Brains without boundaries

As the lines blur between creative and analytical roles in the modern workplace, people should be encouraged to utilise art and creative thinking.
First spread of the theme article on Aalto University Magazine 18. Illustration of the Helsinki city harbor by Anna Muchenikova.

From early in life we’re trained to separate the rational from the irrational; to distinguish between analysis and imagination. We’re subtly and overtly asked to choose the left brain or the right, and, over time, come to consider ourselves as “better at numbers, or better at pictures.”

This dichotomy has traditionally played out in the business world too, where we’re seen as either rational decision makers, or creative thinkers. While most modern companies recognise that both types of people are needed, roles are often still split along a line between the two modes. The rational dimension drives business strategy with hard facts and calculated targets, for example, while creative thinking typically plays a stronger role in design and marketing efforts.

This traditional split makes sense in so much as it utilises people’s relative strengths. However, the model often fails to fully grasp the opportunity for each side to contribute to the work of the other. By making underlying business decisions from a purely analytical standpoint, a company may overlook a valuable market or trend. On the other hand, designing or marketing with too much free-wheeling creativity can simply cost money and slow a company down.

The answer? An emerging kind of cross-disciplinary thinking where rational analysis meets empathic understanding.

Putting empathy first

One company where employees are working together in this way is Suunto, a market leader for diving and sports watches. Asked about the role of cross-disciplinary thinking in the workplace, the company’s design head Antti Kujala talks at length about how the separation between traditional roles is becoming increasingly blurred.

“It’s getting harder to isolate or define specific functions within companies, particularly when it comes to marketing or design,” says Kujala.

“Traditionally, business leadership has been about analysis; about breaking something down into its constituent parts and making decisions based on what the numbers show. But this is shifting, and nowadays there is much more talk about empathy as the way to understanding the consumer and building a brand. This is where roles get blurred because anyone in an organisation can put this hat on and contribute to the discussion.”

Kujala illustrates his point with reference to an internal project Suunto undertook a year ago,
where employees from marketing, sales, design, R&D and manufacturing came together to ask: what problem in the world can Suunto help people to overcome?

“Our purpose at Suunto is to inspire and equip everyone to live a healthy and active life. So the question is: how does this mission manifest in our brand?” he asks.

“At the moment, our products record 23 different biometric variables. But we don’t necessarily need to add in 24 or 25, because that may not be what inspires the user. We need to ask ourselves what it is we can create that will show empathy.”

“This is where cross-disciplinary, creative thinking from anyone has a strong role to play,” he says.

“You can influence and help shape the foundation of a brand and, once this is done, it shapes all the future work you do.”

Feeling the colour

Kujala’s view is echoed across the Atlantic by Karen Korellis Reuther, who leads the creative functions at US-based VF Corporation, the parent company of more than 30 lifestyle brands including Vans, Timberland, The North Face, Lee and Wrangler. She also spent 12 years working in product design for Nike.

“In the athletic footwear world, it’s easy to defend the decision to make a product that is lighter in weight, as reducing weight has a very clear function. So this is a purely objective conversation,” says Korellis Reuther.

“It’s more difficult though when it comes to making an argument for colour, for instance, as then it becomes subjective. It’s about the connection that colour has to people’s lives.”

“This is why I think it’s very important for purely business people to also study creative disciplines, such as design,” she says.

“Design teaches empathic thinking, putting people first, understanding who you are designing for. It also teaches the need to iterate, prototype and take risks – things you don’t necessarily see when you approach business purely from the objective position.”

Korellis Reuther recently collaborated with Aalto Professor Jaana Beidler on a colour and materials project for future designers. Several breakthrough concepts were created during this collaboration and, as a result, one Aalto student was invited to join VF Corp in California to further develop her work.

Breaking down boundaries

Aalto University is embracing multidisciplinarity by encouraging its students to take courses outside their main field of study. Aalto has created the University Wide Art Studies programme, which offers students from any discipline the opportunity to take a series of field-neutral courses with a creative and cultural dimension. This way Aalto students get the best of both worlds.

“As a student at Aalto, you can do work that is multidisciplinary – or even anti-disciplinary – creating something that challenges boundaries and doesn’t belong to a single field,” says Professor Kevin Tavin, Head of the Department of Art.

“This creates opportunities that may not be available at other universities.”

As an example, Tavin refers to a collective of five students who call themselves Brains on Art, led by Aalto art graduate Kasperi Mäki-Reinikka. The five first became friends at high school and then separated to study art, cognitive science, computer science and electrical engineering. They kept in touch, meeting from time to time to grapple with the way each of their world views were being shaped differently through their diverse academic experiences. Unable to reconcile their views through conversation alone, the crew decided on another way to try and find some shared answers: they would produce art together.

The result is a startling collective that combines cognitive science and art. Their signature project is an interactive poetry generator, where an electroencephalogram (EEG) monitor measures a user's brainwaves and then produces a poem on a screen in real time. The style, meter and wording used in the poem differ widely between individuals, depending on the brain activity read by the EEG.

Other projects from Brains on Art include an interactive stock market performance tool that uses electric balance manipulation, a virtual Petri dish pool where digital organisms are created from bio-signals, and a forthcoming exhibition where the group will build several installations that bring to life children’s drawings that imagine machines of the future.

The art of silence

For an example of art meeting the business world, Tavin refers to artist Pilvi Takala’s performance The Trainee. In a rare and courageous instance of a corporation embracing workplace disruption, international accounting firm Deloitte allowed Takala to pose as an employee in their Helsinki office. Then, using a series of hidden cameras, Takala recorded employee reactions to her unconventional working style.

In the first scene, she simply sits at an empty desk in an open office, introducing herself as “on loan” from the company’s marketing department. When questioned as to why she has no computer in front of her, or why she isn’t doing anything other than sitting silently at the desk, Takala responds that she’s doing “brain work.” In another scene, she rides the same office elevator all day long, telling curious colleagues who enter and exit that she simply “thinks better” while standing in the elevator than she does sitting at a desk.

At first the performance seems strange – even silly – and the scenes are actually uncomfortable to watch. But the point starts to sink in when you see and hear people’s reactions. One colleague, whose curiosity gets the better of him, eventually approaches her as she sits silently at the empty desk and implores her to tell him what she’s thinking. Others say of her elevator riding that she’s “cheering up their day,” while one department even starts writing a flurry of concerned emails about “a girl sitting with a glazed look on her face… whom employees think is a little scary.”

Office work can easily become drudgery and monotony, leading to uninspired and unproductive workers, which in turn can negatively affect a company’s performance. This is what Takala is both highlighting and fighting against. The idea is that by disturbing the ways of working that we take for granted, she stirs up energy and creates discussion that could – from an industry perspective – spur original thought to positively impact a company’s performance.

Learning both ways

“The core idea with multidisciplinary thinking is that no single discipline – whether it be business, science or technology – should get too comfortable with its position. Art and creative thinking can be used to raise questions that wouldn’t necessarily be part of that discipline,” says Tavin.

“This goes the other way, too – it’s dialectic – in that art and creative practices shouldn’t get too comfortable with themselves either. We need challenges both ways, as it’s this juxtaposition of disciplines that causes a troubling of normative ways of thinking and practices. This is when you don’t just start pushing boundaries, but actually question the very notion and function of boundaries. In some ways this isn’t just multidisciplinarity, but post-disciplinarity!”

Already at the leading edge of multidisciplinary academia, Aalto University is continuing to create new opportunities for students to work outside of their main area of study. Enthusiasm for this strategy runs across the entire University, says Professor Tavin.

“Students see things in the world that others may not, and the tools and language they use can be an important kind of intervention. By pushing and troubling boundaries, we have the opportunity to create and develop completely new ideas that help us to work better, take better care of ourselves, of others, and of the world – so that we can all build and share in a more fulfilling vision of the future.”

Text: Andrew Flowers. Illustration: Anna Muchenikova.

This article was originally published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 18 (, December 2016.

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