Creative conversation: What can a £9 glass prism teach visionaries, design thinkers and game changers?

This morning I thought that I would write some more about colour, as I am feeling the need to talk about this in detail. In the classes I teach on creativity, innovation, complexity and sustainability I talk a lot about mental models, ways of knowing, and to demonstrate my points I discuss Goethe’s theory of colour. In doing so I ask people to look through a small glass prism. These prisms are designed for children, and the ones I use cost £9 (around $15). In business we never really discuss seeing, but I do, and the reason is to really help people transform the quality of their thinking.

We need to start off by thinking about our mental models of light. I would suggest that most people’s mental models of light match the front cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Original album artwork by Hipgnosis and George Hardie

However, let’s have a look at a video which can be found on the website of Curious Minds. Curious Minds sell Prisms, and they sell the prisms that I use. This video is used to show how the prism can be used to teach children about Newton’s theory of coloured light.

Still shot taken from the video “Dispersion of Light Triangular Prism”. Click on the image to watch the video.

Is there anything that you can notice is different between the two images, both of which are artistic impressions of light through a prism? The main difference I would say is that in the album cover image, there is still white light in the middle of the prism, but in the image from the video, the prism separates the white light into coloured light inside the prism.

So which is right?

The picture below comes from an excellent article on Goethe’s theory of colours called The Tao of Colour. It is a brilliant article and I strongly recommend you read it.

What do you notice that is different between this actual photograph of light through a prism, and the two images above? In this picture light is dispersed from many surfaces, and you see nothing inside the prism (1). On the edge of prism labelled (2) what can you see? There is no green light. Green starts near the label (3).

Now what we are going to do is to look through a prism. In the photograph below, I am looking through the prism onto my computer screen, and the computer screen consists of a large white rectangle above a large black rectangle.

The next photo below is what you actually see. To take the photo I placed my camera up against the prism, so it is trying to show you what you yourself would actually see if you looked through the prism.

Can you see the lines of coloured light? At the top of the screen, there are two lines. I can see a line of orange/red and below that a line of yellow. In the middle of the screen I can see a line of light blue above a line or dark blue/purple.

When we look through the prism we can see colours, but we do not always see a spectrum. We see these two different phenomena, but only ever at a boundary between dark and light. The ‘cooler’ colours, the blues appear where light (white background) is above dark (black background) and the ‘warmer’ colours appear when dark is above light. In this picture there is no green at all.

How do we obtain green? We have to look through the prism at a white slit on a black background.

Image credit:

It is as if the warm colours and the cooler colours have come together. Now I am going to show you a colour which Newton missed and which does not appear in his spectrum. To see this colour, we have to look at a black strip on a white background.

Image credit:

The experiments I have described were first written about by Goethe in his work The Theory of Colours. As well as being one the greatest poets and writers of his age, Goethe considered his way of science to be his greatest achievement, much more so than his literary works such as the epic Faust. His work is greatly misunderstood which is a shame as when you understand Goethe’s motivation for his was of science, you can then understand that it does not necessarily contradict or replace the science of Newton.

Henri Bortoft is a philosopher who teaches Goethe’s way of science, and he describes the difference as follows:

Goethe’s motive was to understand the qualities of colour, and hence his science of colour is the science of these qualities as such. Newton’s motive, on the other hand was to eliminate unwanted colour in optical instruments. This is really a branch of mathematical-instrumental optics and does not require us to enter into the experience of colour.

Henri Bortoft Taking Appearance Seriously Floris Books, 2012

Before I carry on, I can not emphasise enough just what a big difference it makes between reading about the experience of looking through a prism and actually looking through a prism. There are many different ways to look through a prism, and Goethe lays out his experiments in order, so that you are able to experience many different variations of background and phenomena. By looking through a prism, what we do is attempt to stay within the phenomena itself. By this, I mean to say that we attempt to experience the phenomena of colour without attempting to explain what the phenomena is happening. In this mode of seeing, we attempt to avoid the situation where our mental models affect what we are seeing, our expectations.

Goethe’s colour wheel

Goethe did not comprehend light in terms of a single spectrum. He understood colour as consisting of two more basic phenomena, the warm colours and the cool colours, and that the spectrum is in fact a complex phenomena arising from these two more basic phenomena. In staying with the qualities of colour, Goethe is attempting to understand the relationships between colour, and dark and light, and in doing so he achieves a sense of how the colours belong together, in a way in which is missing from Newton’s explanation. There is nothing in Newton which says why the colours appear in the order in which they do.

This sense of belonging together can not be physically seen in a single experiment. Rather it is a phenomena of colour which can only be grasped within one’s intuition, for it is in the intuition that the enter phenomena reveals itself to us, and it is in our intuition where we gain an idea of the dynamics of colour, of the interplay with light and dark.

When Newton published his experiments, he quite possibly already had the notion of white light being made up of coloured light. His experiments were greatly criticised at the time, the main critique being that he had not adequately demonstrated that white light is in fact made up of coloured light.

So now down to business. What has all of this got to do with business? What can we learn from this discussion about colour, which may to many seem either academic, or obscure, or not relevant? It is down to our mental models, our conceptions of nature, what nature is (of which light of course is a part) and how much of our minds we are able to use. Do we just use our intellectual minds, with its abstractions, categorisations, and filtering out of any of the qualities of experience which are not open to quantification? Or are we able to develop our seeing so that we can begin to understand the dynamics of life and nature as we experience it?

When you have a conversation at work, are you like Newton, the great politician who through his enormous stature was able to shout down any critics of his theory, or are you someone who can recognise that different people have different ways of knowing the world? Are you able to recognise those who are thinkers, those who are able to dwell in the sensory realm, those for whose feelings come before thoughts, or those who are able to comprehend in their intuitions? Are you able to understand those people who are also a mixture of these as opposed to those at the extremes, and are you able to create an environment within your organisations for the creative exploration of ideas in a way in which people honour others’ ways of knowing, who respect others’ mental models as opposed to arguing against them?

What we need in organisations is what I call creative conversation. In these creative conversations, it is not a battle, it is not a fight to show that you are correct. Creativity comes from comprehending that there are many ways of knowing, and that the most creative solutions arise from diversity, where there is a creative tension between chaos and order. Too much order, too many people all with the same mindset will never result in groundbreaking ideas. Too much chaos and nothing will ever be achieved, the creative process will collapse into disagreement and fall out.

But if we can recognise within ourselves firstly what is our own personal style, and then recognise that this may be resulting in a very narrow worldview, then if we are open to new ideas, genuinely open, we can develop the right conditions within our organisations for creative conversations. Of course are egos are such that we will fight desperately to hold on to our cherished mental models of reality at whatever the cost. Often our mental models are such that we do not even recognise the problem. That is why in order to break out of our mental models which are holding us back we have to go through in inner transition. This is a hero’s journey, one described well by Joseph Campbell, one that perhaps ultimately we all have to go on.

Inner transformation is something rarely addressed by business organisations. It is ironic to me that the greatest competitive advantage we have in this age of the knowledge economy is thinking, but how few companies are willing to develop their staff in this area. Of course there is a continual cycle of business education in terms of new ideas, methodologies and frameworks, but these can only ever be as good as the underlying quality of thinking. Creative conversation is one of the tools we can use consciously to take us there.

Read More

The Tao of Colours

The subject matter of Goethe’s theory of colours and Newton’s theory of light is complex, and has only been addressed here at the basic level. If you are interested in reading more, I can strongly recommend the following books:

Henri Bortoft Taking Appearance Seriously Floris Books (2012)

Henri Bortoft Goethe’s Way of Science Floris Books (1996)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Theory of Colours Dover Publications (2009)

Dennis Sepper Goethe contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color Cambridge University Press (2003)

Arthur Zajonc Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind Oxford Paperbacks (1995)

8 responses to “Creative conversation: What can a £9 glass prism teach visionaries, design thinkers and game changers?

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