On the surface, these garbage illustrations of bicycles rendered in crisp 3D are hilarious, monuments to human inadequacy that come with an implied, "I could do better." But can we? Designer Gianluca Gimini is the mastermind behind the project, entitled Velocipedia. He has collected hundreds of drawings of the ubiquitous pedal-powered vehicle from amateurs and artists alike, and connects the results to a common psychological concept called, "the illusion of explanatory depth," or simply, "the illusion of knowledge." A 2006 study from The University of Liverpool also studied subjects' ability to draw a bicycle from memory, reporting that, "When their understanding of the basics of bicycle design was assessed objectively, people were found to make frequent and serious mistakes, such as believing that the chain went around the front wheel as well as the back wheel." The study ends with a bit of snark, concluding that, "Most people’s conceptual knowledge of this everyday object seems to bear little resemblance to a scientific theory."
Gimini's ongoing project takes this concept to the next level, imagining what these non-functional contraptions would look like if someone were to actually make them. We spoke to the designer about how he conducted his inadvertant study, and what he learned about art and human nature in the process.
The Creators Project: I'm curious about how the project started, and why you chose bicycles as the subject for people to draw.
Gianluca Gimini: It just happened. I’ve always been a compulsive collector of strange things. One day I talked a friend into drawing a bike for me and he totally messed it up. I was so intrigued by his odd design that I decided to test more people to see if he was the only strange one or if it’s common. When I found out it is absolutely common not to be able to remember the anatomy of a bike, I decided to collect. Later I found out that the bicycle is the chosen subject for a test that psychologists and cognitive scientists call, “the illusion of knowledge.” It demonstrates how our brain tricks us into thinking we master a subject when we actually only know what is strictly necessary to our survival. I understand it’s a sort of self defense mechanism that our brain uses because if we realized how little we actually know we would live in a state of constant panic… Well, that’s what I read anyway.
What are some of the most common mistakes people make when drawing these bikes?
This is how it normally goes: people who are really into bikes, or just very good observers, tend to start out from the frame. They represent that small percentage of people who get the drawing perfectly right. Most other people tend to start from what they are most sure of, so for nearly everyone it’s the wheels. After the wheels I think everyone starts to worry about the frame, but many prefer to “postpone the problem.” I saw many people drawing all the rest in the hope that positioning handlebar, saddle and pedals would help them figure out the frame. Always speaking of what happens most frequently this is the moment in which some seem to enter a sort of panic mode and completely forget logics. Very bright friends of mine ended up attaching the chain to the front wheel or both to the front and rear. Others, and this is very frequent, attach the frame to the front wheel, joining the crank set to the end of the fork. Bikes with this kind of design could never be able to steer. Another mistake, which seems to be more frequent in female subjects, is attaching the wheels by the tire and not by the hub. You can see this in Annarita’s and Fiorenza’s design.
What have you learned about memory and psychology from the project?
This experiment has taught me what I could have probably read in a book. But then again, had I read about the illusion of knowledge, I would have probably never considered taking on such a project. I also learned how easily people can be made uncomfortable. Now I try my best always to put participants at ease. Most people I asked showed some embarrassment, though very few refused to try the test. But before beginning the vast majority stated they could not draw, even people who actually can draw pretty well. It’s strange how we all become shy in front of a pencil and sheet of paper (and a guy asking for a bicycle drawing).
See more of Gianluca Gimini's work on his website.