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Dr. Temple Grandin Keynote (Video) — Prototypes, Process & Play 2015

In August 2015, we were very fortunate to have Dr. Temple Grandin join us for the inaugural Prototypes, Process & Play. Dr. Grandin shared a fascinating presentation about her past, her abilities as a visual thinker, and her approach to thinking through design solutions.

We hope you enjoy this keynote as much as we did!

Don’t forget to get your tickets for this years Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th, 2016!

Dr. Temple Grandin

Professor, Speaker, Author, Colorado State University

Temple Grandin is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a best-selling author, an autistic activist, and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. She also invented the “hug box”, a device to calm those on the autism spectrum. The subject of an award-winning, 2010 biographical film, Temple Grandin, she also was listed in the Time 100 list of the one hundred most influential people in the world in the “Heroes” category.

For more, keep up with Dr. Grandin at or on Twitter as @drtemplegrandin.

Presentation Transcript



I’m going to have to violate the liquids thing, because I can’t get through my talk without water. I’m a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. And I design livestock facilities for large meat packing plants. Half the cattle in this country are on equipment I designed.

Concrete work, steelwork, conveyors, heavy construction sort of stuff. I’ve been around the construction industry for a long time. I draw by hand. I want to say something interesting about that.

I noticed something interest happen. When our industry went from hand drawing to other drawing. We saw strange mistakes like the center of the circle was not in the center of the circle. A 22‑year‑old kid built the thing and he never drew by hand. I think it’s important that people have actually done things.

Okay, I want you to get you thinking about different ways people think. I’m an extreme visual thinker. I could test run equipment in my mind. I thought everybody could. I didn’t know that other people couldn’t do it. It’s been an interesting journey for me to learn about that. And when I was real young I used to call people stupid.

And I realized in some of these cases they didn’t think the same way. The mathematics mind thinks different than the visual thinking mind.

Now you can get a lot of — a lot of conflicts. We all know about the techies hate the suits. Some of that has to do with different kinds of thinking. People in the field fight with the academics, because academics approach things different than people in the field.

One big fight we have in science is observation part of science. That happens in my field. You do a controlled experiment. You feed cattle regular feed or special feed and there’s a different controlled experiment. Astronomy on the other hand is observation. Artists and accountants can’t stand each other. Different kinds of thinking. If we understand how people think differently, we can start to see where the talents can be really, really complementary.

Let’s take something like the iPhone for example. The user experience was designed by an artist. Steve Jobs was an artist. He didn’t know how to program. An artist made that interface. Then the engineers had to make it work. That’s the different minds working together. And you have stupid conflicts like if you work at the White House data court, do you have to wear a tie, no you don’t. And astronomy, it’s just observation. What would be the control of the Hubble Space Telescope, it would look at a ground. Maybe it did in the past when it was a satellite.

I used to fight with my professor about what is science. He would say you have to do a controlled experiment. I said what about astronomy. He would just get real, real silent. And learning that I was an extreme visual thinker gave me a lot of insight into, you know, there really are different sorts of minds.

Okay, this is one of my most important slides. This is the different kinds of minds. I’m an extreme visual thinker. Everything I think about is in pictures. Sort of like Google for images. It’s also associative thinking. Absolute lie couldn’t do algebra. I’m very concerned right now that all the requirements in the schools for algebra is going to screen out the visual thinkers that we need to do design work. Some of these kids can go on and do geometry just fine.

The next kind of the mind is the computer programmer. The mathematician. They think in patterns, patterns rather than pictures. Then there are the word minds. Suits and finance people. Things like that. But you need some of those, because you need them for organization. I’m an associative thinker. My best collaboration with graduate students are ones that are very good at record keeping and doing the experiment. Where I excel is thinking up the experiment, thinking up the idea to start with. But then that student does a good job of executing that idea.

What are some characteristics of visual thinking? It’s bottom up. It’s bottom up. Really important. Concepts are formed by taking pictures of specific examples of things and putting them into categories. It’s not top‑down. One of the big problems we have in education today is oh, we’re going to do the magic new way of teaching math that is going to work for everybody. No. That’s too much top down. Visual aniers also notice details. It’s sensory based, not word based. That’s held me with my work in animals, because animals don’t think in language.

Let’s do some animal behavior. The cattle would see little things we tend to not see. Like for example you got a car you can see there through the fence. There’s a little white bottle that was wiggling. Little details. A shadow, a reflection, a hose on the ground. These little distractions. And if I took these distractions out of the facility, then the cattle would move through it easily. It was obvious for me seeing these distractions. I find I have to work hard teaching my students to observe these details. It’s really important to have a nice, non‑slip floor for your animals.

I want you to raise your hand if you can see that the animal was looking at the sun beam. Good! We’re doing better. We’re doing a whole lot better than physicists up in the lab. Some of the programming types of people. A whole lot better. And you know who did the best at seeing this? Children. When I gave a talk to children. They did the best. And then you can see here that the horse and the zebra have an ear on each other. Well, watch what the ears are doing. And this is one of the facilities I designed. A large meat packing plan. I’m not going to show you any graphic pictures of meat packing plants. You can go to beef packing tour with Temple Grandin. The concrete, I did the drawings for that. Did all the reinforcement design for that. I show this picture to my students and I go what do you see that might be a problem here? These cattle are not totally tamed. We’ve got three people standing right where they shouldn’t be standing.

Sometimes the most obvious is the least obvious. And I always get asked how stressed are they at the slaughter plant. It’s about handling in the veterinary chute. Not stress free, but it varies from relatively low to high depending on how well things are managed. I’ve done a lot of work on improving slaughter plants. Let’s just give you an example of how an animal is a visual thinker.

A man on a horse and a man on a ground are like two different pictures. So if the cattle get really tame and use to the man on the horse, the first time they see a man on the ground, they get scared. But think about it, it’s a different picture. Man on a horse, man on the ground.

It’s so important. Train those animals to both. This is one of my designs. Kind of work they designed. And I could actually test run the cattle going through that in my mind. Now I’ve had a chance to test, do some user experience on some new equipment for doing 3D scanning of small objects. So you have this thing. It’s about this big. Little magic lasers that go around the object. And they have some very nice test objects there. One of them was a mardi gras mask. And then I designed to try some other objects of things in the room. A slide changer, a Starbucks cup. And then the thing that was the worst nightmare. A key chain with keys on it. It could not scan it.

The thing I found interesting was they told me the only person who tested the thing with new objects was me. Nobody else even thought about taking a slide changer that was sitting there and scanning that. I found that the slide changer did pretty good because it was shaped like this. Car keys just way too jagged. But I wanted to test the limits of this thing.

I really liked it when Google came out with their search engine because I didn’t have to read anything. That’s what I like. I don’t want all this complicated stuff. I want things that are simple.

In fact, I’m coming up with some simpler cattle handling layouts, because nobody knows how to weld anymore. And the principle of how this is laid out is the cattle come on around and they always want to go back to where they come from. So you’re using behavior.

If you take a keyword and give me a keyword, like “shoes” for example, this keyword, I’m now seeing some shoes I wore when I was a kid. Why am I going right from shoes to a mud puddle? Something is happening here. It’s skipping some slides.

I guess we’re going to have to just live with that. So how did I get from my shoe to a mud puddle? Well there was a picture in there of a boot, which didn’t seem to come up for some reason, and some kind of computer compatibility issue seemed to all be there when I looked at things earlier. One of these boots, which is the kind of shoe I wear, to a mud puddle. A few weeks ago I was jumping around a bunch of mud puddles in a parking lot wearing these shoes. That’s associative.

There is evidence that there are two kinds of visualizers. An object visualizer like me. And then there’s the pattern visualizer. There is scientific evidence that this is true. Thank goodness that my drawings came up. This here. This someone of my hand‑drafted drawings. All done by hand. Simple things. I’ve talked about how I’ve seen deterioration in some of the drawings that you get from big companies. You need to build things. I have a designer from CAD. I had Mark work on hand drafting for an entire year before we did CAD. He had CAD instructors tell him he does very good CAD drafting. He’s built the stuff with a welder and he drew it by hand. I think that’s an important thing that people need to do.

I’ve had some brain scans. It turns out I have a visual thinking circuit that’s probably in the top 25%. You can see it right there, really big. And some other brain scans on a really fancy brain scan. Walter Snyder. This was equipment that our Defense Department paid for to look at head injuries in veterans. It can map all the cable bundles in the brain. And that circuit right there is for speak what you see. There’s a language area down in the visual cortex. Speak what you see circuit. And that’s mine. I’ve got a lot of extra branches on it. That’s maybe why you put a keyword in, I get pictures. I paid a price for that. I’ve got less fibers, I’ve got less bandwidth. You get one thing, you lose something else. There’s the less bandwidth.

Now this slide right here shows my wrecked math department. What is blue is full of water. The left parietal area is trashed, I have no working memory. I can’t remember sequence of buttons. It just makes me crazy. The iPhone interface. That was a big improvement. I can think of other things to improve it, but it’s way better than other things. I couldn’t do algebra. How did I get through college? Well in ’67, the thing was finite math. I got through it. But there are too many visual thinkers getting addicted to video games collecting a Social Security check playing video games when they should be doing design work.

Maybe one of the things we need to do is reach out to the schools, because when the kid hits the algebra wall, they don’t know what that should do. Maybe they should jump them to trig. Back in ’68, Bill Gates and I had access to this with the big reels that go round and round. He could do it and I couldn’t do it. Can’t do the programming. But there’s things where you’re going to need my kind of visual thinking mind, especially on a lot of mechanical engineering things.

Because I can visualize when things can go wrong. We’ll talk a little bit more about that later. Okay. Just to give you an idea of the pattern thinker. I think in pictures. This is the pattern thinker mind. This is extreme origami. This praying mantis oragami is made with a single sheet of paper. Wow, that’s not my mind.

And then you have kids with autism labels at a meeting give me these little stars. A lot of kids are getting labeled autistic. The problem we have with the autistic problem. It goes from half of Silicon Valley. There’s a new book that’s going to come out called Neurotribes that talks a lot about that. You get a little bit of that autism trait, you get a great software engineer. You get too much of the trait, you get somebody who is very handicap and can’t speak.

Here is some more fantastic pattern thinking right here. Now if you ask me to think about a church steeple, I see pictures of specific ones. People who are visual thinkers will tend to name off where they’re at. Why am I asking church steeples. If I ask you house or car, most people can visualize their own house or car. When I ask you something that you are less familiar, some people get a faint, pointy thing. I have one that is a huge cross that goes by when I go to the airport. That comes up in my mind.

When I asked an astrophysicist, he got patterns of motion of people singing and praying. Wow, trippy. There really are different kinds of minds!

There are two ways to do the math. You can do it more verbally or visually spatial. Schools get too hung up on shoving just one down a kid’s throat. What is important is the end result. Doing the math.

For years I worked on construction of things I designed. Steel work, concrete work, conveyers. I learned about how everything conveyers can mess up. There’s lots of ways they can mess up. And what’s important is getting the job done.

So I would sell a job, design a job, supervise construction. Oh boy I was there for the startups and the plant managers are having a giant temper tantrum. They had a stuck trolly. I told him it was going to jam. He threw a big fit over it. You got to live through that. You’ve got to get the job done.

Well a success would be a young visual thinker is kind of geeky working here. The failure is he’s playing video games on Social Security. And some people in the video game industry say you’re just an old fogy and you’re not modern. These kids are not having good outcomes. If they were programming the games, I would feel differently about that. Parents are saying I can’t get him out of the basement or out of the bedroom. You’ve got to get him out.

More scientific evidence of these different minds. The photo thinker and the mathematic pattern thinker really do exist.

I want to get you looking at different ways of thinking. My kind of thinking is associational. It’s not linear. Now that can be very, very helpful. Creative thinking. It’s pictures versus words. A concept is formed by specific examples. How did I learn what a dog was? I when I was a child I put all the dogs in one file in my head, all the cats in another file. Are you going to be more social or less social? Specific examples form concepts. Let’s say you’re trying to develop a software thing. I tried it on this business person who does a lot of travel. I would start to look at specific examples of where this kind of thing worked really well and it didn’t.

When you look at genetics, you’ve got to look at these things like autism, dyslexia, ADHD. A little bit of this trait will give you an advantage. The music mixing board. Continuous traits. More social, less social. You take out social circuits, then you have circuits for geek stuff to figure out math and programming. Or art stuff. I’m getting worried that too many kids today are getting labeled with dyslexia. And they’re ending up not going anywhere. We’ve got to work on getting these kids into careers. The head of Jetblue had ADHD, but he needed someone on operations when they had the snow. That’s the sort of thing I can visualize. Planes out there, total mess.

The head of IKEA, he was dyslexic. You lose some traits, you get other traits that are really good. And different kinds of minds need to work together. And I already talked about the iPhone.

Now I got to tell you, drink of water before we talk about Fukushima. With the kind of skills they have, I could have been the drafting person designing all the concrete work for the plants. I got to do site plans, site elevations. And when I found out why this burned up, I couldn’t believe it. They made a giant visual thinking mistake. The problem is the mathematicians don’t see it. I would have been drawing those plans and said we’re taking all of our emergency cooling pumps and generators and we put them in a non‑waterproof basement and it doesn’t have water‑tight doors. All I have to know about a reactor is if that pump doesn’t work it’s not funny.

Now I want to do the user experience on the doors. Can I open and close them with no instruction. It’s got to be obvious when it’s closed. Now I’ve been thinking about a lot of other things. You know, like people hacking cars. I was reading about that yesterday on the plane. Maybe we better have an emergency brake that’s non‑electronic that works with a cable, old fashioned way that is hacker proof. Or maybe we need to have in power plants some old fashioned controls where if it gets too hot it shuts down. Hacker proof and relays on how to design this stuff.

I’ve been reading about we’re going to provide internet service to people with the balloons up in the air. What happens when it comes down? I can visualize that. It’s not will it come down, it’s when it comes down.

I want the lightest electronic box they can get. I want it absolutely light. And I want a passive resistance. That if the balloon breaks, somebody isn’t going to be killed by the electronic box. Other things. If kids come up and touch it, it’s got to be non‑conductive material or somebody is going to get fried on power lines. I can see it draped over power lines. Draped over a house, not that big of a deal. Power lines ‑‑ well, it’s no big deal if it’s non‑conductive.

500‑pound electronics box, I’m not too happy about that. Because it will be safest if I can just use the drag of the fabric to drag it down slowly enough that it’s not going to hurt anybody. Because it is going to come down. I can visualize all the ways it can break. I’m not saying not to do this. But you need a visual thinker on the team to think about all these things.

I’m getting concerned that kids don’t build things anymore. I think it’s important for kids to build things and learn practical problem solving. I know kids today who don’t know about regular Google. I’m getting concerned. There’s a lack of practical resourcefulness.

When I was in high school I was doing carpentry work and cleaning horse barns. Last week I was watching a program about millionaire blue collar workers. A tree company, a chauffeur company. Hard work. When they were kids, they learned how to work. That’s something that kids need to be doing. And I talk about that a lot in my other lectures.

When I was getting my master’s degree, I was painting stupid signs for the carnival. Well, then I worked those same skills in my freelance cattle equipment business. You learned how to sell a job. There I am with a bunch of cattle. And it’s really fun to lay there. They come up and lick you to death! But I’m concerned a lot of people today don’t know where the food comes from. Big distribution networks, they are fragile. In 2007, there was an ice storm in Kansas. The ice got this thick on the giant big electric wires. Four miles of towers were bent like this. I actually saw it.

If another line of towers would have been knocked over, two of our biggest meat packing plants would have been down for two and a half months. Now my associative thinking was going to a data center that I wasn’t allowed in. But I got to see the substation that powers it. Ice can bring those powers down. I know you like cold places, but ice can bring those wires down, and you’re not going to put them back up fast. Those towers were scrap steel. This is getting into the area, kind of the stuff that I understand.

And you know a lot of young people want to make a difference. Get out and do some hands‑on things. You know, 31% of students have never been on any kind of a farm and some more survey data shows that half of all young people have been on a farm today that raises animals. I thought this was pretty sad. 50% of young adults in England couldn’t connect pigs with bacon. Really? I’m concerned about this removal from the practical world. We need people that can solve problems. Schools have taken out a lot of the hands‑on things. Taken out theater, word working, cooking, shop, metal working, car mechanics. And you need that to get a practicality to your thinking.

Another thing I’m concerned about with all the apps is people are getting more and more just communicating just within their own silo. A company that does consumer surveys called it the tribalization of communication.

It used to be everyone read the major papers, and watched something on a major network. And everyone got news the same way. But I’m concerned we’ve got to solve problems in the future. We’ve got to work on busting down the silos. Originally on Google images I was going to get it blowing silos up. But then I saw this one about chewing it down.

I do cattle talks in my field. I am a professor of animal science. I got to get back tonight. I do talks at autism meetings. When I was a young child I didn’t talk until I was four years old. These kids who are addicted to video games, they need to be talking to you guys. I’ve done talks at NASA. And labs. I found some people that could really join the messy office club! I saw an office there, one of those places was so messy, you just couldn’t believe it! It was worse than my office. My office is clean compared to this office.

You got to show kids interesting stuff to get them interested. When I was high school I got involved with cattle because I was exposed to them. I got involved with horses because I was exposed to them.

One of the things I learned at FermiLab is how did the scientists get exposed to physics? They were exposed to it. You got to show kids interesting stuff to get them interested in it. There’s one of my designs in Sketch Up, because I’m always showing when I do talks at the educational and autism meetings of all the free stuff they can get online. 3D software.

There’s the beginning of my projects. Back in Arizona in ’74. Being in the construction company for a long time, it’s about getting jobs done. You got to get it done. And I think I’ll end up right there. And I’ve got quite a few books. In fact, I’ve got a new book out now called The Autistic Brain. Amazon’s got it. Helping different kinds of minds to succeed.

And all the science to show that there’s a visual thinking mind, and the mathematical pattern thinking mind is in that book. I want to see kids get out there and be really, really, successful. Now I think we have some time for questions, because that’s the part I really like to do! Because I want to make you think! And if we don’t have questions, then I’m going to give you the Texas A&M engineering ethics test. Want me to do that right now? (Laughing) Okay, you are the manager for the Boeing Aircraft Company. A large, heavy tool gets dropped on the wing of a big airplane. The metal is tested to the critical limits. What do you do? I got it right like that. What do you do? You start over and throw the parts away. Do you know what the worst answer I got for that, from a government scientist. You document it.


And the second worst answer I got on it was you prop it up. Really? Now one of the things that Karen Watson, the provost of Texas A&M told me was ten years ago 90% would have said throw it away. Now it’s only 60% will say that. They try to calculate. Is it still within the critical limit that we can use it. I’m visualizing even further. After I get the part taken out, I’m going to stand there and watch the physical destruction of that part. Because it was stressed close to the critical limit, it won’t look damaged. And I’m going to stand there while a hydraulic press crushes it. I got to make sure it doesn’t get into another airplane. Let’s do some questions. Right there? (Question off mic)

What kind of design work to do you? You’re a scientist. What kind of scientist are you? You’re a paleontologist! How did you get to this meeting?


I’m actually in science and math here at Columbia. I’m faculty. I teach science. But I have a fine art background. And it’s a long, long story that I would love to tell you.


The guy who built FermiLab built the electric powers in the shape of pie and he put art all over the place.


I know you have thought a great deal about reducing stress in cattle on their way to slaughter. I wonder if you have designed anything specifically to reduce the stress of the actual execution?


If it’s done correctly it’s instantaneous. I have a paper called making slaughter houses more humane. You can get around the pay wall by going to When done correctly it’s instantaneous. It gets down to management. I thought if I could build the magic equipment, it would make everything wonderful. That’s only half the equation. I used to get so frustrated when things were horrible back in the ’80s. People tear up stuff and wreck it. You couldn’t get them to run it right. And then in 1999 I was hired to implement the McDonalds audits. I have papers on Google Scholar. And it forced the plants to manage it. Do you know what was the number one cause of the execution not being instantaneous? Broken equipment. This tool has to hit really hard.

And if you don’t maintain it, it doesn’t have enough hitting power. Maintenance was the number one problem. Now the plants have test stands and dedicated maintenance programs with documents that they sign off on. We have to make sure they don’t fake them. I’ve caught people doing that. But things are so much better today than they were back in the bad old days of the ’80s, and ’90s. Things were a mess. That’s the time I was out living on the construction sites. Okay?


Okay. So you talked a little about how there’s a lot of overlap between there’s a lot of scientists in art and mathematicians.

Do you find there’s a spectrum that some people are good at some parts of science thinking?


Yes. There can be different kinds of mixtures between pattern thinking and visual thinking. Then there are some that tend to be extreme one way or the other. I definitely think in pictures. Then there can be all kinds of mixtures between the two kinds of thinking, too. It’s just different ways that different brains form.


Okay. So it’s just kind of —


What kind of work do you do?


Game design.


You’re probably designing to make them the most addictive.


And you get up to the next level and get the little dopamine burst. It’s crack cocaine. I’m not going to touch it. It’s like surfing. Let me see if I can find one more journal article. The journal articles that show that visual thinking and mathematical thinking. I found it at a 3 o’clock in the morning surf-a-thon in a boring paper on visual perception. Kids who get labeled visual thinking. He’s 21. I can’t get him off the video games. When kids are little, one hour a day. When I was a kid, TV was one hour a day. You couldn’t watch the tube all day. I want to see these kids, and they’re some really smart kids, working for you guys. What you need to do is put something in the video games that is going to make a link into these kinds of things.


Good idea. If we got a more of a variety of thinkers in the video game industry maybe that would make some video games that aren’t so addictive.


Things like Mine Craft, one of the things we need to be doing with that, it runs on Java Script. Let’s get the kid to learn Java Script and get the kid to see the guts. I can remember the old DOS days of the computers. When things messed up, you could see the guts. You got kids doing stuff on computers today and they’re not learning how it works. A lot of kids are getting addicted to video gaming. I have a whole list of things like Khan Academy, mathematical site. Places where people can get free stuff. I want to see kids get into good careers.

[Speaking off mic]


I’m a design executive. And I’m less hands on and I manage teams.

I work at a company called Jaw Bones and we make things like the Fitbit. I’m interested in teams. You’re talking about the different types of thinking. Visual thinkers, mathematical thinkers. Different ways of perceiving the world. But there’s a range of spectrums of neurotypicalty.


Then you have the more verbal thinkers. Much more top down.


As someone, I think it’s important that teams have as much diversity as possible in how they’re approaching problems.


The first thing that the team has to know is that there are different kinds of thinking. That was a great insight for me. Because when I was in my late 20s and we had rails come down and ripped out of the ceiling in a plant because some chains jerked on the rails, I could have just seen that. I wouldn’t have made the mistake on the drawing. I would have said the engineers were stupid. Now I would never see that. The engineer is probably a mathematician. He doesn’t see it. The first thing is understanding there are different kinds of minds and where they can help each other. One has a strength and one has not a strength.


To that point. What have you seen that works in helping a team understand this about each other. What are the tools that you to bring together diverse perspectives to a team and have them work well together.


They have to know that there are different kinds of thinking. I went through half of my career not knowing there were different kinds of thinking. Calling people stupid and getting into all kinds of fights in jobs. I would never do that now. I tend to use specific example thinking. In my field of animal science, very top down. If it’s not controlled experiment, it’s not science. When I say astronomy, they get mad. I wanted to learn how to program the computer. Bill Gates and I had access to the same terminal. He could do it, I couldn’t. I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t do it.

Where I think different kinds of minds tend to be the most diverse is where there’s an extreme ability or an extreme disability. I don’t have any working memory to remember sequence. I have to write it down like a pilot’s checklist. But just understand the differences. I think something like the iPhone is a really good example. A visual thinker, the artist. Steve Jobs got fascinated with calligraphy. People say humanities courses aren’t worth anything.

In the first iPhone demonstration it only half worked and he had to reverse the order that he demonstrated so it wouldn’t freeze and crash during the demonstration. And then they had six months to get it finished. But just knowing that people have different strengths. In the big meat packing plants. Draftsman sitting in the corner of the basement. I don’t like seeing them in prestigious places with cable cards in the ceiling. I was angry when I saw that. They do a lot of design. They lay the whole plant out. And then the engineer is perfected. But I’ve worked with every single major meat company. I have drawings at home from every single major meat company. It’s the drafting person that figures out complicated layers for a meat cut up and fab. He’s a major part of the design and doesn’t get the credit they should be getting.


I think that’s all our time. So give Dr. Grandin a big hand.



I’ll be around during the break and through lunch.

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