Drawing a Clear Picture on Generalizations

A few days ago we had a discussion about mental models. Today I want to add what I learned about the subject from Ed Catmull (President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation). He tells us how mental models can give you trouble in terms of drawing.

How do we know that a char is a chair?

Subconsciously we categorize every single object we come across. Whenever we see something, we look at its characteristics and attributes and based on these, we either put it into a category that already exists, or we have to create a completely new category.

Now, a chair, according to thefreedictionairy.com is “a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person.” Look at this definition. It basically categorizes a chair based on three dimensions:

  • the use: a piece of furniture
  • the characteristics: a seat, legs, arms
  • the scope: can accommodate one person

Now look at the thing below: is this a chair?



Yes, of course! We know this immediately.

We don’t have to ask ourselves: does this fit the criteria of a chair? In fact, we might not even be aware of those criteria unless we think about it for a while. And this is the power of our generalizations. Our subconsciousness can identify things and recognize patterns, while we basically don’t have to do anything. Ehh, our conscious mind, I mean.

The picture above was the first thing that came out when I googled “seat, legs, arms”. But another thing that showed up was this:



Is this a chair? Well, kinda I guess? No… not really. But it fulfills our criteria, don’t you think?

Ah, well. Whatever. It’s not important. The point is, our subconscious mind already determined 2 minutes ago that this is not a chair. And you didn’t have to do anything to come to that conclusion. See the benefits? Sure. But you’ve also seen the danger. We put similar things into boxes and don’t necessarily question them. Our generalizations make us blind for something different.

Mental Models and Artists

And this is where we get back to Ed. In his book “Creativity, Inc.” he describes how these generalizations or mental models serve as a pain in the ass for artists. When they draw a chair, they will draw it based on their mental model of a chair.

Imagine you are a artist and you get the job to draw a particular chair. Your painting looks like this:



The chair that you were asked to draw, however, was this one:

Chair 1969 by Allen Jones born 1937


Hmm..  Is it just me or are there some details missing? I think something is not quite right….

Ok, sure – I exaggerated. Completely. No artist would ever miss this kind of detail. But you get the idea. Mental models can be dangerous if we see similarities or patterns where there are none. If we generalize that something must be “like this” based on our experiences with similar events or if we think that Asians are always “like this” because of our experiences with those we met before.

So what does Ed suggest us to do?

What he says is that “focusing on something can make it more difficult to see”. Instead of looking at the chair, look at the environment of the chair. Do not look at it’s legs and try to replicate them, but instead look at the space around the legs. Likewise, if you want to get a clearer picture of the Asian culture, do not (only) look at what Asian people are like, look at what they are not like

Go back to your own culture and see how the Asians differ from that. Then look at the environment in which they live – their history, political system, religious development and so on – and try to understand in what ways this environment has impacted their way of thinking and of seeing the world.

Always remember: their way of thinking hasn’t developed in a vacuum. Without studying the environment in which a culture has developed, you will never understand it completely.

If the subject interests you, I recommend reading “Creativity, Inc.” from Ed Catmull. But if you want to learn more about the subconscious mind and generalizations, you should also have a look at Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow“.




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