Design & Color, Winter 2017 week 2

The second session of the Design and Color class for Winter 2017 was held on Wednesday, January 11. We critiqued the various homework assignments; heard from Dick on ‘heuristics’ and the 6 phases of creative problem-solving; and explored further the meaning of a ‘module’ and how to create designs that are not ‘freaks’!

Homework assignment

  1. Exploit your discoveries and inspiration from the toothpick modules class critique, continuing to explore, or creating one or more finished (glued on black backing) designs. Remember to record your thoughts, discoveries, fenceposts (decisions/criteria), and critique.
  2. Continue exploring ongoing assignments “On a Roll” and “Draw a Square”.

Class recap – some key ideas

Critique – “On a Roll” assignment

Class began with students sharing notes, observations, and discoveries about the On A Roll challenge. Dick had the class break off into groups of two, and they followed the ‘On A Roll Critique’ sheet as they shared their discoveries with their partner.

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After 10 minutes or so, we reconvened as a class to discuss the findings. Students had produced an array of objects, including seedling planters, eyeglass holder, a children’s mobile, and even a small lamp!

The highlights of the discussion:

  • “Recognize your fence posts.” What is the purpose of your creation – is the final design going to be utilitarian? Or decorative? What other options are there?
  • If you don’t have time to produce or act on your ideas, write them down.
  • Dig deeper … what else would you modify? “Some of the most creative things will happen when you are the most restricted.”
  • What did she decide as fence posts? “You’ve got to be conscious of what you’re assigning yourself … Look at all of your options.”
  • What is the given? What are the inherent qualities that you are dealing with? The cylinder. The cardboard material. Absorbency. Resiliency. Wrestle with the givens now, and you won’t find them limiting later.
  • “Synthesis is such an important design concept. What is synthesis? Putting two or more different ideas together.” Some of the best and most creative ideas come from synthesizing aspects from seemingly incompatible sources – you never know what might happen if you stretch your imagination!
  • “The subconscious is a marvelous tool – let it fester.”

See more solutions in the “On a Roll” homework submitted online.

Critique – “Toothpick modules” assignment

The class then moved on to viewing and discussing the past week’s homework: creating toothpick ‘modules’, and subsequent designs based on those modules.

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Dick had pointed out in the last class that the designs should have a logical sequence, like a DNA strand, where the growth of the design is not random or arbitrary, but refers back to its origins as it evolves. Part of keeping the design in relationship to itself is using the toothpick as the guide; or as Dick said, “The toothpick is the measure of all things.”

Comments about keeping the design in relation to itself:

  • Does the design have a conclusion? How do we know when it’s going to end?
  • What are the static / non-changeable elements? What factor does change? (See the handout on ‘Toothpick Programming Tips’ in the ‘Class Materials’ section).
  • Dick critiqued many of the designs as having “imposed” factors, and students wanted to know what exactly that meant:
    • “That someone has introduced change or a decision randomly: you don’t know it’s going to happen, you can’t predict it [based on the earlier design decisions].”
    • Change [in tempo, direction, etc.] should be in relationship to the other parts, based on the DNA of the design as it began.

About recognizing your fence posts:

  • How many options do you have at every step / for every decision?
  • At all junctures, remember your elements of restraint, and keep to them. (Remember, restrictions breed creativity!)

About composition:

  • “What does the black [the ground] creeping in between the ends [of the toothpicks] do?” Watch for opportunities to use figure/ground reversal.
  • “This is an example of ‘1 + 1 = 3’: when the toothpicks have made a secondary figure [that the viewer sees first],” or created an illusion such as an object seen in perspective. The design becomes more than the sum of its parts.
  • “A much stronger element [in terms of visual tension] is a vertical. A vertical has tension; a horizontal is at rest. The most stable orientation is the vertical-horizontal axis. The most dynamic is the diagonal.” Be aware of these factors when creating a design: what message are you trying to convey?

See more toothpick module studies submitted online.


Before giving the lecture, Dick spoke briefly about heuristics. The understanding of heuristics has been an interest of Dick’s for decades, and is the pivotal theme around which the entire Design & Color series is based. As Dick quickly defined it, heuristics is “being conscious of what you are doing while you are doing it.” Merriam-Webster defines it as: “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods; also: of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.” Dick asked that the following thoughts on design and heuristics be included in this post.

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Lecture on the 6 phases of creative problem-solving

For the lecture, Dick elaborated on the 6 phases of creative problem-solving, and discussed why these steps are key to the artistic process. For his notes on the 6 phases, please refer to the slide show images in the ‘Class materials’ section below, and the one-page summary near the bottom of the post. (And since I love words, I looked up synonyms to add to the descriptions of the six stages. – Holly):

1. PRECONCEPTIONS (assumptions, bias, delusion, favoritism, inclination, mind-set, narrow-mindedness, penchant, predilection, preference, prejudice, proclivity, tendency)

Dick calls this the most difficult stage, since it is very challenging to recognize your own biases. Dick spoke at length last week on this particular stage, calling our preconceptions (the ‘givens’) “our greatest enemy”. As a starting point, he encourages us to identify our givens based on our materials first (what do we take for granted about paint, pencil, canvas, paper, clay, stone, etc.). Discovering the preconceptions we hold about physical materials can help us later to recognize some of our interior, and somewhat intangible, blocks: what mental, emotional, and aesthetic biases do we harbor? And are these biases blocking our way as artists?

“You are telling yourself ______________, you’re just not aware that you’re telling yourself that.”

“If you make it a habit to ask yourself these kinds of questions [what are my preconceptions/prejudices/biases? What are my options? What else can I do here?], it will become second nature.”

2. EXPANSION (amplify, breadth, buildup, deepening, develop, enhancement, elaboration, enlargement, evolution, fleshing out, increase, magnification, opening out, spreading, unfolding, unfurling, widening)

In this stage you expand on the revelations you discovered in the first stage. Research, experiment, play, and see where your mind and the materials take you. At each moment of decision-making in the artistic process, you have a chance to discover more options, or alternative approaches. For the toothpick assignment, this means pausing whenever a new toothpick is to be laid down: why is it going here? What was my rationale? What other options are there?

Identify your options … You have to pay attention to what you are doing. If you can’t see what you’re doing, you’ll miss your options.

3. CONVERGENCE (amassing, application, assembly, centering, close attention, coalescing, combination, compacting, compression, concentration, confluence, consolidation, fixing, focus, intensification, joining, junction, linkage, massing, meeting, merging, narrowing, unity)

This is when you have done some experimenting, you have found aspects that you like, and you are ready to focus on certain features. At this stage, you gather and concentrate those elements that are going to be in your final piece. This is the stage of ‘fence posts’, and Dick speaks of ‘corralling’ your ideas and assigning boundaries. By consciously selecting boundaries, you give your work focus and identify your goals for the piece. As was written in a previous post: “Another factor in reaching independence is the acknowledgment of boundaries. … Part of this week’s assignment is to be aware of the boundaries inherent in any piece of work, including those set by the technical elements (subject matter, materials, forming process, etc.). These decisions are what become our ‘fence posts’, that which defines and dictates our goal.”

Build your fence; choose your fence posts – the fence posts are absolutely critical.

4. DEVELOPMENT (addition, advancement, betterment, build up, chrysalis, elaborate, enrichment, flowering, furtherance, go ahead, growth, improvement, increase, perfecting, progression, maturation, maturity, refinement, ripening, unraveling)

This is the stage of actual work: carrying out your ideas and inspiration. During this stage, you will most likely discover that not everything will turn out as planned: some ideas were better than you imagined, and some were not. The point of this stage is to create and make ‘real’ what was before only ideas and thoughts; every action, no matter if it is ‘successful’ or not, will inform you as you move towards your goal.

5. EVALUATION (analysis, assessment, commentary, critique, decision, determination, discrimination, extract, examine, finding, judgment, opinion, option, pick, preference, rating, review, valuation, verdict)

Dick often says this is one of the two most important phases (the other one being Exploitation). At this stage we objectively view our work, and evaluate how our decisions turned out: was/were the experiment(s) successful? Was the goal reached? Is the (visual) message clear? By critiquing your work, you give yourself a chance to applaud what worked (what was successful), and acknowledge what needs further development (what was not successful).

Dick says there are only 3 things to ask when evaluating work:

  • What was I trying to do?
  • Did I do it?
  • Was it worthwhile?

6. EXPLOITATION (act, action, activity, application, doing, effect, effort, engagement, enterprise, exercise, exert, handiwork, labor, manipulation, motion, movement, operation, process, progress, transference, undertaking, use, work, workmanship) 

The last stage is the blossoming and the maturing of all that has come before. This is another stage of experimentation, where you take everything learned in the previous stages and exploit it. The intersection of your ideas and the real world will add its own impression to the piece, the result of which you never would have predicted. From an Advanced Drawing post: “[Dick] also made note of how important it is to move on to the ‘exploitation phase’ of an idea: once you fully understand a concept, it’s important to play with it and see how it can be used in ways you had not previously thought of. This is the step that leads to true creativity, where you open the door for surprise revelations to occur while you experiment.”

Modules and programs

For the homework (to go further with our toothpick studies, and exploit what we’ve learned), Dick had a few pointers that he stressed (see ‘Toothpick Programming Tips’ handout near bottom of post):

  • Check your fence posts.
  • Write down the elements of change and elements of restraint.
  • Follow Nature’s design: it’s not from the outside in; it starts with those few [cells] and programs, and then grows outwards.

As Dick concluded, “If you really understand the idea of programming and relationship, then the constraints can be infinitely creative.”

Class photos

Class materials

Presentation: The Six Phases of Problem Solving

Additional handouts

Here is a convenient summary of the six phases of creative problem-solving all in one sheet.

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Here are some visual and verbal hints on the toothpick assignment.

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