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Leonardo da Vinci, Disciple of Experience

Friday, April 18, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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I recently saw the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Almost 500 years after his death, da Vinci is still popular. Some visitors waited 90 minutes to see the exhibit.

The sketches, of course, were beautiful (see Head of the Virgin). But what really struck me was the sheer breadth of this one man's talents. da Vinci wrote treatises on physics, anatomy, astronomy, warfare, art, and other topics. Without a formal education, da Vinci never mastered Latin, the language in which academic treatises were written at that time. Some scholars dismissed his work.

da Vinci replied that he was a "disciple of experience":

"[They may say] I'm a man without learning, [but] I will cite something far more worthy, quoting experience..."
(quoted from Met exhibit; emphasis mine)

In another essay, da Vinci writes that

...the subjects I am dealing with are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words, and experience is the muse of all who write well. And so, as my muse, I will cite her in every case.

500 years ago, da Vinci understood the power of experience. Academic pedigree is fine, but a direct grasp of experience is essential. Analyzing and learning from direct experience is innately more powerful than hiding behind obscure academic methods. da Vinci "got it." Maybe he was the first.

500 years later, there are still those academics whose frameworks, methods, and terminology talk *about* experience but don't help much in bringing people to an understanding of the experience itself. Remember the Italian scholars who were so concerned with da Vinci's knowledge of Latin (the "method" of the day) that they completely missed (or dismissed) his genius - and didn't help others to see it.

The business we're in today - call it user experience, branding, CHI, product development - is based on an innate understanding of, and empathy for, the experience a user or customer has when engaging the product, service, or brand we're creating. Those who would lead or teach in this field (whether in consulting or the academy) should focus on the *experience*. Anyone trading on gratuitously complicated methods, or academics alone, should remember those Italian scholars. The rest of us will remember da Vinci.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exhibit site: Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman

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