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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mess and Creativity

Organization is important. Without it we could never accomplish any task more complicated than tweeting. We all know intuitively when sloppiness works against our productivity. But at what point does organization work against our creative minds?

I hold that some disorganization, some mess, is required to get to a creative point. If a Rubik's cube couldn't be messed up, then it wouldn't be any fun to solve it. In fact, the messed-up Rubik's cube makes a nice symbol for intelligence in disarray.

While the cube provides some exercise for my mind in solving it, it also suggests that we need a mess to get into an analytical state as well. Or at least to practice our analytical side.

But the real value of mixing it up is to be presented with different things in different contexts. We night never put them together if it weren't for the mess in the first place. No, this is not about entropy and order. This is about the interconnectedness of thoughts. The complex relationships, similes, metaphors, and comparisons that our mind makes when presented with diverse options.

Operations on Ideas

One of my fields is imaging: pictures. When developing new imaging technologies, I come across many different techniques that apply to imaging. But the new techniques come from a specific set of operations on ideas that help me to cross disciplines and make something new.

The first operation is deconstruction. With this technique a problem or a subject is torn apart in different ways so we can see what it's made of. With images, this can be something like moving the image into the frequency domain. Or, it can be thinking of the image as a bunch of tiles, or a mosaic. Or re-representing an image as a Gaussian pyramid. You can think of this as the analytical pre-step in being creative. The more ways you can deconstruct something, the more likely you are to find something new.

A sculpture from Napoleon's Arc du Triomphe
Some years ago at Fractal Design I began getting interested in extracting directions from an image: another way to deconstruct an image. This was in order to create a Van Gogh effect, that represented an image using brush strokes that were aligned to the directions of an image.

This is as good a subject as any to introduce the next operation, random association. For something like directions, these associations are concepts like motion, velocity, vectors, maps, routes, paths, going the wrong way, a drunkard's path, alignment, perpendicular, turning the wheel, etc.

The image processed by representing it as directions
These ideas can lead me to look at things that aren't necessarily associated with images, like vector fields, tracing along a direction path, making directions random, canceling the randomness or uncertainty in directions, and other things that seem to be associated with directions.

I use this to help me in branching out, another operation in creative ideation. If I move from directions to vector fields, for instance, I can then look at various properties of vector fields, like vorticity. I can also look at operations that apply to vector fields, like div, grad, and curl that I might never think of when I'm focused solely on images.

Or, looking at direction as a velocity vector can lead me to realize that it has length and angle. Branching out from this can lead me to realize that a direction's angle can be changed. This has dramatic consequences for imaging, since it can lead to an altered reality.

The next creativity operation is experimentation: varying the parameters.

A picture of a tree can be quite picturesque, particularly one from the Kona coast. But when you take the directions in the image and rotate them all 40 degrees counterclockwise and mix them back into the image, you get a windswept alt-tree.

Very different from the original. By both branching out and experimenting, I have created a new effect and it has some profound visual consequences.

It so happens that this effect was accidentally discovered while working on something completely different (which I can't actually talk about)!

I will show few more pictures for the visual people among my readers.

To right you see a picture of me taken about a decade ago near the Statue of Liberty. Here I have applied maybe a fifteen-degree tilt to the directions.

There is a little bit of windswept effect from the direction alteration. This is just what I was going for, and it is fortuitous. With the Arc du Triomphe image, the directions weren't altered in the least. But there is some uncertainty to evaluating directions and, when this effect is applied at a certain scale, you can see that the smallest details aren't always preserved. If they were, it wouldn't be interesting in the least.

Apply this effect to clouds and make the directions perpendicular to their usual course, and you get a puffy, almost feathery, cloud.

It's a jittery, crazy kind of reconstruction of the cloud image.

This brings me to the last operation, which isn't really about creativity, but you can be creative about how you do it, of course: reconstruction. If you have figured out what something is made of, managed to jumble it up internally, then you can reconstruct it and hopefully not end up with Frankenstein.

Can we apply this to another field as well as images? Of course! In music, I deconstruct songs typically so I can reflect on how they are made. Then I can randomly associate the structure of music with, say, grammar. And I can branch out from the usual song grammar to use multiple linking sections, or to precede each verse with a little prelude (I did this in my song Baby, I). Or rearrange the chords backwards and see how that sounds. I did try recording a backwards guitar part in one of my songs, and the interesting process is chronicled in another blog post.

Or, I can deconstruct music into inter weavings of sound and silence. I can put moments of silence into a song, to create a full stop. Perhaps a fake ending, or just a de-textured rest. Yes, I used this in I Know You Know.

I can deconstruct sound into treble, midrange, and bass and create a wall-of-sound interpretation of music. Or deconstruct vocals from instruments. Randomly associating, I can have the vocals play the instrument parts, like the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson had his band do in Help Me, Rhonda.

One of my favorite creativity groups was the Traveling Wilburys. In Handle With Care, they changed the song structure several ways. First off, the song has 2 bridges. Then the solo comes in the fourth verse, and it's only a half-solo. The full solo comes at the end, after the repeat of the two bridges. After the fifth verse.

The Evils of Organization?

While organization is important to our everyday life, too much organization can also hamper us in ideation. The principle is this: if everything is in its own little box, then you simply can't imagine something that is out of the box. Is this even true?

As impossible as it seems, even obsessive-compulsive people can make great artists. This may be because OCD leads to various interesting styles, like horror vacui. Many indications of "madness" in art have drawn us to them in the past. VanGogh and Hieronymous Bosch stand out in my mind.

And there is a place for neat freak artists as well.

But somewhere in between neat freaks and slobs are all the rest of us just trying to be creative and solve problems in a new way. Bringing a fresh approach to something is what it's all about. And disorder (mixing it up) is just one tool to accomplish that goal. Analysis is just as valid, and it is actually necessary for deconstruction.

To properly deconstruct, you need to take a step back and look at your problem in a new way. For instance, looking at texture as geometry instead of pixels. Looking at stuff in different ways is really the true basis of creativity.

Look at this video of the Traveling Wilburys Inside Out. It's just the band playing, but you can see that they took song lyrics and looked at them in different ways. Thanks to the lyrical talents of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. And the entire subject is inverted again in George Harrison's bridge "be careful where you're walking".

Check out my blog post on Where Do Ideas Come From to see some of these principles in practice, and the value of operating in a creative group, as the Wilburys did.


  1. I really like how you broke down the process into deconstruction and reconstruction. I am thinking that is another way of characterizing the process of attaining alternate perceptions and resonance. This is helping me in my visualization of some ideas I have.

    Interesting, from my perspective this blog is related to the discussion in the blog about Future. Contrary to your assertion in the fourth paragraph, I am positing that deconstruction is a process of increasing the perceived entropy, even though there is order in analysis. The key thought being that the total entropy of the universe is not perceived (by any one observer, i.e. there can't exist a total observer because then nothing can exist because everything is known a priori, there is no life/change/dynamic).

    I unqualified to comment about musical creativity. It seems to me that the key to greatness in music is the coloring of the music with personality and emotion (irregularity) in the timing, pitch, harmony, composition, etc.. The degree to which the deconstruction is not perceivable (i.e. the personality and emotional coloring appears to be unique and unpatterned), seems to lend to the perception of the song as interesting (for more than just a fleeting week in the pop charts).

    Few example of a that chaotic uniqueness.

    Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye

    George Harrison - My Sweet Lord

    Nirvana (any song)

    Unfortunately I found that trying to mix this emotion and passionate expression (a more chaotic form of deconstruction of ideas) in analytical fields can lead to misunderstandings and accusations of being irrational or unintelligible. I have preferred to hide in my shell. And I feel I am commenting too much on your blogs.

    1. Deconstruction and reconstruction are essential in the mixing up of the Usual Way of Doing Things. And quite a bit of valuable ideas have come from this process.

      You are right about the entropy of ideas. When things are ordered, it is a sign that you know too much and thus your view of the universe can't change much. This is the classic academic point of view. You must deconstruct, to reduce the order of your ideas, then jumble it up in Knowledge Space, then reconstruct it, to see if some reordering makes any sense at all or is applicable to something new. Even if it is not immediately applicable, it can lead to something that it applicable and thus valuable.

      Sometimes this process is most valuable when trying to apply it to another subject. Cross-application.

      In music, the deconstruction, jumbling, and reconstruction is called Interpretation. I learned this one early when studying at Caltech and coming under the influence of James Boyk, a brilliant interpreter of music who literally took music apart and determined relationships between sections to find the best way of expressing its essence.

      Some artists are simply naturals in this process.

      All you have to do is listen to Joe Cocker's reinterpretation of the Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends to understand that reinterpretation can be truly inspired.

      Your comment on passionate reinterpretation of classically analyzed subjects is well-taken. I will soon so a blog post on "The Things We Throw Away" that will talk about how development is a totally non-linear process. And sometimes theories have to be chucked out entirely. It's happened to me many times. Part of Life.

  2. Joe Cocker inspired me to try my own...

    Cover the ears of your dog.

    No practice, first attempt, $8 microphone+headphone set, very LQ recording, at 11pm at night. Haven't been singing for about 2 decades.

    Bush - Swallowed

    Shelby - Swallowed (Bush cover) (starts poorly, improves slightly near end)

    The following were done without any music in my headphone.

    Yazoo - Only You

    Shelby - Only You (Yazoo or Steppo cover)

    Shelby - Only You (Yazoo cover in a deeper voice)

    My belated attempt to prove that my absence from the Fractal band was an act of mercy ;)

  3. These effects look gorgeous, especially on the trees!

    I would really like to know more about how it is implemented, for example how the directions are extracted from the image.
    Is that possible?

    1. Sorry for the delay. I've been on vacation.

      To extract directions from an image, the easiest way is to use Sobel gradients. Some people enlarge the scope of the gradient until it achieves a reliable result. This means you have to be aware of how much noise the image has.