How to Think like an Artist/Engineer – Tips from Lisa Corrin and Julio Ottino

At a high level, scientists and artists connect through the need to make things—to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Julio M. Ottino,  Northwestern Engineering Dean and Lisa Corrin, Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum of Art, recently sat down with Northwestern Engineering Magazine to provide a few tips for those looking to expand their creative and analytical thinking.

Make Friends with Uncertainty

The best ideas come when artists and engineers leave their comfort zones and venture into unknown territory, whether it’s assembling a complex process, designing for a new client, or playing with a new material. “Uncertainty shouldn’t be frightening but exhilarating and energizing,” Corrin says.

Become Familiar with the Unfamiliar, and Vice Versa

One person might simply enjoy the image of milk gently mixing into coffee, but a physicist might look at the same image and extract the seeds of understanding how regions can remain unmixed in oceans. “This is the essence of science: finding the simple picture that contains all pictures,” says Ottino, who had this thought himself. Artists do the opposite. “Artists take something cliché and turn it inside out and upside down to get us to see the world anew,” Corrin says. To find the best ideas, do both.

Question, Question, Question

There’s no prize for correctly solving the wrong question, Ottino says. For engineers, getting to a solution means finding the real problem, often obscured by the perceived problem. It also requires the constraint of operating within physical realities. Artists approach “problems” from a point of nonconformity. As unconventional thinkers unconstrained by the need for specific, tangible outcomes, they don’t fear being different, a trait that helps them push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Never Be Satisfied with the First Idea

Through Ottino’s whole-brain engineering framework, Northwestern Engineering students iterate, prototype, and communicate until they reach a solution that works, aware there may be others. Artists go even further. “Artists take an idea and play it out beyond its conclusion, sometimes until it collapses,” Corrin says. “They say, ‘Let’s do it to death and see how far this can be pushed and what might emerge.’

—excerpted with permission from Emily Ashford, “Art + Engineering: Northwestern Engineering partners with the Block Museum to inspire a new generation of independent thinkers.” Northwestern Engineering Magazine  (Spring 2018)

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