Thinking in Pictures

Someone told me about Dr. Temple Grandin, an assistant professor at Colorado State University who is a high-functioning autistic. She recognized her strengths at an early age with the help of a mentor, and is now a designer of livestock handling systems. She’s one of those bridge individuals that has provided insight into the autistic frame of mind, and by extension the mind of animals. Her latest book, Animals in Translation, describes the world from an animal’s point of view. Her previous books, Thinking in Pictures and Emergence describes her experiences with autism. I’ve just added these to my Amazon wishlist :-)

I did, however, just listen to a fascinating Interview on NPR with Grandin and Terry Gross. Although I’m not autistic, I found a lot of relevance in her description of the autistic frame of mind and design process.

In an online article, she describes her design process, which is based on her mental thinking process:

Now, in my work, before I attempt any construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction. Today, everyone is excited about the new virtual reality computer systems in which the user wears special goggles and is fully immersed in video game action. To me, these systems are like crude cartoons. My imagination works like the computer graphics programs that created the lifelike dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When I do an equipment simulation in my imagination or work on an engineering problem, it is like seeing it on a videotape in my mind. I can view it from any angle, placing myself above or below the equipment and rotating it at the same time. I don’t need a fancy graphics program that can produce three-dimensional design simulations. I can do it better and faster in my head.

It reminds me of how I run interactive simulations in my head; I don’t generally need to prototype to know if something will work or will be awkward. It’s a combination of running the sim and recalling the feeling of motion and convenience, though it doesn’t happen as detailed structure as Grandin describes.

I’m also reminded of Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, who intuitively knows whether a marketing brand concept will work or not. It’s not years of design experience that gives her that power; she’s actually learned to control her fear of bad branding to harness it professionally; Grandin describes fear as a prime motivator in her early years in that NPR interview.

It’s all interesting stuff, if you are the kind of person who likes diving deep and dark into the workings of human consciousness.