Curating information for creativity

In this third video in my series on creative thinking, I go into the concept of curating inputs to the creative process. The combination of our brain and body makes for an awesomely powerful creative machine. We can use our bodies to explore and gather a wide range of inputs and then we can use our arms and fingers to manipulate and rearrange elements within our wide field of vision, and yet much of our creative work is blinkered by computer screens, or worse reduced to the width of a phone. In this video I ask viewers to think about how they can arrange their creative inputs to make full use of their creative faculties.

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What is an idea?

This week I have begun creating a series of videos to share my teaching on how to have ideas. The videos start with what simple question, what is an idea. The definition I use, provided by James Webb Young in his 1965 book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ is pragmatic – it gives us tangible ways to work on improving our creative thinking.

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Olafur Eliasson at the Tate + reflections on my own work

This week I have had the feeling that I have been struggling recently to find focus on my creative work. I have lots of projects on at the moment, and I am not satisfied that I am being able to draw a cohesive thread between them. I think this is important because I subscribe to the idea that to have impact on your work, you need to be regularly adding to it in a disciplined way – always adding momentum to the fly-wheel, as Jim Collins puts it.

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Building creative culture in engineering companies

An illustration of WIlbur's Four Quadrant Model used to support a discussion about building creative culture in an engineering organisation

I am starting to shift my attention away from creative tools for engineers. Tools are still important. But I’ve realised that unless you need a creative culture for individual creativity to thrive.

Recently, I rediscovered in Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations‘ the Wilbur four-quadrant model. The model descrives how culture, systems and worldviews interact. We can use this model to understand a phenomena in an organisations from four different perspectives:

  • How the phenomenon can be measured from the outside
  • How the phenomenon feels from the inside – intuiting how it feels
  • How the phenomenon appears to the individual
  • How the phenomenon appears to a group of people.

Like all engineer-friendly models, Wilbur’s is a two-by-two grid. The columns divide the grid into interior perspecitve and exterior perspective. The rows divide the grid into individual and collective perspective. According to Laloux

Wilbur’s insight, applied to organisations, means we should look at: 1) people’s mindsets and beliefs [individual interior perspective]; 2) people’s behaviour [indvidiual exterior perspective]; 3) organisational culture [collective interior perspective]; and, 4) organisational systems (structures, processes and practices) [collective exterior perspective]”

From Reinventing Organisations, Laloux (2016)

Applying the four quadrant model to organisational creativity

I’ve assembled some quick thoughts on how the four quadrant model might apply to understanding creativity in an organisation. I have written the statements for a fictional ideal case. This difference between this ideal case and reality can give us some suggestions for what we might need to do to build a more creative organisation. 

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Notes from IStructE Academics’ Conference 2018

There was great energy at today’s IStructE Academics’ Conference, the theme of which was Creativity and Conceptual Design.
If you are visiting this site for the first time, it may have been thanks to Chris Wise’s kind recommendation in his keynote presentation – thanks so much Chris.
I presented a session on how to have ideas. Usually when I’m billed with this title, I run a workshop on idea generation, but I thought for once, I would stand up and say what I think about the subject. I’m glad I did because it seemed warmly received. It was also a chance to talk through themes that will be included in the chapter I am writing in a book on scheme design – more details to follow.

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Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial

I am just back from taking part in a Design Thread workshop at Imperial College, the aim of which was to co-ordinate activity between the various design-relevant courses on the undergraduate civil engineering course at Imperial. Here are some reflective notes as I whiz home, during the writing of which I came up with the notion of ‘secretly teaching design‘. Continue reading “Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial”

Does going for a walk improve design?

Taking a walk at Port Eliot Festival

I have just read an interesting piece on the Stanford university website, ‘Stanford study finds walking improves creativity’ (article found via this news piece on the Hazel Hill Wood website). The article describes research that has for the first time investigated the impact of ‘non-aerobic walking on the simultaneous creative generation of new ideas and then compared it against sitting’. I had an intuitive idea that going for a walk improves the quality of my ideas – an example that springs to mind is a catchy tune I wrote on short walk back from the library at college. This research shows that ‘creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.’ What’s more, they stayed high for a short period after sitting back down again.

But the striking thing revealed by this research is that the walking environment doesn’t seem to make a difference. I had assumed that going for a walk outdoors in the woods would be good for my creative thinking, but this study shows that the boost to creative thinking is just as powerful when you take a walk on a treadmill in a featureless indoor room!

This result has obvious implications for how we set ourselves up to do good design, but there is another significant finding reported further down in this news article that also has important implications for design. While walking helps to boost divergent thinking, it is shown in this study to impede ‘more focussed thinking, characteristic of insight’.

So how can we use these findings when think about how we do design work?

In the design training that we have been developing at Think Up, we describe design as a process that starts with identifying a need and establishing a brief, that moves through idea generation and testing, and moves on to choosing the best ideas. These stages are linked by iterative loops which take you back through the process many times.

The obvious place for divergent thinking is in the idea generation phase, but there are others. Right at the start when we are identifying the need, we often need to think around the problem to check if it has been framed properly. We also need to have an open-minded view of the client brief if we are to unpick the unwritten and implied elements of what the client wants. We also need to apply some divergent thinking to enable us to think of all the factors that are going to determine whether our ideas are good ones, rather than simply relying on the usual tests we apply.

There is also an obvious place for convergent thinking: at the part of the design process where we are refining our ideas, and when we are testing them for adequacy against the brief. But there are other places where we need insight: when we are trying to choose the factors in the brief that are going to dominate the design; and when we are trying to make a decision based on hard-to-compare factors.

So there is a place for walking and a place for sitting in design.

Unfortunately, from what I have observed in design offices, we tend to do too little of the latter and not enough of the former. What we could learn from this research is to be more mindful of the type of thinking that is required at any one time and to move or stay still as appropriate.

We should also beware of metaphorical trip hazards. There’s no use in going for a divergent thinking walk if we are distracted by our smart phone en route. Turn it off! And our creative reverie stands a good chance of being extinguished if when we return to our desks we find a set of monthly sales figures demanding our attention. In other words it is probably a good idea to think about that environment you will be returning to at the end of your walk.

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Designers: turn off your phone – harness the wandering mind

Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson
Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson

I recently read Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Focus, and I have been thinking about how our ability to focus affects our ability to design. This thinking was the basis of a workshop session that I recently wrote about harnessing ‘wandering mind’, that mode in which the brain roams freely and forms new associations which are the basis of creative thought. I piloted this material as part of Think Up workshop on creativity that we ran at Hazel Hill wood in July, which seemed to go down well, so I am sharing it here.

Below is a modified extract from some of the course materials associated with this activity. I’d be interested to know if anyone reading recognises these phenomena or tries the approach I am recommending.

In his book Focus, emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman explains that the brain can really be understood as having two distinct sets of circuitry: the lower brain and upper brain. The lower brain whirs away in the background working on solving problems without us even noticing. Its activity only comes to our attention when it produces an idea as if from nowhere. The upper brain by contrast is the seat of self-control and is the part of the brain that we actively focus on a problem.

In evolutionary terms, the lower brain is the older part. The lower brain is the source of our impulses and emotional reactions. The upper brain can repress these impulses, but at the cost of diverting our attention from the design challenge on which we want to actively direct our focus. In this instance, the lower brain circuitry is causing a hindrance to creative thinking.

However, the lower brain does have a crucially important role to play in design. Research shows that in the moments before people achieve creative insight, their lower brain has been in a state of open awareness. In this state, the mind wanders freely, widely and without judgment to create new associations. When these new associations are made, the upper brain then locks in on them and fishes them out into our active attention.

In order to harness our wandering minds as part of the design process, our upper brain needs to be ready to spot a good idea when it emerges. To do this we need to do two things. The first is to make time in which we stop actively thinking about things and let out thoughts come to us, for example, going for walk or even going on holiday. The second is to minimise distractions, which divert our active attention away from spotting new ideas as they emerge from the lower brain. In other words, making time we when turn off our smart phones and blocking out interruptions.