Is creativity something people are just born with? For many of us, creative thinking isn’t purely intuitive — it’s also plain hard work. As writer Iris Shoor explains, coming up with fresh ideas isn’t always a natural gift — it’s a skill that can be learned.
Iris Shoor is co-founder and VP of product and marketing at Takipi, a start-up leveraging Big Data technology to change how developers debug software in the cloud. Previously, Iris was co-founder at VisualTao, a Sequoia backed start-up which was acquired by Autodesk in 2009.
A few days ago I was telling someone about my startup company. “How did you come up with the idea?” he asked, and added very nicely “you must be very creative”. This line always makes me smile, as I believe being creative is not a natural gift. Every day I try not to think outside the box, but rather work hard on trying to live outside of it. I believe that creativity can be taught, and I know for a fact that I’ve become more creative over time. It’s not about finding the ‘one’ idea, but rather about using creativity to achieve everyday personal and professional goals. I use creative thinking to sell my product and ideas to people, design better, and even to overcome personal obstacles, going outside my comfort zone.
Here are some methodologies I use to come up with fresh ideas.
Changing One Part Of An Idea At A Time
The biggest creativity challenge we face is that while we want to innovate and change, our brain actually prefers to stick with what it knows. Whether it’s a first draft or a five-year-old plan — once an idea has taken root it’s very difficult to think of another. Once we have a new look for the office in mind, a presentation flow or a website design, it’s almost impossible to get it out. Try to think for a minute or two of a new design for Google.com. Hmmm… almost impossible!
A powerful tactic to overcome this is taking a project and breaking it down into smaller pieces. Once you stop looking at your project as a whole, things don’t look as obvious as they were before. Write down a list of all the elements in your current project — presentation topics, blog post paragraphs and website elements. Then focus on one part at a time and change just that one. The most interesting thing about this tactic is that just dividing a project into a discrete list of elements will help ideas to start flowing. Once you have your list you can do wonders with it. Here are a few quick examples:
- Focusing on one part and changing it completely.
- Removing a part.
- Combining random parts.
I use this tactic when working on my product designs, marketing strategy and presentations.
Don’t Start At The Beginning
One of the most common breaking points for a project is not the finish line but rather the starting line, before the race even begins. We’ve all been there, postponing a new project day after day, week after week. When starting a new project most people approach it according to its natural order — writing the first paragraph of an assay, designing a website’s homepage. The first milestone is usually very challenging, and when faced with a big challenge we tend to give up.
When I notice that I drag my feet with a new project, I don’t try and start at the beginning. I find an anchor — a part of the project which is very standard or is technical in nature. It can be the ‘about me’ paragraph or the website footer, it can even be a line or a slide I’ve used before. From there I move on to the next part. It doesn’t have to be closely related to the first one, but again, one you can handle more easily. In a few relatively easy steps I can build a rough skeleton and from there all I have left is to connect the lines between the dots.
Create A Range Of Alternatives, From The Standard To The Extreme
Much like IQ tests, one can also take a creativity test. In one of the most common creativity tests people are asked to complete as many different figures as they can based on a simple graphic shape (such as an X shape or three lines). You can see some interesting results here.
When your creativity needs to play the main role, it’s no longer about having the ‘right’ answer, but about providing a set of different answers to the same question. When you’re facing a difficult problem — try to create a number of different answers. This will help you solve it more quickly, and in a more creative way. Before you start a project or a part of it, draft five or six different alternatives. It might be six different ways to pitch the same idea, or six different design themes for a website. I make sure to prepare a list of all the alternatives before starting so I won’t get fixated. Now, let’s make things more interesting — try to create a range within your alternatives — the first one should be the most standard one you can imagine, with the last one raising an eyebrow or two.
Even if you end up choosing alternatives that are closer to the standard than to the extreme, after experimenting with quirky ideas, your ‘standard’ version will probably also change, and come more to life. On a personal note, the entire branding of my company was invented using this method. I started with a clean, typical startup branding and then expanded the range from the standard up to a fifth quirky alternative made of cartoon-like monsters which represent the problems we’re aiming to solve. The monsters prototype worked great. I would have never reached that idea without forcing myself to think of this one last alternative.
Get Outside The Box – Into Someone Else’s
Try to list 10 cities.
Now try to list 10 cities that are close to your home town.
Easier, isn’t it? When we use constraints it’s usually easier to come up with more ideas. The way we think relies on connections — a certain smell can conjure an old memory, a name can bring up someone’s image. When we use constraints we trigger more ideas and come up with more solutions. Even when there aren’t any constrains people tend to create them. When most people are asked to name 10 cities they’ll use some kind of connection between them — capital cities, cities I visited this year and so on.
So in a way we’re never really outside the box — we simply move between boxes. One of my favourite creativity tricks is creating a set of constraints by placing myself in someone else’s box. Try taking an existing or a half-baked project and rethink it in someone else’s shoes. If it’s a design project — how would it look like if it was designed by Google or maybe even by Starbucks? If it’s something you write — how would a certain writer or maybe a colleague sitting across the room would write it? You’ll soon find out that while your designs or text will be very far removed from your chosen style, bringing in a style constraint into the equation will spark your creative magic.
This article has been updated since it’s original publication