Making creative headway through attentive looking

Source: smerikal via Wikimedia Commons

Suppose you are searching for a new approach to a pesky but important creative problem.  You’re casting about for any sort of hint, or even the whisper of a hint, as to what you might do.

Scrounging about on the internet one morning you come across an unfamiliar but somehow arresting abstract line-drawing.  Intently looking at the strange drawing, and not even sure of what the image means, you suddenly decide to copy it.  With pencil in hand, you set to work, looking up and back at the unfamiliar drawing again and again, trying your best to faithfully and accurately reproduce the image on the sketching paper in front of you.

Would this intense copying exercise help you with your creative problem?  Or would it, instead, get in the way, obstructing you from making any creative headway?  Could copying an unfamiliar drawing help your own subsequent creative generation?  Or might it, instead, dampen your creative insight and expressiveness?

Tackling just this question, two researchers at the University of Tokyo recently found that copying an unfamiliar art work significantly enhanced the subsequent independent creative drawing of participants.

—> For more see: Speeding Up Your Creativity by Slowing Down: How to use examples for creative inspiration

Our ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction: ways to use — and not use — abstraction

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely via Wikimedia Commons

Lifting and moving 100-pound sacks of coffee beans is back-breaking work.  Repeatedly grasping, hoisting, and piling the sacks ­­— heavy and awkward with their shifting contents — is a significant health issue for workers.  How might the unloading of these and similar sorts of cargo be made automatic, and ease the burden on workers lugging such heavy loads?

Joining up with a colleague in an interdepartmental research center, researchers in civil and industrial engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy decided to take up this challenging problem.  Specifically, they set themselves the task of developing a “gripper” that could grasp coffee sacks made of a porous material (jute), ranging in weight from 50 pounds to 170 pounds.  The gripper needed to work quickly (grasping or releasing in less than 3 seconds), and without excessively tearing or damaging the jute material.

But the enterprising researchers weren’t just on the quest of a new gripper:  they were using this challenge to test-drive a new “creativity support” method they were developing.  Meant to help designers reach into unexplored idea territory, the multi-step method provides a structured guide for using abstraction and analogy to more effectively generate innovative design concepts.

—> For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post.

How do we (really) keep our creative momentum?

We often like to simplify things but — let’s face it — creativity is a messy business. It’s filled with trial and error, trying this and trying that. It reaches across time (minutes, hours, weeks or months, sometimes years) and space. It’s rife with unpredictable spurts forward and sudden stops or detours as unforeseen obstacles loom on the horizon. How then can we ever see “inside creativity” — peering into this dynamically changing thinking-making process to learn what works well, and what doesn’t?

One promising approach is to generate a sort of “creative micro-world” —setting out a creative challenge that can be taken up in a somewhat limited period of time (say a few hours), with specific constraints and goals. Then the entire thinking-making process of creative designers or engineers can be observed (perhaps videotaped and audiotaped). The designers might also be asked to “think aloud” — telling us, moment by moment, what they’re thinking, what problem they’re facing, what options they see, or what next steps they’re mentally testing out (or ruling out). . . .

For more please see WK’s Psychology Today post “Inside Creativity: Charting Innovation as it Happens.”

Berries and bubble wrap

Let’s look together at “Strawberries (fresh forever).” It’s a recent work by the photographer Lucas Blalock, and is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015.

What do we see?

16 variously ripe red strawberries are laid out in 4×4 grid on a layer of bubble wrap, itself spread out upon what looks like a wooden table. Accompanying each strawberry is a small superimposed or overlaid/overlapping photographed image of a wrapped strawberry candy with its tightly folded wrapper itself conveying a stylized image of a strawberry. Just as each fruit is slightly different, so too is each candy partner. The bubble wrap too is far from uniform—we notice a tear, a crease, it looks a bit worn atop the (apparent? symbolic?) wood-grained table.

What might be going on here? What might this intimately subtle photograph be telling us about representation and re-representation—especially about how we use and live with abstraction? How might it help us to understand detail stepping and the value of zooming in and out?

Think again of the photo’s depicted candy wrappers. Wrappers separate the candy and preserve and protect and identify it. But what does the “actual” candy hidden within its tidy wrapper look like, or smell like? And how does the highly homogenized image of the strawberry on each wrapper relate to its (photographed) companion fruit? And then there’s the 4×4 “grid”—or is it 8×8?

Among other things, the deceptively simple “fresh forever” strawberries photograph takes us on a wonderful detail-stepping journey by inviting us to explore varying levels of abstraction.

As we point out in Innovating Minds (on page 52):

“We have a choice in the abstractions we use. From moment to moment we can move up or down one or more levels, or stay at a given level of abstraction, moving along a level laterally. Often our experiences in themselves do not conclusively indicate which abstractions we might best use. Exchanging or alternating between the abstractions we are using can help us to see events—and relations between events—in a new way. Trying out a new abstraction may reveal connections to previously overlooked concrete particulars and also significant cross-connections between our more abstract readings of a situation.”