Medieval Clerk to Renaissance Thinker:
Design, Visualization ,and Technological Change


This paper is based on the presentation given at the Doors of Perception, and has been extensively revised. The selected references listing includes several related readings of interest which have not been directly cited in the text. - Thomas West.

"Up till now, making things has involved the manufacturing industry deciding what to make, making it cheaply by making a lot of it and presenting it to the customer. From now on, though, the race will be how quickly you can make what the customer, the user, wants. This is a completely different approach. In the past, manufacturers have invested heavily in manufacturing. Now, the investment has to be in design."

- Ryouzou Yoshikawa, General Manager for Software Development, NKK Electronics Division. From printed script provided with the video Visualization Software: State of the Art, written and directed by Laurin Herr and Judson Rosebush, Pacific Interface, Inc./ ACM SIGGRAPH, 1992.

"I think that the visual channel is really the key to unlocking access to parts of our brain we don't even know exist, to triggering unexpected connections. It's probably the best for that simply because of the fact that the largest proportion of the brain is dedicated to that... It's an old adage that the picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture is worth a million words."

-Abraham Peled, Vice President of Systems, Director of Computer Sciences, IBM T.J.Watson Research Center.Visualization Software.

"With further technological development, we may see striking new opportunities for these creative, visual-thinking persons... Perhaps in the future we might see the solution of difficult problems in statistics, molecular biology, materials development, or higher mathematics coming from people who are graphic artists, sculptors, craftsmen, film makers, or designers of animated computer graphics. Different kinds of problems and different kinds of tools may require different talents and favor different kinds of brains." Preface, In the Mind's Eye

Different Tools, Different Talents

As we enter the era of widespread interactive computing, data visualization, "information superhighways," computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing, it is apparent that designers, artists, architects and other creative professionals will need to be more aware of the deep implications of these developments, promising to have profound effects on all aspects of education and work.

Many view these new developments as alien and threatening. However, some may be surprised to discover that this new era may be less strange than might be expected. With this new generation, the old computing of centralized systems, words, numbers and obscure commands falls behind. The new computing of personal systems, graphic interfaces and rich, colorful, moving, complex images takes its place. What was once awkward and a chore, now becomes a device that comes more and more naturally to hand. What was once remote becomes more accessible and more useful as an everyday tool.

In another even more important aspect, these new developments may also be expected to lead us to puzzling and paradoxical revelations about how our minds actually work - indeed, perhaps affecting even our fundamental concepts of talent and intelligence.

Some psychologists argue that visual-spatial abilities should be seen as a special form of intelligence, on a par with verbal or logical-mathematical forms of intelligence. But these abilities do not always come together in equal measure.

In recent years, neurological research has shown that in some cases the early development of the brain may produce extraordinary visual and spatial talents at the same time that verbal difficulties are produced. Accordingly, those who have superior talent with visual and spatial materials (manipulating images mentally - rotating, molding, constructing, transforming, recalling, dissociating, recombining - visualizing the unseen) often also have varying degrees of difficulty with a range of verbal tasks (reading, writing, speaking, extemporaneous composition, spelling, word retrieval and memory).

However, in the world at large, with a few notable exceptions, verbal skills are often seen as the only skills that are really important. Some instructors may think they can assess ability and intelligence based only on a few moments of fluent or inarticulate conversation. Indeed, within existing educational systems, in most countries and at all levels, verbal skills are usually the main criterion for determining academic achievement and professional advancement. And this has been true in many fields for hundreds of years. But all of this is beginning to change.

A Return to Visualization

The further ahead we progress in the newer computer technologies, surprisingly, the more we may seem inclined to revert to visual approaches and perspectives largely abandoned long ago.

Indeed, for decades, many scientists, mathematicians and other professionals had tried to turn away from visual approaches as much as possible. There did not seem to be sufficient precision and logical rigor. Words, symbol manipulation and numbers had high status. Pictures were for children. Now these visual approaches are being returned to central positions in many fields once again.

Many researchers are now focusing on scientific data visualization - arguing that only graphically-oriented technologies and modes of analysis are capable of dealing with today's complex problems and massive volumes of data.

But there is yet another form of visualization - one that deals (whatever the field) with the simultaneous consideration of many conflicting factors - whether we are talking about the design of a car or the design of a building - whether we are considering the design of a political solution or the design of a grand strategic plan.

The significance of visualization talents is being realized by some professions, but not in others. In the United States for example, there is evidence that engineers, physicians and surgeons are gradually becoming aware of the pattern of visual talents coupled with verbal difficulties and it is being discussed in books and professional journals. In contrast, it has been observed that this pattern is also common among U.S. architects - but it is almost never acknowledged or discussed within the profession, formally or informally (Frey, "Schools Miss Out On Dyslexic Engineers," IEEE Spectum, 1990; Guyer, "Dyslexic Doctors," Southern Medical Journal, 1988).

There are some conspicuous exceptions, however. During the building boom of a few years ago, at least one architectural firm made a point of hiring dyslexic young architects whenever possible. The owner explained that these young architects may not be trusted to add up a column of figures without error or report accurately on the outcome of a planning and zoning meeting. Yet, he had found they often have an uncommonly superior ability to find the optimal solution to the complex overall design problem that defines a new building, successfully integrating the many complex systems and required specifications in a complementary rather than antagonistic way.

In another example, some researchers are finding that returning to visual approaches through the use of modern graphic computer workstations has allowed them to understand chemical processes (such as the thermodynamic behavior of pure fluids and mixtures) in ways that were impossible using traditional nonvisual methods. Accordingly, they have learned that they could move ahead by combining the newest technologies with old and previously unfashionable visual approaches (Jolls and Coy, "Art of Thermodynamics," IRIS Universe, 1990).

As the use of graphic computing spreads and the benefits become more obvious, we might expect a greater appreciation of visual capabilities. As we move beyond "pretty pictures" to the visualization of complex systems and processes (whether in science, design or business), we may find that we will gain in ways that we cannot yet easily predict. But we should anticipate that these gains will be as different as the analytical linearity of words and numbers is different from the complex simultaneous wholeness of pictures.

For some 400 or 500 years our schools and universities have been developing essentially the skills of a Medieval clerk - reading, writing, counting and memorizing texts. Today, we are on the verge of a really new era when we will be required to develop, whether we want to or not, a very different set of visually-based talents and skills - skills like those of a Renaissance visual thinker such as Leonardo da Vinci rather than those of the clerk or scholar or schoolman of the Middle Ages.

In the not too distant future, machines will be the best clerks. Accordingly, we must learn to develop distinctly human talents for a new level of sophistication in design - whether for designing well-crafted products or for designing elegant and effective solutions for complex problems - keeping in mind that these distinctly human talents are likely to involve the insightful and broadly integrative capacities associated with visual-spatial modes of thought.

Albert Einstein

A pattern of high visual talents mixed with verbal weaknesses is evident on the lives of a number of extraordinarily creative thinkers. Albert Einstein, for example, was a strong visual thinker and had notable difficulties in his early schooling. His school experience showed areas of great strength combined with areas of substantial weakness. Consequently, his school record at times seemed erratic and self-contradictory. This long-term pattern is evident in a letter Einstein's father wrote to one of his teachers as he was completing his secondary education before university: "with Albert I got used a long time ago to finding not-so-good grades along with very good ones.

Much of Einstein's most original work had involved "thought experiments," employing his highly visual imagination. As he himself said, words or language, "as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought." Rather, the "psychical entities" which served as elements in his productive thought were not words at all, but rather "certain signs and more or less clear images" that could be "'voluntarily' reproduced and combined."

Although some find this mixed pattern to be difficult to believe and to understand, there are those who see no inherent incompatibility between notable verbal weaknesses and great visual strengths. For example, Gerald Holton, a physicist and expert on Einstein, has observed that "an apparent defect in a particular person may merely indicate an imbalance of our normal expectations." In the "exceptional person," an area of special difficulty "should alert us to look for a proficiency of a different kind."

Consequently, Holton observes that "the late use of language in childhood" or "difficulty in learning foreign languages" may show a "polarization or displacement in some of the skill from the verbal to another area." In the case of Einstein, "that other, enhanced area is without a doubt... an extraordinary kind of visual imagery that penetrates his very thought processes."

In school, one of the more important traits that caused him great difficulty was his poor memory, especially for words and texts. In the traditional school systems of Europe at that time, a great deal of recitation and memorization was expected. And, of course, it was mainly based upon these skills that it was decided whether you were a good student or not. Einstein was not good at recitation, but he did very well with conceptual or philosophic thinking. Thus, in school he was beyond the curriculum in mathematics, physics and philosophy.

Einstein's sister Maja comments about his late speech and his slow answers but deep understanding in mathematics. She also refers to his frequent calculation errors even though he had a clear understanding of the main ideas involved. In secondary school, he dropped out of school in Germany to follow his parents when they moved to Italy. His reason was that because of his poor memory, he preferred to endure all kinds of punishments rather than to have to learn to "gabble by rote." After he failed his first set of university entrance examinations, Einstein went to a new and unconventional school - one that was based one the highly visually-oriented ideas of a Swiss educational reformer. It was at this school that Einstein's abilities began to blossom and the great theories of a few years later began to take their initial shape.

While at university, Einstein most highly respected the work of two British scientists who were unusually visual in their orientation. These two scientists are now acknowledged to be giants of 19th century physical science - Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday did his most important work at the Royal Institute in London during the early part of the 19th century. A blacksmith's son, he was entirely self-educated. He was known for his extremely visual scientific conceptions. He started with chemistry but moved on to physics and the study of electricity, light and magnetism. He thought of himself as a "philosopher" and hated being called a "chemist" or a "physicist" - because he hated the limited perspective of the specialist approach.

Among many original discoveries, he developed the first electric motor. But most important, he developed utterly original ideas about the fundamental nature of energy and matter - the electromagnetic "field" and "lines of force." These ideas were later translated into proper mathematical form by Maxwell and later still became a powerful influence on the young Einstein. Remarkably, these ideas have proved to be valid and useful since they were first developed in the middle of the last century. With each new scientific revolution since that time, many old theories and concepts have become rapidly outdated. But on the whole, those of Faraday and Maxwell just keep looking better and better.

Along with Faraday's visual proficiencies there is some evidence of direct or indirect verbal difficulties. He did observe that he "could not imagine much progress by reading only." Rather, he said he was "never able to make a fact [his] own without seeing it." Also, he may have had a slight speech problem in his youth, was unusually erratic in his spelling and punctuation and had an extremely unreliable memory which forced him to keep detailed journals and diaries of nearly everything he did.

He explained that as a youth he was not precocious or a deep thinker. Rather, he described himself as a "lively imaginative person," being able to believe in the "Arabian Nights" as easily as the "Encyclopedia." However, he found a refuge from his excessively lively imagination by conducting laboratory experiments. He found he could trust an experiment to check the truth of his ideas as well as to educate and inform his intuition. In the experiment, he said, he "had got hold of an anchor" and he "clung fast to it." However, his intuition seemed to be among his most valued talents, recognized by many. Faraday was seen by later scientists as being like Einstein in that he "smells the truth." They thought he had an "unfailing intuition." They wondered at "his inconceivable instinct."

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was from Scotland and was trained in science and mathematics at Cambridge University. He was conventionally brilliant and got top exam results. But he was the sort of person who was able to deal with two different worlds in an extraordinary way. He knew the world of conventional math and science, but he was also intensely visual in his work (as was observed by many) and was able to quickly see the power of Faraday's original and highly visual ideas. He converted Faraday's ideas into mathematics for what are now known as "Maxwell's equations." But as Maxwell often repeated, his mathematics were based on ideas that came first from Faraday - ideas that were vastly different from the other scientists and mathematicians of the day.

The pattern of visual talents mixed with verbal difficulties is clearly apparent in Maxwell's life. Maxwell had severe, life-long speech problems. He was a stutterer and had continuous career difficulties as a result - although he is thought to be the most brilliant physicist of the nineteenth century. In fact, the Nobel prize-winning American physicist, Richard Feynman, said that "from the long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War," Feynman said, "will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade."

While Maxwell was known to be an especially clear writer, he had remarkable difficulty answering unexpected questions quickly on demand. If Maxwell were asked such a question, he would not only stutter, but the would also stumble excessively, making what some of his friends would call "chaotic statements." However, when he had a day or so to respond to the question, he would then provide answers that were clear, thoughtful and unusually perceptive.

It is easy to show that Maxwell was a strong visual thinker - there are many references in the biographies and letters as well as the commentaries of historians of science. He could easily understand Faraday's highly visual ideas much better than others, presumably because his visualization abilities were as exceptional as Faraday's were. He was familiar with the mathematics required - as Faraday could not be - and was able to translate the conceptual clarity of Faraday's theories into the language of mathematics. He much preferred Faraday's conceptions to those of the professional mathematicians of his day. Indeed, he felt that following Faraday's lead produced a conceptual clarity and simplicity impossible through the other more acceptable approaches of the time.

Maxwell's visual orientation was evident in many aspects of his work. In mathematics and physical science, his starting point was often geometry. He used mechanical analogies and resorted to diagrams and pictures wherever possible. Much of his work involved the interplay of force and substance in a largely visual-spatial arena. And, finally, one historian of science writing of Maxwell was puzzled that although the family seemed to be a uniformly practical group, a succession of artists would appear in Maxwell's family, generation after generation.

Leonardo da Vinci

For the pattern of visual gifts with verbal difficulties in the life of Leonardo da Vinci there is abundant evidence. His visual talents are everywhere obvious. But evidence of his verbal difficulties is comparatively recent. Studies have been conducted by an Italian neurologist and others in the last few years which indicate that the journals and manuscripts of Leonardo show distinctive signs of what is called "surface dysgraphia."

In his spelling, there is evidence that he used the phonological rather than lexical route. Although Italian (whether Renaissance or modern) is phonetic and highly regular in its spelling, da Vinci still made many errors. Several scholars observed that his spellings were "by ear" or they were "bizarre" or "inconsistent." His writing was characterized by consonant doubling, letter substitutions, additions, blending and word splitting. He made unusual kinds of errors when he was clearly copying material from another text. He made homophonic errors in his letters which were not corrected.

Leonardo was evidently aware of the nature of his difficulties, however. In one place he observed: "They will say that, being without letters, I cannot say properly what I want to treat of..." In another passage he cautioned that "You should prefer a good scientist without literary abilities than a literate without scientific skills."

He was ambidextrous as a young man, but eventually shifted to and remained with left-handed writing and drawing. Of course, he is well known for his use of mirror image writing. But it is not so well known that much of his drawing and painting seems to have been mirror image as well. For example, one author pointed out that a familiar village skyline that Leonardo sketched would not be recognized by a modern observer familiar with the village until it is realized that the entire image is reversed left to right.

He was very strong, of course, in the visual-spatial area. He was not only a painter and sculptor, but used sketching and drawing as the main vehicle for his scientific investigations and innovative engineering designs. There is ample evidence of his use of mental rotation in design and when making drawings of three dimensional objects. For example, in one elegant and long-standing design, he rotated a triangular architectural arch down flat into a canal to form the common canal lock gate that is still standard today, some 500 years after his original conception.

Designing On the Right Side of Change

Thus, we are arguing that, in the not too distant future, creative visual thinkers (perhaps some with some verbal difficulties) might very well find themselves far better adapted to certain basic and pervasive changes.

These visual thinkers may have excelled in art, architecture or design although they had difficulty with memorizing texts and formulas or with learning the rule-based operations of lower mathematics or a foreign language. However, with future changes - as computer visualization techniques are increasingly employed to design and to analyze vast and complex systems - they may very well find themselves far better suited to seeing new patterns and more elegant design solutions.

These individuals may have had difficulty with learning from books or lectures, but with future technological changes they may very well find themselves far better adapted to learning from simulations of reality - as education and testing programs, in many fields, begin to emphasize interactive computer simulation of reality - over the verbal description of reality traditionally provided in books and lectures in the past.

As the training and testing of architects or physicians and other professionals becomes more like that of airline pilots than university scholars, combinations of desirable traits and skills may begin to change in subtle but important ways. There is already preliminary evidence, as computerized professional testing gradually begins to approximate real situations, that a few of those with high traditional academic skills may show unexpected areas of weakness when they are required to integrate and apply their knowledge in a realistic simulation.

Under these new circumstances, those who learn much better from direct visual, spatial or even kinesthetic experience (or its simulated equivalent) than from words or books may come to perform much better, on the whole, than those with high traditional academic skills alone.

They may have had difficulty with the "easy" materials and skills, but the "hard," advanced materials and applied skills may come to draw increasingly on just those areas where these individuals often have had their greatest strengths.

And, as an essential element in an ironic pattern, for these people, it often may be far easier to create new knowledge than to learn and retain old knowledge - because, for these people, it is sometimes far easier to learn firsthand from experimenting and visualizing than it is to learn secondhand from lectures and books.

Selected References

Brown, D., H. Porta and J. Uhl, 1991. "Calculus and Mathematica: A Laboratory Course for Learning by Doing," The Laboratory Approach to Teaching Calculus, L. Carl Leinbach, et al, eds., MAA Notes, no. 20. Washington, D.C.: The Mathematical Association of America.

Churchill, Winston S., 1932. "Painting As A Pastime," in Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures. London: Butterfield.

Davis, W., H. Porta and J. Uhl, 1994. Calculus&Mathematica. Courseware, including software and four texts. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Ferguson, Eugene S., 1992. Engineering and the Mind's Eye. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Frey, Walter, 1990. "Schools Miss Out On Dyslexic Engineers," IEEE Spectrum, December 1990.

Galaburda, Albert M. (ed.), 1993. Dyslexia and Development: Neurobiological Aspects of Extra-Ordinary Brains. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, Howard, 1983.JFrames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Geschwind, N., & Behan, P., 1982. "Left-Handedness: Association with Immune Disease, Migraine, and Developmental Learning Disorder," in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 79, pp. 5097-5100.

Geschwind, N., 1984. "The Brain of a Learning-Disabled Individual," in Annals of Dyslexia, vol. 34, pp. 319-327.

Geschwind, Norman, and Albert M. Galaburda, 1987. Cerebral Laterialization: Biological Mechanisms, Associations and Pathology, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gleick, James, 1987. Chaos: Making A New Science. New York: Viking. Guyer, Barbara, 1988. "Dyslexic Doctors: A Resource in Need of Discovery." Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 81, pp. 1151-1154.

Guyer, Barbara, 1994. The Great Pretenders. Unpublished manuscript.

Herr, Laurin, et al, 1989. Volume Visualization: State of the Art.. A special issue of the ACM SIGGRAPH Video Review, Issue 44. [Video]

Kaufmann, William J, and Larry L. Smarr, 1993. Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science. New York: The Scientific American Library.

Maxwell, James Clerk, 1891 (1954). A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Volume One, unabridged. NewJYork: Dover Publications, 1954.

Miles, T.R., 1993. Dyslexia: The Pattern of Difficulties, Second Edition, Whurr Publishers, London.

O'Connell, Kenneth R., Vincent Argiro, John Andrew Berton, Jr., Craig Hickman and Thomas G. West, 1993. "Visual Thinkers in an Age of Computer Visualization," in Computer Graphics, the Proceedings of the Annual Conference of ACM SIGGRAPH, August 1993, pp. 379-380.

Mark, Kyungmee, 1993. A Comparative Study of the Traditional Calculus Course vs. the Calculus & Mathematica Course. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Graduate School of Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Pearson, E.S., 1966. "Some Aspects of the Geometry of Statistics: The Use of Visual Presentation in Understanding the Theory and Application of Mathematical Statistics," The Selected Papers of E.S. Pearson. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Satori, Giuseppe, 1987. "Leonardo Da Vinci, Omo Sanza Lettere: A Case of Surface Dysgraphia?" In Cognitive Neuropsychology, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-10

Steen, Lynn Arthur, 1988. "The Science of Patterns," Science, vol. 240, pp. 611-616.

Weiner, Norbert, 1948 (1961). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

West, Thomas G., 1991. In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

West, Thomas G., 1992. "A Future of Reversals - Dyslexic Talents in a World of Computer Visualization," Annals of Dyslexia.

West, Thomas G., 1992. "A Return to Visual Thinking," Computer Graphics World, November.

West, Thomas G., 1992. "Visual Thinkers, Mental Models and Computer Visualization," Interactive Learning Through Visualization - The Impact of Computer Graphics in Education. S. Cunningham and R. Hubbold, eds. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

West, Thomas G., 1994. "A Return to Visual Thinking," Conference Proceedings of "Science and Scientific Computing: Visions of a Creative Symbiosis." Tenth Annual Symposium of Computer Users within the Max Planck Gesellschaft, Göttingen, Germany, November 18 and 19, 1993. P. Wittenberg and Th. Plesser, eds. In Press. Paper translated into German for spring 1994 publication.

West, Thomas G., 1994. "Advanced Interaction: A Return to Mental Models and Learning by Doing," Computers & Graphics, Special Issue on Advanced Interaction. Klaus Boehm, et al, eds. A publication of the Eurographics Association. In Press. Scheduled for spring 1994 publication.

Zimmerman, Walter, and Steve Cunningham, eds., 1991.Visualization in Teaching and Learning Mathematics. Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Association of America.


updated 1993