21 Symbol Systems


Source: http://www.drawright.com/

One of my favorite discussions of design, art and creativity is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. It presents itself as a drawing book, but it dedicates a lot of its time to discussing the creative process more broadly.

One of the best lessons I have gotten from the book is how to break your symbol system. Your symbol system is the narrative you build based on what you see. And you must break away from it as an artist because you have to see what you see, not the labels you place on it. As an example, most people draw eyes that look cartoonish or artificial because they draw what they think of as “an eye”, a pointed oval, with 2 circles inside and some lashes, maybe with a couple of further details. They don’t reproduce all of the lines and structures that we see when we look at a real eye. This is a mental block. We see something, and want to label it, to understand how it fits in with our terminology, so we see an eye and think “eye”, rather than thinking “that collection of lines and fields that we think of as an eye”.

Over time, I’ve extended this, and come to find it useful when considering politics, business, my social life and any number of other areas. Often we look for symbolic solutions, which look like the answers we need, rather than looking for real answers that will help the situation.

An example is the dreaded office party. Research has shown that offices where staff spend more time together outside work hours are more productive and successful. This has led many managers to start what sounds like a straightforward solution. We will have office parties, every month or two. People will have fun, and they will work better because… reasons. In reality, office parties are a sign of what is actually making those other offices more efficient. People get along, they like each other. Forcing an office staff that don’t like each other or want to hang out is just a recipe for a disaster.

When dealing with poverty and homelessness, the symbol system is that much more devastating. Consider the recent phenomenon of homeless spikes and other “defensive architecture”. No one wants to live in a community where homelessness is a problem, and one of the clearest signs of this is when you see the homeless sleeping in public places. The “Solution” proposed by this defensive architecture is to solve the symbol of homelessness by causing the homeless to sleep out of the public view. This doesn’t actually solve anything, but it makes the community look like one which has dealt with the issue. It’s a symbolic solution to the problem.

When we look for solutions, whether to solutions in business or society, we need to make sure to break our symbol system. We need to solve the real problem that we are confronted with, and not simply do things that look like solutions for the real problem, or worse, do thing that look like what we think are solutions. Like in the world of art, behaving in this way is cartoonish and ineffective based on our stated goal. Maybe the answer is to consider the problem more carefully, and not just create easy symbolic solutions.