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Can Calligraphy Improve your Creativity?

Photography: Elijah

We all know that Steve Jobs is the world’s second most successful college dropout. (Bill Gates, of course, is the world’s biggest failure).

But here’s something you didn’t know. After Jobs dropped out of Reed College, he went back to school as a drop-in and studied a subject that turned out to be vital to the development of the computer as we know it…

He took a course in calligraphy.

It’s hard to believe but according to a commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005:

It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating….

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them.

So there you have it. Whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, your computer owes everything to Steve Jobs’ understanding of the intricacies of sans serif.

The Creativity of Calligraphy
But we started to wonder what else a crash course in the art of writing might have done for Steve Jobs. Did all those curlicues and italics spark Jobs’ creative juices, get his ideas flowing and lead him to build a company that owes as much to the appearance of the gadgetry as the whiz-bang programming under the hood?

And what could it do for anyone? Could it help you to create a tech company as stylish as Apple?

Maybe, says Alok Hsu Kwang-han, a Chinese artist who specializes in creating calligraphic art, but it depends on you. He told us:

Practicing anything, including calligraphy, can enhance one’s creativity or it can reinforce an old rut and mindset! It all depends on whether you bring to the practice a willingness to be playful, to be fully present without expectations, to experiment without judgment, and to thoroughly enjoy yourself! The truly original creativity cannot be practiced…

I think Steve Jobs by dropping out of college and dropping into what he loved to explore, brought these qualities to his enjoyment of calligraphy at Reed College.

That potential to release creativity (rather than create it) is particularly true of Chinese calligraphy, adds Alok. Its technique allows the brush to move vertically as well as horizontally, and calls “the calligrapher to be very present and available to the possibilities offered in each moment of the movement. It offers an alertness and a letting-go that promotes creativity.”

Zen and the Art of the iPod
That’s all very nice but Steve Jobs was practicing western calligraphy rather than the sort of Asian brushwork that involves turning complex characters into flowing artworks. He was also talking specifically about the benefit of having a variety of fonts available on computers rather than releasing his own hidden creative talents.

And yet if you compare the sort of minimalist images produced by Alok Hsu Kwang-han with the stark style of the iPod with its white space and hidden buttons, you can’t help but feel that maybe there’s something to it. Even if Jobs spent his time learning Times New Roman and letter spacing rather than shufa and the thickness of xuan paper, could his being in the moment — while being in that calligraphy class at Reed College — have helped him to appreciate the value of having nothing but a click-wheel on the front of an all-white media player?

More importantly, could the creativity of calligraphy — and the sense of just letting go that comes with any successful endeavor — do the same for you?

Well, maybe not with calligraphy and maybe not with Asian calligraphy in particular. According to Alok, it doesn’t really matter what the practice or art form is; it’s the fit and the result that matters:

[It] depends on who the person is. Dance, theater, song writing, drumming, to name a few, are also good ways. I have discovered that calligraphy is a very good way for those attracted to engaging themselves in it. As Chuang Tzu says, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

So what does that mean for you?

It might mean that all of those lava lamps, bouncy balls and basketball hoops that are as de rigueur in Silicon Valley offices as paper shredders are compulsory in the Pentagon actually do something useful. By letting their programmers play, companies are benefiting from what Alok Hsu Kwang-han would call “The Creativity of Non-Doing.”

And it might mean that when you’re sweating over a keyboard unable to see the way forward and with a deadline fast approaching, the best thing to do might not be to strain harder, but relax. Pick up a brush and a stick of Chinese ink. Or beat a rhythm on the bottom of your wastepaper basket. But try dropping out, doing nothing and just being there. It might be enough to let your ideas back in… and let you create the next Apple.

[tags] steve jobs, calligraphy, creativity [/tags]

One Comment

  1. Lenin Says:

    Just to point out, Bill Gates might not have the charisma and salesmanship of Jobs but he too have changed the world by making p/c more affordable than the beautiful but costly Apple computers. Each of the two men have different driving ambitions and Bill Gates seems to have succeeded in just doing good for others without having to sell costly products as much as he can (slowly but steadily).

    It's insulting to call him a failure, let alone the world's biggest. This comes from a Steve Jobs fan.

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