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Designers Live at the Intersection of Science and Art

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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President and Chief Operating Officer, The Freeman Company Chief Executive Officer, Freeman

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#10 Be Whole Brain Creative; It’s a Skill and a Talent

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Pop psychology would have us think of ourselves as either right-brain-dominant people (creative/intuitive) or left-brain-dominant (logical/analytical). Bruce Mau’s tenth design principle reminds us that we are sentient human beings who can shape our own destiny. The ability to use both sides of our brain is not just a talent we are born with, but a skill that can be developed. As with most skills, this comes down to practice. If you’re a designer — or aspire to be a design thinker — approaching problems with your whole brain is a prerequisite.

“Designers must have the ability to work on both sides,” Bruce says. “They start with the qualitative and scientific, to understand the problem…. then imagine new things that may not exist in the data…. It’s counting the dots, then connecting the dots.”

We can create brand experiences that are technically excellent, with flawless logistics, but if the results don’t touch people, we’ve failed. It’s that synthesis of art and science — in solutions that appeal to us with their beauty and aesthetic insight — that inspire an emotional response, change behaviors, and create lasting impressions.

“That’s the underlying logic behind the concept of working in studio teams,” Bruce adds. When the group is inclusive of all the disciplines, with people from delivery, sales, strategy, creative and digital, then you’re getting a whole-brain approach with fully synthesized solutions. And along the way, individual members form the habit of exercising both sides of their brains. As Bruce says, “developing that elasticity of mind has to be part of what we’re developing all the time.”

There’s a classic ‘50s-era design publication called “Transformation: Arts, Communication, Environment” that Bruce admires. The editor, artist Harry Holtzman, wrote, “Art, science, technology are interacting components of the total human enterprise... but today they are too often treated as if they were cultural isolates and mutually antagonistic.” We have allowed these to be ripped apart, to develop in isolation, with their own languages, jargon, rules of operation and ways of incentivizing people. The tenth design principle seeks a return to synthesis.

Ironically, when we consider the people and companies who are successful at creating real value today, they are delivering at the intersection of art and science: Steve Jobs; Elon Musk; Walt Disney Company’s Pixar. In fact, there’s a reason we hear that Disney employs “Imagineers” to design its theme parks — the name implies that both imagination and engineering skills are required.

In 1958, when Walt Disney approached a transportation company to engineer the first monorail for Disneyland, they told him it couldn’t be done — at least, not in his short timeframe. So, Disney turned to one of his favorite Imagineers, Bob Gurr. He didn’t worry about what it would take to put a train in the air, but focused instead on how to make the experience of zooming through Tomorrowland fun, safe and memorable. In the process, he imagined a new application for existing truck parts. The Mark I ALWEG Monorail train was installed in time for the rededication of Tomorrowland in 1959.

Today, we are always being asked to do the impossible. By embracing each challenge from a whole-brain approach, we may be able to redefine the problem so that the solution becomes not only possible but practical. When we think like designers — when we work within the Art + Science formula — we build an incubator for success. Wouldn’t you rather work there?

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