'Design Thinking Mashup' Explores Thinking Across Disciplines to Create and Problem Solve

February 24, 2011

February 24, 2011 — Bring a group of creative minds together and the conversation can take a variety of tangents. That was the goal of the first of three "Design Thinking Mashup" events: a symposium organized by University of Virginia architecture lecturer George Sampson that took place over two days this week.

Sessions included "Chance, Indeterminacy and the Creative Process," "How Design Can Transform Your Life and Maybe the World" and "Innovation, Collaboration & Charlottesville."

"Chance, Indeterminacy and the Creative Process," brought together dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, a MacArthur Award winner and 2010 Kennedy Center Honoree, journalist Warren Berger, whose book "Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World," and University faculty from a number of arts disciplines across Grounds to find fresh answers to questions about creativity and problem solving.

At times questions only led to other questions, but the exchange was thought-provoking.

Sampson told the packed audience in Campbell Hall on Tuesday evening that the groundrules for design thinking were that there were "no bad ideas, no wrong thoughts, no truly stupid questions."

He described the symposium as a collective research project, a design thinking exercise, to help his Arts Administration class, the School of Architecture, the University "and beyond" to think about the topic.

In a 2008 residency at U.Va., Jones produced a collaborative dance/theater piece, "100 Migrations," which involved the University and Charlottesville communities in the creative process and resulted in a monumental creative work focused on Abraham Lincoln that was performed at the University. Jones returned to U.Va. this week to begin research on a new project, also to be developed at the University – one that would take him in new directions.

He asked, "How do I start a new work and escape my persona and taste?"

At 59, Jones is "retired from dancing, but not retired from the stage," he said. The goal of his exploration is to "minimize the impact on my body and maximize the impact on my heart and mind," he said. "How do I find a new way of being on stage? Something that is deep and personal." He envisions creating a work around storytelling.

For inspiration, Jones said he is looking to the post-war avant-garde artist John Cage, who embraced chance music – music in which some elements of composition are left to chance – and electronic music in his piece "90 stories in 90 minutes."

Although as artists and people they are different in almost every way, Jones said he shares with Cage  the quest to find new form and meaning in art. He referred to Cage as a "mentor," in the sense of breaking new ground and pushing the perception of what art is.

"So, I am embracing indeterminacy" for this new project, Jones said.

Art history professor Howard Singerman, who teaches contemporary art in the College of Arts & Sciences, said chance and indeterminacy are "quite different from one another." Artists such as abstract painters Robert Rauschenberg, Elsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt were trying to get away from subjective aesthetic decisions, or the decisions of taste, he said. They devised methods of noncomposition and methods that allow a system to make choices for you. They were not stepping back from their own work, and it's the stepping back that is the exercise of taste, Singerman said.

Regarding chance, Singerman said he considers it "within the creative process," as something the artist does while creating, such as letting shapes made of colored paper drop onto the canvas to determine composition.

Chance in the creative process, then, is situational, he said. "Indeterminacy is much more material- and medium-based," he said. That limitation can result in a work that will not always be the image the artist envisioned.

He said his wife reminded him that the one thing he actually knows about chance is the often quoted line from the 1934 movie "The Gay Divorcée" with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: "'Chance is a fool's name for fate.' Which means that chance can be a completely empty process. People tend to think of it as driven from somewhere else."

Music composer Ted Coffey, who uses computers and technology to create his works, said chance is a way for him "to get randomness, to get noise. And there is no such thing as noise without a context." He said there are "mutations that occur within a set of restraints, so there are boundaries of where you can think and go. There are tons of constraints in which chance operations can apply." As an example, he said, time can control form.

For him, "indeterminacy happens at the moment of execution where you do not know where you are going because of contingencies," he said.

Journalist Warren Berger said he thought he had a great idea for his new book but his publisher was not open to his attempt to explore possibilities in his writing. He proposed that his readers be part of his next book by crowdsourcing his ideas on the Web and having readers influence the direction he will take the book. The publishers were mortified, he said. "Exploring possibilities in the business world, if you do not know the end point, that's a problem. Indeterminacy doesn't work for them," he said.  In the design world, design thinking and exploring unknown possibilities are major considerations right now.

Berger has written extensively about the successful Canadian designer Bruce Mau, who founded the Institute Without Borders. He said Mau wants to be lost all the time. Paraphrasing Mau, Berger said, "Because when you are lost, it's a window of opportunity because you will see things and you will observe things. When you are lost creatively on a project, you become more alive and you are receptive to more ideas than you would be otherwise."

Jones said that reminded him of something artist Pablo Picasso said: "I don't search, I find."

Jones is considering his new work from a variety of perspectives, but connecting with the audience is paramount. Ways of engaging social media or other technology are under consideration. Also on the table is a version that would have one dancer performing – his hip-hop break-dancing nephew.

"I can throw down, uncle, to any music you give me," he said, quoting his nephew. Jones went on to muse about whether his nephew could "throw down" while Jones read, in an indeterminate order, the one-minute stories he is writing for the new production. Does the piece have sound and movement, or is it only the reading?

"Right now I am feeling very brave," Jones said. "Maybe that's what the social networking part is about. How I can still be sure that I will have something that will connect to an audience."

He added that he'd like to try an experiment when he returns to U.Va. in April, to gather the 100 people who participated in "100 Migrations" and each would have to be responsible for one minute "of something happening during the piece."

With all the ideas shared, it was an evening filled with possibilities and as Sampson said in the introduction, "It was the beginning of a trajectory that would last throughout the year."

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations