Can Creativity Be Learned? - Realizing an Idea - The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

Part II. Realizing an Idea

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

§ Chapter 4, Can Creativity Be Learned?

§ Chapter 5, From Idea to Project

§ Chapter 6, Management of a Project

§ Chapter 7, Try, Fail, & Pick Yourself Up!

§ Chapter 8, Financing Your Work

§ Chapter 9, Collaboration

Chapter 4. Can Creativity Be Learned?

Many of us have several ideas that we’d like to make real. Some of these ideas might have come to us after we’d worked on specific projects, or might be based on some research that we have carried out. Some ideas might have been a sudden spark inspired by an apple falling from a tree (hopefully not a MacBook Air!). Many people think that being an innovator and generating new ideas are natural gifts or talents: you either have it or you don’t. The truth is, even if you think you’re not creative, you can learn how to be.

Some people say that in order to innovate we don’t need new ideas, we just need to stop thinking of the old ones. But where do “new” ideas come from? How can we be creative? Sitting under a tree, waiting for an apple to fall on our head is of little use, even though, according to legend, we know about at least one distinguished precedent. To find an answer, we can turn to neurophysiology, the study of the functions of the brain and nervous system.

Neurophysiology For the Uninitiated

Just as asking someone “How do you feel about that?” doesn’t make you a psychologist, reading this chapter on the brain will not make you a Neurophysiologist. We’re about to talk about an extremely complex field in an extremely simplified way. Nevertheless, it might help us understand our behavior a bit better.

Our brain is a wonderful machine, the most fascinating part of the entire human body. Sir Charles Sherrington, the “grandfather” of neurophysiology and a poet, used to say:

It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

Our entire nervous system consists of nearly 100 billion neurons, the specialized, electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information. While there are many different types of neurons, they typically consist of three sections: a soma, or cell body; the soma’s tentacle-like dendrites, which receive messages from other neurons, and a long branched axon, which ultimately passes those signals to other neurons. While the signals within each neuron are electrical, communication between neurons is wireless, in the form of dozens of different chemicals that represent the messengers of thinking.

Every time a thought is born in our mind, thousands of these neurons trigger a very articulated sequence of activations and electric discharges: each neuron acts as a data processing and transmission center, tiny yet extremely powerful, that can manage a wide and complex flow of information. The path each thought takes through the brain creates a series of memory tracks--actual maps of our mind.

The learning process

The mechanisms behind learning have physiological roots: it’s like the Colorado River digging the Grand Canyon, where the rifts become deeper and deeper with the time passing. They are shortcuts that make our life easier. The same kind of mechanism also comes into play in much simpler situations, making us do things without thinking. How many times did we find ourselves accidentally walking or driving to work or school on a day off, without realizing? A little drawback, if we compare it to the great advantage of using our autopilot to carry out everyday tasks just following the mental models that we developed through experience.

This efficient system has also an unwanted side effect: innovating is hard, i.e. it is hard to get out of the canyons that our thoughts have dug, because the resistance of known paths is much lower. Mental models are very useful, but they unfortunately limit our creativity.

An innovator, or what we call a “genius”, has developed and learned throughout time a number of techniques that lead her to find new solutions.

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Figure 4-1. A river digs a deep canyon that is hard to get out of.

The continuous employment of these techniques - it sounds absurd, yet it is fully justified by the above mentioned mechanisms - makes innovation and creation of new models more and more natural. 
Many innovators apply these techniques unconsciously and, unfortunately, not everyone can describe them. Beginning chess players have to inspect the placement of the pieces on the board every time, to then try and evaluate all the possibilities. It is an immense task, so much that even computers have a hard time with it. On the other hand, expert players have played so many games that they can assess positions and identify common or at least similar configurations very quickly, so they can decide, based on their experience, what is the best move or countermove. In chess, you need a lot of practice. Though, how can you reach high levels in innovation?

Luckily, somebody could explain many of these techniques, putting them at our disposal and allowing us to train our innovating skills: we can all be innovators, thanks to the processes and tools found, for instance, in the work of authors such as the great Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari, the mind mechanisms expert Edward De Bono, the art teacher Betty Edwards, and the essayist Tony Buzan.

Techniques for creativity

We can “prepare the field” of our creativity by facilitating situations that plunge us into a specific topic, by surrounding ourselves with objects related to that topic, by stirring up our senses to prepare ourselves for the work of recombination and rearrangement of facts and ideas that we’ll carry out on a subconscious level. Creative ideas or sudden flashes of intuition might come after days, weeks, or months of studying a certain topic. They might come in a moment of despair, when everything seems to go wrong. What is important is to plant the seeds of ideas, and to be ready when they finally ripen.

Lateral Thinking

Our culture values the sequential process of logical thinking, which starts with what we can see and proceeds step-by-step towards what seems to be the most natural solution. Psychologists call it “vertical thinking”: the thought process has a definite starting point and reaches a definite conclusion.

In 1967, Dr. Edward De Bono defined a different approach to problem-solving, based on the the investigation and research of alternative points of view. He called his approach “lateral thinking”. It starts with questioning the basic assumptions of a situation, diverting our thinking from the trails dug by our previous experience. Lateral thinking generates a high number of alternatives to explore, with the idea of moving on to vertical thinking only at a second stage, to develop the most promising ideas. You can be imaginative and train to develop this skill, but you may need some practice to get out of your usual schemes of thinking.

Making Associations

Steve Jobs, the incredibly creative co-founder of Apple, once said that “Creativity is just connecting things”. If we really look at other people’s innovations, we’ll see that many of them are nothing less than a rearrangement of existing concepts and things, often from seemingly unrelated fields.

For this reason, it is important to get out of our own competency zone, and look at the world from new points of view. We should draw from the diversity that new contexts can offer, to enrich our understanding of ideas and make the outcome better. It’s a bit like playing music with friends and having the guitar player screaming enthusiastically at every track: “Think of it as funky! Think of it as funky!”.


Exploring the world, visiting new places, getting into new activities, searching for information and learning new things, all that broadens our views. When we face a problem we have more alternatives, more choices that we can rearrange. Trying to make something with our hands, with or without help, is vital because, regardless of the outcome, touching and manipulating objects lets us develop a different, more physical intelligence.


Meeting new people that are out of our circle, people with different interests, backgrounds and perspectives, allows us to exchange and share. It is also very useful to try and go for lunch, at least once a week, with somebody new or with some friend or colleague that we normally don’t see much: we might learn things we would never imagine. All the social aspects of the Internet can be very helpful, with tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. Another useful thing is to attend conferences, exhibitions, and events dedicated to the themes that we are interested in or even just curious about: in these occasions, beside absorbing new concepts, we get the chance to exchange opinions with other people.

Generating Alternatives

Since childhood we were taught to take notes in a linear way, using lists, listing facts, ideas, and situations which we add our ideas to. As we have seen, having several alternatives to evaluate is one of the most efficient ways to find a good solution. Let’s see a simple trick to generate alternatives. In the center of a sheet of paper, write a word that represents the problem, enclose it in a circle and draw branches around. How many solutions would you like to find? Five? Well, draw five branches. Now, without thinking too much and in maximum five minutes, try and write five possibilities. Drawing the branches beforehand is crucial, because the brain tends to fill up empty spaces and complete images and sequences.

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Figure 4-2. We generate ideas starting from a concept.

You can shoot point-blank, without thinking too much and without feeling ashamed of thoughts that might seem silly or obvious. If, when the time is up, you haven’t been able to find all the words you wanted, don’t worry and just analyse what you have produced. This technique requires some practice; finding original ideas in a short time is not always immediate because we are chained to our thinking schemes.

This method, based on the non-linearity which we memorize ideas with, is the core of the mind maps, a technique invented by Tony Buzan to capture thoughts in a more natural way, to take notes, collect ideas, generate new alternatives, organize activities or make decisions.

Changing the Assumptions

Every problem starts with initial assumptions that we all too readily accept as facts. What would happen if we threw away those assumptions, and looked at the problem in a whole new way?

To do this, let’s try and make a list of the features, qualities and facts concerning our problem, as we see them. The simple act of writing takes us one step ahead of just having the information in our mind.

Once we have the list in our hands, let’s try and deny some of the assumptions and try to give the new composition some meaning. For example, here is a list about a bookstore:

A bookstore is a place where:

§ we go to find a book;

§ there are many books;

§ there are tidy shelves;

§ there is a respectful silence;

§ you can buy books;

Let’s try and overturn some of these statements:

§ There aren’t any books;

§ there isn’t a respectful silence.

What do we obtain? We might get the idea for a new kind of bookstore where books are not physically present and are printed on the spot, in a custom format.

Mind Maps

Mind maps are a model of how our thoughts are organized within our mind, with many branches and links between concepts and ideas. To make a mind map you need a sheet of paper, in the center of which you will write a word that summarizes the main concept you want to start from. Suppose you want to focus on sports:

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Figure 4-3. The first step in a mind map about sport.

Now, draw some arcs and link the main concept to all the other ideas that come to mind.

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Figure 4-4. Link the words connected to the topic “sport”.

Each concept awakens new ideas, not necessarily related to the main idea: you’ll still include them, adding and specifying whatever crosses your mind, connecting the ideas in the right spots; later you’ll have time to thin out the map, if you wish, by eliminating those ideas that you will not consider as useful for this investigation.

The mind map method is pretty simple. In addition to words, or even in place of them, you can draw pictures of things and concepts. You can color the map to enhance its visual impact, facilitating your ability to memorize and reason. With time and practice, you will draw better and better maps.

Often, if the map is very complex, it is worth creating several versions of it, each one better than the previous one, with a tidier structure. A further advantage of the iterative approach is that, by the time you go deeper into your explorations, you can see things in a clearer way, you find new connections, and you can go in depth on those aspects that you consider most important.

Shifting the Boundaries of the Problem

As we have done with our assumptions, we can also question the boundaries of the problem: we can widen, shrink, and cross the “perimeter” we’ve arbitrarily set. What would we see on the other side if we leaned a little over the borders?

And what if we wiped them out completely?

Sometimes, in place of boundaries we have levels, doors, lids. A very important technique consists in learning how to never take anything for final and question everything, even if it seems to make little sense. In these moments we might feel somehow guilty, as if we were trying to “cheat”. This is a natural reaction, because we are disrupting rules that we have gotten used to all our life--our mind objects, as if to warn us that we are breaking the rules.

Pseudorandom Input

For those times when we get stuck on an problem and it seems like there’s no way we can find an alternative, it feels like having fallen into a hole: hard to get out. In cases like these, the brain can benefit from a strong and unexpected input. Let’s take the dictionary, open it randomly, point our finger and read the word we are pointing at. How can we link it to our problem? What does this new, random input suggest to us?

The musician Brian Eno has come up with card decks, called Oblique Strategies, to help his colleagues break out of their mental blocks. Before long, those and similar cards had spread among other creative people, too. (There’s some evidence that medieval thinkers used Tarot cards the same way--not to divine the future, but to use the random juxtaposition of images and symbols as ways to jumpstart new thoughts.) There are even dice used to compose stories, called Rory’s Story Cubes, with objects on some faces and actions on others. All these methods can help us come up with new ideas.

Now you have no more excuses to say you have no imagination... you just have to train the brain!

And what now?