I recently saw a documentary about the search for extraterrestrial life, and I was struck by how even hard science is sometimes fueled at least in part by pure imagination and creativity. And I thought about how design itself is, at its best, as much based on raw, unfiltered inspiration as it is on empirical, practical results.
Scientists and research organizations who are looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life need to start somewhere, so they start right here on Earth, looking at “extremophiles“: astonishing life forms that live in the most extreme conditions here on Earth.
There are critters living in boiling hot water miles below the surface of the ocean, in profoundly deep subterranean rock (bacillus infernus lives two miles underground, eating chemicals and minerals to survive), and other harsh terrestrial environments. The harsh conditions on Venus, Mars, and the several life-compatible moons of Jupiter and Saturn don’t look so harsh when compared to where these Earth-bound life forms thrive (and they do thrive — there’s a greater combined mass of creatures living thousands of feet below Earth’s surface than there are on the surface and in the ocean!).
So scientists use what they know about these terrestrial life forms to help them know what to look for in potential alien life forms. Part of this process is visualization, and for this they employ artists.
These artists, of course, are often moonlighting new-age fantasists or science-fiction illustrators. But some of them are very careful to stay within the boundaries of current science, some even consider themselves scientists. One painter said he was “95% scientist, and 5% artist”. I thought this was a noble thought, and I admired his desire to keep his works as faithful as possible to real current science. But I also thought that his formulation was a bit of an injustice to both artists and scientists.
The Imagination Engine
When an artist decides to paint something that does not exist, they are drawing on a combination of the constraints of what they know from the real world and the unconstrained ideas that exist only in their imagination. They can let science guide them to a certain degree, but ultimately they need to just make stuff up.
When dinosaur artists paint images of Tyrannosaurus Rex, they have no idea what color to make the skin because fossils just don’t capture colors. Some invent snakeskin-like diamond patterns, others mimic the stark colors of salamanders or lizards. But ultimately the decision is artistic. Likewise, when imagining what a Venusian life form looks like, the artist has to make some decisions purely arbitrarily or based on personal idiosyncracy.
To me, this area of pure creation is a perfect example where science and art overlap. When scientists theorize truly new ideas, they have to make a leap away from what is known and draw on their instincts and imagination, in much the same way artists do. Likewise, most artists have defined “virtual systems” of (a) what their constraints are — the rules that govern their art — and (b) where they will draw on their imagination. In this sense, artists and scientists are doing similar things.
Design is not Science
As an artist, designer, and information architect, I feel as if I am in the same boat as these extraterrestrial artists: how much of my work must work within the constraints of what we know and how much can come from the illogical and spontaneous parts of my mind?
Most people would easily agree that art can suffer when it is too constrained by rules of what “works” according to the rules that govern conventional scientific and socioeconomic studies. But I also think that information architecture and design, which many people claim are fundamentally scientific (not creative) pursuits, also suffer deeply when pure creativity and idiosyncratic invention are not permitted to influence the final product. The best science relies on this unpredictable element, why shouldn’t the best design?