Literacy has many forms and art is one of the ways in which these forms come together and present some of the best opportunities for engaging diversity in complex social systems.
The relationship between art and science has been long noted by those looking at the history of discovery, and the nature of creativity and human innovation. In theory, the idea that two creative ventures that use different methods and media as the vehicle for expression should fit together is natural. But that is where theory and practice diverge sharply.
From my perspective, art and design are not perspectives warmly embraced within the scientific community. There is much suspicion among scientists about the validity, reliability and practical utility of art and design in solving important problems. Aesthetics may be nice for culture, but science tackles serious things.
Yet, one of the more serious matters for science is the concept of literacy. Scientists have been worried about the inability of people to pick up and understand the basics of how science works and its implications for society, prompting this to become an educational priority for some.
Science literacy can be defined as:
PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) 2006 defines science literacy as an individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.
This definition is highly referential to the concept of science, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment : the world of science and technology.
• a particular area of this : veterinary science | the agricultural sciences.
• a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject : the science of criminology.
This term is rooted in the Latin scire, which is to know . If one looks at the first definition on its own, independent of the second definition and conjunction with the most popular applications of the term science, there seems to be little room for art and design. Yet, when revisiting the definition of science itself, the idea of the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, a door opens up to some new possibilities.
Design is largely about the study of human situations and interacting with people, ideas, and space to create solutions that emerge within those spaces. Unlike science, which has a focus on observation and understanding, design is about taking such understanding and applying it to problem solving. Milton Glaser describes design as intervention into the flow of events and the introduction of intention into human affairs.
Art is a means of expression and for exploring the intangible and making it so. It is for such reasons that art + design go together so much.
Reading the different definitions of literacy and considering what science, design and art do, it seems to me right that we contemplate the ways in which they come together. Art and design are part of the normative scientific lexicon, but perhaps they should. As the human-centred problems that science aims to tackle become more complex, abstract and intangible — climate change, chronic disease, food security, social inclusion/exclusion and mass migration/globalization — the need to visualize the problems in new ways and create (design) solutions based on science becomes imperative.
The only way this will take place is to have greater literacy on how this can be in order to recognize the opportunities that science, design and art present and the ability to transform that into true positive intention into human affairs.
** Image used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr Pool, by freeparking. http://www.flickr.com/photos/freeparking/2351767932/