Category Archives: Creative thinking methods

On hedgehogs and ideas

I haven’t written anything for a few weeks now, and this step back/away and the freshness it has created, made me think about the value of stopping.

It has been said that the greatest discoveries have been made on the bus, in bed or in the bath. In other words, when someone has stopped consciously working and left their desk/laboratory/studio. This break from focusing on an idea/project is known as incubation.

However, when I think of incubation, I see intense concentration and bright lights – which doesn’t really express a break from thinking about an idea.

I prefer to think of the stepping back from an idea/project as hibernation. For me, this means being out of sight and in the dark. So idea hibernation is about putting the idea ‘out of sight’ so your subconscious can work on it in the ‘dark’.

Then, just like a hedgehog uncurling from its winter sleep, so your solution will uncurl from your subconscious, fresh and ready to be used.


Pictionary your idea!

One of the things I look forward to during the festive season is the chance to pull out my favourite board game – Pictionary. I love playing this purely to see the amazingly imaginative images people will come up with to express a word or concept.

From Egyptian hieroglyphics to executive pie charts, images and symbols have always been used to support the expression of concepts and ideas. In recent times, a group of architects (Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein) developed a visual thinking technique called ‘pattern language’  for designing new buildings. As this method is visual and flexible it can be applied in many situations and helps people to see new and different relationships between the attributes of a problem. It uses abstract visual symbols to substitute words.

In his book ‘ThinkerToys‘, Michael Michalko gives an excellent description of how to apply pattern language to idea development:

  1. Divide your challenge into its different attributes.
  2. Describe each attribute by drawing an abstract symbol (each on a separate card) – on the back of each card write the attribute.
  3. Place all of the cards on a table with the symbols facing up.
  4. Group and regroup the symbols randomly into various relationships.
  5. Record the most idea provoking arrangements.

We so often use words for describing and thinking about challenges, that they can lose their impact. Using visuals provides fresh eyes for looking at a challenge and could inspire ideas which you may never have arrived at by using words alone.

Why not try describing the attributes of a challenge you have using symbols/images? If you’re not sure where to start, what about having a game of Pictionary to warm up?!

Here are some of my images based on a challenge about fundraising:



How an escalator can inspire ideas

You know what it’s like, you’ve been working on an idea or challenge for ages and you’ve reached the point where your mind is bogged down and you’re not moving forward anymore. This is the point when getting ‘fresh eyes’, a different perspective will help your thoughts move again.

For inspiration on looking at situations from a different perspective, have a look at this TED Talk from Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere:

This video shows that when you look at your surroundings with fully open, fresh eyes (and mind), the everyday location or situation (such as an escalator) can be transformed in a way which lifts the spirits.

After watching Charlie Todd’s TED Talk I wiped away the tears of laughter from my now (re)freshed eyes and realised how important this kind of approach to the world is for idea generation and development. Todd stands back from the things we see in everyday life (an escalator), and looks at them from a different perspective (a captive audience who would welcome entertainment). If you can stand back from your idea and look at it from a different perspective, you might be amazed with the results.

Techniques which can help you gain a different perspective could be: considering your challenge from a child’s point of view; representing your idea in LEGO; just going for a long walk and forgetting about it for a while. Anything which prompts you to look at your idea from a different angle will work.

How do you get ‘fresh eyes’? I would love to know your techniques for gaining new perspectives on challenges.


Do you search for ideas with a spotlight or a lantern?

To an adult it’s a cardboard box for packing books. But to a child it’s a car, a giant’s hat, a king’s table… As we get older and gain more experience as adults, this experience affects how we look at the world. Hence a cardboard box tends to be just for packaging, as from experience that is the main use we have seen for it.

This has an effect on how adults search for ideas. In a recent TED Talk this was described as the ‘spotlight’ or the ‘lantern’ of consciousness.

This talk highlights that adults have a very focused, purpose-driven, ‘spotlight’ kind of attention. Young children and babies don’t have the ability to focus yet. They can’t get rid of all the interesting things that could tell them something and just look at the important thing – their ‘lantern’ of attention lights up many things.

When we are searching for ideas, starting out with a ‘lantern’ and then using the ‘spotlight’ is an effective process.

How can adults regain their ‘lantern of consciousness’? It’s suggested in the TED Talk that one way of doing this is to put yourself in a completely new situation. Perhaps you could learn a new skill, a new and completely different language – maybe with a different alphabet, or visit a new city without a guidebook or map.

How will you light up your lantern?


Play personalities

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” Abraham Maslow

I saw this quote and thought about the ‘play personalities’ Stuart Brown lists in his book Play : kinesthete, collector, joker, explorer, competitor, director, artist/creator, storyteller.

Brown suggests that our lives would be more enriched if we lived in accordance with our play personalities. I identified with kinesthete, explorer, director and artist/creator – and just by reminding myself of my play preferences, I have improved my creativity. For example, by expressing my kinesthete personality in Zumba, I have more energy to work and often use the dance steps to work through a problem when I’m stuck!

More specifically, if you’re having fun you have easier access to your subconscious, and so will be more creative.

So why not try remembering how you liked to play as a child and introduce some of that into your day? If anyone asks you what you’re doing you can just tell them ‘purposeful play’!

Street signs and concrete jungles

When is a one way sign not a one way sign? When it’s an angel!

This is the work of artist Clet Abraham who goes out at night to make street signs tell a different story.

I love the kind of art which makes use of what already exists and makes us look at it differently. I guess that’s why I also love (to watch) Parkour and free running. Instead of seeing a concrete car park or a flight of stairs, parkourists (?) see an exciting playground where they can express themselves.

Both Clet Abraham and Parkour are practising the skill of looking at something (a street sign, an urban street) from a new perspective. This is a great skill to use if you are getting stuck with a problem or an idea.

Why not try looking at a current issue you have through the eyes of a child, an elephant or Captain James T Kirk?

Dancing on the ceiling! Or how Zumba made me think about new experiences.

I love Zumba!I started going a few months ago to this dance style exercise, and now I can’t stop!

Last week I was waiting in the room for the class to start and noticed there were considerably less people there than usual. Then the teacher came in and it wasn’t our usual teacher, it was a stand in.

I realised that the reason why there were less people was because the regulars had heard our usual teacher wasn’t going to teach tonight and so they didn’t bother coming. Then I was surprised when some people left before the class started.

We began, the teacher was good (but different in style to the usual teacher), but still people were leaving.

At the end I thought it had been a good class and I had learnt some new moves and heard some new music. But the people who didn’t turn up, or who left, had missed out on this.

This resistance to something new or out of the ordinary made me remember how important being open to new experiences and suspending judgement is for creativity.

The more new experiences, the more breaks in the pattern of your life you can expose yourself to – the more opportunities there are for developing and expanding your creativity. And, as part of this, you also need to suspend your judgement (for example not thinking that any other Zumba teacher apart from the usual one will be awful) – it is this freedom which allows ideas to develop.

The mantra for this (from the book ‘Sticky Wisdom’) is: S.U.N – Suspend, Understand, Nurture. If you keep this in mind you will infinitely expand the possible sources for your next great idea (or Zumba move!).