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The Intersection of Artistry and Pragmatism

By Tim Hayes

The theory goes like this.  The left hemisphere of the human brain controls logical, linear, sequential thinking, while the right controls the more creative, artistic, and expressive.

Some blending of these two counterbalancing poles of thought, impulse, and action goes on constantly, of course.  But for most people, one type of thinking and behavior has an edge over the other.

And for some, that blending, the place where artistry and pragmatism intersect, emerges so powerfully as to produce creations that shake the world.

Steve Jobs had this unique capability.  A tsunami of radical ideas in a black turtleneck and blue jeans, his insistence on elegance of design and breakthrough technological applications made all the difference in what Forrest Gump called “some kind of fruit company” – Apple Computer.

Jobs described his left/right brain obsession to Business Week this way in 1998: “That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Walter Isaacson, in his fascinating biography of Jobs, quoted him as stating, “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Anyone who has purchased an iPhone, iPad, iPod, or any other i-Whatever knows this to be true.  The packaging itself is beautiful.  I feel bad throwing it out after I get my latest gadget extracted from the box, the molded plastic shell.  For cripe’s sake, even the bag they put it in is gorgeous.

Then you start to use the device, and the insistence on ease of operation, the smooth bevel of the casing, and a hundred other details that just feel right, start to become apparent.  In the Isaacson book, a story is told of Jobs insisting that the then-new “apps” function displays be rounded on the corners, to make them more appealing and friendly to the eye.  Amazing stuff.

But this phenomenon of art and technical skill, while rare, did not begin with Steve Jobs or his team of magicians at Apple.  If you have ever been to New York City, or seen it in the movies or TV, you’ve witnessed a similar – perhaps even more impressive – example of this at work.  An example that has stood for more than a century.  The Brooklyn Bridge.

The unmistakable iconic span over the East River connecting lower Manhattan to Brooklyn had its beginnings under the direction of master engineer and architect John Roebling.  But after his untimely death, his son Washington Roebling rose to lead the massive undertaking.

The young Roebling, over the 15 years of the historic project, created by hand more than 500 highly detailed drawings covering every conceivable aspect of the bridge.  In his day, naturally, these drawings provided the visual instructions that enabled contractors and workers to move forward with construction.  But the artistic quality of the drawings – discovered in a ramshackle shop in Brooklyn many decades later, and now on permanent display in a museum – remain breathtaking.

Historian David McCullough, in his essay, “The Treasure from the Carpentry Shop,” offered tribute to the genius of Washington Roebling as follows: “In the last analysis, one comes to something in these drawings impossible to catalog, that has little or nothing to do with however much biographical or technical background one might compile.  It is the incredible care and concentration you feel in even the least of the drawings, the pride, the obvious love – love for materials, love for elegance in design, love of mathematics, of line, of light and shadow, of majestic scale, and, yes, love of drawing – this passion in combination with an overriding insistence on order, on quality, that we of this very different century must inevitably stand in awe before.”

It may be true that most people favor either the logic and line of the left brain, or the creativity and art of the right.  But wouldn’t it be something if more people made more of an effort to bring both sides together?  What a different, more interesting, more challenging and delightful life it would be.

A life like that of Steve Jobs, who, again described by Isaacson, “made products that were completely innovative, combining the power of poetry and processors. With a ferocity that could make working with him as unsettling as it was inspiring, he also built the world’s most creative company. And he was able to infuse into its DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.”

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes