I think this framework first came up in a conversation with John Maeda. The original observation was that artist and scientists tend to work well together, and designers and engineers work well together, but that scientists and engineers don't work as well together, and likewise, neither do artists and designers. Engineers and designers tend to focus on utility and understand the world through observation and gathering the constraints of a problem to come up with a solution. Artists and scientists, on the other hand are inspired by nature or math, and they create through pure inner creativity and pursue expression that is more connected to things like truth or beauty than something so imperfect as mere utility. Which is to say, there are many more ways to divide the brain than into left and right hemispheres.
However, I think a lot of the most interesting and impactful creative works tend to require all the use of all four quadrants. Many of the faculty at the Media Lab work in the dead center of this grid--or as I like to call it, this compass--or perhaps they lean in one direction, but they're able to channel skills from all four quadrants. Neri Oxman, one of our faculty members who recently created The Silk Pavilion, told me that she is both an artists and a designer but switches between the modes as she works on an idea. And to look at The Silk Pavilion, it's clear she could easily qualify as either a scientist or engineer, too.
I think that there are a variety of practices and ways of thinking we can use to get to the center of this compass. The key is to pull these quadrants as close together as possible. An interdisciplinary group would have a scientist, an artist, a designer, and an engineer working with each other. But this only reinforces the distinctions between these disciplines. And it's much less effective than having people who use all four quadrants, as the project or problem requires.
The tyranny of traditional disciplines and functionally segregated organizations fail to produce the type of people who can work with this creativity compass, but I believe that in a world where the rate of change increases exponentially, where disruption has become a norm instead of an anomaly, the challenge will be to think this way if we want to effectively solve the problems we face today, much less tomorrow.
Update: A good book on this topic. Gold, Rich. The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Rich calls the quadrants the "four hats of creativity".
Originally posted on LinkedIn.