Erik Spiekermann | Essays


It is thought that we use the two halves of the brain in different ways: the left brain produces logical reasoning, the right brain artistic intuition. We “creatives” are supposed to be typical right-brainers. But as designers or architects we need both sides, quite possibly in equal measure. While great ideas may spring from our right brain, we need the other half to manifest them in plans, calculations, presentations. Not to mention writing proposals. 

Famous architects may be able to crumple a piece of paper and then give it to an assistant who will scan it and turn the resulting data into a construction drawing. But most of us will still have to turn our own napkin sketches into layouts, elevations, floor plans, and client presentations. While intuition may provide the kick-start, it takes blood, sweat, and a lot of tearing of paper to realize our ideas. Once signed and delivered, we can explain and, if necessary, defend them. We would never admit to a client that a concept came to us while in the shower, at the pub, or walking down the street. If the idea wasn’t the result of hard work, why should the client pay for more than those five minutes in the bathroom? 

Trouble is, we do make most decisions very quickly and often entirely based on emotions. We easily fall for plausible stories, and well before the logical half of our brain has sent a warning to the self, the intuitive one has made a decision that could be difficult to reverse.

Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, along with his colleague Amos Tversky, first described this phenomenon in 1983, calling it the "conjunction fallacy." Kahneman and Tversky offered the following problem to a number of people: Linda is thirty-one, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Is she more likely to be (a) a bank teller, or (b) a bank teller and active in the feminist movement? Of their respondents, eighty-six percent answered (b.) I would have probably answered the same, because the story is plausible and we want to believe it. But the likelihood of a former student activist being a bank teller while remaining politically active is quite slim. 

We intuitively understand stories, and the more a story is dressed up with background and personal detail, the more readily we believe it. If the question had simply been, Linda is thirty-one; which is more likely? (a) She works as a bank teller, or (b) She works as a bank teller and her office is on the thirty-first floor, we wouldn’t have fallen for it. We would have picked (a). Try this on your friends: Which is more likely? (a) Heathrow airport is closed. Flights will be canceled, or (b) Heathrow airport has been closed due to bad weather. Flights will be canceled. Choice (a) is more likely because (b) contains an additional condition: bad weather. The airport could be closed for a number of other reasons, such as a strike, a terror warning, an accident. When faced with a plausible story, we do not think so logically, at least not if we haven’t been alerted to the issue as you just have been. I bet your friends go for (b). 

Kahneman assumes that there are two kinds of thinking. On the one hand there is intuitive, automatic, immediate thinking. On the other there is rational, conscious, logical, elaborate thinking. Unfortunately our intuition draws conclusions well before our logic has kicked in. If we meet three unpleasant people from a company of thousands, we’ll assume that the company has an unpleasant culture and that other people from the same company will also be unpleasant. The statistical sample of three out of thousands may be irrelevant, but we nevertheless make assumptions quickly and not with our left brain. 

So forget that discussion about right and left brain—it is nothing but hype. The difference between those two kinds of thinking is what really shapes our decision-making. It is pointless to dismiss bad moves because “we designers are such right-brain people” and thus think only with our guts. Good ideas may still come to us in the shower. But even there, the ideas come out only because they’ve germinated for long enough. Ideas and decisions are two totally different things. Ideas alone are harmless thoughts, while decisions usually manifest themselves through actions. When it comes to important decisions, it may be advisable, even for us right-brain types, not always to follow our instincts.  

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Blueprint  

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