Drawing on every side of the brain

In high school, all my art teachers taught us to draw and paint the shapes our eyes “really” saw. We were discouraged from drawing the things we believed we were depicting — eyes, noses, vases, cow skulls, gourds, drapes — and encouraged instead to draw the shapes that were said to precede our objective interpretations. We did zillions of blind contour drawings. We drew and painted shapes instead of trying to model the dimensional forms we believed were there. It was an interesting experience. I learned to shift into a trancelike consciousness that made the visual world hyper-vivid, and disabled speech.

Toward the end of college I met a prickly teacher who demanded a different style from her class. Now we were to observe, analyze and model forms. She taught us methods for rendering various three-dimensional effects on flat plains, so we could translate the forms in space we learned to understand to what charcoal and paper could convey. It was an incredibly difficult shift, which I experienced as an undoing of years of skill development.

In the years after I did some other visual thinking development, but they were all remote from figurative drawing. I learned to compose pages and screens to aid in comprehending complex information. Shortly after college, I experimented with translating musical compositions into visual ones via the language of mathematical ratios. Most importantly, though, I developed an ability to collapse complexity into simple visual diagrams, which are tools for conceptualizing information, not only existing data, but for framing incoming data on an ongoing basis. They are visual hermeneutic tools. I philosophize visually first, and even when I translate the visuals into words, I keep wanting to retain the visual qualities, which might be why I’m tempted toward prosody. Not for the sake of sounds (or not primarily), but for the sake of structure. I want important thoughts to be expressed in linguistic crystals.

Now my job has me doing figurative drawing again, but in a style going driving me back further into those left-brained natural habits of seeing and drawing I worked so hard to break and replace in my teen years. Now I am sketching ideas with the goal of communicating complex ideas as simply as possible. It is somewhere between cartooning and writing in pictograms.

My life as a visualizer-thinker has led my on a tour through my brain and shown me how many ways we can bilateralize what we see and know.

Posted in Design, Hermeneutics, Philosophy, Symbols and diagrams | Leave a comment


In marketing there is a research technique known as laddering for getting at a customer’s root motivations. I’ve also heard it called the “seven whys”. When interviewing a customer about her feelings about some aspect of a product, the interviewer asks “why?” and then “why?” again, until the customer is unable to go further. This technique is used to uncover the fundamental emotional drivers of a customer’s behaviors.

A journalist friend of mine uses a similar technique to get at the emotional drivers behind people’s beliefs. When an interviewee makes an assertion she asks “How do you know?” and then “How do you know that?” until the interviewer is no longer able to produce an answer. She then asks “Why do you care?”

I think a procedure like this is necessary in politics. When a person claims our system needs to be overhauled and replaced with some radical alternative we should ask “Who decides that?” and then “Who decides that they decide?” and so on until there no answer but “because that is what is right.” And that answer, of course, means “Me. I decide.”

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“I am unique”

One of the greatest obstacles to relating to individuals as individuals is need.

The need might be utilitarian. We look for someone who can perform some useful function for us. We might see them as a useful role. This person is an engineer, a designer, a manager, etc.

The need might be emotional. We look for someone to fill a hole in our life. We might see them as some kind of fulfillment, completion or soulmate. As wonderful and romantic as the language might sound, this is still a failure to value an individual for their own individuality. The other is reduced to one’s own feeling of wholeness, or, worse, and more commonly potential wholeness — a longing.

Finally, the need might be cognitive: a need to feel secure in one’s understanding. We reduce people to categories with attributes which help us anticipate and explain their beliefs, behaviors and attitudes and to quickly give us a moral and possibly practical relationship with them.

It’s not that we should never do these things. I believe we always will and even must suppress the individuality of the people we meet. The who-ness of most individuals will never shine through the opacity of the what-ness of what we take them to be. (See Arendt quote below.) But we should know when we are suppressing individuality, to know how to invite individuality and to know what it feels like when individuality approaches. And most of all, we must work at wanting individuality and to be vigilant of those times when we do not want it and want to push it away or even to deny its existence. These kinds of knowing carry us from the ethical into the religious.


Re: the what-ness of individuals, Hannah Arendt’s hard-nosed realism is on the mark:

No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.

To know an individual is precisely to make the answer “I am unique” meaningful.

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Nine times out of ten, perfectionism is a symptom of an incapacity to make intelligent trade-offs — a compulsive correction of minute isolated imperfections which has lost all sense of a potentially perfect whole.

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Why you should be mad about Lean Startup

Lean Startup externalizes usability costs to users.

To combat this practice, if I find a usability issue I call tech support and have them walk me through the interaction. These calls cost a company a significant amount of money and makes it less profitable for them to skip the user-centered design steps that ensure a decent experience for users.

I urge everyone who cares about design to do the same. Stop wasting your time and energy trying figure out how bad designs are supposed to work, and start wasting the company’s resources instead.


The long story on Lean Startup:

Before Lean Startup, companies invested in user centered design processes, including usability testing, to ensure customer’s tools always worked well. The highest priority was given to protecting customers from design mistakes that inflicted frustration and interfered with their lives. Software was released only when the flaws were fixed and the software was ready for human use.

Lean Startup changed all that. It advises companies to not invest money in design and research, but instead to release the software sooner, even though this is likely to expose customers to usability errors, frustration and confusion. Rapid release cycles enable the problems to be spotted in analytics and quickly corrected. This enables the company to accelerate software improvements and outpace competitors.

With Lean Startup, it’s all about competing to be the best product first. It’s all about the company’s product surpassing the competitor’s product — not about the customer’s tools working as they should and providing a great experience. It’s all about how good the company’s software gets, not how bad their customers feel while using untested, hastily hacked-together interfaces.


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Langer (and Geertz)

Looking for a beloved Geertz quote, I happened upon this mind-blowing hunk of truth.

One regret: I should have called the post “Langer (and Geertz).

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A cruel thing to say

“I wish you actually were the person you want to be.”

Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments