Creativity: Diet + Exercise

Over the last couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity so it’s time for a quick download of thoughts.

For about a year I’ve been using the “garbage in = garbage out” principle that creativity is in some part related to the quality and diversity of your ‘cognitive diet’.


Credit: Austin Kleon

As part of this I’ve been adding a section to a lot of my classes on good sources of inspiration, provocation, and the importance of reading/watching widely. I often refer to the work of Stephen Johnson and I love his metaphors of Innovators cultivating ‘slow hunches’ or having ‘scrapyards’ of ‘spare parts’ that have to serendipitously come together to create new ideas and innovations. I think the metaphors of cultivating scrapyards and developing your diet of inspiration are just different ways of describing the same process.

However, fitness is not just about diet, it’s about exercise too. How are we flexing our creative muscles? Can we get better at ideating?

For years I’ve run creative warm-up exercises in class, usually 1 or 2 minute challenges to note down potentially uses of a revealed mystery object. The number of ideas is only so important – often the diversity or novelty of the ideas is more significant for flagging creative thinking. What is true of these exercises is that once we debrief each one and share ideas we do another and all the students do better each time. By understanding they can be silly, by understanding the kinds of categories of ideas (functional, decorative, metaphorical uses etc), and by building confidence they all get better every time we run the exercise. So this is a kind of ‘exercise’ that gets easier with practice and builds creative ‘muscle’.

Similar challenges I like would be using Oblique Strategies (explained here and an online version here) or trying to respond to Protobot.

However – I’ve also come up with a graphic method. I doubt it’s original, although it is original to me!


Credit: Dave Jarman

You write the initial idea in the centre of the page. Then you try and stretch it laterally by thinking of similar ideas; some the same function in a different category or sector, or a different function for the same sector, user, or locale. This can feel silly/boring by simply finding similar/related/associated ideas – but it does flex the lateral thinking muscles.

The vertical scale is essentially one of making the idea bigger or smaller; can it be grown to bigger audiences or grander outcomes? Could it be more universal? Equally could it be shrunk to a smaller role (in a bigger system) or to work in a very specific way? Could it be more valuable in a specific niche?

Each lateral item could be stretched vertically and vice-versa – a whole matrix of ideas and options can be unpacked from a single starting point. This is great creative muscle-stretch!

It has another function too; if you’re trying to find a commercially-viable idea in a crowded market the matrix can help you move around competitors by either shifting user/function/location/method or by being grander or more niche.

Feedback always welcome!

2 thoughts on “Creativity: Diet + Exercise

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