The Secret Language of Creativity

It has been estimated that the vast majority of human communication is not only non-verbal it is also non-conscious.

We often think about non-verbal communication simply in terms of body language, but in fact, it plays a major role in all forms of human communication… particularly in areas such as the visual arts, cinema, theatre, music and dance.

Research suggests that the unconscious mind processes information far more quickly and efficiently than the conscious.

Indeed, it has been shown that the conscious mind is in fact a small bandwidth data processor, which can only process around 40 bits of information per second; whilst the unconscious mind is, effectively, a massive­­­ bandwidth data processor capable of processing over 13 million bits of information per second.

And since it processes over 13 million bits of information per second, our unconscious mind experiences much that is beyond the comprehension of the conscious mind.

Creative ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and we often refer to those ideas that have the greatest cultural impact as being ‘Big Ideas’. All creative ideas are processed in the unconscious before they surface in the conscious mind, but ‘big ideas’ tend to require a proportionally larger amount of unconscious processing.

One of the first to recognise the importance of the unconscious in the creative process was the French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912). Through a process of trial and error, Poincare found that consciously considering a complex problem, would only get him so far and that it was only after putting the task aside for a while, that the answer would come to him. Saying ‘it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover’, Poincaré developed a daily routine based on this insight, consciously working for just two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, giving over the remainder of the day for the unconscious to mull things over.

Using this technique, and by harnessing the processing power of the unconscious mind, Poincare was able to imagine mathematical structures of the most extraordinary complexity.

Indeed, his ideas went on to form the basis of Complexity Theory, a branch of mathematics that could only begin to be visualised in the late 1970’s when computers were finally invented with enough processing power to bring Poincaré’s ideas to life.

By harnessing the power of the unconscious mind, Poincare was capable of imagining mathematical structures that could only be visualised half a century after his death, with the arrival of computers with significant processing power in the late 1970’s. Pictured is one such computer generated image known as a ‘Mandelbrot Set’.

Poincaré’s ideas about creativity were to influence an entire generation, including such important Modernist figures as Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, but one person who was particularly influenced by Poincaré’s understanding of the role of the unconscious in the creative process, was an English social psychologist called Graham Wallas (1858 – 1932).

In 1926, Wallas published a book called The Art of Thought, in which he presented a model of the creative process, based on Poincaré’s method, which consisted of four consecutive, stages:

The Wallas Four-Stage Creative Process: 1) Preparation: The stage at which the problem is consciously ‘investigated in all directions’ 2) Incubation: The stage at which the problem is put to one side in favour of unconscious processing 3) Illumination: The stage at which the creative idea surfaces into conscious awareness 4) Verification: The stage at which the idea is consciously verified, and then applied.

With minor modifications, this four-stage process of PREPARATION, INCUBATION, ILLUMINATION and VERIFICATION has since been widely recognised as the standard model for the creative process.

As Wallas’s four stage process indicates, creative ideas appear after a conscious period of PREPARATION, followed by an unconscious period of INCUBATION; and the amount of time and effort that has been  devoted to the problem at these two critical stages is usually reflected in the scale, complexity and ultimately value of the result.

When evaluating creative ideas, I believe, therefore, that it is useful to place them on a spectrum with Low bandwidth ideas at one end of the scale and High-Bandwidth ideas at the other… depending on how much non-conscious processing power has been brought to bear on the problem.

An extremely Low-Bandwidth idea is one that has been quickly produced by the 40 bits per second conscious mind whilst, at the other end of the scale, an extremely High-Bandwidth idea is one produced over time by the 13 million bits per second non-conscious mind.

bandwidth slides.012

In some instances the creative process may simply represent the investment of the odd hour here or there, in others it may represent weeks, or even months of work, whilst, in truly exceptional circumstances, the realisation of a creative idea might represent the work of a lifetime.

So, for example, the kind of work that does not demand much unconscious processing – such as creativity within a pre-determined template, like a ‘Painting by Numbers’ kit or a simple tweak to an existing redipe – can be characterized as ‘Low-Bandwidth Creativity’.

Whereas the kind of work that draws on the wider resources of the unconscious – such as a novel, a screenplay, a great painting, or a symphony – can all be characterized as ‘High-Bandwidth Creativity’.


Thus when we experience High-Bandwidth Creativity in the form of a great movie or a profoundly moving piece of music, it is largely the subliminal elements, the ones that speak to us ‘below the radar’ of consciousness that decide how we actually experience the work.

In this way, ‘Big Ideas’ not only require a greater amount of unconscious processing power, they also communicate with the unconscious mind of the audience on a much broader bandwidth, and therefore have a greater cultural impact.

At their best, ‘Big Ideas’ are those which communicate across the full spectrum of consciousness. Addressing not just the tip of the iceberg that is the conscious mind, but also the vast submerged part that is the unconscious mind.

It is only in this manner that we can begin to communicate with the whole of our being, and to hope to express what it is to be fully human.


Death by Powerpoint

It is thought that the way in which Powerpoint forces information to be structured was - at least in part - responsible for the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster

Originally designed as a sales presenter program, the rigid way in which Powerpoint forces information to be structured means that it can be a dangerous liability when used in complex situations where comprehension can mean the difference between life and death.

Indeed it is widely thought that the rigid structure of Powerpoint that was – at least in part – responsible for the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003

When Marshall McLuhan, declared that “the medium is the message”, he surreptitiously slipped a remarkable and revolutionary new idea into late 20th century popular culture.

This seemingly innocent idea signalled the realisation that the very act of reading a text is often of greater significance than the information contained within the text itself.

And it is this insight that can help us understand the problem with Microsoft Powerpoint; the presenter programme which has become notorious, as much for its characteristics as a medium, as for its ability to communicate a message.

Powerpoint was invented in the mid-1980s by Robert Gaskins, a visionary entrepreneur, who spotted the opportunity for a dedicated sales presenter software programme offered by the the emergence of graphics-based personal computers. and the vast – but largely unrecognised – market for preparing business slides.

As a sales tool, Gaskins designed Powerpoint, to give the presenter the ‘power’ to make their ‘point’ in a structured, hierarchical fashion.

However, Powerpoint presentations are often linked less by internal logic or narrative coherence, than by the illusion of hierarchical structure created by the program.

And it is this combination of the lack of a coherent narrative, and an unrelenting hail of bullet points, that has made PowerPoint notorious for its unique ability to reduce audiences to catatonic states of mind-numbing boredom.

But the real problem these days is that Powerpoint is no longer restricted to use in sales pitches. Indeed you will now find Powerpoint presentations anywhere that one person needs to address others in a formal setting.

This includes organisations like NASA, and the US military. Where Powerpoint’s inability to deal with complexity and it’s rigid hierarchy have meant that ‘Death by Powerpoint’ is no longer simply a metaphor.


Whether it be for a high level Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing of his men in a remote valley in Afghanistan, the amount of time spent creating PowerPoint presentations, has made it a running joke among many members of the US Military.

But apart from the time wasted, and behind all the jokes about PowerPoint Rangers, there have been some very serious concerns among senior staff that the program itself stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.

In an article by in the New York Times entitled “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”, journalist Elisabeth Bumiller describes how the program has become deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering brings the illusion of order to a confused world.

““PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said in a speech at a military conference in North Carolina. (The speech was delivered without PowerPoint.)

A part from being sujected to constant attack from the Taliban the US Military is also subjected to daily Powerpoint presentations. Photo Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Many senior US Military figures are concerned that daily Powerpoint presentations  are curbing discussion, critical thinking and informed decision-making.
Photo Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times

And Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said…“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control…Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

General McMaster. us army

But this is to miss the point. The real strength of Powepoint is as a propaganda tool… as journalist Elisabeth Bumiller puts it, quoting one Senior US Military, Powerpoint is ” handy when the goal is not imparting information, but the opposite, as in briefings for reporters…. The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake… Those types of PowerPoint presentations, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.””

Perhaps the most infamous example of the US Military “hypnotizing chickens” was when General Colin Powell, then acting as As Secretary of State for the Bush administration, made his pitch to the United Nations Assembly for war in the Middle East, (“Go up there and sell it” Vice President Dick Cheney is reported to have said to him beforehand) with a highly imaginative presentation of the “evidence” for the existence weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Edward Tufte is the world’s leading thinker in the visual display of information. Since the publication of “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, in 1982, he has consistently championed the importance of good information design.

In the wake of the tragic 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, Tufte published an article in Wired magazine entitled: “PowerPoint Is Evil” and followed this up with a more scholarly, less dramatically titled pamphlet, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,”

Here Tufte argued that the programme encourages “faux-analytical” thinking that favors the slickly produced “sales pitch” over the sober exchange of information.

“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations… is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

In “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” Tufte’s analysis reveals that Powerpoint has a number of specific design faults which render it incapable of communicating certain types of information.

Firstly, Tufte says, it is designed to guide and to reassure the presenter, rather than to communicate with the audience. Secondly, the outliner function causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on every slide. (What’s more, the audience is forced to follow the presenter’s thinking in lockstep linear progression through this hierarchy – whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at the same time). And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it has a natural tendency to oversimplify thinking, with ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate bullet points.

A central part of this analysis was the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster which Tufte demonstrates, was caused, in part, by the use of Powerpoint.

The seven crew members who died aboard the Columbus were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.
Death by Powerpoint? The seven crew members who died aboard the Columbus following an over reliance on Powerpoint for communicating critical information. They were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.

The Columbia Space Shuttle was destroyed on February 1, 2003 while attempting to re-entering the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. A hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia’s wings, made of a carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch and struck the shuttle’s wing. During the intense heat of re-entry, hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart.

Exhibit A in Tufte’s analysis is a PowerPoint slide which you can see below and in more detail here, and which had been presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in space and they were trying to understand the risk posed by the damage caused by the piece of insulating foam to the shuttle wings.

Unfortunately, as you can see from Tufte’s analysis, the critical piece of information – the piece of information that could have prevented the disaster – is buried so deeply in the rigid PowerPoint format that it is effectively useless.

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded, citing Tufte’s work, and strongly criticized the culture within NASA in which, it said, “the endemic use of PowerPoint” had been substituted for rigorous technical analysis.

It is now more than twenty-five years since Powerpoint was first launched as a sales presentation aid. It is now installed on over one billion computers around the world, and its use is no longer confined to the sales pitch. It is used everywhere from church services to military briefings, from schools to hospitals.

And you don’t have to be a NASA rocket scientist to see what a dangerous idea this is…


The Hubble images – deep space or deep fake?

Spectacular images with names like ‘Mystic Mountain’ and the ‘Twin Pillars of Creation’ that have been produced by the Hubble Heritage Project have redefined how we imagine the universe around us.

And yet, on closer examination, it would seem that the way in which these images are constructed, says more about the culture that created them, than it does about the phenomena that they appear to portray.

Because what most people do not realise is that many of the dramatic views that are published by the Hubble Heritage Project bear little resemblance to anything that can ever be seen in reality, anywhere in the universe.

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ as Lord Darlington says in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

And if you look up into the night sky for long enough, you may catch sight of a mysterious glinting object sailing silently across the face of those stars.

This is probably a satellite; one of more than a thousand such objects, which currently orbit our planet.

Most satellites are faced back down towards the surface of the Earth, in order to perform such mundane tasks as providing weather reports, maintaining phone networks or beaming television channels into people’s living rooms.

One however, is orientated in accordance with Lord Darlingtons epithet and faces in the opposite direction, away from the Earth, up into the stars.

This satellite is the Hubble Space Telescope, which, from its vantage point, high above the Earth’s atmosphere, has fundamentally changed the way that we think about the universe.

In 1995, the telescope was used to take a 10-day exposure of a seemingly empty area of deep space. Many doubted the value of this operation, but the resulting image, known as the “Hubble Deep Field”, revealed an abundance of new galaxies, beyond the Milky Way. This exercise was repeated in 2004 with an experiment called “Ultra Deep Field,” in which more than 5,000 new galaxies were discovered, some as far as 13.2 billion light-years away. Since the light from these galaxies has taken this long to reach our solar system, these images offer a window onto what the universe looked like only a short time after the Big Bang, some 13.7 billion years ago.

As well as affording such extraordinary insights into the origins of the universe, the Hubble Space Telescope has also been the source of some of the most spectacular images of the cosmos that our world has ever seen; and these images have profoundly altered the way that we now imagine outer space.

These images are actually created here on Earth by an organisation called the Hubble Heritage Project, a dedicated group of astronomers and image processing specialists, set up by NASA to promote the benefits of its work to a wider public.

Since its formation in 1997, this unit has produced a series of spectacular images of nebulae, galaxies, and other celestial phenomena that have become the standard visual representation of the universe in anything from school textbooks to science fiction movies.

And yet, on closer examination, it would seem that the way in which these images are constructed, says more about the culture that created them, than it does about the phenomena that they appear to portray.

What most people do not realise is that many of the dramatic views that are published by the Hubble Heritage Project bear little resemblance to anything that can ever be seen in reality, anywhere in the universe.

This is because these images are in fact a product of the creative imagination, made up of, on the one hand, data that is not visible to the naked eye, and on the other, the combination of multiple sets of visible data.

For a start, the Hubble’s onboard digital cameras only record grey-scale pixels, and the actual ‘pictures’ that the telescope captures are rather dull, blurred black and white affairs.

The Hubble Heritage Project takes this rather unassuming visual data – as well as many elements, which are not visible to the human, eye – and make their own visual interpretation of this information. Firstly they decide which way is ‘up’ in the picture (in space there is, of course, no ‘up’ or ‘down’) then invisible elements are given physical form and colour and lighting effects are introduced to create highly dramatic forms of composition. In this way, otherwise formless shapes are purposely arranged to look like a fantastical, yet strangely familiar physical landscape.

The resulting images feature a highly distinctive visual language.

Elizabeth Kessler, in her book called ‘Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime,’ has shown that this distinctive visual language in fact bears a striking resemblance to the work of 19th century Frontier Artists of the American West, like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

‘Reference to the familiar visual iconography of 19th century landscapes of the American West threads through the Hubble Heritage Project’s efforts to reach a broad audience. The comparison of Hubble images and Romantic landscapes begins with their shared features, similarities in appearance that link two sets of images made more than a century apart: their color palettes, a focus on small regions within larger objects, dramatic backlighting, towers and pillars, a sense of overwhelming size and scale.’

Kessler who has spent a lot of time studying this imagery and talking with members of the Hubble Heritage Project goes on to say that:

‘Rather than creating something entirely new, astronomers… extended an existing mode of visualization and representation—one associated with exploration—to a new phase of discovery. The mythos of the American frontier functioned as the framework through which a new frontier was seen.’

These days, few would deny the enormous contribution the Hubble telescope has made to the sum total of scientific knowledge, however, to understand why the Hubble Heritage Project, and presumably NASA itself, might want to evoke the spirit of 19th century American Frontier Art in its portrayal of the cosmos, it is important to remember that this was not always the case.

With an original estimated cost to the American taxpayer of around US$400 million, NASA had hoped to launch the Hubble Space Telescope in 1983, but the schedule had slipped as deadline after deadline was missed.

When the Telescope was finally made ready in 1986, NASA was to suffer one of the greatest blows in its history. On 28 January that year, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, killing its crew of seven. The disaster grounded the shuttle fleet for the best part of three years. Without the shuttle, Hubble could not be launched into orbit.

When, the telescope was finally launched, in April 1990, some seven years late, and billions of dollars over budget, NASA scientists were devastated to discover that its main mirror had been polished to the wrong specifications.

The fault was miniscule, yet it was enough to render the telescope incapable of performing most of the tasks for which it had been designed.

In the months that followed, the telescope and NASA itself became the butt of many jokes, and the project was universally regarded as a white elephant. So, in July, a Newsweek magazine cover branded it as: ‘NASA’S $1.5 BILLION BLUNDER’ and the following year the comedy film, The Naked Gun 2½, depicted the Hubble telescope alongside the Titanic, and the Hindenburg. The name Hubble had become a byword for misjudgment on a spectacular scale.

The laughter continued well into December 1993 when NASA sent up a Space Shuttle servicing mission to attempt to correct the Hubble’s poor vision with what many gleefully referred to as ‘space glasses’.

And then, suddenly, the laughter stopped.

One after another, awe-inspiring images of the furthermost corners of the cosmos now began to emerge from the Hubble Heritage Project team. These spectacular images with names like ‘Mystic Mountain’ and the ‘Twin Pillars of Creation began to redefine how we imagined the universe around us.

With these images, the Hubble Heritage Project was attempting to portray, the world beyond the frontiers of normal human experience, so it is perhaps no surprise that they took their visual language cues from American Frontier artists who, in the 19th century had similarly portrayed the American West as a vast uninhabited, unspoiled Eden, for the benefit of the population back East.

The story of the expansion to the west is a cornerstone of the United States’ national identity. In 1991 an art exhibition held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC called The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920, had ignited a nationwide controversy about American Frontier art.

In the exhibition catalogue, one of the show’s main curators William H. Truettner had written:

‘…images from Christopher Columbus to Kit Carson show the discovery and settlement of the West as a heroic undertaking. Many nineteenth-century artists and the public believed that these images represented a faithful account of civilization moving westward. A more recent approach argues that these images are carefully staged fiction and that their role was to justify the hardship and conflict of nation building. Western scenes extolled progress but rarely noted damaging social and environmental change.’

And yet it is too simplistic to see artists like Bierstadt and Moran, as purveyors of propaganda for the Westward expansion of the United States.

Of course, the images they created clearly had the effect of propaganda… inspiring many people  to migrate West, but this was not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of the artists involved as Elizabeth Kessler, explains  these artists were primarily driven by a Romantic vision of ‘The Sublime’ – as advocated by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke – and the majestic landscapes of the 19th century American West provided the perfect opportunity to express this vision. The fact that their work suited the geopolitical agenda was, perhaps, more coincidental than causal.

Similarly, to suggest that the Hubble Heritage Project images were consciously deployed in a bid to repair NASA’s corporate reputation – by adopting the visual language of the art of Manifest Destiny – is possibly a little unfair. Even though it was undeniably useful.

It is perhaps best to think that they had their minds on higher matters. Or as Lord Darlington put it: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ 



A portrait of the artist,

Like so many creative ideas, it all began by chance.

It was 1971. Two photographs had fallen on to the floor of his studio, and David Hockney, was staring down at them, transfixed by the fact that they had landed in a way that suggested an intriguing relationship between them…

The first of these two photographs featured a figure – Hockney’s ex-lover Peter Schlesinger, with his head tilted slightly, looking down at something on the ground. The second a figure swimming in a pool under the surface of the water. And whilst the first was a literal photographic representation, in the second, the body of the submerged swimmer was fragmented into a set of beautiful abstract shapes by the ripples on the surface of the water.

And the way in which the photographs had fallen seemed to suggest that the first figure was peering over the edge of the pool at the swimmer in the water below.

This composition was to become the basis of one of the most widely recognised and well-loved of David Hockney’s paintingsa painting called ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’. When this painting went to auction at Christies in New York on 15 November 2018 it sold for $90.3 millionmaking it the most expensive work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction.

Britain’s first openly gay artist, Hockney was born in 1937 in the bleak post-industrial landscape of Northern England, and raised during a time of rationing, sexual repression and rampant homophobia.

Unsurprisingly, California proved an irresistible attraction for the young artist. As he put it later: ‘I came to Los Angeles for two reasons. The first was a photo by Julius Shulman of Case Study House #21, and the other was AMG’s Physique Pictorial.’

Shulman’s photo featured a mid-century modernist building with a swimming pool that served to exaggerate the graphic quality of the steel and glass structure, whilst Physique Pictorial was America’s first and foremost gay magazine featuring the extravagantly homoerotic photography of Bob Mizer.

‘I came to Los Angeles for two reasons. The first was a photo by Julius Shulman of Case Study House #21, and the other was AMG’s Physique Pictorial.’

Photo by Julius Shulman of Case Study House #21
Physique Pictorial is generally considered to be America’s first gay magazine featuring the openly homoerotic photography of Bob Mitzer

Together, these two visual elements – the male body, and the domestic swimming pools of Los Angeles – would define the work of David Hockney work for many years to come.

Hockney had moved to California in 1963. and flying in to Los Angeles, he had been struck by the sheer number of these domestic swimming pools. As he later told Diane Hanson in 2009 ‘I looked down to see blue swimming pools all over, and I realised that a swimming pool in England would have been a luxury, whereas here they are not.’

The move was to have a profound effect on Hockney – in much the same way that moving to Provence had had such a profound effect on the painting of Vincent Van Gogh a century earlier – the swimming pools of Los Angeles being Hockney’s equivalent of the Dutch artist’s sunflowers.

And little wonder.

These sparkling and shimmering waters, that stretch out beneath the immaculate blue of cloudless Californian skies, seemed to symbolise everything that the boy who had grown up in the black-and-white bleakness of post-war Bradford had longed for.

For the first time, David Hockney found himself, quite literally, in his element.

This element was not, however, without its technical challenges.

As Hockney says: ‘It is an interesting formal problem; it is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything. It can be any colour and it has no set visual description’… ‘[The pool paintings] were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the shimmering two-dimensionality.’

But this was also a time of massive technical innovation for Hockney, for it was at this point that he switched from traditional oil paints to the recently developed acrylics which offered much faster drying times. At the same time he also began to use photography as part of his practice and this would gradually lend his paintings greater and greater representational realism. Thus in order to try and capture ‘the shimmering two-dimensionality‘ of the surface of these LA pools Hockney began to experiment various media including acrylics, watercolours, crayons and lithographs, as well as his later technique of pressing dyed, wet paper pulp into sheets of paper.

Hockney’s earliest California works from 1964 depict water as inky splashes of blue and grey, but by 1996 – with paintings like Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool and Sunbather – he had he began to develop a more stylised visual language in which he uses interlocking tubular shapes in a ‘Pop Art’ style to suggest the shimmering surface of the water.

However, perhaps the most famous of these experiments, came the following year with ‘A Bigger Splash’ painted in 1967. Here a pool that reflects a sky made up of a large flat field of cobalt blue is splashed with a Jackson Pollock style action-painting plume of pure white paint.

It was around this time that David Hockney began teaching at UCLA. And it was here that he first met Peter Schlesinger who was a student there at the time They began a long lasting relationship, and Schlesinger not only became his lover but also his inspiration and favourite model, appearing in countless paintings over the next few years. Later Schlesinger relocated with Hockney to London, where he went on to study at the Slade School of Art.

By the early 1970’s however, the relationship was falling apart.

The 1973 documentary film A Bigger Splash, directed by Jack Hazan, therefore, not only covers the long lingering breakup with Peter Schlesinger, from 1970 to 1973 but also the creation of ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ between 1971 and 1972.

A Bigger Splash (1974). A Film by Jack Hazan. Trailer.

As Hazan’s film shows, David Hockney actually made two separate attempts at the painting that was to become known as ‘Portrait of an Artist’.

The first, he started in 1971, having been inspired by discovering the chance juxtaposition of two photographs that had fallen onto the studio floor: ‘One was of a figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted… the other was a boy gazing at something on the ground,’ Hockney said later… ‘The idea of painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately.’

However the two photographs did not sit well together, and after months of working and reworking the image Hockney was still not happy with the composition, and eventually destroyed the painting.

In April 1972 Hockney needed new work for a one man show at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York, and although the show was due to open in just four weeks time he resolved to return to the theme of ‘Portrait of an Artist’ .

However Hockney also now realised that he needed to shoot new reference material for the composition that had been suggested by the two photographs he had found on his studio floor. He would therefore now solve the technical problems presented by his previous attempt at ‘comping’ together two different photographs, by shooting the whole scene from one POV, on one camera with the same lens.

In order to do this, he decided to return to a pool location he knew well. Significantly, this was not in Los Angeles but in the Massif des Maures, the mountains that overlook Saint-Tropez in the South of France.

Here in a celebrity hideaway called Le Nid du Duc, Hockney had remembered that there was an idyllic pool looking out over the mountains. Against this beautiful setting, he now staged a series of reference photographs using an assistant and a friend as models that he could use as source material for the final painting.

Preparatory photograph for Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), at Le Nid-du-Duc, 1972 © David Hockney

Returning to London he then did a second photographic shoot in Kensington Gardens, reversing the angle of the morning light, but matching the POV and using the same camera lens to capture the figure of ‘the artist’.

For this he sasked Peter Schlesinger to model for him one last time – wearing the same pink jacket his assistant had worn in the South of France.

Hockney taking photographs of his ex-partner, Peter Schlesinger, in Kensington Gardens, from which he created the pink-jacketed figure standing at the pool’s edge. Film still from A Bigger Splash, 1974. Photo: Jack Hazan

Using these elements for reference, Hockney then set about the physical act of painting. He worked a full 18 hours a day for two weeks, until he eventually finished the artwork the night before it was due to be shipped to New York. (One of the benefits of working in acrylics is, of course, their rapid drying time).

Hockney worked 18 hours a day non-stop for two weeks to finish his painting, finally completing it the night before it was due to be shipped to New York. Film still from A Bigger Splash, 1974 . Photo: Jack Hazan. Artwork: © David Hockney

‘I must admit I loved working on that picture,’ he would later recall of that fortnight, ‘working with such intensity; it was marvellous doing it, really thrilling.’

Given the extraordinary circumstances, under which the painting was created, and the way in which so much of this was documented in Jack Hazan’s film, there have been many who see the work only in the context of Hockney’s failing relationship with Peter Schlesinger.

However I think there is more to this painting than that.

Indeed, in an interview in 2018 Schlesinger told the Observer: “It’s an amazing picture, and it contains his two most iconic genres in one picture, swimming pools and double-portraiture, but I can’t speak to its emotional element because I don’t think it is emotional. There’s the figure of me standing and the figure in the water differently painted. It was a conceptual problem. I don’t even think it’s a portrait of me, really.”

What had initially excited Hockney about the project suggested by the two separate photographs was the opportunity they afforded him to explore two different representations of reality – one highly literal, the other highly distorted – both within the same painting.

This reflected the wider tension in 20th century painting — as well as in his own work – between figurative art and more abstract forms of expression.

In the painting, we see – as promised in the title – an artist, looking over the edge of an outdoor swimming pool, considering two of Hockney’s favourite subjects – the male body and water.

As Hockney said in an interview with Fran Morrison in 1980:

‘Water, the idea of drawing water, is always appealing to me. If it’s clear water anyway, transparent water. You can look on it, through it, into it, see it as volume, see it as surface…the idea of representing it has always rather fascinated me and I keep going back to it

In ‘Portrait of an Artist’, Hockney avoids the highly specific domestic architecture of mid-century Los Angeles – something that we associate with so many of his pool paintings -replacing it here with a more natural landscape that creates a more mythic, universal setting for the two figures.

The composition of this landscape has a exquisite rhythmic feel to it, formed as it is from a series of interlocking triangles. These triangles subliminally reflect the main triangle in the composition created by the vertical figure of the artist and the horizontal figure of the swimmer.

This main triangle, is designed to emphasise the central drama of the painting – the relationship between the artist and the mysterious figure swimming toward him.

Equally important to note is that the two figures exist in two different and distinct realities.

The artist stands vertical at the edge of the pool. He is clothed and cannot enter the water. Whilst the swimmer is a horizontal figure fully submerged in the water. The artist is clearly conscious of the swimmer. The swimmer, we feel, is not necessarily conscious of the artist.

And perhaps this is the key to understanding the real emotional power of this painting. Because at some level, the figure of the artist seems to represents the conscious mind and the swimmer the unconscious.

Whatever ideas you bring to this painting, however, the obvious question it seems to pose is ‘What happens next?’. The submerged swimmer is clearly a breath away from reaching the end of the pool at which point, will he break the surface and come face to face with the artist?

And, for me at least, this is the central drama of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), because whatever else it is, it always feels like an articulation of that extraordinary moment just before something new – something that has been slowly emerging out of the depths of the artists unconscious – breaks the surface of the water and emerges into the clear air of consciousness.

David Hockney (b. 1937), Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted in 1972. 
Acrylic on canvas. 84 x 120 in (213.5 x 305 cm).
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted in 1972 by David Hockney.
Acrylic on canvas. 84 x 120 in (213.5 x 305 cm). 


Marshall McLuhan: Creativity in a world without boundaries

mansaram-mcluhan cropIn 1996, Gary Wolf, a writer for Wired Magazine, noticed that someone calling himself Marshall McLuhan was posting comments on the Wired website.

This struck Gary as more than just a little curious, since Marshall McLuhan had been dead for more than sixteen years.

Not one to be put off by such details, and sensing one hell of a story, Gary emailed the deceased media guru and asked him to do an interview.

Marshall McLuhan agreed, and the highly unusual exchange that followed, was published in Wired Magazine (you can read it here).

When questioned about the experience, Gary concluded, “If the author was not McLuhan himself, it was a bot programmed with an eerie command of McLuhan’s life and inimitable perspective.”

Now, whether or not you believe in Marshall McLuhan’s ability to conduct interviews from beyond the grave, the fact is, he was never a man to be limited by boundaries.

Unlike most Western knowledge.

For the last five hundred years, since the invention of the printing press, Western culture has divided human knowledge into a number of separate, discrete silos.

So for example, if you want to find a book in your local library, whether you realise it or not, you would be finding your way around by using something called the Dewey decimal classification system.

This ingenious little system was introduced by Melvil Dewey in 1876, and makes it really easy to find any book in the world by its subject matter. In order to do this, all human knowledge is divided into ten broad areas:

000 – Generalities

100 – Philosophy and Psychology

200 – Religion

300 – Social Sciences

400 – Language

500 – Natural Science and Mathematics

600 – Technology (Including Applied Sciences)

700 – The Arts

800 – Literature and Rhetoric

900 – History and Geography

These ten areas are then each divided into ten divisions, each having ten subsections. The structure is hierarchical and the numerical convention follows this structure. So each subdivision gives increasingly specific subjects within a broader subject area, for example:

500 Natural Science and Mathematics

510 Mathematics

516 Geometry

516.3 Analytic geometries

516.37 Metric differential geometries

516.375 Finsler Geometry

The great strength of the Dewey System is that it allows the reader to find any given subject and drill down into it to discover more and more specialized levels, within that subject.

But that is also its weakness.

Because whilst you can explore data vertically as much as you want, you cannot explore data horizontally.

So you cannot, for example, move easily from, say Neuroscience to Advertising. And a book that has the audacity to cover both will be forced to choose one or the other.

The Dewey System is a perfect model of the way that we in the West, have interacted with information, since the invention of printing.

And this creates extraordinary limitations on the way that we do our research, the way that we make our scientific discoveries and the way that we educate our children.

But all of this was to change utterly with the advent of the digital age.

50 years before anybody ever updated his Facebook page or posted his whereabouts on Twitter Marshall McLuhan not only predicted the creation of the internet, he also predicted most of it’s defining characteristics.

And he coined the phrase “surfing” to describe the way we would all navigate our way in a non-linear fashion through the sum total of human knowledge.

A double page spread from “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” (1967). Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan had not only predicted the creation of the internet, he had also predicted most of it’s defining characteristics… including the phrase “surfing” to describe the way we would be able to navigate our way, in a non-linear fashion, through the sum total of human knowledge.

In this way, all human knowledge suddenly becomes interconnected in a ways that were previously inconceivable.

And there is no better expression of this world without boundaries than the “Mashup”.

Mashups are perhaps the defining characteristic of late 20th and early 21st century culture. Whether it’s music, video, literature, or software a mashup combines material from two or more sources to create something that is simultaneously 100% derivative and 100% original.

Mashups work by linking two separate cultural expressions, and seeing how they inform and influence each other.

For sheer comedy value the farther apart the two elements are culturally, the funnier the result.

Try this simple thought experiment: think of a subject, any subject let’s say for example, Death Metal.

Think of another as far removed from that as possible, say, monks of the Benedictine order.

Now put them together and Hey Presto… you’ve either got the basis of a new TV comedy (Benedictine monks form Death Metal Band… with hilarious consequences) or the next novelty music hit (Death Metal meets Gregorian chant.)

1ff71e69c5dfd61896d4ef048d45ec41 copy
Mashups are perhaps the defining characteristic of late 20th and early 21st century culture. They work by linking two separate cultural expressions, and seeing how they inform and influence each other. For sheer comedy value the farther apart the two elements are culturally, the funnier the result.

In many ways, mashup techniques have become the default methodology for creativity in the digital age because they work so consistently well.

In fact, no lesser an author than J.K Rowling used the mashup technique, when she took the narrative conventions of the genre commonly known as “Sword and Sorcery” and mashed this up with that most beloved genre of English children’s literature… the boarding school novel. (A genre made famous by Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings, and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers amongst others). And created the most successful children’s books of all time… the Harry Potter novels.

J.K Rowling created a classic mashup, when she took the narrative conventions of “Sword and Sorcery” and mashed this up with that most beloved genre of English children’s literature… the boarding school novel.

But for McLuhan, the instantaneous nature of electronic media had implications far beyond the cultural mashup.

McLuhan had shot to international stardom in the 1960s with radical ideas about the effects of media on human consciousness.

For McLuhan, the introduction of any new medium, whether it is the invention of alphabetic writing, the printing press, or television will always affect our central nervous system by becoming an extension of one or more of the five human senses.

Thus the introduction of any new medium has the effect of distorting the way in which we perceive reality.

So every time there is a significant new development in media, there will also be an equally significant impact on human consciousness.

For McLuhan, the most significant effect of electronic media was to dissolve the traditional barriers that segmented knowledge into separate compartments. And in particular the eradication of our traditional notions of “Time” and “Space”.

This “allatonceness” – as McLuhan terms it – created by digital media allows us to connect across the complete range of human knowledge and experience. Instantaneously dissolving the divisions between, say, language and mathematics, art and advertising, opera and pop music, distance and proximity and the living and the dead.

In “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” (1967), a book he co-created with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Marshall McLuhan describes the dramatic impact that is being brought about by the arrival of electronic media:

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication…

The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement…

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening.

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information.

Our electrically configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.”

And yet these ideas about the effects of media on human consciousness, although radical were not entirely original.

McLuhan was particularly indebted to Harold Innis, professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and the author of a number of seminal works on media, and communication theory.

McLuhan was indebted to Innis not just for giving the young McLuhan a framework for his ideas about media, but also for giving him permission to ignore cultural boundaries in his search for a greater understanding of the effects of media on culture and consciousness:

“I remember the excitement I felt when I first realized I didn’t have to restrict my studies to literature. Innis taught me that I could roam through all history and all subjects in search of the true meaning of the medium is the message.

My friend… who teaches economics at Toronto University tells me that F. von Hayek says, “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.”

Likewise, no student of media studies can afford to be only a student of media studies. A man who only reads about TV is as good for a man as a steady diet of coke and chips.”

Ignoring all the usual boundaries between academia and popular culture, contemporary creativity and ancient literature, McLuhan became the most extraordinary synthesizer of the ideas of others.

From the Ukrainian Scientist, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky , and French Jesuit philosopher, Teillhard De Chardin he took the idea of the “Noosphere”, as the basis for his notion of the “The Global Village”. Walter Ong’s account of what he calls the “oral-to-visual” shift was, in his own words, “hammered out with great agony” in his 1958 book “Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue”. And was to greatly influence McLuhan’s first major publication, “The Mechanical Bride”.

But, without doubt, the greatest influence of all on Marshall McLuhan’s were neither philosophers nor media theorists… but a little known revolutionary art movement, which had appeared on the eve of the first World War in Britain.

This movement was called “Vorticsm” and although it had little impact on the world at the time, the men behind it, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce and T.S Eliot would go on to shake the culture of the English speaking world to it’s very foundations.

These “Men of 1914”, as McLuhan was fond of calling them, set out do destroy many of the artificial boundaries that separated high art from low art, and would both define the key characteristics of the Modernist world, and help bring it into being.

Through their influence on McLuhan, however, they would also prefigure and define the key characteristics of the digital age (including the invention of the cultural Mashup). And help bring the digital age into being.

Next: Allatonceness: McLuhan and the Men of 1914

Creativity Language Neuroscience Visual Perception

Why our children see more than we do

Like the characters in C.S Lewis’ Chroncles of Narnia, research indicates that smaller children experience many things which adults can no longer see…


From the Wild Lands in the North, to the Great Deserts in the South, and the Majestic River of Telmar in the West, to the High Castle of Cair Paravel in the East, the land of Narnia is an extraordinary region populated by centaurs, dragons, talking animals and all manner of wonders which no adult human may ever see.

And although no adult may set foot in the land of Narnia, children, may enter into it through the famous wardrobe… as Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter famously discover in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

But they can do this only as long as they remain children.

It is with sadness that we see first Susan and Peter, then Edmund, and Lucy each learn that, beyond a certain age, they will never be able to return to Narnia.

This narrative of expulsion from paradise is as old as the story of the Garden of Eden, or the myth of “The Golden Age.”

Indeed, most adults, at some level would feel that the adult world somehow lacks the magic, the wonder and the sheer sense of possibility they once experienced as children.

We tend to see the cultural acclimatisation and education of our children as a process of opening their minds to more and more knowledge.

However, recent developments in neuroscience suggest that the opposite is in fact the case.

Because, extraordinary as it may seem, it is now clear that our awareness of the world around us, rather than expanding, in certain key areas, actually diminishes, as we grow older, and we become more socially acclimatised to the needs of our own particular tribe or social grouping.

Because, whilst education and the development of the social brain enable us to find our niche in society, this process is often at the expense of significant cognitive abilities.

To put it bluntly: we become blinded to anything other than that which our mother culture defines as reality.

We are each of us, born with around 100 billion neurons in our brains… to imagine how enormous this is, just think that this is about the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

And in a child’s first years of life, the brain is constantly being sculpted by its cultural surroundings, as it refines its circuits in response to environmental experiences.

Since brain circuits organize and reorganize themselves in response to an infant’s interactions with his or her environment, the synapses—the points where neurons connect—are either built and strengthened, or weakened and pruned away as needed (This process is often catchily described as “the neurons that fire together wire together”.)

In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

Patricia K. Kuhl is a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. She specializes in language acquisition and the neural bases of language. Using magneto encephalography (MEG, a relatively new technology that measures magnetic fields generated by the activity of brain cells) Kuhl has, for the first time in human history, been able to show just how babies acquire language.

All spoken languages consist of basic units of sound, called phonemes, these phonemes combine together to form syllables. For example, in English, the consonant sound “t” and the vowel sound “o” are both phonemes that combine to form the syllable “to” as in “tomato”.

In total there are more than 200 phonemes, representing all the sounds that the human voice can create. But most languages use only a fraction of this number. In some languages it can be as few as 15, whilst in English it is over 40.

Patricia K. Kuhl discovered that before 8 months of age, the neurons in a baby’s brain could recognise the phonemes of any language on the planet.

After this point, they quickly learn to ignore the vast majority of phonemes and concentrate only on those used in their native language. And within a few months they have lost this ability altogether.

In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

(Intriguingly, similar tests done on adults show that these neurons continue to fire in recognition of all 200 phonemes, when presented with any “foreign” language. However this information is no longer processed consciously. So the listener is not aware that they can “hear” them.)

Similarly, in the visual domain, it has been shown that very young babies have cognitive abilities that become lost as they begin to grow into their culturally acclimatized selves.

According to a study led by Olivier Pascalis, a psychologist at England’s University of Sheffield, human babies start out with the ability to recognize a wide range of faces, even among races or species different from their own.

The study focused on the ability to recognize and categorize faces, determine identity and gender, and read emotions. The findings suggest that, in humans, whether or not you have this ability, is a question of “use it or lose it.”

Michelle de Haan, one of the study's authors, said: "We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age. This is probably a reflection of the brain's 'tuning in' to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful."
Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

In the study six-month-old infants were able to recognize the faces of individuals of either different races or even different species—in this case, monkeys. Something, which most adults cannot do.

Babies who received specific visual training retained the ability. But those with no training lost the skill altogether by the time they were nine months old.

This is because by the time they’re nine months old, face recognition is based on a much narrower model, one that is based on the faces they see most often.

This more specialized view, in turn, diminishes our early ability to make distinctions among other species, and other races. For instance, if an infant is exposed to mainly Asian faces, he or she will grow to become less skilled at discerning among different, say, Caucasian faces.

Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.

“This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

Even if children were not to lose such cognitive abilities as they “tune in” to their contextual cultural norms, we also know that a large part of their cultural acclimatsation  would prevent them from expressing views that are at odds with the social groupings in which they find themselves.

Even when we see the world differently, our adult brains have all too often been wired to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Research conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College has clearly demonstrated the degree to which an individual’s own opinions will conform to those of the group in which he finds himself.

Whilst the Research conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale has shown how likely people are to obey authority figures even when their orders go against their own personal morality.

Perhaps this is why we love the ability of children to speak the truth. To say what we have all been thinking, even though it is not culturally acceptable.

After all it is the child who is not blinded by culture, who on seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”….


Vapour Trails

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture post card charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Other’s just come to harm
Oh, Amelia it was just a false alarm

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms

“Amelia” by Joni Mitchell

The more we know about people, socially, culturally and personally, the more we feel we can anticipate how they might respond to any given situation.

And yet, it is impossible to predict anyone else’s behaviour with certainty.

Despite how close we might feel to another human being we can never really tell what they are going to do next.

Each of us has our own unique sense of being… the sense of an autobiographical self that is poised between the remembered past and the anticipated future.

And the nature of this sense of being, whether we realise it or not, is freedom.

And whilst it is sometimes hard to realise this sense of freedom in ourselves, it is practically impossible to experience it in others, because we can only ever experience their actions in the past.

This sense of freedom is central to the ideas of the Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Hazel Barnes, is probably best known as the person who introduced the works of Jean-Paul Sartre to a wider American audience.  But as  her writing shows, Hazel Barnes was also something of a philosopher herself.

To explain the idea that freedom is at the heart of human experience, she came up with a wonderful visual analogy.

A visual analogy, that is both evocative and deeply illuminating.

The way we experience other human beings , she explains, is a bit like when you look up to see a jet aircraft flying across a clear blue sky.

You can see the white vapour trail stretching out for miles behind the plane, so you know where they have come from, and what the pilot’s previous actions are.

In other words you can experience his past. And from this past, you can also anticipate of where the pilot might go in the future.

What you cannot really know, however, is what is happening in the mind of the pilot or indeed what the pilot’s next move will be.

As an existentialist, Barnes understood that the core reality of every human being is freedom.

And that our daily denial of this essential nature was what Sartre had characterised as “Bad Faith”. Since it is a fundamental betrayal of our true selves.

Just because the pilot is flying in one direction, does not mean that he will always do so.

Every second he flies in that direction, he is doing so, not because he has no alternative, but because he is choosing to do so.

Because his true nature is freedom he has the potential to fly in any direction he wants.

And this is the unknowable part of any other human being.


It is 8.30am on a beautiful, clear Autumn morning in the pretty town of Albany, in upstate New York, where the trees are all changing colour to a brilliant blaze of red and gold.

Any one who happens to look up at the clear blue sky, might see the pure white line of a single vapour trail stretching across the sky from the East.

And, if they stop for a moment and carry on watching the plane, they will see something really quite unusual.

Because at this point, the plane which is a Boeing 767, banks sharply, and turns South, leaving a vapour trail at right angles to its original flight path.

The aircraft is in fact American Airlines Flight 11 flying from Boston to Los Angeles and the pilot is a man called Mohamed Atta.

Atta had been born on September 1, 1968 in the town of Kafr el-Sheikh, close to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in Northern Egypt.

His parents were ambitious for him, and, as a child, Atta was discouraged from socialising and spent most of his time at home studying.  His father, Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, was a succesful lawyer. His mother, Bouthayna Mohamed Mustapha Sheraqi, was also highly educated.

Atta had two sisters and his parents were equally ambitious for them too. One would go on on to become a medical doctor and the other a college professor.

In 1985, all this hard work paid off for Atta, when he secured a place at Cairo University to study engineering.

Atta excelled at his studies here, and in his final year he was admitted into the prestigious Cairo University architecture programme. And in 1990, graduated with a degree in architecture.

Nobody could have predicted that ten years later he would find himself at the controls of a Boeing 767, as he flew over the golden forests of upstate New York.

Nobody could have known that he would turn the plane away from it’s destination, Los Angeles, and begin flying due south down the Hudson River Valley towards New York.

And nobody could have imagined that around fifteen minutes later, at just after 8:46am, he would straighten up the plane, accelerate, and fly American Airlines Flight 11 straight into the the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

With his strong engineering background, Mohamed Atta, of course knew that the Boeing 767 traveling at over 465 miles per hour and carrying more than 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, would explode immediately, killing everybody on board.

But nobody could else could have predicted that.

Not even Atta’s father, Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, who, to this day, continues to deny that his son could ever have been involved in something so unthinkable.

Because, however close we feel to another human being, we can never really tell what they are going to do next.

World Trade Center Attacked


How a brand determines experience: The ATM story

In 1989, Midland Bank, a traditional British high street bank, with a history of low customer satisfaction scores, decided to launch a separately branded, phone-based operation. This was to be called “First Direct” and was the first phone banking operation of it’s kind in the UK.

Not only did this new venture look very different to it’s old bricks and mortar cousin, the new brand also behaved very differently. Significantly, one of the key criteria for frontline staff was that they had never worked in a bank before.

The launch was a great succes. By May 1991 the bank had 100,000 customers on its books. Not only that, these customers were also saying that they were much, much more satisfied with the service than they ever had been with their traditional banking experience.

By May 2001 First Direct, now with the highest customer satisfaction in the market, was gaining one third of all it’s new business through referrals, with customers recommending the service to friends, on average, once every 4 seconds.

This difference in satisfaction ratings was most evident in the use of ATMs.

Midland  Bank customers continued to give low satisfaction scores for their ATMs – around 25% – while First Direct customers were giving satisfaction scores of up to 70%.

The extraordinary thing was that they were both using the same ATMs.

In other words, their attitudes to the two brands were having a significant, and measurable impact on their actual experience.

Even though the physical experience was exactly the same.


Don’t try to be original, just try to be good

It was the great american graphic designer paul rand who first said: “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good”. And this advice is nowhere more valuable than in the discipline of typography.
These days any fool can knock up a half decent piece of design, given the wonderful menu driven, template based, digital design tools, we now have at our fingertips.
However, to produce something that is really “good”, you really need to understand the fundamental principles of typographic design.
This stuff isn’t subjective, it’s like music, there are some things that are right and some things that are just plain wrong. It’s like you need to learn classical before you can express yourself in free form jazz.
I came across two great introductions to this esoteric art recently.
The first is this neat little online game which teaches you the mysterious art of “kerning” (For complete novices, a top tip: vertical letters like an “I” followed by another “I” always need to be spaced apart whilst letters like an “O” followed by another “O” always need to be closer together).
The second is this handy reference chart that summarises some of the more important principles of the discipline.
And as the man says: don’t try to be original, just try to be good.
Because It’s only when you get to be good, that you have the ability to express your originality.


Photo Opportunities

With “Photo Opportunities”, Corinne Vionnet, a Swiss-based artist, has created a series of haunting images, that also provide an interesting commentary on the stereotypical way in which we relate to familiar landmarks.

To create the mysterious visions, Vionnet combined hundreds of photos from tourists, online keyword searches and photo sharing sites alike. She then superimposed each image on top of one another to get the desired effect. What you’re seeing, then, is hundreds of the same photograph placed on top of one another.

Vionnet told Yvi magazine that the point of her creations is to show that people, tourists mainly, need to photograph their travels to prove that they were there.

She continued:
We are looking at a monument that we somehow already know. As a part of knowing that we have also been there, we need the photograph to fix the memory of our visit. By pressing the shutter button, time becomes event, a unique moment. The images made by tourists are picture imitations. They demonstrate the desire to produce a photograph of an image that already exists, one like those we have already seen. It is in fact a style of manipulating the viewer.