Commentary on STEAM: Art is important to STEM, and Design is the Outpouring of Art

This essay is by Jim Martin a graduate of the
Industrial Design Program at the University of
Cincinnati. He has designed products for Black &
Decker, Gichner Military Shelters, Rubbermaid,
Marx Toys, & Stanley Tools as well as teaching
design at Towson University and Baltimore area
high schools. He holds international patents of both
design and utility, and has three published books
on design in sports car racing.

We dream in pictures. While we think in words and equations, to flesh out our thoughts and solve problems we begin in pictures. Pictures are understood regardless of culture or language. A tree may be expressed as a baum (German), a medis (Lithuanian), an arbol (Spanish), a isihahia (Zulu) or tsurl (Japanese), but a picture of a tree is universally understood.

The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” so resonates because we think in pictures? Even in our dreams, the conversations and travels are experienced visually. Regardless of the most complicated system or obscure scientific discovery, the first expressions from the mind were pictures. Then we organize them into concepts expressed in words or mathematical formulas that become applications. The output of STEMs begins visually in our minds.
Like any skill the better we are in its use the more efficient it is. The more skilled we are in expressing those thoughts through the visual medias the better we will be at communicating to others.

Communication began as art. Early cave pictures are thought to be primitive means of expressing to other members of the tribe characteristics of their world; to glorify a hunt or to catalog neighboring animals. Before we had words there were pictures. Abstracting those pictures led to the creation of letters and words and numbers, and to art.

There is an expression in design, “if it looks right, it probably is.” This isn’t to imply that simplistic rough sketches are the best solutions, but an implicit understanding that when components seem in balance to each other, when the parts seem to naturally relate well, then the system has an order that is more likely one that performs its assigned task. Balance is basic to math. The two sides of an equation have to be of equal values. The challenge of math is finding how to achieve balance, even in the most complicated of equations.

Art is also balanced. A painting or sculpture that is unbalanced seems wrong. In math the equation of 6 x 4 is equal to 9/3 x 2 x 2 squared. One side is short and simple with a large basic number while the other side is complex, yet the equation is in balance. So it is with art where masses of form and color are dynamically balanced with different shapes and intensity of color. The composition, like the equation, while at first glance seems uneven is balanced.
And a design is balanced when the product, a poster, an article of clothing or a structure, is in balance with the needs, physical and emotional, of the user. As architect Louis Sullivan proclaimed “form ever follows function.” Find the true function and the form will reveal itself. And it’s curiosity to understanding the range of functions that leads to creating the form. Whether in art or in science the quest begins with being curious and finding how to express both the question and the answer, that often leads to another question.

Humans are unique in our curiosity. While other animals may be curious of a specific incident, like to smell an object for identification, we are curious when we realize that we have an information gap. We must know not only what something is, but why and how it is and what more can we learn about it. We explore, then we exploit.

What we call dreams, in sleep or allegorical, begins in our imagination. The mind tumbles the thoughts around to try to understand. Before Einstein conceived of his famous formula he thought of pictures in his mind of trains running near the speed of light. Forty years before NASA sent landers to Mars, Walt Disney was televising animated Mars missions to a generation of excited children, many who now run NASA missions.

To express his dreams Einstein converted his imagination through equations. For the Disney staff, they expressed their imagination through animated pictures. Few of us can fully comprehend Einstein’s equation, but we all can see the Disney staff’s dream realized in the forms of Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity roving on the surface of Mars.

Art is the release of imagination, the outlet of curiosity. Most scientific discoveries began as sketches or crude models. The better the sketch or model the better the creator can understand their concept to expand and improve towards the intended solution or product. But calculations are the end result after dreams have become thoughts and thoughts have become concepts that are then tested and proven.

Art is the open mind, where there are no limits to what can be conceived. Everything can be expressed and considered as the First Amendment made visual. When creativity is not limited by constraints, either external or internal, new methods, materials, or means of application can be explored. To really understand art you must understand science. The best way to express the thoughts and dreams it helps to be able to best utilize the medias. Media materials have physical properties and an understanding of those properties allows better expression of our thoughts. Art education is an introduction to drawing and painting, putting thought to 2-D surface. The clearer the drawing, the more understandable the thought to both the artist and the viewer. Materials like ceramics and wood working allow thought projection in 3-D. With CAD and 3-D printing new means of expression are being opened up. But while helpful tools, they can only assist in displaying what the mind has imagined. They are new technology taking their place alongside like paint brushes and chisels as tools. A creative mind must direct them.

DaVinci’s understanding of form, perspective and lighting came from his observations of the natural laws. In his curiosity to create his art he found laws of science through nature.

To fully understand science you must understand art. Art is about seeing, to go beyond the obvious to how components inter relate. How a branch relates to a leaf and how a muscle relates to the contours of a shoulder. Art is taking the rules of nature and forming and reforming them to the artists will, often even to destroy the established rule. Art is the most subversive of human endeavors.
It is possibly not a coincidence that many Nobel laureates received the award for work they began in their twenties when their field of study was fresh and unknown. They had to imagine original areas where no one had ventured before, new solutions to old problems. They had to dream and know how to express what they discovered. And then they had to spend years balancing the equations to the acceptance of their peers. They had to work in formulas and thesis papers leaving little time for dreaming.

Without Art, STEM can be continually making old ideas better. Without design, forms lack the connection to human users. Humans have achieved greatness by being curious of what more there could be, is there a better way? What can we create to make our world better. And how to best express the special things that make us human.

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