Modern design, in a variety of ways, could be greatly improved through a reconnection to the Italian Renaissance. Specifically, the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) offer a wealth of ingenious designs for city planning, flying machines, diverting a river, a diving suit, and a double hull ship. Leonardo was quite possibly the most curious person in recorded history, or at least deserves to be considered as such due to the fact that he actively engaged with his imagination and had the good sense to write his various ideas down on thousands of pages. In his How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb identifies seven principles for thinking like Leonardo. These cover key elements of his personality, from a commitment to gaining valuable insights by feeding his curiosity to a recognition of, and appreciation for, the interconnectness of things (systems thinking). This article will explore Leonardo’s valuable insights as they relate to design and will draw from his many notebooks.
If one looks at a random page from Leonardo’s notebooks (such as the one I have put above this paragraph), one can see Leonardo playing with different ideas. He tried to teach himself Latin as an adult so as to get access to a greater amount of information. Latin was the language of intellectuals at the time. Moreover, writings in the vernacular were still quite limited. Leonardo included a drawing of a man’s profile in the midst of vocabulary words. One can also see notes at the top. The key to understanding Leonardo’s way of exploring ideas is that he favored free association of ideas. On a single page, one can find Leonardo exploring ideas related to various topics from the study of light to tribology (the study of friction, wear, and lubrication). Idea generation works best when artificial boundaries are shattered. When brainstorming or even exploring ideas, forget crafting specific boundaries which have no real function other than separate ideas needlessly. Keep personal notebooks where you explore vastly different ideas and enjoy the juxtaposition.
Emphasis on Experiment and Experience
While Leonardo da Vinci had a personal library with many great authors (such as Dante, Livy, and Euclid), his personal outlook tended to favor personal experiences and experimentation over authority received from books.
“Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.” -Leonardo da Vinci
When Leonardo da Vinci wanted to learn about human anatomy, he did no rely on material passed down from the ancients. Instead, he personally dissected corpses and drew what he saw. Curiosity guided him. Many artists of the Renaissance either dissected corpses or at least observed dissections in order to better render the human form in paint or clay.
“The five senses are the ministers of the soul.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Experience means not only success but lots of failure as well. Leonardo had plenty of failure in his career. He was a chronic procrastinator and regularly experimented with different ways of painting. His Last Supper, for example, is in such bad shape because Leonardo painted on a dried plaster (wet was the standard practice with fresco). His paint did not properly adhere to the wall and began to flake off soon after the painting was completed in the 1490s. Basically, his experiments in painting prevented the moisture in the wall from escaping, so it did so by breaking through the paint (causing the flaking).
Despite its failings, the Last Supper remains one of the greatest works of art ever created. If there is one thing Leonardo’s life and works can teach us about failure, it is that success is born out of the process of many failings and shortcomings. This is probably something the reader has read many times in the past but the advice becomes more than mere repetition when incorporated into one’s daily life.
Leonardo da Vinci employed perspective in a variety of ways. It was the backdrop upon which he placed his scenes and gave life to his architectural renderings (influenced by Bramante, Brunelleschi, and di Giorgio). Additionally, Leonardo developed innovative aerial perspective maps for the warlord Cesare Borgia at the turn of the sixteenth century.
Leonardo was well aware of the power of the human eye and the various ways in which we can perceive the same thing from different angles. He repeatedly drew draped fabric, moving the light each time to capture the interplay between light and shade.
“The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature” -Leonardo da Vinci