The answer isn’t always inside you…

March 5, 2009


…sometimes you just need a really good box of tricks.

IDEO is one of my favourite design companies because they are one of the most consistently innovative. One of the reasons they kick ass is that they understand that people cannot get their best ideas just by thinking hard; they need exposure to outside sources of inspiration. Going even further, they have institutionalised processes to inject randomness into the environment. Here’s a couple:

Method Cards

“IDEO Method Cards is a collection of 51 cards representing diverse ways that design teams can understand the people they are designing for. They are used to make a number of different methods accessible to all members of a design team, to explain how and when the methods are best used, and to demonstrate how they have been applied to real design projects.”

Each of the Method Cards has a picture and a design technique which can be applied to whatever challenge is at hand. Facing a block on a project? Just pick one out of the deck and do what it says. An enterprising soul was kind enough to upload a PDF of the whole deck. Check it out (via BoingBoing and Avi Solo), and buy the deck directly from IDEO if you want to use it.

Tech Box

Each IDEO office has a “Tech Box”, a catalogued treasure trove of interesting materials and objects for designers to dip into when looking for the perfect thing with which to execute their concepts.

“Each Tech Box has several drawers holding hundreds of objects, from smart fabrics to elegant mechanisms to clever toys, each of which are tagged and numbered. Designers and engineers can rummage through the compartments, play with the items, and apply materials used by other designers and engineers within the company to their current project. The entire contents of the Tech Box are available on IDEO’s intranet through a searchable website, with each item listing its specifications, including manufacturer and price, and an additional IDEO anecdote with designer and project info if applicable”

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, the best thing can be to browse. This article is rather old but has a good account of this tool in action.

It’s good to have a box.

These tools might seem to be ways of thinking ‘outside the box’, but one of the great lessons of creativity is the importance of restrictions.

007146204x01_ss500_sclzzzzzzz_v66865643__2Ernie Schenk’s awesome book, The Houdini Solution is all about this. In the words of the author: 

“Like it or not, most of us are stuck with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And those circumstances have parameters; undeniable limitations which we either can’t change or could change but don’t wish to.”

“Contrary to what you might believe, this is not a bad thing. Limitations are like the banks of a river. Without them, the river becomes instead a formless mass without direction, just sort of spreading out everywhere but going nowhere.” (from his Lens)

You can read one of the chapters here, on his blog, and I’d recommed this thought provoking book if only for the 50 pieces of ‘homework’ in the last chapter, each of which is supposed to help stimulate thought within limitations. One of my favourites:

“There are times when no matter how hard you try to keep the creative process moving forward, you can’t. So don’t. Instead, tell the team that you’re going to solve the problem by going in through the back door.”

“In effect, you’re going to think from the opposite, or reverse, direction. By coming in through the back door, you get to see an alternative angle of attack – how your counterparts in, say, some alternative reality system might come at the problem.”

“Let’s pick a really straightforward objective: ‘How can I become wealthy?’ But when you go in through the back door the problem suddenly becomes this: ‘How can I keep from becoming dirt poor?'”

“What are all the big things that could make you poor? Is there a big customer that, if he were to take his business somewhere else, might cripple your company? Could the market for your product suddenly go south? Is your company financially sound enough to absorb a cataclysmic blow to the economy, such as a major terrorist attack?”

“Interestingly, the solutions you come up with for the back-door problem almost always lead you to solutions for the front-door version.”

Garr Reynolds suggests a few more resources here.

What other processes for stimulating innovation have you seen? 


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