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The case for upside-down thinking

Standing on your head can give you a whole new perspective.

Standing on your head can give you a whole new perspective.

Albert Szent-Georgi, who discovered Vitamin C, said, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought” – and I reckon we Kiwis have a distinct advantage when it comes to the “different thinking” stakes.

A friend of mine believes that our brains work differently from people in the Northern Hemisphere because we think up and down rather than side to side.

He explained that if you live in London, the rest of the civilised world lies to the east or west. It goes from London, to Paris, to Berlin, to Warsaw, to Moscow, to Beijing, to Tokyo, to Los Angeles, to New York and back to London. In other words, northerners think side to side. However, from Down Under, it’s all happening to the north of us, so we think up and down. It’s a metaphor for the way we view the world differently and our naivete enables us to see things others don’t.

A counter-intuitive technique used by artists to check if they have a drawing in perspective or correct proportion is to look at their work upside down. A right-handed person has a natural tendency to skew a drawing off to the right, and vice versa for a southpaw. Normally our eyes don’t seem to register such errors, but flaws show up when a drawing is viewed the wrong way up or reversed in a mirror.

The insight drawn from this is that we see other possibilities if we look at things in a different way. It leads us to question the obvious, and re-examine the reasons why we have always done things in a certain manner.

For instance, does your car really deserve the biggest room in the house? This rather obvious but overlooked issue was asked of clients by an architect, when showing them plans for their new house. There was a problem with site coverage and, rather than go through a lengthy process to have non-complying plans approved, he suggested they reduce the house’s overall floor area.

However, when he suggested making the double garage smaller, or eliminating it altogether, the clients were horrified. They were very particular about their cars. The conversation went something like this:

“We’re not leaving them on the street!”

“You won’t have to,” the architect replied calmly. “There’s room on the site for off-street parking.”

“But cars need to be undercover.”

“Why?” asked the architect.

"To protect them from the elements, of course!”

“What – you mean sun and rain? But you only park in the garage at night time. Are you afraid that bright moonlight will spoil the paint work? What’s more, you drive around in the daytime through all kinds of weather conditions – bright sunlight in summer, rain, snow and sleet in the winter or in the mountains and mud and dust on back-country roads – all at speeds that cause wear and tear. By comparison, I can’t see what possible harm the cars will come to if they’re parked quietly at night off a leafy suburban street.”

“What about security?”

“Your cars have probably got better security systems than the house. The alarms are louder and more likely to alert the neighbours. Besides, they’ve got engine-disabling devices and can’t be stolen without being loaded onto a truck.”

“But it’s much nicer to be warm and dry when you’re getting groceries out of the boot.”

“How many times does that really happen? And is it worth sacrificing the additional living room you could have for an occasional inconvenience?”

“What about storage and the garden tools?”

“Ah! So we’re no longer worried about the cars - you can always add a lock-up lean-to or a small shed for that stuff.”

Next time you drive into your garage, apply a bit of upside-down thinking: question the obvious, and ask yourself whether the car really has behaved well enough to deserve such expensive accommodation.

Which leads us to a broader question; why don’t we question annoying things we strike every day?

Ever been frustrated trying to turn on a supposedly ergonomic tap in the bathroom of a trendy bar or hotel? The desire to be avant-garde in the esoteric world of tap design seems to defy common sense. Cleverness gets in the way of us performing simple tasks such as washing hands or taking a shower.

Why are the typefaces of restaurant menus so minuscule that they can’t be read without spectacles by clientele who are over 45 and for whom two-point Eyestrain is a grey blur? It should be illegal for anyone under the age of 40 to design or specify typefaces on medicine bottles, hotel shampoos and conditioners, restaurant menus or public-transport timetables.

And what about microwave or DVD controls? There should be a universal appliance control protocol for re-programming all electronic devices after a power-cut. How many of us live in homes where the clocks on a host of electronic devices are constantly flashing '00:00’ because we can't remember a whole bunch of different re-programming sequences – and there is no 14-year-old in the family?

Rise up and apply some up-and-down thinking, I say! Resist change for change's sake and fight for simpler solutions. After all, no-one has improved on humble knives and forks.