I was recently at an event on innovation when the speaker put up the following quote from the design guru John Maeda: “…economies are built upon convergent thinkers, people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities. Superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (artists and designers and convergents (scientists and engineers) together”.

I was stunned.

He seemed to believe that this view was generally understood and accepted.

Is this really how we think about innovation? That there are two modes of thought, and that these are found in separate populations?

“…economies are built upon convergent thinkers, people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities. Superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (artists and designers and convergents (scientists and engineers) together” John Maeda

As someone who has been a practising scientist, I can assure you that a successful scientist must be both divergent and convergent. You have to come up with an idea; a new approach to a problem, or an experiment that resolves the argument between different proposals. Once you have the idea, you test it against reality using a number of tools and disciplines, but you have to generate the new idea first. The only practical way to do that is by open, creative and divergent thinking.

This is not to say that people do not have a preferred approach. Some people will be happier coming up with new ideas, I am one, and others much prefer the thrill of following an idea to its conclusion. A good team will have people with strengths in different areas, but if you cannot be imaginative, creative and divergent, you are not likely to be an effective scientist or engineer.

“OK!” you say “We will allow you that, but artists are the real creative and divergent thinkers. They are completely unrestricted by mere reality! They can go places no scientist or engineer would dare”.

Well yes and no.

If you think that the imagination of scientists and engineers is restricted, you have clearly never talked to someone working in cosmology, quantum physics, genetic and metabolic engineering, or new materials. They play with concepts far weirder and more extreme than most human thought.

It is also true that whilst artists are capable of wonderful flights of imagination and deep insights, they need to reduce their ideas to something which can be communicated to an audience. Just like scientists and engineers, they deploy a series of tools, rules and methods to make their creativity concrete. The rules of grammar, the conventions of a genre of fiction, or the practical skill of applying paint to canvas in a way that entrances the viewer.

It is a mistake to think that complete originality is the essence of art. Historically that has not been the case. Different artists developed signature skills and tricks that they used over and over again. Often because their audience demanded it. It was what they were paying for.

Some years ago I visited an exhibition of Dutch still-life painting from the Golden Age of the 17th Century, and was delighted to learn that each artist was famous for some particular special trick. Some were outstanding at rendering fruit peel, and put that into all their paintings. Others excelled at broken eggshells.

Laurens Craen – Still Life with Imaginary View, 1645-50

It might be argued that these were lesser expressions of art because they repeated themselves, but each painting was different – an initial creative act brought to physical reality by skill and discipline. No one claims that Monet’s series of water lily paintings are less creative because he obsessively painted and repainted the same subject in his quest to find a way to give practical effect to his vision.

So for me, there is no difference between artists and scientists/engineers. Scientists and engineers must diverge before they can converge, and artists must converge after diverging to make their idea real.

I am delighted when artists work with scientists/engineers to create together, but not because one is divergent and the other convergent, but because the different background knowledge, skills and disciplines each bring to the creative act make it richer and more likely to generate something new.

When innovating, opening out to produce new ideas is as important as closing down to realise those ideas. An innovator should try to be good at both. Recognise where your strength lies and work on the weaker side of your capability, and don’t listen to anyone who says artists do the divergent bit and scientist/engineers the convergent bit. It’s not like that at all.

“Scientists and engineers must diverge before they can converge, and artists must converge after diverging to make their idea real”

 

 

 

 

Successful Innovation Needs Divergent and Convergent Thinking
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