February 2020 - May 2020
What enables me to be creative? What influences my creativity? More importantly, how has my creativity been affected by a time of crisis and disruption such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? How has my creativity dealt with such disruptive event? Through this experience, will I find insights that allow me to make creative choices that will prepare myself for the future ever-changing world, full of uncertainties and unexpected complex challenges?
To date, many still question: how do people come up with ideas? How to be more creative? As someone recently entering the creative field, I have a strong interest in answering these questions myself.
The study of creativity and how the brain generates ideas, is not new. There have been numerous researchers and experts who spent years studying, researching on creativity and innovation. Despite extensive research, many of them admit that we still don’t have a complete understanding of exactly how the brain works to affect creativity. Other successful interdisciplinary professionals have also tried to come up with theories and suggestions for how to be creative. Yet, I thought, like everything else, creativity may very well be different from one person to another. This is due to reasons, including: different training and professional backgrounds, diverse environments of upbringing and living situations. What about during a time of crisis such as a pandemic? As a result, in order to answer my question about creativity, what’s better than studying my own creative practice, observing my own way of creatively thinking and making to see what interesting learnings I will find.
My thesis is a personal case study, a documentation that details my process of thinking and making projects over the past three months, from the start of COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on various factors that have influenced my creative process, and drawing learnings from the experience.
The goal is to give myself a reflection and better understanding of what drives and influences my creative thoughts and decisions, before and during the pandemic, and sharing what worked and what didn't during that period. What are the differences before and after? What will I learn about my creativity through this experience? Was I doing something right or everything wrong? Will some of these insights allow me to make creative choices that will prepare myself for the future of an ever-changing world, full of uncertainties and challenges?
TECHNICAL DETAILS SUMMARY
The technical details can be summarized as various technologies that enable "augmenting reality". The use of technology in my thesis, only as a tool, to actualize my hopes and dreams inspired by the space in between what I experienced at that moment during the pandemic (resource unavailability, lack of physical interactions and interaction with nature) and what I hope for and look forward to(when COVID-19 and social distancing end). To realize these visions, a combination of technologies were used, including physical computing, 3D modeling, 3D augmented reality tools such as Unity AR Foundation application, projection mapping, OSC with TouchDesigner, as well as extensive prototyping with paper and cardboard to build shapes and mechanical moving parts.
Projects created for thesis project include:
Explore tuning forks as an object of interest through playful experiments
Augmented reality experiments with 3D modeling of tuning fork and 3D sound
Re-imagining tuning forks from different angles that are not by default. These include analogous shape/forms, analogous functions, other forms of expression (for example, verbal form such as poetry).
A series of whimsical, "absurd" product design and experience design projects inspired by the art of making "un-useless" products - Chindogu where ideas are combined and connected in surprising, unexpected ways.
Door stop sandals
Strict eye blinds
Playful products enabled by pet labor
"Stay home, stay creative" installations in space series
"Stay home, stay creative" video sculpture
"Breeze" interactive installation
Host three ITP Community Virtual Open-mic Nights to nurture creative energy by bringing the creative community together to share creative passions
Documentation of high-level learnings from the creative process during the pandemic experience
START OF THE JOURNEY
It was before social distancing became a mandate. The journey actually begins with my interest and curiosity for a fascinating object introduced to me by my friend - Nick - with a music recording background.
Yes, It is a tuning fork, a tool that dates back to the 18th century, normally used as a standard of pitch to tune musical instruments by releasing a wave pattern to match a musician's instrument. But as I have been playing and experimenting with it, I realized that because of its unique properties, there are so many other things you can play and do with it than just for musical tuning.
But why the tuning fork among so many other objects? Let me show you why.
THE TUNING FORKS
I quickly started playing with the tuning forks by carrying out simple, small experiments to better understand its physical characteristics, and about the sound waves they create. The following experiments are for visualizing the invisible "sound waves".
Not being an expert in sound and electronics, I was grateful for the other classmates for helping out with equipment recommendations.
I built the electronic circuits myself to allow some of the experiments to be done a little less manually.
Visualizing the shape of sound waves of different frequencies, using an oscilloscope
Visualizing tuning fork's sound waves using laser beam reflected on a surface by placing a small piece of mirror on the fork
Creating kinetic energy with tuning fork's sound waves
TUNING FORKS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT INSPIRATIONS
Not having a sound or music background and being able to explore a sound-based instrument was a fascinating experience.
Throughout this playful learning process, I start to see the tuning forks as a great metaphor for the process of creativity of my own and many other fellow ITPs. As I listened to other ITP friends and reflected on my own creative process, I realized that creativity grows out of everyday and out of the most spontaneous experiences, objects, people around us more often than you might think. This process oftentimes requires letting go, stepping out of our comfort box, being curious, and open to what’s around you, such as by picking up something, an object, a sound, data point, a scientific phenomenon that is interesting to you, even if it might be the most random, absurd thing you’ve ever seen or encountered.
In fact, in order for our creativity to flourish, there are many things you can do, but one thing I want to share with you, and one might even think oh it’s easy, but it is getting harder, and that is paying attention to the world around us. As creative thinkers and makers, we all talk about needing to be open, to embrace experience, and that’s hard to do when you have a lighted rectangle in your pocket that takes all of your focus. But once you’re able to put down our phones, tune in and listen, develop a genuine interest in interacting attentively with that something or that someone to learn and understand more about them, you might end up with the most interesting, inspiring creative outcomes.
So, for my thesis, I decided to pick up an object that has been intriguing to me for the last 4 months that was introduced to me by one of my ITP friends, Chenhe who has a sound recording background. For me as someone who is without a sound or music background, I’m going to spend time working, playing, experimenting with the instrument, exploring it from every angle possible and then I’d like to share with you not only what I find along the process, but also hopefully an output/product that is inspired by it at the end.
THE START OF SOCIAL DISTANCING &
EXPERIMENTING WITH VIRTUAL SPACE
The start of social distancing to cope with the pandemic posed new questions to the initial topic of my thesis as well as challenged me to explore my area of interest from new approaches and perspectives.
My interest in experimenting with the tuning forks in physical forms could be opened up to new approaches such as virtual form.
3D tuning fork model
During a creative process, having a specific area of knowledge as a tool to help push the execution of the creative ideas is always useful. Fortunately, by the time social distancing started, I had the opportunity to play with AR Foundation and Unity to create playful AR applications.
Below are an audio and spatial AR application I created with the tuning fork 3D model and spatial sounds of the tuning forks.
SEEKING INSPIRATIONS FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
Social distancing continued to affect my inspirations and creative process. During the first few weeks of social distancing, I had the opportunity to talk to and listen to many people in and outside of the ITP community. There was at least a period when many people experienced low productivity and lack of creative inspirations. My experience was no exception. So, I decided to reach out to the ITP community - a community that has been inspiring creatively over the last two years.
I decided to issue a survey to the ITP community in hope of hearing from my creative friends their ideas and perspectives, given their diverse backgrounds, and their various levels of knowledge of the tuning forks.
The results came back with very interesting responses.
Below are some of the responses:
This survey gave me inspirations to experiment with the tuning forks with new tools and from new perspectives. These new approaches may come from completely non-obvious, seemingly unrelated ideas and objects. Some of the experiments below are whimsical ideas, which brought me even more positivity in the middle of the crisis.
One of the new ideas I had, was to see if I could establish communication between the physical and the virtual worlds. In doing this, I learned a way to create serial communication between Arduino and Unity. Below are some experiments:
Another way to create interaction between physical and virtual worlds is using OSC (Out-band Signaling Channel) using WiFi connection. I was able to learn and experiment with TouchDesigner OSC and use the accelerometer already embedded in an iphone to play with the Bullet Solver application.
Although I decided not to proceed with these tools to create new projects for thesis, it was a great learning experience with these applications, and they would definitely be useful tools for future projects.
Some other experiments that came out of this journey of exploring the tuning forks through new and non-obvious related ideas includes how would one use the tuning fork and its function as a "tuning" instrument and as a "fork" but in a completely different setting, such as a "tuning steak fork".
"When it comes to cooking steak, everyone tends to have their own recipe for how the steak is best marinated and cooked. As a diner, don't you sometimes feel like you don't have much of a say in how you would like your steak to be prepared?! Unless... you have a tuning steak fork. It is a type of fork that generates the right frequency to cause the molecules in the steak to re-arrange themselves in a curious way, thus enhancing the flavor to your preference. There are various frequencies you could choose from. Just carry one with you and use it with your meal any time at a steakhouse, and be surprised with your favorite steak flavor tuned to your personal preference. "
Soon after this playful experiment, I received a recommendation for a website to practice making Haiku - a form of Japanese poetry. I thought this could be a new, fun discipline to experiment with the tuning forks. Why not make a poem that has the tuning forks in it?! What was cool about this experience was my ability to compose a poem collaboratively with 2 other people from elsewhere. Everyone contributed one sentence to complete the haiku uniquely to us. Below is the website if you would like to check it out, and the resulted poem.
"Tuning forks and poetry?
It took 3 different authors from 3 different countries and cultures to co-compose this haiku. I ended up contributing the last sentence in the poem to bring the tuning fork into the context. Haiku is a type of Japanese poems of 17 syllables, made up with 3 lines of 5-7-5. The haiku simply describes some daily objects including a tuning fork humming a soothing sound in what seems to be a kitchen space."
What was really cool about this mini-project, to me personally, was the collaboration to create something meaningful with people from other geographical locations far away, even different continents and cultures. Although virtual collaboration is not a new concept or practice, I myself have not been involved in many of such projects. Despite my passion for physical interactive means and projects, I need to be more adaptive to this new virtual space to maintain my creative inspiration.
By now, I also maintained a instagram page to share what I was playing and creating with the tuning forks. The initial purpose was to find a way to commit myself to my creative process with the tuning forks. Yet, since then, it has also become a way to share with others my creative inspirations and seek feedback from others.
NEW CREATIVITY SHIFTS
Up until now, the mandate of social distancing by the New York State authority has been elevated to a higher degree. The need to stay isolated at home by everyone to cope with COVID has been taking a heavy a toll on the journey with my creative process. It was getting more and more difficult to stay focused and be able to come up with new inspirations while managing personal situation with the crisis to maintain my own physical and mental well-being. During this time, I continued to try to carry out more technical experiments and testing with the tuning forks. Some were successful, a lot were failures. However, many of these, either unsuccessful or successful technical challenges, could not be taken off the ground to bring together as a new, complete production.
I realized that my creative inspiration started to diminish, and that I must learn for myself what needed to be done and could be done to give my creative energy a new boost before I would be able to continue to produce projects.
I started to deep-dive into the analysis of my creative practice, including my creative thinking and making from this point on, during the time of crisis, how they have been affected. My goal was to figure out what I would be able to do to lift up my creative inspirations, and turn those inspirations into actual execution or making of projects, especially not knowing how longer the crisis period would continue to last for
ELEMENTS OF MY CREATIVITY
I brainstormed on aspects of my creativity that are under great impacts of the ongoing crisis. I mapped out what I was able to recall and conceptualize. All of these elements that affect my creativity have been under great impacts of the pandemic.
Ways to capture ideas
motivation - drive
creative work station
CREATIVITY ELEMENTS IN FOCUS
According to the above network map, my creativity has many elements or components that are interconnected and influence one another. However, I've decided to focus on only a few of the key elements that have been the most impacted by the time of crisis.
1. Attitude: it is how I feel, how my drive and motivation have been affected by the pandemic. Over the past few months, it has been a cycle of ups and downs. The bottomline is, through this experience of the pandemic, without the attitude and confidence that a problem can be solved, and that I can continue to generate ideas and projects, my creativity will come to a standstill.
2. Imagination Productivity: it is my ability to think and generate ideas. A large part of this ability comes from my observation and interaction with the world around me. This has been negatively impacted due to the restriction towards social interaction and being in the outside environment, which has always been a rich source of inspirations.
3.Resources: this component is particularly important to an ITP graduate. they come in different forms. They can be individuals such as our instructors, mentors, collaborators, etc. They are also physical equipment, materials, other tangible technology tools that are needed for making projects. With social distancing requirement and limited resources, the ability to create without these crucial resources has not been easy and has, in one way or another, prevented the execution of many ideas.
4. Creative Habitat: this is the physical space where I create. Prior to social distancing, I spent a large amount of time in physical community workspaces, fabrication shop and studio provided by the ITP department to execute my creative work. This creative space is also where I was able to see and get inspired by my fellow creative friends' work. I miss the days when I was able to just walk up to someone on the ITP floor for a spontaneous brainstorming, feedback on an idea. These days, that creative space has become my home office, and the creative community has been a big missing part in my ability to maintain my creative inspirations.
SAVING THE CRITICAL ELEMENTS OF CREATIVITY
The above components of my creativity have been significantly compromised due to the ongoing time of crisis. Realizing that, I have gathered different tools and practices that have helped sustain my creative thinking and making. Some of these practices, I learned from class, some others, from my peers, and other ones, from my own experimenting.
During this process, I also let loose a little bit of my focus on the tuning forks, and decided to let my creative process and inspirations take me where they should go rather than forcing the process during the challenging time for creativity. The goal is to sustain it and to spread that creativity to others. Having said that, this is not the end of the fun journey with my tuning forks, and they will definitely come back in the picture when the time is right.
The following are some of those methods that I found effective in helping sustain my creativity during this time of crisis.
COMBINING & CONNECTING
Dealing with limited resources, I needed to be able to re-arrange and re-organize the things that I know and what I could find in order to come up with brand new ideas. One way that allowed me to keep my imagination fresh is to practice combining and connecting non-obvious ideas and objects in many surprising and unexpected ways. From one of the classes I took at ITP called Designing the Absurd, I learned this creative method which is inspired by the art of "un-useless products" - Chindogu - introduced by the Japanese engineer, inventor Kenji Kawakami.
Below are some of the famous Chindogu inventions as examples.
Now, below are some of the inventions that I created myself and in collaboration with other classmates.
Crossing between hand hygiene, door-stopper, a Samurai sandal, and remote control devices, Door-top Sandal helps limit users coming into contact with public doorknobs and exit door push-bars. With just one button press, the sandal will run to an entrance door and hold it for you to pass through without the need for you to touch the door handle.
To check out more details about the making process of this product, please visit: Door-stop Sandal blog post.
Re-imagined the Structure of Coronavirus
Crossing between tuning forks, Coronavirus structure, and soccer, this re-imagination is a playful way of looking at a problem we may be dealing with. Looking at daily problems under the lens of a child - playful and free is also a way to maintain a positive attitude towards the current challenging situation.
CREATIVE HABITAT - CREATIVE SPACE
If you have never to the ITP floor at NYU, take a look at this space that was designed for boosting creativity and fostering collaboration.
Now that I reflected on the ITP space that I used to be there all the times, working on my own project, or together with other fellow graduates, I realized how much that space influenced my creative inspirations. That creative space is now my home office. And that home creative station would also have a great impact on my creativity now, during the pandemic.
At first I was sure where to set my home work station to allow for generation of creative ideas, so I just set it up by a window. Next thing I know, the next two projects I created ended up taking inspirations from window frames.
With this setup of my workspace, every day sitting at my desk, these are my views. Shadows of nature indicated its existence out right outside of my window. Although I couldn't enjoy and interact with nature, I wanted to find ways to augment my reality - the constant indoor environment, with indication of nature.
Indeed, creative space may lead to creative work, the next project I created was a series of installations in space, including video sculpture Stay Home Stay Creative, and interactive installation Breeze, inspired by windows - the place we look out to the outdoor environment, observing and drawing inspirations while being in our personal space. The installations augment our reality with elements of nature to encourage continued creative energy and inspirations even when we are required to stay physically isolated to cope with the pandemic.
Windows bring light into a room. It's a place through which you look out to nature, to the outside environment to observe and seek inspirations while in your personal space. Responding to humans' desire to enjoy and interact with nature, "Stay Home, Stay Creative" is meant to bring elements from the outside environment into an indoor space. The window blinds are augmented with the presence of nature such as sunlight, shadows of living creatures and their sounds in hope of helping humans stay optimistic, and continue to be inspired and creative during the difficult time. As limited resources as there seems to be, there might just be something for us to pick up to play with and create. Indeed, it is a critical time to stay inspired and creative as we're standing in between what we're seeing in the wold and what we're hoping for.
Everything was made out of cardboard boxes and scrap paper. Without access to wood supply and any cutting equipment, I decided to create the wood pattern by hand-drawing on the cardboard.
CREATIVE HABITAT - CREATIVE COMMUNITY
Creativity needs to be shared. I miss those days when I could just walk down the hallway of ITP and got inspired by seeing what everyone was working on. Creativity needs an outlet to be shared to inspire one another, and to exchange feedback. It was this creative community , and the creative culture at ITP that foster my creativity.
Realizing that, together with two other ITP friends, I initiated a new community activity: ITP Virtual Open-mic Nights to create a space for sharing projects, class assignments, creative passions and other talents among the community.
Posters designed by Chenhe Zhang
CREATIVE HABITAT - COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS
One thing I was wrong about was being afraid that collaborative projects weren’t meant for virtual setting.
But as always, by working together, sharing successes and failures, a creative team pushes beyond the limits inherent in working alone during such a difficult time for everyone.
Below is a project I created with my project partner Sachiko Nakajima as a virtual team: Pandemic Lifestyle-Inspired Pet Work Translation Tools.
After tens of ideation zoom calls, hundreds of messages back and forth and drop box sharing of sketches and video files, together we created a series of product designs that incorporate Creative Mechanical Linkages to let your adorable pets help out with household tasks while creating new and fun interactions between humans and animals, especially when you’re required to stay physically isolated at home.
Communication was no doubt a challenge, and I know it will continue to be challenging. Yet, had I feared collaborating in the virtual setting, this amazing project wouldn't have come to life. Now I know I must not be afraid of collaboration even at a distance.
For more details on this project, please visit Pet Work Translation Tools blog post.
RESOURCES - CREATIVITY LOVES CONSTRAINTS
Constraints such as lack of resources, can result in low creativity, but when there is right amount of added pressure, creativity seems to love constraint.
Indeed, the pandemic has left us no choice but to get into the mindset that allowed us to respond to the unexpected and to leverage anything we could find in order to create something of value rather than waiting and hoping for resources to show up.
In my experience, what ended up working very well with limited materials and equipment, was my "creative procrastination." Time pressure played well with other limited resources to give me that push for the most creativity I could find from within.
Below is "Strict Eye Blinds" - an example example of when I turned “creative procrastination” and cardboard boxes into an absurd design invention. Crossing between eye protection, window blinds and wearable, these smart, uncompromising automated roller blinds are designed to protect the "window to your soul." They control when and how much time your eyes need a break from screen-time.
Again, everything was out of cardboard and other re-cycled materials.
For more details on the process, please check out Strict Eye Blinds blog post.
This has become a valuable resource.
We are at a period in time unlike anything that humanity has ever experienced. No one can predict where the journey with COVID will go from here. But, in the end, I asked myself, “Did I find insights that allow me to make creative choices that will prepare myself for the future ever-changing world, full of uncertainties and unexpected complex challenges?” It’s probably too soon to say, but one thing I know is that our ideas, big or small, are the critical starting point to propel us forward.
Speaking of ideas, although I never had the pleasure to meet our inspirational former chair Red Burns, but her vision regarding ideas and technology as a tool that I’ve been exploring and learning over the past 2 years at ITP, has deeply resonated with me. She said “... I always envision technology, not as the driver, but the idea as the driver, and the technology to help you achieve that idea.” And as we stand in between what we are seeing in the world and what we are hoping for, in the middle of the ongoing crisis, I realized that it is even more critical now for us maintain and nourish our creative energy.
Because, with enhanced creativity, instead of problems, we will see potential, instead of crisis, we will see opportunities. And as we’ve all witnessed so far within the first few months coping with COVID in all areas: from science and technology to education and arts, what I’ve seen, is instead of a pandemic, I see a chance for humans to create breakthrough solutions.
This project started with the fear of running out of ideas, or not being able to come up with ideas. What a scary thought! Social distancing and the need to stay inside to cope with the pandemic has made it even more challenging to navigate how to sustain my creativity. The journey of my thesis ended up being a reflection and an exploration to understand on a deeper level how my creative process has been affected by the time of crisis, and to figure out how to stay inspired and creative during a time of duress. To gain that understanding, it took much more than reflecting on my own process. I've increased my knowledge about my own creativity also by observing others, collaborating with classmates, conducting interviews in great depth with people to help me expand my understanding of inspirations and creativity. This thesis would not have come to life without those individuals that took the time for sharing insights, stories, and being a source of my inspirations despite the difficulties we are all facing during this period. I thank them for taking the time to talk with me and will never forget such interesting conversations we had. I truly hope we will continue to support each other, share new ideas of how to keep ourselves inspired, and help one another nourish our creativity no matter where things go from here with our ongoing global crisis.
Advisor - Mimi Onuoha
Residents - Ellen Nickles & Alden Jones
All the individuals and communities
in the frontline fighting COVID19
Friends and Collaborators:
Nick Chenhe Zhang
Designing the Absurd classmates
Magic Windows classmates
The ITP Community
Colleagues at the Langone Innovation and Design Lab
Tina Seelig’s “innovation engine” includes six characteristics of “truly creative people”: knowledge, imagination, attitude, resources, habitat and culture. I reflected on my creative thinking and making process, under the influence of these six factors. The missing part from her research is how these characteristics may change and influence one’s creativity differently in times of duress. Thus, this is an area that I explored with my experience during COVID-19.
David Kelly’s talk about art and science of creativity, highlights the need to capture creative ideas, using whichever methods that work, before they get lost, which may be more critical during times when it is harder to come up with creative ideas.
Victor Shamas, PhD, talked about how great creative minds value creativity as a whole experience and process, and not so focused on the end product. What I drew from this, is that, everything we create has a story behind it, especially during a pandemic, the story is even more significant to be documented and shared with others. It is important to reflect on the journey and the creative choices we’ve all made along the process to realize a creative product.
Gerald Puccio, PhD., gave his talk about creativity as a life skill since the history of humankind.
Futurist Stephan Schwartz researched on the six steps that are catalysts to creativity, one of which is the ability to hold intention focused awareness.
Jonathan Tilley – argued that creativity is as individual as universal, and that creativity needs a “sacred space” and to be shared.
Julie Burstein shares four lessons about how to create in the face of challenge, self-doubt and loss. She points out that creative inspirations often come from the space in between what we see in the world at that moment and what we hope for, which is very much related to my as well as others’ creative process along the journey with COVID-19 pandemic.
Tim Harford points out from noticing enduringly creative people the action of actively juggling multiple projects and moving between topics as the mood strikes without feeling hurried.
Taika Waititi recommends take daily life problems through a lens of a child to be playful.
Kenji Kawakami - "The Big Bento Box of Un-useless Japanese Inventions"
Below is a text version of my thesis presentation on May 15, 2020 during ITP Thesis Week. It was a pleasure for me to share my project with family, friends and colleagues who had not had a chance to see my work. Thank you again for your interest in my thesis project Creativity in Crisis.
For more of my works, please visit my portfolio at www.sonluu.com