Scale: a creative strategy

Scale is a concept with many implications. Most of the time scale is associated with physicality. The carvings on Mount Rushmore are big. Thinking also has scale. Thinking on a large scale creates one level of understanding. And thinking on a small scale creates another. Another interesting concept is that the scale in which one makes something changes how it is perceived, and therefore can be used as a successful creative strategy. This post demonstrates how changing scale—either physically or conceptually—can change perception.

The Big Build as an initiative I created within my department to transform small 3D student projects into full scale sculptural works. The reasons for doing so are many. But mainly it was to demonstrate the effects of scale on design. Every art department with sculpture related classes has to deal with the problems of space.  Subsequently, students in beginning design courses usually work relatively small—around a 2’ x 2’ x 2’ notional space. This size is generally understood as practical.  Within the confines of a classroom used by many sections during the week and time limitations due to the curriculum, it is difficult to encourage students all to go larger. So often times, the lessons related to scale are hypothetical. Creating something each year which demonstrates what scale really means greatly affects how students perceive scale.

The Big Build

The inaugural Big Build project was a great success with this year’s project proving to be just as impressive. Such a dramatic shift in scale can transform most any project both aesthetically and structurally. Another offshoot of the project is that these projects stand as learning opportunities and inspiration for other students.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hidden in the Big Build initiative is another lesson that becomes obvious upon completion of the project. That lesson teaches that shifting scale is an effective strategy for making a sculpture more interesting. Sculptors use this strategy all the time. Claus Oldenburg has many examples where he took a commonplace object like a tube of lipstick or a typewriter eraser and fabricated them on a gargantuan scale.

On the other side of scale is Willard Wigon who creates works so small that he’s considered a micro sculptor. Many of his works are tiny enough to fit on the head of a pin. Sometimes, viewers need a magnifying glass to see them.

For both these artists, scale is a primary reason their works are so popular. The shift in scale changes the implications of their work and how it relates to us. It also changes how we think about concepts relate to them.

Concepts too can be big or small. And thinking on a grand scale helps us throw a broader net over problems. Thinking on a small scale creates opportunities to see specifics. Consequently, problem solving on both the micro and macro levels can help one to better understand why a problem exists and how it affects other things. Doing so also helps one to create innovative solutions that actually work.

An old method for consciously shifting one’s thinking from one level to another is Edward de Bono’s dominant ideas and crucial factors. This comes from his book Lateral Thinking where he explains many methods of divergent thinking.

Dominant Ideas

Most people are confident that they know what they are talking about, what they are reading about or what they are writing about, but if you ask them to pick out the dominant idea, they have difficulty doing so. It is difficult to convert a vague awareness into a definite statement. Unless one can convert a vague awareness to a definite pattern it is extremely difficult to generate alternative patterns or alternative ways of looking at a situation.

Dominant Ideas may include the whole subject or only one aspect of it. Thus, from an article on crime, one might pick out the following dominant ideas:

  •  Crime
  • Behavior of people
  • Violence
  • Social structures and crime
  • The trend of crime
  •  What can be done about crime

Crucial Factors

A crucial factor is an element of the situation which must always be included no matter how one looks at the situation. The crucial factor is a tethering point. Like a dominant idea, a crucial factor can immobilize a situation and make it impossible to shift a point of view.

The difference between a dominant idea and a crucial factor is that the dominant idea organizes the situation, and the crucial factor tethers it. Some crucial factors for a crime would be

  • Perpetrator
  • Victim
  • Law
  • Governance
  • Greed

Binary Fractionation

This involves the creation of parts from the whole. One does not try to find true parts in this exercise, but just tries to create parts.


For example: If the problem is picking apples, there are many parts to the problem which should be taken into account. This problem could be broken down as below:

  • Reaching
  • Finding
  • Picking
  •  Transport to the ground
  • Undamaged apples

After putting the different fractionation parts together, one might think that shaking the tree would be best. Then one would have to find out how to get the apples down without damaging them.

Two unit division: is a quick way separating a concept even further

A crucial factor in an apple-picking machine would be that the apples must not be damaged.

Looking at the binary fractionation model it is easy to see that the big picture stuff is on the left and the more specific components are on the right. Using techniques like this help us to visualize what it is we are thinking about and how to see the problem from a different vantage point. Scale has many implications and effects. Being aware of how we are approaching a problem can help us understand if we are really solving it the best way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s