Design & Color, Winter 2017 week 1

The first session of the Design and Color class for Winter 2017 was held on Wednesday, January 4. The class was introduced to the first of the six phases of problem-solving (Point of Entry), and Dick discussed the two course-long assignments (On A Roll, and Draw A Square) which will help us explore creativity and learn how to confront our ‘givens’. We enjoyed a short lecture on design and what it tells us about the creator(s), followed by time to play with toothpicks in anticipation of our homework for this week.

Homework assignment

Download (PDF)

The original version of the assignment, below, has some additional information.

Download (PDF)

Class recap – some key ideas

The first class of Design & Color covered a lot of material! Some of it will sound familiar to those who have taken classes in the last year with Dick, and to many others, it is new and unusual territory. One of the first observations that came up during our introductions was from a student who had been in the Drawing Foundation and Advanced Drawing classes, and he noted that Dick had made comments that design and composition are two different subjects. We briefly covered ‘composition’ in our Advanced Drawing classes, and now it is our chance to understand what ‘design’ is, from Dick’s perspective!

A quick search on Google offers the following definitions:

1) a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made; an arrangement of lines or shapes created to form a pattern or decoration;

2) purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

1) the nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up; a thing composed of various elements;

2) a work of music, literature, or art.

For our class, the focus on ‘design’ is about learning to recognize how we approach and work on a problem; and as artists, this most often equates to visual problems. As Dick said, this class is focused on the process of design and of problem solving: “This class is more concerned with process rather than product, and if you understand the process, you can go in any direction.”

When faced with a challenge, how do we react? How do we solve it? These are questions that we will confront during the next 7 weeks of exploration and experimentation.

On A Roll, and Draw A Square

Dick introduced the two on-going assignments which will last the full 7 weeks: ‘On A Roll’, and ‘Draw A Square’. By having these assignments carry through the course, we add the element of time, and this provides an opportunity to showcase what happens when one has time to build new concepts from previous discoveries. By sharing our discoveries and revelations each week, we will surprise ourselves with the range of solutions to these basic instructions!

Dick had assigned the ‘Draw A Square’ problem to a previous class, which resulted in some marvelous outcomes. It is such a simple concept: “draw a square on a white index card”, but when pressed to come up with ever-more ingenious ways to express that idea, the results can be unexpectedly creative.

And why a paper towel or toilet paper roll for the other assignment? Well, Dick wanted to find something that was “easily accessible, cheap, and otherwise would end up in the landfill”: in other words, to give new life to something which we are all used to seeing and treating in a particular way. This is an object usually destined for the trash, and so by asking us to reconsider its uses and potential design, we may find it to be just as creatively rich as the ‘Draw A Square’ discoveries.

6 phases of problem-solving

Talking about the toilet paper rolls was a good segue into the focus the Design & Color class, which is to further dive into and understand the ‘6 phases of problem-solving’. This is something that Dick has talked about in other classes, and one of the pre-class requests was to read the book Conceptual Blockbusting, by James L. Adams. An excerpt from one of the Drawing Foundation classes talked about Dick’s connection to this book:

[Dick] then spoke for a bit about his graduate thesis, which was on the five steps of creative problem solving. Dick said it wasn’t until he was testing his theory at Ohio State University that he realized there was a sixth step involved as well:

  1. Point of entry (recognizing our preconceptions)
  2. Expansion
  3. Conversion
  4. Development
  5. Evaluation
  6. Exploitation

It was a few years later that he discovered a book on the same subject, Conceptual Blockbusting, by James Adams, which had the same steps outlined. … The point is to learn and understand what tools and knowledge are out there, and then you can pick and choose what to use and what to discard. “An educated person at least knows their options. If you don’t know your options then you’re a prisoner of your own ignorance.” (Drawing Foundation, week 6)

Later, Dick met Adams through a friend, and had dinner with him.

Point of Entry and fence posts

The first phase on the list is “Point of Entry”, which also translates as ‘recognizing our preconceptions’, or our ‘givens’: “Our greatest enemy is our ‘givens’ … and our givens are based on our preconceptions.” Dick spoke for a bit about how tricky it is to recognize what we take for granted, and the whole reason they are ‘givens’ is that they are assumptions we have been trained to make our whole lives. Without some of these assumptions, we would not be able to integrate ourselves into society, and there lies another clue to identifying our preconceptions: we are part of the culture, the society, and the belief system we live in. And so because we are part of society (like a fish in water), we often don’t notice what these influences have done to our conscious framework until they are challenged. As Dick said in a past class, “What are your preconceptions? This is the hardest part, because the point of entry is all your preconceptions and you can’t spot them because they’re so hidden. [You don’t recognize what is inhibiting you, what you take for granted.] This is really important, that point of entry, and really being able to examine your own preconceptions.”

Dick also used the metaphor of ‘fence posts’ to set boundaries for our creative work. As parents, one has to create and enforce boundaries, or ‘fence posts’, to help a child reach maturity: when to go to bed, what to eat, when to do homework, etc. However, as creative adults and artists, we get trapped by our own (and cultural or social) restrictions, and if you don’t identify what’s limiting you, you’ll always stay fenced in by imaginary boundaries and blocks. As written in a previous post, “When faced with a problem, humans tend to react in predictable ways, and part of learning to be a visual ‘problem solver’ is learning how to approach your art with as much conscious awareness as possible. This will allow you to find new and creative ways of expressing yourself, without getting hemmed in by self-imposed boundaries.”

Paper towel / toilet paper roll

Dick held up one of the toilet paper rolls, and asked the class to identify the ‘givens’ of this particular object. What do we know about it? The class called out some observations:

  • Cylinder shape
  • Flexible
  • Lightweight
  • Made out of cardboard
  • You can look/hear/blow through it
  • What happens if you wet it? Or burn it? And to what degree of wetting or burning?

Dick asked that for every assignment, we start out by listing what we know about the materials and the object at hand. Dick stressed this as a key step in the process of design, and wants us to learn to recognize the inherent problems/qualities/‘givens’ of any situation. As he said, “The ‘givens’ will invariably dictate your choices and your actions, so if you don’t know your givens, you will be constrained by your own beliefs.”

Dick also asked that we write down our thought processes as we work on the Draw A Square and On A Roll assignments: “Document your ‘a-haas’”. By keeping a log of your discoveries, we can link the steps together to see how one thought led to another, and one revelation opened the door for the next. For, as Jerome Bruner put it, “Discovery favors the prepared mind.”

PowerPoint presentation on design

After our coffee break, Dick introduced his slideshow with the statement: “Design defines who we are and what we believe.” There are endless clues and observations to be found in objects, both man-made (architecture, music, paintings, etc.) and natural (plants, insects, geological formations, etc.). When we learn to recognize these clues and label them for what they are, we can learn a lot about the forces that shaped the design. For man-made objects, these forces are the mind state and belief system of the creator (what do they value, what is important to them?). As Dick said, “[Most people don’t notice] what magic is in design, and what stories are told in design itself.”

Which led to his next point, that “if you don’t know who you are, then your designs are just cosmetic.” He made reference to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, a structure that was built in the style of Gothic architecture, but many centuries later than the Gothic period (construction of Grace Cathedral began in 1923, while the Gothic period flowered between the 12th -16th centuries). In this case, the design is merely a copy of the elements and styles from an earlier culture, and therefore does not have the same meaning or power of the original. As a culture, we no longer carry the same beliefs (and superstitions) of the medieval Europeans, so many of their symbols and metaphors fall flat when viewed through 20th- and 21st-century eyes. Dick pointed out that this is another pitfall of a designer or artist who does not identify their preconceptions and their ‘givens’: “If you don’t know where you come from [your history, your beliefs], you’ll get caught up in fads.” Culture plays a huge part in shaping our givens, but will also inform our style and interpretation. “As a designer you have to be at one with yourself, and know who you are and what you believe.”

In reference to our homework assignment, which is to create several designs using flat toothpicks, he spoke about the image of a nautilus shell, and pointed out that nature starts the design from the inside out. In the cross section of the nautilus shell, we can see how there is one shape, or form, that is repeated over and over. However, the repetition is not static; it changes in size and proportion, and in a steady, rhythmic fashion. Dick said to do the same with the toothpicks: set up a relationship, which is the 1st pattern [we can label it T-1], and then let it evolve. It is like nature designing a DNA sequence, which stays the same, but also evolves. “We want to build change into the design.”

And how do we know what kind of change to add to our design? Dick offered up this clue, visually represented by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man, “Remember, in this assignment, the toothpick is the measure of all things.”

Toothpick assignment

We ended the class by having some time to play around with the toothpicks, followed by a brief critique by Dick on a few of the designs. Dick repeated again to use the toothpick as the starting point for the design: all decisions should be based off of, and in reference to, the original ‘DNA’. By introducing change arbitrarily, we will introduce elements which do not make sense, which will lead to the dreaded ‘freaks of nature’, as Dick likes to call it. “Nature always has a reason, thumbs are not just put anywhere on the arm”, and we should follow in her example by being aware of our decisions and making sure they relate to the whole design.

Class photos

Class materials

Here are the slides of the PowerPoint presentation that Dick showed. Students of Art History may recognize some of the images and their significance.