface has become the new narrative. It is the portal to the different meanings, spaces and values created and recreated by us. The novel replaced the oral tradition of telling the story (encoded message passed on between towns and generations), becoming a very efficient way of passing the meaning more accurately. The cinema added other dimensions to its power of passing on the story (sound and visuals).

With the interface, we are individually in control of our own production of meaning – the shift of passive consumers to active participants in our culture. Jean Baudrillard need not be concerned – our culture will not implode but rather emerge into exciting new forms.