In 1966, Jim Henson started a Muppet slot on the Ed Sullivan Show
with each sketch lasting three or four minutes. In one slot called “The
Art of Visual Thinking,” Kermit the Frog (orange shirt, yellow tie)
plays a Beatnik instructing a Square (white shirt, grey tie) on how to
“Man, see, you don’t learn stuff like this; this is just what’s
happening,” says Beatnik Kermit with all the authority of a jazz master
or a Buddhist guru. “I’ll show you, baby, just follow me... Think of
something nice, like little birds in the trees, or maybe like flowers
that bloom in the spring, fah la, fah la!”
Above Beatnik Kermit’s head we see animated pictograms of graceful
birds and flowers, but above the Square there’s just a clumsy quacking
duck and a straggly geranium in a pot. He’s just not “switched on,” man,
not creative. As the sketch proceeds, the Square learns how to generate
imagery, but not to stop it. Soon, a chaotic stream of Hebrew
characters and algebraic symbols fill the screen and erase the world, as
the characters shriek “Help!”
It’s just a comedy sketch, of course, but it tells us a lot about
the cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, a time when the Cold War both
hastened innovation and threatened annihilation. It might seem odd at
first glance to connect Kermit’s depiction of a spaced-out hippy to the
Space Race, but there is a link. If we consider the 1960s a decade
during which creativity was more fashionable than ever before or
since—seeming to concern the layman viewers of the Ed Sullivan Show as much as professionals in the “creative industries”—it’s because of a shock America received in 1957: the Sputnik shock.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union beat the United States to the
launch of the first satellite to orbit Earth. In severe public
humiliation, America lost round one of the Space Race. How had it
happened? How could America win the next round? The whole education
system came under intense scrutiny. “Why can’t Johnny read?” became the
catchphrase at school, while rote learning and the tendency to reward
and reinforce unoriginal thinking came under attack at university level.
“This perceived failure of American science and engineering,” wrote
educationalists David H. and Arthur J. Cropley of the Sputnik shock,
“was attributed to lack of creativity, and judged to be the result of
defects in education. University-level teaching of engineering was
widely regarded as indifferent or even hostile to creativity, and
empirical studies supported this view ... Students who preferred trying
new solutions dropped out of engineering courses three times more
frequently than those who preferred conventional solutions.”
In 1959, Harper published a book, edited by H. H. Anderson, called Creativity and Its Cultivation.
Among the papers was an essay entitled “Traits of Creativity” by J. P.
Guilford, president of the American Psychological Association. Guilford
related various personality traits to creativity using aptitude tests.
Problem-finding skills, fluency and flexibility of thinking,
originality, re-interpretation of familiar objects, ability to fill in
blank spaces, tolerance of ambiguity and interest in both convergent and
divergent thinking were found to be the traits that correlated most
highly with creativity. The idea was that once clusters of traits had
been isolated, they could be encouraged and enhanced in just about
anyone. Even Squares and Scientists, it seemed, could learn fluency of
To be fair, although the Sputnik shock may have made creativity
studies a hot topic for academic research (and a nice way to tap into
government money earmarked for defense), papers like these had been
appearing throughout the 1950s. Guilford himself delivered a speech in
1950 calling for immediate action in the “neglected field of creativity
research.” At the University of Southern California, the Aptitudes
Research Project determined that creativity could indeed be learned.
In 1953, Alex Osborn published an influential book called Applied Imagination,
which introduced a strategy called “brainstorming”—a temporary
suspension of judgment designed to produce copious and bold ideational
fluency. Osborn’s “creative problem-solving” strategies focused on
quantity, deferred judgment, unexpected combinations and an activity he
called “freewheeling” (a certain Bob Dylan picked up the term 10 years
later for an album title). This profuse loosening strategy was very much
in the air in the ‘50s, evident in the work of artists like Jackson
Pollock, Ornette Coleman and Allen Ginsberg. More was better.
Spontaneous was cool. Anything went.
Meanwhile, in the heat of the Utah sun, north of the nuclear tests
being conducted in neighboring Nevada, Calvin W. Taylor was leading
investigations into “The Identification of Creative Scientific Talent”
by way of conferences. The conferences started in 1955; funding came
from the National Science Foundation. The aim of these “creativity
conferences” was to find ways to cultivate exceptionally gifted
individuals. After the Sputnik shock, the government increased funding.
By the 1960s, it must have seemed like everybody wanted to be—or
already was—one of those “exceptionally gifted individuals.” John F.
Kennedy promised that American ingenuity would put a man on the moon by
the end of the decade; every Beatles press conference seemed as wacky
and quip-filled as a Marx Brothers comedy (asked if the band was
insured, Ringo quipped, “Who wants a rich mother?”).
Meanwhile, watched by millions on the Ed Sullivan Show, the
archetypal 1950s Square was learning “visual thinking” from a Beatnik
frog: “Listen, man, you’re being too literal. Now, what you need is a
lesson in abstract thinking. See, watch this. Now, first you really have
to let go and you sort of unwind into the cosmic infinity of
everything, see, then you go wop diddly scoo widdly ah pah, ah pah doop diddly de wap wap ...”
In the information era, many factors have contributed to the overwhelming presence of chartjunks, but you don’t have to be one of those. Whether you choose a graph or a table, it doesn't matter—as long as you make clarity your goal.
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