Innovate like Leonardo da Vinci13 October, 2014 / Articles
Many people today believe that science and art, like oil and water, do not mix. However, many of the worlds’ greatest innovators were not constrained by this bias. Leonardo da Vinci was pretty innovative, and his creativity spanned fine art, military engineering, anatomy and biomimicry. He was not alone. Fred Hoyle was a celebrated astrophysicist, author, and musician, and Einstein claimed to get more pleasure from playing the violin than from Physics. It was Einstein who said, “The greatest scientists are always artists as well”.
Art-Science for All: This overlap of art and science is not just for giants of innovation either. During the Renaissance, artists belonged to the guild of physicians, and in creating their own paints, had more in common with today’s chemists than their contemporary alchemists. The tradition of creativity exploding at the interface of science and art continues today, with Daguerreotype and film photography having evolved into digital photography, Photoshop, and motion capture at the movies. Music is similar, with the likes of Brian Eno, Phillip Glass, and even the Beatles applying technology to art, while any musician who has picked up an electric guitar or even acoustic violin, owes a debt to the scientists or engineers who had a role in creating the instrument.
Art-Science Innovation: There is also a long history of art informing science, and vice versa. I’ve described before how early computer programming was adapted from punch-cards used in Jacquard tapestry looms (1), and how Alexis Carrel won a Nobel Prize for developing the suturing techniques used in heart surgery by reapplying techniques from lace making (2). Staying on the topic of medicine, the pace maker is derived from a musical metronome (2), and in a recent Innovation Excellence article, Scott Williams made an excellent case for borrowing innovative ideas from computer games and Sci-Fi, especially for military innovation (3). Visual illusions and illusionists can teach us much about how attention and visual search operates (4,5), which can be extremely useful for any number of design applications, while comedy can teach us how to write stunning concepts and develop surprisingly obvious innovations (6).
Science Informing Art. This is a two way street. Science can also support art and design, by supplying technical tools, but also self understanding of the creative process. For example, Ramachandran and Hirstein’s exploration of the neuroscience of art provides a fascinating framework that can help us create more consistently (7).
Creating a Bridge. So, if there is power in the interface, whether we are scientist or artist, how can we bridge to the ‘other side’? One option is to use analogy and knowledge representation, as I’ve previously suggested (8). Another is to create a culture where the two naturally blend, and in so doing, transform using the art-science interface from a special event into business as usual. We can make this happen by forming ‘science-art’ partnerships within our organizations, or by becoming fluent in both art and science as individuals.