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The absence in art of a well-formulated and systematized body of literature makes the problem of teaching a perplexing one. The subject is further complicated by the elusive and personal nature of art. Granted that a student’s ultimate success will depend largely on his natural talents, the problem still remains: how best to arouse his curiosity, hold his attention, and engage his creative faculties.
Through trial and error, I have found that the solution to this enigma rests, to a large extent, on two factors: the kind of problem chosen for study, and the way in which it is posed. I believe that if, in the statement of a problem, undue emphasis is placed on freedom and self expression, the result is apt to be an indifferent student and a meaningless solution. Conversely, a problem with defined limits, implied or stated disciplines which are, in turn, conducive to the instinct of play, will most likely yield an interested student and, very often, a meaningful and novel solution.
Of the two powerful instincts which exist in all human beings and which can be used in teaching, says Gilbert Highet, one is the love of play.” The best Renaissance teachers, instead of beating their pupils, spurred them on by a number of appeals to the play-principle. They made games out of the chore of learning difficult subjects—Montaigne’s father, for instance, started him in Greek by writing the letters and the easiest words on playing cards and inventing a game to play with them.”
Depending on the nature of the problem, some or all of the psychological and intellectual factors implicit in game-playing are equally implicit in successful problem-solving:
Without the basic rules or disciplines, however, there is no motivation, test of skill, or ultimate reward—in short, no game. The rules are the means to the end, the conditions the player must understand thoroughly, and work with, in order to participate. For the student, the limits of a well-stated problem operate in much the same way. “Limited means,” says Braque, “beget new forms, invite creation, make the style. Progress in art does not lie in extending its limits, but in knowing them better.”
Unfortunately, in some of our schools little attempt is made to guide the student’s thinking in a logical progression from basic design to applied design. We are all familiar with the so-called practical problems which attempt to duplicate the conditions of industry-the atmosphere of the advertising agency, for example. Such problems are frequently stated in the broadest terms with emphasis, if any, on style and technique in advertising, rather than on interpreting advertising in terms of visual design principles.
Without specific formal limitations, without the challenging possibilities of introducing the element of play, both teacher and student cannot help but be bored. The product may take the form of a superficial (but sometimes “professional looking”) literal translation of the problem, or of a meaningless abstract pattern or shape, which, incidentally, may be justified with enthusiasm but often with specious reasoning.
Similarly, there are badly stated problems in basic design, stressing pure aesthetics, free expression, without any restraints or practical goals. Such a problem may be posed in this fashion: arrange a group of geometric shapes in any manner you see fit, using any number of colors, to make a pleasing pattern. The results of such vagaries are sometimes pretty, but mostly meaningless or monotonous. The student has the illusion of creating great art in an atmosphere of freedom, when in fact he is handicapped by the absence of certain disciplines which would evoke ideas, make playing with those ideas possible, work absorbing, and results interesting.
The basic design problem, properly stated, is an effective vehicle for teaching the possibilities of relationships: harmony, order, proportion, number, measure, rhythm, symmetry, contrast, color, texture, space. It is an equally effective means for exploring the use of unorthodox materials and for learning to work within specific limitations.
To insure that theoretical study does not end in a vacuum, practical applications of the basic principles gleaned from this exercise should be undertaken at the proper time (they may involve typography, photography, page layout, displays, symbols, etc.). The student learns to conceptualize, to associate, to make analogies; to see a sphere, for example, transformed into an orange, or a button into a letter, or a group of letters into a broad picture. “The pupils,” says Alfred North Whitehead, “have got to be made to feel they are studying something, and are not merely executing intellectual minuets.”
If possible, teaching should alternate between theoretical and practical problems-and between those with tightly stated “rules” imposed by the teacher and those with rules implied by the problem itself. But this can happen only after the student has been taught basic disciplines and their application. He then is able to invent his own system for “playing the game”. “A mind so disciplined should be both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.”
There are many ways in which the play-principle serves as a base for serious problem-solving, some of which are discussed here. These examples indicate, I believe, the nature of certain disciplines and may suggest the kind of problems which will be useful to the student as well as to the teacher of design.
The crossword puzzle is a variation on the acrostic, a word game that has been around since Roman times. There have been many reasons given for the popularity of the game. One is that it fulfills the human urge to solve the unknown, another that it is orderly, a third that it represents, according to the puzzle editor of the New York Times, “a mental stimulation… and exercise in spelling and vocabulary-building”. But the play in such a game is limited to finding the exact word to fit a specific number of squares in a vertical and horizontal pattern. It allows for little imagination and no invention or aesthetic judgment, qualities to be found in abundance, for example, in the simple children’s game, the Tangram.
The Tangram is an ingenious little Chinese toy in which a square is divided into this configuration. It consists of seven pieces, called “tans”: five triangles, one square, and one rhombus. The rules are quite simple: rearrange to make any kind of figure or pattern.
Here above is one possibility. Many design problems can be posed with this game in mind, the main principle to be learned being that of economy of means-making the most of the least. Further, the game helps to sharpen the powers of observation through the discovery of resemblances between geometric and natural forms. It helps the student to abstract: to see a triangle, for example, as a face, a tree, an eye, a nose, depending on the context in which the pieces are arranged. Such observation is essential in the study of visual symbols.
This drawing is reproduced from the first volume of Hokusai’s Rapid Lessons in Abbreviated Drawing (Riakougwa Hayashinan, 1812). In the book Hokusai shows how he uses geometric shapes as a guide in drawing certain birds. This exercise may be compared to the Tangram in that both use geometric means. The Tangram, however, uses geometry as an end in itself to indicate or symbolize natural forms-whereas Hokusai uses it as a clue or guide to illustrate them. In the artist’s own words, his system “concerns the manner of making designs with the aid of a ruler or compass, and those who work in this manner will understand the proportion of things”.
This character for the word “tan” (sunrise) is designed within an imaginary grid. Geometry functions here in a manner similar to the previous illustration, namely as a guide to filling the space correctly, but not to produce a geometric pattern.
The Chinese character is always written in an imaginary square. The ninefold square, invented by an anonymous writer of the T’ang dynasty, has been employed as the most useful, because it prevents rigid symmetry and helps to achieve balanced asymmetry. At the same time it makes the writer aware of negative and positive spaces. Each part of the character touches one of the nine squares, thus achieving harmony between the two elements and the whole.
Within this rather simple discipline the calligrapher is able to play with space, filling it as he feels would be most appropriate. The composition of Chinese characters, says Chiang Yee, “is not governed by inviolable laws… however, there are general principles which cannot be ignored with impunity”.
The Modulor is a system based on a mathematical key. Taking account of the human scale, it is a method of achieving harmony and order in a given work.
In his book, The Modulor, Le Corbusier describes his invention as “a measuring tool (the proportions) based on the human body (6-foot man) and on mathematics (the golden section). A man-with-arm-upraised provides, at the determining points of his occupation of space-foot, solar plexus, head, tips of fingers of the upraised arm-three intervals which give rise to a series of golden sections, called the Fibonacci series.” (1, 1, 2,3,5,8, 13, etc.) (Italics are mine.)