The Hive: Cognition and Design

What is creativity, really? Adrienne Callander meets with Kasia Gallo to discuss this complex, category-crossing topic.

Kasia Gallo, Morning Parking
Kasia Gallo, Morning Parking

Starkville, Mississippi
June 19, 2015

I met Kasia Gallo in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop on the campus of Mississippi State University to discuss her current research on creativity and cognitive science. Later, we continued our discussion by email. She wrote of creative process, the medium of words, the role of design thinking in any field, and her reluctance to call herself a photographer.

Gallo is currently pursuing her PhD in Educational Psychology with a minor in Cognitive Science. She received her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Landscape Architecture degrees from Louisiana State University. She teaches Design Studio, Urban Planning, and Scientific Writing for Behavioral Sciences. She has worked in both academia and the private sector, and has published and presented on sustainable design and writing practice.


Adrienne Callander: Do you self-identify as an artist?

Kasia Gallo: I self-identify as designer, in the broadest sense of the word. Design encompasses, to me, all sorts of ways to engineer experiences – through the visual, and the verbal, but also through interaction with people. Art is the product. For example, a photograph and the words that go with it of a carefully and mindfully designed and lived experience. It all goes together – searching for images, taking the picture, processing it so that it is beautiful, then sharing it with others. The process can be solitary, or involve multiple “players”. It’s all about chasing beauty: just right point of view; just right cropping; just right words.

Beauty: the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole.
— Leon Battista Alberti

For beauty is a disease, as my father maintained; it is the result of a mysterious infection, a dark forerunner of decomposition, which rises from the depth of perfection and is saluted by perfection with signs of the deepest bliss.
— Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

I love this second quote! The idea that whatever beauty you find, it is on its way to ruin. Paint fades and peels off. Marble eventually will crumble. There is urgency in seeing it, experiencing it. Brilliant way of thinking.

AC: How does creativity enter into your “non-creative” work?

KG: Creativity and non-creative work: I design experiences wherever I am. For example, I teach a scientific writing class for education psychology majors. Even there, we talk about the process of writing, the process of revising. About using metaphors to help people visualize, process, understand complex information. Students take on bad, cluttered, confusing scientific sentences and paragraphs and rewrite them to make them clean and beautiful; words are a medium like any other.

Nothing to add nothing to take away without detriment to the whole.
— Alberti

So much of what we do involves complex thinking. My schooling in cognitive science helped me to see how we use our brains in similar ways in varied tasks. Take metaphors and analogies: they come to play in designing computer interfaces and robots, in concepts for art pieces, in making writing clean and beautiful, even in cooking. Same type of thinking, applied in so many domains! Where does creativity start or end? I suppose it depends on your definition of creativity. Common ones contain the words “new” and “useful”. Both can be understood really broadly; useful may well include uplifting the spirits, like a beautiful painting can do!

AC: You said that you began your research into cognition because you wanted to improve as a teacher, but found that cognitive studies was as compelling a subject to you as design. I am curious about the relationship between design and cognition. You said your starting point was: What makes good design good design?

KG: I entered the Educational Psychology program at Mississippi State University to get better at teaching, and because MSU does not offer a PhD in design. I stumbled onto Cognitive Science because of a class that was required as a part of my program. I loved it, so I took more Cognitive Science classes – it ended up being my minor.
Design thinking IS complex cognition. Whenever we generate and evaluate alternatives, pick one to develop further, and keep with it – we are using our brains. Some people place a high emphasis on intuition, and processes that they feel they can’t explain – or prefer not to, as they believe explaining them deprives them of artistic mystical high. I believe that intuition IS thinking. From the day we are born, we process the world. We figure out how to make sense of the 3D objects that are “taken in” by our 2D curved retinas. We notice patterns, and learn shortcuts, like the Gestalt grouping principles. We process nature, with all of its magic, like Fibonacci’s sequence in sunflowers and pine cones, relationships between colors, textures. . .  And, perhaps, great design is what our brilliant, intuitive brain recognizes as known and familiar. Most people are unaware of these relationships unless they are told about them, at least on the conscious level. What if our brains, in their need for speed, actually “know” how often these relationships appear around them, and deem them “important” because of the frequency?

AC: You mentioned that you often refer to what you do as “taking pictures” instead of “being a photographer” – that you stop short of what might be considered a professional designation. I mentioned to you the Icelandic notion that every farmer is a musician, that when the long winter dark arrives, farmers pull out their instruments. What have you found in your research that supports the idea that everyone is a small-a artist, that everyone is creative?

KG: One of the views of creativity is that it is divided into Big-C and little-c. Big-C is a game changer, like the printing press, or personal computer.  Little-c is making our everyday life better. Figuring out the best way to chop a tomato; figuring out how to lead a productive staff meeting.  Unfortunately, in Western culture, little-c is not valued as much; we worship the lone genius. I like a simple view of creativity: anything I make that is New and Useful – TO ME. So my photography is creative, no matter what others may think. My name is Kasia Gallo, and I am a photographer.

AC: Good for you! The way you phrase that is reminiscent of the language of recovery – “My name is John, and I’m an alcoholic.” Adults often need to recover their belief in themselves as creative beings. How does your view of creativity impact you as an educator? How do you, as an educator, frame creativity?

KG: Teaching, if you give a damn about it, is immensely creative – little-c. You have to figure out what the students need to know in terms of skills to master the material, like learning strategies and metacognitive skills to know which strategy to use when, and in terms of the material itself. Then you have to figure out how to help them to construct this knowledge for themselves.  What to scaffold and how. How to get and keep their attention; how to facilitate transfer of what they may already know to this new problem. How to keep them motivated to learn. So, everyone in the classroom is potentially creating, all the time.

AC: How do you, as a designer, frame creativity?

KG: To me, creativity is about an active experience. About doing something, trying something, looking for beauty. Whether in pictures, or words, or cooking ingredients. Creativity is about the “whole being different than the sum of its parts.” Never “more than the sum of its parts” – that quote got bastardized early on, and Koffka* took great offense to that. So it is about getting to that beautiful whole.


* Kurt Koffka (1886-1942). German psychologist and co-founder of Gestalt theory.