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Artists and Scientists: More Alike Than Different

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Art and science. To those who practice neither, they seem like polar opposites, one data-driven, the other driven by emotion. One dominated by technical introverts, the other by expressive eccentrics. For those of us involved in either field today (and many of us have a hand in both), we know that the similarities between how artists and scientists work far outweigh their stereotypical differences. Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: “What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?” Both search deeply, and often wanderingly, for these answers. We know that the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio are two of the last places reserved for open-ended inquiry, for failure to be a welcome part of the process, for learning to occur by a continuous feedback loop between thinking and doing.

I have always bridged art and design, science and technology, navigating both poles and the space that lies between them, with degrees in EECS from MIT and a PhD in classical design from Tsukuba University in Japan. In elementary school, my parents were told at a parent-teacher conference that I was “good at math and art” (but went on to tell their friends I was good at math). My work combining computer codes and traditional artistic technique was one attempt to carve out a space in the middle, and I find I’m always trying to find others in my tribe, hybrids who seek to marry disparate fields as a way of life.

In DaVinci’s time when expertise in art and science had not yet matured to the polarized state in which they exist today, they coexisted naturally. Of course, science’s level of sophistication back then was quite different. But from where I sit as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, it is clear to me that even current practices in scientific research have much to gain by involving artists in the process early and often. Artists serve as great partners in the communication of scientific research; moreover, they can serve as great partners in the navigation of the scientific unknown.

That is why at RISD we have been leading a movement to integrate Art and Design into the recent focus on STEM and turn it into “STEAM.” Our investigation began with an NSF-funded workshop hosted at RISD in January 2011. “Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art-Science-Design Pedagogy” brought together thinkers from the fields of Art + Design, Science, Creative IT, Engineering, and Mathematics to examine the ways educators and policy makers can bridge the gap between art and science.

STEAM and arts integration are crucial in K-12 education, engaging students in the STEM subjects and ensuring that creativity doesn’t fall by the wayside as we chase innovation (how could it?). But it’s also an important idea for research. Artists and designers reformulate the questions that can guide a project, rethinking or redesigning systems at their base. In this vein, RISD is collaborating with the University of Rhode Island and Brown University on new ways to visualize oceanic data to see the impact of climate change on marine life. The work began with a joint course entitled “The Hypothesis Studio,” focusing on the very questions at hand.

Historically, many researchers and organizations have approached our school expecting students and faculty to “design the poster” for their initiatives. It’s true, an artist’s or designer’s expert hand can often make the story of scientific discovery more compelling, results more broadly understandable, and complex choices actionable. DaVinci himself said, “Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. ” At RISD, we just collaborated with Brown University on a studio course dedicated to the concept of Communicating Medical Risk, so that patients could make truly informed decisions.

Artists and scientists tend to approach problems with a similar open-mindedness and inquisitiveness — they both do not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps. They make natural partners. With such complementary thinking, there is great potential when they collaborate from the offset, resulting in unexpected outcomes that can be exponentially more valuable than when they work apart. You can see the power of collaboration between artists and scientists in the decades of advancement in computer graphics at SIGGRAPH; in the latest exhibitions at the Science Gallery in Dublin, or in the midst of groundbreaking scientific results with the Large Hadron Collider and more.

With all that we have to address in the world – warming continents, fluctuating economies, monstrous cities – pursuing scientific questions in tandem with artists and designers may not seem like conventional wisdom. But given the unconventional nature and scale of the problems we face today, there is real value to be gained from collaborations that bridge the best talents we have in both the quantitative and qualitative domains. Artists and designers are the ones who help bring humanity front and center, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values.

John Maeda About the Author: John Maeda is president of Rhode Island School of Design and the author of The Laws of Simplicity and Redesigning Leadership, which expands on his Twitter feed at @johnmaeda.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. paigekbrown 10:49 am 07/11/2013

    I am interested by the statement: “Artists and designers are the ones who help bring humanity front and center, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values.” Could you give some examples of what values artists and designers can appeal to in the communication of science?

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  2. 2. jweb05 3:14 pm 07/11/2013

    I’m a research scientist in biophotonics and my sister is a talented realistic painter with a degree from Pratt. As kids, she used to love to say we were opposites, but as the author writes, we’re in search of the same things… love the blog!

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  3. 3. DrKrishnaKumariChalla 1:08 am 07/12/2013

    I am an artist, a writer and a scientist too.I explore the relationship between these various fields on my network. Based on my experiences, I listed the differences between art, literature and science and the list is very big. I cannot give the link to my articles based on this here. I made this list and support science-art interactions just to build bridges and not to say artists and scientists do things in the same way because they don’t. You have to read my articles and blogs that thoroughly analyze these things to know why. The difference lies in the way artists and scientists do the things. At the basic level art and science look like similar ones, but as you go deep into the subjects, you will know the differences. Had they been alike they wouldn’t have been separated into different subjects in the first place. I am getting bored to read these articles which don’t analyze things deeply and are just superficial sweet talk!

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  4. 4. DrWeiXu 1:57 am 07/13/2013

    Being a mathematician, computer graphics scientist and an artist, I strongly agree with John. Artists and scientists have many in common because math/science and art are very closely related to each other. This is not a personal opinion, but a fact! Unfortunately, we haven’t done enough to take advantage of their relationships. Many statements I heard so far are more lip-services than real actions. Probably that is why STE[+a]M was promoted to insert art into STEAM. What I see equally important is to apply math/science on art, or, [+SM]Art, a symbol I “invented” recently to integrate them in the opposite direction.

    To make [+SM]Art work, I used math/computer graphics principles in observational drawing and created a new scientific method, i.e., using left-brain knowledge to guide realistic drawings. It is a totally different approach than the Perspective Theory. Not surprisingly, my new approach works VERY well in art training. To get detail, please check out You will see even kids can learn observational drawing skills very efficiently (without using complicated perspective theory, grid method, or any physical tools besides a drawing pencil!)

    In this mobile age, we should use advanced science and technologies to help art learning, as well as integrating art with STEM training. Hope to read more articles like this in future!

    Wei Xu, Ph.D.
    faculty, Art Institute of California – San Diego
    author of “Drawing in the Digital Age: an Observational Method for Artists and Animators” (Wiley 2012)

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  5. 5. Satya Narayan Tiwary 6:13 pm 07/13/2013

    A great scientist is a great artist and
    a great artist is a great scientist.
    Hence, they are alike.
    S. N. Tiwary

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  6. 6. Russell Seitz 7:58 am 07/17/2013

    He has a point- 90% of contemporary scientific papers aren’t worth printing and 99% of contemporary pictures aren’t worth their paint.

    It bodes ill for the myth of progress that if you turn the clock back a few centuries the figures are reversed

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  7. 7. Moulton 1:36 am 07/23/2013

    I agree 100% with John Maeda.

    See “Our Place In the Cosmos and the Role of STEM in the Advance of Civilization” …

    Link to this
  8. 8. lilolme 12:48 pm 07/23/2013

    As a science illustrator and someone who teach science illustration to NON-artists, I find it interesting that people doubt a connection between the two. To be fair, I think there are different types of artists and scientists, and I would not link them all to having similar minds. Perhaps some do not visualize their problems in a traditional sense so do not seek a connection. That is the very importance of STEAM education to keep both parts of the brain growing to maintain the ability to tap into both analytical and creative problem solving.

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  9. 9. Andrew Planet 1:31 pm 08/21/2013

    Art is the science of expression

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  10. 10. mjbridger 7:56 am 11/2/2014

    Einstein said to understand the universe you have to have the mind of an artist as well as a scientist. I would agree. In fact I think being a scientist can mislead and get in the way of understanding thinks. Its been shown that the intuitive mind can be way smarter than the calculating.
    In 1994 I put my theory of a multiverse in a painting but realised gravity would work to cause an accelerating expansion of the cosmos. 1998 my theory was affirmed. Still waiting for the scientists to catch up!

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