[You can listen to this article here.]
Systems Thinking and creativity make for an awesome pairing... and although my primary motivation for establishing the role of the Systems Creative has been driven by the more universally troubling realities of being a member of the precariat - the workflow that I’ve materialised in Making Sense® also brings with it much more than the scaffolding for creative organisation and identity sculpting. It also encourages us to remove the boundaries that surround the disciplines within multifaceted projects and mixed creative practice.
One of the OSPs for Making Sense® is that the cards signpost many of the inter-disciplinary and inter-contextual ingredients that span the creative spectrum. The forever familiar fundamentals from specialist disciplines play a key role within the deck (specifically within the 'Transferable Terminology' category), but alongside these, another powerful set of ingredients are unlocked through another card category that focuses on the modes of media, the modes of communication, and the modes of the human sensorium - called 'Mapping Modalities'.
This ingredient of multimodality brings with it the opportunity for us to zoom out to a higher resolution of our creative practice where mixed-disciplinary creativity isn’t viewed as a fractured-and-glued identity, but instead as a single unified professional role.
What's the significance of this? Well, the visual and aural modalities have held a duopoly over the artefacts of new media and wider creativity for the best part of a century and a half. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than aware that other modes have been acknowledged and explored within the arts and media over the years, but this AV bias has been largely inescapable - and this comes down to the capacity of the available resources, hardware, and peripherals throughout this timeline, serving as a kind of technological determinism for modality. But now, with the emergence of new resources and technologies that enable the reproduction and broadcast of wider modal outputs a dramatic shift is looming, and one that I believe demands the rise of a new form of creative practitioner. With this new role comes the need for a new set of ‘fundamentals’ that this new kind of creative designer/engineer can draw upon - a framework that develops a literacy and understanding of the wider modal channels that can be utilised and combined within the context of creativity and experience design.
In the past, the way our minds have traversed these inter-disciplinary highways, at least at a theoretical level, has often been limited to analogy; one specialist using the principles of another specialism to explain the dynamics within their own workflows. This is beautifully evident in one of the most important texts on colour theory ever produced - 'Interaction of Color' by Josef Albers - and the following extract gives us one of the more visceral examples from this amazing resource:
Imagine in front of us 3 pots containing water, from left to right: WARM LUKEWARM COLD
When the hands are dipped first into the outer containers, one feels - experiences - perceives - 2 different temperatures:
WARM (at left) (at right) COLD
Then dipping both hands
into the middle container,
one perceives again
2 different temperatures, this time, however, in reversed order:
(at left) COLD - WARM (at right)
Though the water is neither of these temperatures, but of another, namely: LUKEWARM
"Herewith one experiences a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect called, in this case, a haptic illusion - haptic as related to the sense of touch - the haptic sense. To begin the study of how color deceives and how to make use of this, the first exercise is to make one and the same color look different. On the blackboard and in our notebooks we write: Color is the most relative medium in art.” Josef Albers - Chapter IV, Interaction of Color.
Flash forward many decades, to the present day in fact - and we can see the likes of Jacob Collier describing the interactions of his musical triads, chords, cadences, and tertiary stacks in an almost identical way to that which Albers does with his approach to colour interaction:
Whenever we're faced with this kind of linguistic description it’s all so intuitive and all so apparent. We can use language from other disciplinary theories to describe similar inter-disciplinary phenomena. And I feel that this truth serves as a very strong reminder of the artificial boundaries that we forgot we invented in the traditional definitions of many creative disciplines. The thing is, even beyond poetic licence and purple prose we know this to be a deeply engrained ability - one that sees us instinctively referring to shape, movement, position, tone, scale and so on in similar ways across the modes - just look at the Bouba Kiki effect (I mean, which one is 'Bouba' and which one is 'Kiki' to you?)
Through all of this, we can see that this cross-sensory way of thinking is highly accessible and decipherable to most people, if not nearly everyone. But the real value to me in this is not just about the process of communicating descriptive analogies (although dammit, I love a good analogy) it’s more a flaming beacon for the viability of discipline-agnostic creative design that features a much wider bandwidth of modal broadcast - and this is one of the methodological philosophies that I intent the Systems Creative to advocate as an inherent part of that identity.
As a multidisciplinary practitioner myself, I’ve always personally loved thinking about creative disciplines as access channels that allow me to tap into the affordances of specific distinct modes when developing creative artefacts and designing experiences. For example, I don’t turn to illustration because it means I get to draw something I'm yearning to draw, I turn to illustration when something needs to be said, challenged, delivered, or presented via an artificial visual mode. Similarly, I don’t turn to music composition because it gives me the chance to create a song. I turn to music composition when something needs to be executed through the aural modality (in a non-verbal fashion).
Acknowledging what disciplinary workflows can afford you in any given creative scenario is a much more freeing and powerful way to design projects and plan creative work than to remain bound by the established expectations that come with the territory of traditional disciplinary workflows. Ground can be broken when we begin to think like this as creatives and within the workflow of Making Sense® this method of creative ideation serves as the WHAT fuel that will help us execute our all-important WHY ...isn't that right Making Sense®?
[SEE ABOVE: a creative formula chain that demonstrates how the consideration of these 3 ingredients enabled a technical and creative decision that firmly tied the illustrations for Blueberry Bay to the core theme of the book - that being plastic pollution within the world's oceans.]
I believe that for creatives, this is the true beauty of multimodality. It feels to me that it makes much more sense these days for us to break down creative practical skills not by traditional definitions of the disciplines, but by the modal channels they afford us to mobilise and occupy as we present the fruits of our work. It's about us having a gloriously stocked experiential spice rack where the modes of media, communication, and the human sensorium can be utilised aptly, in whatever measures and combinations, whenever we create something for some known reason. It's about us occupying (and normalising even! ...at this early stage) a wider bandwidth of modal broadcast within the arts, cultural, creative, and technological industries.
Over the years, my own interdisciplinary wandering had introduced me to a powerful set of fundamental theories and references that I actively draw upon as a Systems Creative, and each of them has had a dramatic impact on my interdisciplinary creative workflow. The point of importance that needs to be raised here, however, is that I utilise these specialist resources in a hybrid fashion; I never turn to them as a practitioner concerned solely with the specialisms they pertain to, but more as an opportunity for disciplinary reappropriation and cross-pollination. For example - Josef Albers’ ‘Interaction of Color’ has actually had a profound impact on the way I design sound and produce music. Williams’ keystone works in animation has influenced the way in which I design and produce interactive experiences. This is a process of which I personally refer to as Hybrid Fundamentalism. Hybrid Fundamentalism is then taken to its highest heights when these discrete theories are brought together bilaterally, trilaterally (and beyond!) in order to create new forms of multimodal creative outputs - ones that serve distinctly as liminal artefacts when perceived from the perspective of traditional disciplines.
...and the 3 spectrum categories within Making Sense were designed to ensure that the WHAT (i.e. the practical work) for any creative project is considered and designed in this discipline-agnostic fashion. The modes, the terminology, and the conditions that the cards signpost, are all transferrable. With this new perspective shift the resolution of a Systems Creative's practice jumps up to a higher dimensional plane, it's actually made up of a collection of specialist skillsets (e.g. music, illustration, coding, animation, graphic design, construction, acting, dancing, marketing, engineering, and so on). At this resolution disciplines are no longer an identity - they are an affordance.
...and here we're quite literally talking about dimensionality! Multimodal design within Systems Creativity is the 4th right-angle that we just can't point to while contained within the 3 dimensions of a traditional creative discipline. Which is why - in the same way that the square is to the cube, as the cube is to the tesseract... ...the pencil is to the illustrator, as the illustrator is to the Systems Creative.
...the instrument is to the musician, as the musician is to the Systems Creative.
...the tool is to the discipline, as the discipline is to this new and exciting professional identity.
(Like I said a moment ago - I just love a good analogy.)