Plight of the Loner


At the turn of the last century, a brilliant young inventor, Philo T Farnsworth, learned the hard way some endeavors are too big to go it alone. Farnsworth had an incredible vision—one that changed the way we live. From childhood, Farnsworth was brilliant and precocious. He constantly fiddled with electronics and gizmos. As a child, he converted his mom’s sewing machine from a manual one into an electric one. Then there was one fateful day when he was fourteen.  On that day, he was struck by a vision of genius while working on the family farm. The parallel rows of potato fields in front of him prompted a moment of insight for transmitting rows of electronic information that could be reassembled to form an image. At that moment, Farnsworth conceived television.[i] That moment should have also ensured Farnsworth a place in the pantheon of great scientists, but it didn’t. Instead, it signaled the beginning of a lifelong battle of frustration.

Farnsworth was a loner and wouldn’t relinquish control of his invention to a large corporation. For this, he doomed himself into a revisionary tale of David and Goliath in which David lost. Farnsworth didn’t understand the complexities of bringing such a device to market, and he was outdone by the president of RCA, David Sarnoff. Sarnoff had the money and resources that large corporations do, and Farnsworth had little. Farnsworth had to do everything himself—even legal work. One of the saddest instances of Farnsworth’s troubles was when Sarnoff came to visit Farnsworth’s main laboratory in San Francisco, and Farnsworth wasn’t there. He was instead in New York combating a frivolous lawsuit. It could have been his chance to woo RCA’s media titan. Instead, what happened is that Sarnoff left San Francisco relatively uninterested and made a low offer for Farnsworth’s patents which Farnsworth turned down.[ii]

There are numerous occasions like this where Farnsworth either missed an opportunity or was not qualified for what he was doing, such as arguing a case before Congress. In front of Congress, he rambled endlessly.

In general, Farnsworth misunderstood how he needed others to help his invention succeed.  He thought it was clear that he invented Television, and therefore, should always be the King of Television. But as more and more creative endeavors go, television needed resources to come to fruition. There were many parts to it. What he invented was the part that brought it to life. It was expensive, and it was a race. As Farnsworth worked on his image dissector, many others were developing similar technology. Farnsworth just happened to be in the lead at the moment. When RCA engineer Vladimire Zworykin finally filed a patent in 1931 for the iconoscope—his version of the TV camera—there were at least six similar patents from five different countries being filed at the same time. Farnsworth couldn’t keep up and, in 1939, witnessed RCA’s televised coverage of the World’s Fair in which Sarnoff introduced both President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein before claiming television as his own.[iii]

[i]  Gladwell, Malcolm.”The Televisionary.” The New Yorker, May 27, 2002: 112-116.

[ii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 112)

[iii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 116)

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Certitude – The Creativity Killer

Mindset may be the best determinate of one’s level of creativity. Creative people tend to be curious. They question their surroundings and seek out new things. While those with a strong conviction toward having all the right answers don’t.

This can be related to relative knowledge, or perception of relative knowledge. I often see people who are less informed on a topic being more certain they know everything about it. And as they learn more, they learn that there is much more to be learned. Teachers regularly witness this phenomenon in students. When students are freshmen, they are less inclined to question their opinions. As they advance, and learn more, they become more aware of the vast number of approaches to any given task. Thus, they are less obstinate about being right and more inclined to conduct research to confirm their opinions. The philosopher Dylan once said, “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” That sums it up.

In his essay, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” George Loewenstein states how knowing one doesn’t know something increases their level of curiosity. Those who think they know everything aren’t compelled to learn more. But those who know they don’t know, especially those who are aware they kind-of-know, feel compelled to seek more related information.

To ensure that we maintain a curious mindset, we should constantly be learning more stuff. Through learning, we find how entropy works. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And we become more aware the universe is a very complex thing. This means there is always something new to learn. Any topic is complex when looked at from a variety directions. And several viewpoints may be correct all at the same time. From this, any one problem can have many solutions that are equally viable.

To further embrace curiosity as a means to creativity, we should embrace process as a means to a better outcome, even when we know we have the right answer. The more time we spend researching, brainstorming and reflecting, the better our ideas become. And from these better ideas, the better our solutions will be. How do you know you have a good idea? It’s when you have a lot of others to compare it to. There’s no magic number on how long one should spend on ideation, but the more one works on a problem, the more one knows the complexities related to it.

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.



Do Ho Suh




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.

To Be Creative, Choose a Lifestyle Not a Trick

Choose a lifestyle not a trick

I’ve read a ton of posts with tricks for being a better, smarter, more creative, or generally more successful person. I’m assuming that you have too. But honestly, do these tricks help—not really. They are fun to read and interesting to think about. But very few of us will actually be impacted by them. That’s because tricks don’t change behavior.

A long time ago I read some studies on the best methods for losing weight and getting in better shape. These were studies that dealt with actual results rather than hype. Surprisingly, the best method for being healthier didn’t involve a radical style of exercise, a gimmicky diet, the latest treadmill or some other quick fix. Instead, the research found that if you really want to get into shape, date someone who is already in shape.

It’s true. To change your lifestyle, you really need to change your general way of doing things. By dating someone who is already in shape, you’ll start picking up on their habits and begin incorporating them into your life. The sad part is that they probably will slide into a few of your tendencies. But there is a real lesson here. I have tons or methods for generating ideas and synthesizing concepts. And they do work. Or, you could buy the book “Thinkertoys.” It has hundreds of games and techniques in it. But none of these make you more creative in the long term. To have a more creative career, you have to actually develop a practice of being creative.

Something I’ve found through research and practice is that one of the best ways for gaining a more creative life is to become more curious.  It’s much easier for all those other things related to creativity to fall into place for a curious person than a person who isn’t curious. Curiosity works because it compels you to act, to seek out new things. Creativity people are problem finders. And curious people seek out problems. Curiosity comes from a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. Once you know you don’t know something, you will want to figure out what it is that you don’t know. So taking walks, camping, tinkering with stuff, talking to new people – these all lead to heightened curiosity. Curiosity isn’t a drive where the more you get the fuller you get. Instead, the more stimulus you get via curiosity,  the more curious you become.

But most of all, hang around others who are curious and creative. That is how you will actually increase your odds of being creative yourself.

Be a Catalyst for Change

Be a Catalyst for Change

Kevin Carroll is an inspirational speaker promoting creativity and social change. He’s got a great message and stage presence. Check out his TED Talk, from a while back. He’ll be speaking at SCAD this week. What really impresses me about him is that he’s promoting action over talk. We need to start doing what we are talking about. Additionally, he’s pushes the concepts of play and curiosity as motivators. His web site is here.

What’s Your Creative Routine?

What's Your Creative Routine?

It’s interesting to see the daily routines of some of the most creative people in history. Here’s an infographic by R.J. Andrews on the habits of some of them. What It tells us, I don’t really know. You can draw your own conclusion. The related article, INFOGRAPHIC: SEE THE DAILY ROUTINES OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS CREATIVE PEOPLE, was written by Jennifer Miller.

My Article On Alfredo Jaar Is Now Online

ArtPulse link for my article is now open

The article I wrote on Alfredo Jaar, A Model of Thinking, is now accessible here on the ArtPulse Magazine website.  I’d like to drive some traffic to that article. If you have the opportunity, please click on the article. To leave a comment you have to be logged into their site, or go here to the contact page.

Thanks for your support.