Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 14, The Mind at Odds

Download Episode 14

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the creative process. The last couple of shows, we gave attention to the creative mind. We spoke about the mental patnership of our conscious and unconscious levels of awareness, and also about the priority of loosening up and having fun. Along these lines, we reasoned that if creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves, then we need to seek out ways to have fun. First, as a means of conditioning ours minds for idea-production, and, second, as a way to noodle around and to sandbox our project and uncover possibilities. Creative play allows us to wrap our heads around the subject matter and continue to feed those mental partners.

Today, we'll speak some more about the creative mind by introducing some related concepts.

Now, most of us have heard at least a little bit about the whole left brain vs. right brain thing. This is a theory or model that says that there are differences in cognition between the left and right hemispheres of our brains. And, in fact, there is a physical separation, called the longitudinal fissure, if we must know, which creates two hemispheres, joined together by the corpus callosum. And this accounts for that walnut-like appearance, where we plainly see two halves making up the whole. And while they're physically very similar in appearance, ostensibly just mirror images of each other, they've actually got some distinct functions. And so we've come to associate the hemishperes with different mental tasks. This is called lateralization. And it tells us that mental tasks are not shared equally, but that they're handled by one hemisphere or the other, whereas others appear to be bi-lateral, or a shared.

But in keeping with the broad statements that have influenced creative theory, the left brain is said to be adept at logical, linear, analytical tasks, while the right brain is the hemisphere of creativity, intuition, the ability to discern shapes and patterns, among other things. When this mind model first came to the fore, it immediately became popular with creativity theorists because it seemed to provide a scientific explanation for the problems that artists and other creatives encounter. Popular books, like Betty Edwards's Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain, are good examples of teaching that's latched on to this concept, promising us methods to harness the hemispheres and control creativity.

It's safe to say that early presentations of the model are now considered somewhat quaint or overly broad in their simplicity and have since been updated with more nuanced explanations. But the basic idea is not in dispute.There are differences between the hemispheres. We know this from research and from brain scans and the study of stroke victims, and the like. So, for creatives, it's still useful to think in terms of left brain / right brain, at least as a helpful metaphor. It's a model that reminds us that there are complementary parts of our mind that we've got to coordinate, so that we minimize conflict, and so that we don't short circuit our productivity.

This hemisphere stuff is similar in some ways to that Freudian business about id, and ego, and super-ego, which says that ideas are produced by the unconscious id and then screened by the ego and superego. Our id or creative unconscious is like an uninhibited child within us, a source of raw creativity, akin to the creative, right hemisphere function. But it's counter-balanced by the rational, finger-wagging, "adult" part of us, which is more in line with that logical left brain function. Now, I've made a mixed up soup of these theories, but there is this bit of overlap. And our experience affirms the basic truth of it all. We get frustrated with our spouse for not being "spontaneous," always having to be the practical one. Or maybe we're the practical, logical one, carping about the other being frivolous and never planning for tomorrow. But even closer to home is that we've got this dialogue going on in our own heads. We hear two voices, debating whether to purchase that little "extra" or not. In our projects, it shows up as the paralysis of analysis stifling our creative impulses. Sometimes we even hear people who are hip to the theories say things like, "I'm very left brained," or "she's so right-brained."

But I think we can sort of meld these ideas together and use them like this: If there's a part of us that can be likened to a creative wild-child within us, then why not let it loose for a while and see what happens? If we're graphic designers, why not allow ourselves to lay down a lot of visual ideas all at once? If we're novelists, why not do that 60,000-word dash, never looking back, to a completed first draft? If we permit ourselves to loosen up and run in this way, we know we're going to produce a lot of material. So, how come we have so much trouble doing this? Why do we say, like Oscar Wilde, "I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out."? The answer should be obvious by now. It's because we're short circuting ourselves. That inner child is being silenced by the inner adult, whose motto apparently is "children should be seen and not heard." Or we've got the left brain conflicting with the right brain. The id doing battle with the super ego. Pick your metaphor.

To quote Anne Lamott, "The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, 'Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten by more rational, grown up means.

Likewise, as a designer, you want to loosen up and have fun, as we suggested in the last episode. Adopt the attitude, "It doesn't matter, I'm just playing," and noodle around. Let yourself go. Ban thoughts of "But this isn't any good" before you cripple yourself with your own logic.

But we'll pick up on more of this subject in the next show. If you'd like to check out some of the references I made today, please look up the shownotes at, where I've included hyperlinked footnotes. Music is by Thanks again for listening. I look forward to having you back next time.


(In the interest of time, I've posted the transcript only. Hyperlinked footnotes coming soon.)

No comments: