Brandon's Notepad

September 6, 2017

Creativity Deconstructed


Before you can effectively and consistently boost creativity, you must first understand what creativity really is. As I always say, words are important, and the study of words can reveal some truly amazing things. In this case, creativity appears to be a fairly simple etymological study.

The root word of creativity is obviously create, so it is not surprising that most English dictionaries define the word as the ability to create. Personally, I don’t find that definition very satisfying, because when we talk about creativity or when we describe someone as being very creative, we typically have something much greater in mind than the simple ability to make something. Some dictionaries extend this definition to include the ability to think new things. The Oxford dictionary explicitly ties the act of creation in this context to the use of the imagination and notes that the resultant thing or idea is original. The Cambridge definition goes even further to suggest that the ideas produced also possess the property of being unusual. I prefer the word unique over unusual, but the latter does connote that the thing or idea is not only one-of-a-kind, but also out-of-the-ordinary.

One must be careful throwing a word like create around too loosely, however. All too often, people equate it with the word make, as in, “let’s go make some art”. This seldom works in reverse, because you never hear things like, “I’ll create the coffee in the morning”. The word make has other meanings that are also incompatible; for example, phrases like “please create your bed before leaving for school” and “I hope you can create it home in time for dinner” make no sense at all!

The same problem is inherent with the word produce (the verb, not the lettuce). Does an artist produce great works of art in the same way a manufacturing plant produces widgets? Obviously not. In Latin, we can distinguish the verb creo from produco, facio, and fabrico (think produce, manufacture, and fabricate respectively). Things can be made (produced/manufactured/fabricated) according to a design, but the creative act must, by definition, occur before or coincident with the design. This ties in well with the notion of originality: a new creation’s origin is an outcome of the creative act.

I am rather partial to the definition of creativity that I first heard in a training course titled “Creativity Bootcamp”. In that course, author and instructor Stefan Mumaw explains that “creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty.” Relevance is a binary property: a proposed solution either solves a problem or it doesn’t. Novelty (i.e. “newness”) is where originality comes in. Why does Mumaw include these two properties in his definition? Because he wants to emphasize that creativity is not the same thing as artistry. An art (from the Latin ars) is a skill that one learns through practice. So, while a very skilled artist can, say, paint impressive landscapes, there may be little or no creativity in his work, because he is not solving the problem — capturing and expressing the essence of the place — in a new way.

So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the nature of creativity? More importantly, does this understanding bring us any closer to learning how to consistently deliver creative solutions? At a minimum, it helps us define our boundaries. If a problem truly calls for a creative solution, it is either because the problem itself is new or all previous solutions have proven to be ineffective or suboptimal. Also, we can recognize that looking for ideas (e.g. Pinterest) is the antithesis of being creative, and may in fact hinder our own creativity in most cases. Instead, we should focus on analyzing and solving the problem outright, and then researching to see if our “best” solution has already been attempted by someone else. Finally, we can completely dismiss the notion that creativity is inextricably linked to artistic talent. In fact, scientific discovery and invention are predicated on creative thinking. Thus, creativity is not so much about the solution, but about how we, as creative beings, approach the problem.

August 29, 2017

Creativity: A Study

Filed under: Art,Productivity,Psychology,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 8:50 am
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I consider myself to be a fairly creative person. I grew up in a household that encouraged self-expression and experimentation on many levels, including the arts. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed writing, sketching, painting, and playing music, even at times when I felt like I wasn’t very good at them at all. And like most people, I too have periods in which I lack inspiration and need a little boost to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, finding myself in a creative slump is exactly what prompted me to start studying the nature of creativity.

Below are a set of questions I set out to answer in the course of this study:

  • What is creativity really?
  • Is being creative the same as being artistic?
  • What is a creative process?
  • Can creativity be measured?
  • How do I find inspiration?

As my study progresses, I will post my findings here. If you would like updates on my progress, please follow me on Twitter.

December 4, 2014

Computer Graphics

Home > My Lists > Technology > Computer Graphics

This page is a listing of user guides and how-to documents for various computer graphics manipulation tools that I have found useful over time.

General Purpose Tool References & Articles

CLIChart. Commandline tool for quick visualization of tabular data.

D3 Data-Driven Documents. JavaScript library for producing advanced visualizations.

eplot. Short for “easy gnuplot”, eplot is a Ruby wrapper for Gnuplot (see below).

Gnuplot. Multi-platform CLI graphing utility used for mathematical functions plotting and data visualization.

Graphviz. Visualization tool for creating diagrams based on structured information using the DOT language. Best used for directional charts (flowcharts, hierarchy charts, PERT/CPM charts, mind maps, etc.

ImageMagick. Command-based art program suite.

Inkscape. Vector graphics package.

Message Sequence Chart generator (Mscgen). Creates sequence diagrams from text files. These diagrams are used in telecommunications, object-oriented software design (e.g. UML), and other applications.

Project-Specific Tools & Tutorials

Web-Based Charting

Project Management.

Map Making

Circuit Diagrams

December 11, 2013


Filed under: Art — Brandon @ 2:44 pm
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Home > My Lists > Art > Zentangle

Mindless doodling elevated to an art form? Part of New Age religion? Niche book market? Zentangles (a.k.a. Zendoodles) are all of the above.

I recently ran across several books about the art of Zentangle at the bookstore. I’d seen Zentangles before, but this was the first time I had seen books about them, so I grabbed three or four and headed for the closest comfy chair. Now, I’m not the least bit interested in practicing Zen, but I do find mindless doodling to be an effective relaxation technique in general. It was a habit I picked it up from my mother and grandfather, and one that I eventually (and sadly) broke as everyday life became more and more hectic. In fact, many of the patterns looked just like those I used to fill the fronts of the paper textbook covers and the margins of pages in countless spiral-bound notebooks back in school. It was a way to pass the time, like a daydream on paper. Anyway, back to the bookstore…

At first, I was very excited about my new discovery. The patterns were immediately appealing. Some resembled traditional styles, such as Celtic knot work (of which I am a big fan), traditional Asian art, or Delft Blue, while others were reminiscent of the more modern genres of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Retro Modern, and even Psychedelic styles of the 20th Century. The juxtaposition of the different patterns alone contributed to the appeal. It was also interesting to note how the technical aspects of the artwork were repeated with amazing consistency: the pen strokes, the shading, the occasional application of color.

The excitement soon dissipated. As I was skimming the last book, I felt like something important was missing. I started to notice the little things: imperfections in the strokes, the urgency with which many of them were made, the lack of variance in their weight. The lines began to look course and amateurish, the patterns mere novelties. I suddenly realized that more than a few of the patterns had made me stop and ask myself, “Why bother?”

I walked away from the bookstore feeling very cheated, and Zentangles lingered on my mind for hours afterward. Perhaps I had missed the point of them altogether. Hoping to find some empirical evidence that testified to the intrinsic value of the Zentangle, I resorted to doing a broader search online. There I found a multitude of these little sketches, most of which lacked any trace of elegance, with carelessly applied hash marks and fields upon fields of checkerboards and zig-zags (so very cliché).

Then it finally dawned on me, I was looking for art! I was looking for the minds of the artists, their messages communicated through this medium of ink and paper, and I kept coming back with nothing — and for good reason. If you read what the experts have to say, Zentangle is really a form of meditation. (Yes, as in New Age/Eastern Philosophy/The Occult.) It is something you do, not something you create per se. So it seems that the message is that there is no message. After all, Zen is all about recognizing the existence of thoughts and allowing them to pass away.

To this point, the experts also claim that creating tangles is not like “drawing” at all! It requires no forethought or planning, since these things actually hinder creativity. (Really? How many of the masters set about to paint or sculpt without a plan? Even great photography requires some plan on how to manage light, either in the camera or in the darkroom. But, I digress.)

Edge of Entanglement, Zendoodle by Linda Mahoney I did eventually find what I was looking for. The techniques used to create Zentangles can be applied quite effectively to drawings to add texture and dimension. Most of the examples I found were pictures of animals. Similar to photos in a photo mosaic, patterns can used to manipulate light and dark, and even color. Also, just as Celtic knots were often used to ornament letters, crosses, and figures in illuminated manuscripts, Zentangle-style patterns can be used to simply decorate spaces that would otherwise be left empty or even to contain smaller images that help tell a story. Of course, all of these suggestions probably defeat the purpose of Zentangles to “achieve enlightenment”, and require far more forethought and planning than the mindless doodler cares to invest.


October 21, 2013

Creepy Art

Home > My Lists > Art > Creepy Art

Some art is just plain creepy. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just how some people want to express themselves. I kinda like creepy art, actually, but only in small doses depending on what it is. A few pieces have caught my eye in recent years, so I figured it was time that I start a list. At least for now, the list is in alphabetical order by artist’s last name.

Nikolaus Baumgarten. The Zoomquilt is a trip through a creepy fantasy universe. This online journey begins with one scene and the image begins to zoom inward to another embedded scene, and then another, and another, seamlessly tied together with what look like twisted, orange rails. It is a loop, so you end up back in the original scene eventually.

Su Blackwell. Ms. Blackwell uses pages from books, leveraging cut-out images to create book sculptures. I particularly like the ones of Alice and Snow White.

Brian Dettmer. I originally found Mr. Dettmer’s sculptures posted on Pinterest and had to do an image search to find his site. His Altered Books series is absolutely fascinating! I could stare at them for hours.

Joshua Harker. I posted about Harker‘s tangle art in My Stack two years ago, and I’m pleased to add his name to this list. Once in a while I go back to his site to view his Crania Anatomica Filigre in all of its glorious detail (I just love the playing card suit symbols inscribed on the forehead).

Tony Tasset. Stroll down Main Street in downtown Dallas to find a thirty-foot eyeball staring back at you. This piece was moved from Chicago to Dallas in 2013. The artist’s other works include the ‘Capuchine Chandelier’ inspired by the mummies in the catacombs of the Capuchine monastery in Sicily, and a few other strange creations.

October 6, 2011

Kids’ Arts & Crafts

Filed under: Art — Brandon @ 5:45 pm
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Home > My Lists > Art > Kids’ Arts & Crafts

Kids love to do arts and crafts. Here is a list of ideas. I plan to research these and write some how-to posts. These are in no particular order at the moment.

Make your own paper (recycling)
Plant seed paper
Pressing leaves and flowers
Sand candles
Terrariums (green houses?)
Sand (boxes, castles, etc.)

February 27, 2008

Font Sites

Filed under: Art — Brandon @ 8:47 pm
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Below is a list of great font websites. I will add to this list as I find them. As a Linux user, I give preference to TrueType Fonts.

Website List

  • Dafont [denotes license/restrictions on use]

Blog at