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An Overview of Shape of Thought

INSIDE INSIGHT – SEPTEMBER 2008

Shape of Thought

Since mid-2005, Bonnie DeVarco and Eileen Clegg have been collaborating on Shape of Thought, a research and writing project that has taken them to a deep understanding of visual communication. In summer 2008, they participated in a two-week retreat in Peru that deepened their understanding.

By looking at patterns in anthropology, human biology and Nature’s forms, they made discoveries that helped them understand why certain symbols, metaphors, and shapes resonate among human beings across cultures and time.

They are in the process of weaving these insights into a narrative that addresses some of the pressing problems of our time: organizing vast amounts of information on the Web, enabling global communication across different languages and cultures, enhancing our individual memories, and organizing our collective knowledge.

Their interest developed from their work as visual practitioners – Bonnie as a 3D world designer and Eileen as a visual journalist – and from their close association with two of the twentieth centuries most influential people. Bonnie is a former archivist for R. Buckminster Fuller (architect, philosopher and designer of the geodesic dome) and Eileen is co-author of a book with Douglas C. Engelbart (a visionary of the Information Age and inventor of the computer mouse).

Among the areas of discovery, inquiry and exploration that are developed in their forthcoming book, Shape of Thought:

1. Certain shapes are powerful “containers” for information because they are familiar to people in a subliminal way. Among these special shapes are those that have their origin in Nature, and show up in ancient human design (architecture, tapestries, etc). Some are quite obvious, such as the spiral that appears in galaxies, ancient cave paintings, and modern design. Some are much more subtle, such as the triskelion (3-legged design in a circle) that shows up in a brain protein, ancient Celtic design, and medieval stained glass. Using these special shapes along with words can make communication more effective (in the visual capture of ideas from meetings, or on the Web), communicating meaning as well as information.

2. Many geniuses who have made great “leaps” in human understanding – in science and the arts – were students of history and observers of Nature who had a scholarly interest in shape. While they are known to us today for other discoveries, they were part of a lineage contributing to the historical story of shape. Among them: Pythagoras, Plato, Kepler, Leonardo Da Vinci, Buckminster Fuller. Take home message:  Studying shape leads to innovation.

3. Art is intricately linked to memory – a fact perhaps more understood in history than today. Ancient dance, paintings, and lettering all contained specific shapes and dimensions that resonate with Nature and help people remember. The Greek Goddess Mnemosyne was the mother of the muses, ancient sages described complex “memory palaces” to help them remember complex information. Question: Were people better able to process information when they learned art, poetry and music as part of their education?

4. The World Wide Web carries the promise of conveying all of global knowledge to the individual. However, it is not organized in a way that is accessible “in the right way at the right time” for most people. Interestingly, the man who demonstrated the first computer screen (graphic user interface), videoconferencing, computer mouse, and networked computers in 1968, Doug Engelbart, first had the idea that a “collective IQ” meant “mapping” information in a specific way that would enable problem-solving.

5. Powerful visual communication not only records but generates knowledge. In their study, Bonnie and Eileen have found that nature inspires meaningful metaphors; metaphors inspire global symbols; symbols provide frameworks for human thoughts; and these frameworks then can become algorithms to generate new ideas. The tree is an example of this.

6. We have just begun to understand the potential of shape to help us communicate and build knowledge. With the advent of electron microscopes, we can now perceive extremely tiny structures that share similar shapes – for example, a brain protein, a Carbon-60 molecule, and an ocean phytoplankton. What are the implications of the fact that critical aspects of the universe share certain shapes? The same shapes that showed up in ancient decorations? Is there a way that these shapes can help humanity see, share and act on information in a better way?

We will be posting sections of our manuscript, idea murals, images and other artifacts over the next few months as we create the final draft of the book.