Installation Art, the Medium of Our Time

At one time, installation art was a weird thing only artists appreciated. Now, our surroundings are so disorienting most everyone gets it to some degree. Partially, this comes from our apparent insignificance in a world that is so obviously gaining in complexity. Additionally, the transparency of economic drivers these days makes it clear that experience is a commodity.

In the 70s and 80s, things were less confusing. We had fewer choices and the fabric of society was relatively invisible. We knew there were a lot of people out there. But the connections between people were on the local level. Rarely, did the average Joe question his existence. Your surroundings were your surroundings, and that was pretty much it. If you were to take a friend to a Joseph Beuys exhibit during the 70s, they’d look at you like you were nuts.

However today, installation art is common, and a commodity. Museums, Pinterest and shopping malls abound with it. Installation art visualizes our underlying feelings about being placed in such an odd time where everyone knows our business and we feel a part of an endless conversation about nothing. It comes in different aesthetic levels, from collections of stuff to really thought provoking transformations of space. But in general, it is a reflection of our times. We feel uncomfortable with where we are going. And this art form is great for expressing this state of uncertainty. Below are some examples. Or just type “Installation Art” in Pinterest. You’ll be there all day.



Nitsche concept 2(1)




Art May Be The Answer To Political Debates

We have a lot of social unrest and inequity in the world today; no one can deny that. People on all sides are calling for more conversation on the topic, whether they really mean it or not. But perhaps what we need is some more art in the mix. Art is unique in how it poses a lot of questions, but rarely answers any. It’s provocative in the sense of stirring things up. Essentially, it irritates the situation.

Too often we look at complex issues through simplified lenses. Social transgressions are long in tradition and far from being rectified. Sometimes the best part about art is that it makes things hard to define—symbolizing the complexity of real life. Instead of quick answers from prognosticators on TV, we need some deep thought and a sense of empathy on all sides.


vietnam veterans memorial


Maya Lin is a great artist to look to in these situations. You already know her work. She designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. At the time of its opening, it stirred a lot of controversy. But now, it’s highly coveted. It posed some really deep questions we didn’t want to face at the time.


Art May Be The Answer To Political Debates


Edgar Heap of Birds is a Native American artist whose work spans thirty years. His public art works bring up the conversation of land usage and historical ownership.


Art May Be The Answer To Political Debates


Alredo Jaar is another artist who constantly questions how we view scenarios. Below of an excerpt of an article I wrote on him for ArtPulse Magazine. It deals with one of the most moving photographs of all time. As he shows, things are not always as they seem. The full article can be viewed here.

“…The photographer of focus in The Sound of Silence is South African Kevin Carter. In 1993, while covering the famine in Sudan, he snapped a picture that is hard to forget. A frail Sudanese toddler, appearing malnourished, is hunched over resting on her elbows. The child’s head is lowered as though nodding to sleep. Behind the child lurks a large, hooded vulture. It is just the two of them in the photo. The conclusion is easy to draw. It’s hard to look at, and it is hard to look away from it. The image won Carter a Pulitzer Prize. But after publication in the New York Times, it set off an avalanche of responses from readers concerned for the little girl. They wanted to know the plight of the child and why the self-serving photographer hadn’t helped the child instead of snapping a photo. Three months after winning his award, Carter committed suicide.

Like Shadows, the work is situated in a rectangular room (more like a big freestanding box), built by the artist. The side opposite the entrance is a brightly illuminated solid wall of white light. The entrance on the other side leads to a dark inner area where an eight-minute video displays white text highlighting moments in the life of the photographer.

To summarize: Carter was a pharmacy school dropout conscripted into the South African Defense Forces. He hated being in the service. At one time, he shielded a black waiter against soldiers and was subsequently beaten. He left the army, came back to the army and eventually began working in a camera repair shop. From there, he drifted into photojournalism, where he became known for exposing apartheid and taking risks. At the time of the photo in The Sound of Silence, Carter was sent to cover the famine in Sudan. After shooting dozens of images, he found the girl making her way to a feeding center. Once the vulture landed, he waited for the best photo.[i]

At this point the text stops and for a few short seconds the photo shows on the wall and then goes away as a flash of light fills the room. It’s a brief time in the span of the overall video. The photo in comparison to Carter’s life was much shorter. Following the image, more text reveals the remainder of the story, including how Carter had shooed the vulture from the child.

Indeed, Jaar knows what he’s doing. He is a seasoned veteran of the art world. He’s exhibited countless times and been showcased in some of the most prominent museums throughout the world. He’s a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow.  He’s a professional, and he knows how to work an image. As Roberta Smith wrote in her review of The Sound of Silence, “In the end Mr. Jaar does exploit a sensational story, and in shaping it, he manipulates us. Except for its savvy presentation, the piece is like shooting fish in a barrel.”[ii] But as she also noted, he’s accomplishing more than just that. His works are seamlessly crafted with meticulous attention to detail. In doing so, they appear a little sterile in their presentation, almost corporate looking. But what he sometimes loses in grittiness, he makes up for in clarity and focus. Rarely do you notice the level of craft in his work (it’s never an issue). Instead, you take notice of the concept he’s expressing…”


[i]  Ibid.

[ii]  Roberta Smith, “One Image of Agony Resonates in Two Lives,” The New York Times, April 14, 2009, accessed April 11, 2014,

Is Typography Art or Design?

Recently, I’ve been looking at design works that look like art, and art that looks like design. It makes me think, how we should differentiate the two. Or should we even try?

Is Typography Art or Design?


One work in particular is LENBACHHAUS by the artist, Thomas Demand. It serves as signage for the Lenbachhaus Museum. On the surface it seems more like something the architect designed to identify the entrance. But here’s how the museum describes it.

Far more than just a nametag, the sculpture, which stands out from the façade by virtue of its color, is composed of individual letters. Their bodies, set off from the façade by a few inches, grow out of an antiqua base, tapering toward the beholder to form a sans-serif typeface. The two-tiered lettering of the metal sculpture is held together by wedge-shaped crosspieces, creating a three-dimensional effect and heightening the interplay of light and shadow. The slender lines of the unadorned metal letters are illuminated, so as night falls, the sculpture continues to highlight the new entrance to the museum. The antiqua typeface was borrowed from the design first used when the Lenbachhaus was founded in 1929; the sans-serif, meanwhile, matches the museum’s current typographic identity.

They think it’s a sculpture. Demand, not known as a graphic designer usually creates life size installations of ordinary scenes in cardboard. Yeah, that escalator is cardboard. He photographs the installation and then destroys the original sculpture.

Is Typography Art or Design?

Here’s a design by Stefan Sagmeister.  Sagmeister is a graphic designer whose work is hard to define. My students often refer to him as a typographer. I’m not sure why. On his site, he’s describes himself as a graphic designer. But his design for the Adobe Max Conference looks like art to me. It was actually a 24 hour performance piece where he and Jessica Walsh spent 24 hours creating a variety of designs. The performance was streamed on a Times Square Billboard.

Is Typography Art or Design?

So the question arises, is it just old people trying to draw distinctions between art and design? It may be. We can go back to definitions of aesthetics of beauty by Immanuel Kant and try to parse words. It’s a great philosophical exercise. But in the end, as an educator, I think it may be time to let it go. We may be drawing boundaries that limit students’ ability to express themselves. Some of my past students create works that when I was in school, definitely would have been considered fine art. Peter Clark is an ex-student working for AutoFuss.  Below is an installation he created with some other designers. His major was motion media, a design degree.


This is his design for an event call OFF2014. He created an animated title for Anton & Irene. Click here to see a video of the process.


Is Typography Art or Design?


The time may have come to just push students to create their best work. If it jumps outside one area, let it. Being that everyone is a designer now to some degree through social media and all, maybe the artists are the ones doing it better.

Use LinkedIn As Your Personal Advisory Board

JobBridge evaluation

Monday, I got some expert tech advice from Kevin Lawver. He’s a software developer with an impressive resume including thirteen years of web development at AOL. He called me in response to a message I’d sent him via LinkedIn the previous week. I asked for some general advice on the pros and cons of Instagram as a revenue and awareness source for non-profits. I know next to nothing about technology. He knows everything.

How’d I know to contact Kevin? I went through my connections in LinkedIn. He’s local, knowledgeable and a nice guy. Plus, he’s wearing a Viking helmet in his profile picture. How could I go wrong?

I often use LinkedIn to answer questions like this. Rarely, am I disappointed in the results.

I reached out to Kevin because my students have created an awareness initiative through a collaborative assignment in my class. The project asked students to design a social innovation. It’s pretty open. Anything related to bettering humanity or the environment could apply. The problem now is that the students did such a great job, a local non-profit wants to use it. They even got a call during their final presentation from the head of the organization.

In situations like this, where I need good answers, I go to LinkedIn. And you should too. My experience is that people in there are helpful and smart. Since Kevin is an expert, I feel much better advising my students on how to move forward. He explained everything I needed to know, and he followed by saying he’d be willing to help in the future.

Creative projects are open-ended endeavors. In the process, we often get outside our skillsets. When we do, it’s best to get expert advice. Hundreds of thousand of experts are sitting inside that network. From my experience, most are willing to help.

This isn’t an ad for LinkedIn. I’ve just found that by being an active user, I’ve gained a greater ability to solve problems. In the long, messy process of experimentation associated with creativity, it gets scary when the project moves outside your area of expertise. By building your network of connections and joining groups, you essentially build your own advisory committee.

Here’s another example of how I got help.

A while back, I designed a solar light with an ex-student, Ian Nott. The only problem was that we had no idea how to make it work. We’re designers, not engineers. It looked cool, but we needed it to work. So, I posted a question in a LinkedIn group called, Invention Entrepreneurs. It was as follows, “I need help matching a solar panel with my LEDs.” It took a few days for anyone to respond. First, I got a short response that was very general. Then, Phil Rink, a mechanical engineer responded with a three paragraph explanation on matching solar panels and lights. It was amazing. He even directed me to specific websites. Our problems were solved.

 Use LinkedIn and Your Personal Board of Advisors

But that’s not where the story ends. Since then, I found that Phil writes children’s books. Recently, I bought “Keyston Species” on Amazon for my son. I read it first to make sure nothing weird was in there. It turned out to have a great storyline, and its education too. Now Phil has another positive review on Amazon.


I used to think of LinkedIn as a bunch of self-promoting ego-maniacs writing crap to sell themselves. And honestly, that’s why I started.  I have a book on creativity that I keep re-writing. I thought I’d post a bunch of times and build as many contacts as I could so I could sell more copies. My LinkedIn Rolodex is over 2,000 strong. But what’s really happened is that I’ve learned a lot from some enthusiastic and helpful professionals. In turn, I’ve helped anyone who has contacted me. For many of these, my unique skillset was exactly what they needed. The best part about all this is that I haven’t spent a penny. I use the free version of LinkedIn.




In the Age of Abundance, Software is Free for Creative People

Autodesk 123D

In the Age of Abundance, it’s amazing what’s free for creative people. All you have to do is look for it. As I’ve mentioned before, there are great classes offered online for free. The Y Combinator startup class in my last post is just one example. But in addition to education, the tools are free too. For 3D rendering, look to Autodesk. There are nine of these Autodesk 123D online apps that offer and incredible array of 3D rendering capabilities.

Catch: Create 3D scans of virtually any object.

Circuits: Design, compile, and simulate your electronic projects online.

Creature: Have a perfect character idea in your head? Bring it to life with this free app for iPad!

Design: 123D Design is a free, powerful yet simple 3D creation and editing tool which supports many new 3D printers.

Make: Turn your amazing 3D models into even more amazing do-it-yourself projects.

Meshmixer: The ultimate tool for 3D mashups and remixes. Mash, mix, sculpt, stamp or paint your own 3D designs.

Sculpt: Push, pull, pinch, paint, smooth, tug. More fun than a Renaissance studio, cleaner than clay.

Tinkercad: Get started with basic 3D modelling – no downloads required.

Sandbox: Here you’ll find some technology in progress.


If you think these are to complex and you’ll never figure them out, think again. Two years ago, I put my son on one to see how easy there were. He was ten at the time. Within a few hours, he had the Design app figured out and made the coffee cup below. Yeah, to him that’s a coffee cup. It look s more like a transformer/tank. You have to drink out of the spout on the right. He filleted and chamfered all the edges on his own. By the time he finished, he could manipulate the program to a high degree. The only thing I showed him was how to get into the program.


I think the reason he did it so easily is that these programs are similar in nature to minecraft and the Lego Digital Designer. They have a modular sense of construction and the navigation tools are similar.

If you are still intimidated by software, take a look at this video. Using the Catch app, all you have to do is to take some pictures of an object and the program will stich the images together for you, creating a 3D rendering. Take some time to poke through these apps. It’s well worth your time.

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator is one of the best startup accelerators for tech entrepreneurs. It’s been around since 2008 and launched an amazing array of success stories including: Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit and Twitch. Now, they’ve launched an online course explaining their methods. And for the best part, it’s free. The course, “How to Start a Startup” is exactly how it sounds, a course on how to start a startup. And it’s great. I haven’t watched all the lectures. But the ones I have are really informative.

I recommend it for any creative person wanting to take control of their future.

The Definition of Creativity is …Complicated

Courbet in his studio

Courbet in his studio

With the  level of press creativity gets these days, it would seem that we’d have a better handle on the definition. But still, there are many who differ on how the term should be used or to what it applies. Partly, this can be attributed to the long and twisted history of the term itself. Bear with me while I travel through time to elucidate the history of creativity. The following is paraphrased from a section in my book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Etymology related to creativity is extensive. The root of create and creativity are the Latin creates and creare. Both of these words convey a sense of making—not innovating. The transitive verb creo means to conjure up or be born. Creativity is also derived from the old French base kere, the Latin crescere and the Roman creber. Already, it’s a little confusing. From these comes the Roman goddess of the earth, Ceres. Another goddess, the Italian corn goddess Cereris, is linked as well to creativity. In this sense, creativity means to grow and has a strong connection with the earth. Other modern day terms derived from these origins are cereal, crescent and creature.[i]

So for the most of history, creativity has been tied to making, growing or putting together. Obviously, this is not how we view it today. Present day usage of creativity implies a more individualistic, unique or artistic connotation. How we understand the word is relatively new, and it was not seen much until several hundred years ago. You can see below how Herman Melville used it in Moby Dick back in 1841:

‘…There is some unsuffusing think beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all they eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it…’

Way back in the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), creativity was linked to rationalism. This rationalistic belief of creativity categorizes it as conscious and deliberate.[ii] This corresponds to the notion of art at that time. The Greeks referred to art as techni (craft). Greek artists were not the type of aloof, expressive individuals we see artists as today. Instead, they were lower class laborers. To be an artist was to be a craftsman.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance (1400 AD – 1550 AD) that artists achieved recognition as individual geniuses. Before the Renaissance, creativity for artists meant the ability to imitate past masters. Essentially, they copied—again, not how we conceptualize creativity today. But during the Renaissance, individualism began to take form. From this, artists became more expressive and vocal. Leonardo da Vinci, himself, argued that genio (genius) was not only imitation, but should also incorporate originality. However, at this time painting studios were not personal retreats where artists found their muses. These were workshops filled with apprentices painting large portions of the artist’s work. The artists of this time served as masters to apprentices and finished the more difficult areas.[iii]


Wanderer above the sea of fog

Wanderer above the sea of fog

The notion of the modern painter—aloof and idealistic—took shape during the nineteenth century’s Romantic period. Artists during this time did look to their inner muse to draw inspiration. Thids adoption of the inner muse for inspiration, they took from the Ancient Greek conception that poets were agents of the gods and devoid of talent themselves. “The romantic artists and men of letters, in particular, revived the classical notion of divine mania or inspiration and established it as a divine mark of the extraordinary individual”.[iv] Rationalism therefore was dismissed, and men of letters argued that “creativity requires temporary escape from the conscious ego and a liberation of instinct and emotion.” Wordsworth even stated that is was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[v] To get a good view of what it may have felt like to be overwhelmed in such a way, Casper David Friedrich (above) paints a good visualization.  In this mode of thinking the artists contemplates nature as a mysterious beckoning force.

Oddly, it was technology that liberated artists from their studios and enabled them to work directly from nature—painting their immediate experiences. In 1841, an American portrait painter by the name of John G. Rand found a way to fabricate a tube from tin. Sealing it with a screw top, it was perfect for holding paint. Before there were tubes of paint, artists mixed pigments in their studios and stored the paint in pig bladders.[vi] As you can imagine, pig bladders are neither durable nor portable.  Taking them on site would be a messy affair.

Consequently, artists would make sketches in the field and return to their studios to paint final versions. With the ability to store paint in tubes, artists could carry a number of colors around with them and paint directly from nature instead of from the drawings created before. Additionally, this innovation set forth a whole new genre in painting, en plein air (in the open air). This is where we get the image of an artist standing (alone) with his easel in a field, rendering nature.

Innovations like paint tubes came about frequently during this time, which was the Industrial Revolution. Pretty much every domain was being innovated including agriculture and manufacturing. Before the Industrial Revolution, inventions were slow to come about. But this time of scientific inquiry created a new vision of the future and drove people to improve their surroundings.

In the 20th century, the notion of creative expression ping-ponged back and forth between romanticism and rationalism. Rationalism returned through Modernism and the conscious experimentation of form and materials. Modernist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé heralded the significance of consciously developing skill. Shortly thereafter, Abstract Expressionism brought a burst of romanticism through artists who created spontaneous expressions of pure emotion.[vii] The arts of this time were seen as free of planning or rational thought. Finally, the following isms that wrapped up the 20th century brought back the objective notions of creativity and creative production that remain today.

Whew, that’s quite a history.



[i] Piirto, Jane Ph.D. Understanding Those Who Create, 2nd Edition. Scottsdale: Gifted Psychology Pres, Inc., 1998

[ii] Sawyer, Keith. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 .

[iii] Ibi

[iv] Becker, George. “The Association of Creativity and Psychopathology: Its Cultural-Historical Origins.” Creativity Research Journal, 2000-2001, Vol. 13, No. 1: 45-53.

[v] Sawyer 2006

[vi] Hurt, Perry. “Never Underestimate the Power of a Paint Tube.” May 2013. (accessed October 29, 2013).

[vii] Sawyer 2006

How Sculptures Are Becoming Spaceships

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

For decades, the gravity defying sculptures of Kenneth Snelson have risen to the skies with a unique state of energy. These expansive nests of cable and steel rods possess a tranquil and rhythmic aesthetic quality linking geometry with art. It’s a process Snelson has perfected over the years. His sculptures are always a hit with the art-loving community and the not-so-art-loving community. He calls his combination of tension and compression, “tensegrity.” He and Buckminster Fuller seem to have come up with the idea together.

But as things go, good ideas have a multitude of applications. And now there is a new use for tensegrity—spaceships. NASA is now planning to build tensegrity robots called Super Ball Bots. These flexible robots are to roll like tumbleweeds around on the surfaces of planets sometime in the near future. NASA plans to drop the robots from high altitudes and just let them squish on the surface of the planet. Once they’ve done that, they’ll flex back into form and be good as new. Their combination of tension and compression makes these structures both flexible and durable. Without a central body, they basically look like a ball of sticks. Each little stick has its own brain and motor. Each brain works fairly independently and gang together to create an interesting system of interconnected computers that can continue navigating the robot even if some fail. The bots navigate by the each motor tightening or releasing tension in the cables.

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

It’s interesting to find useful solutions in one domain and then see those same principles jump to solve problems in other domains. You can call it synthesis, emulation, association or whatever. But in general, it’s creativity.

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative




If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.


While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.


To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.


How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.


How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .


What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.


What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.


How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.


For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.


How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website


I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.