On Creativity

And the design of non-everyday things

Last updated 2 years ago

Stop Thinking.

Yes I said it. Just. Stop. Thinking.

More and more I find my own thinking getting in the way of actually doing, actually making something. So if I were to give one piece of advice on how to be creative it would be to stop thinking and start doing.

Furthermore, the more I think the harder a project seems. It’s relatively simple to break an idea into steps, and then separate those steps into smaller substeps and so on. Don’t do this. This is the real-life counterpart of Zeno’s paradox with Achilles and the tortoise; if you keep subdividing forever you’ll never make it to the finish line!

One of my favourite quotes is by Ivan Sutherland, upon being asked how he invented such a plethora of things in the field of computing in one year, he replied, “Well, I didn’t know it was hard”

He didn’t know it was hard

So, stop knowing

Forget about easy or hard. Question what you know. A dishwasher makes washing dishes look easy right, or does it simply make washing dishes by hand look hard? Be wary of things that look easy, because they reinforce your assumptions of difficulty

Look at the world with fresh eyes. A child sees nothing as impossible— I built my own laptop when I was seven by drawing a keyboard on a folded sheet of paper. Us adults with all our thinking and knowing, all our “experience” is a shrinking bubble of possibility, a filter blocking us from seeing with a fresh perspective

In my experience, creativity comes not from knowing or thinking but from doing. In my most creative periods I will look back and think, “how did I do it?” because the thinking mind can’t possibly fathom the unreasonable effectiveness of not thinking

Part II: On Thinking

But don’t be mad, thinking’s not entirely bad.

Just try not to think too hard or to think for too long. Think about thinking like staring into a mirror, would you stare into your own eyes for hours on end? because that’s thinking, my friend, self-reflection in the endless mirror of the mind

But if you could think, and sometimes you do need a good think (in the creative process this is what we might call, “design”), then we ought to make the best of our time

First of all, don’t build cities

Someone who designs cities works from a birds-eye view, they lay out the grid of streets, then decide what types of buildings should go where, then decide what those buildings should look like, and so on. Designing from a birds-eye view forces many assumptions. Creativity rarely comes from making assumptions

Instead, start from a human perspective

Don’t think about your “users”, or about “people”— these are shortcuts to avoid thinking about what you yourself think and instead thinking about what you think other people might thinkThis leads in some cases to a kind of Keynesian Beauty Contest where we end up thinking what we think might be the most popular thought among the people we’re thinking about— if everyone thought like this we would have a monoculture of ideas

. The only human perspective you know is yourself, so write from a first-person perspective.

You have a creative project? keep a journal of quick ideas, number them #1, #2, #3, and so on, and keep each one short; a few sentences and a little sketch should suffice, give or take. Sometimes I can capture an idea in just a few words, sometimes I need a couple paragraphsRemember the first-person perspective, “I want”, “I don’t like how this feels”, “It’d be fun if I could”…

. The key is to lower your bar of quality, be playful, throw in some bad ideas, look at the world with fresh eyes. Often the best idea starts as a bad idea.

Over time these ideas might start to fit together like puzzle pieces

Another technique I use, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, is to write fiction. Take a problem or design question you’re thinking about and write a story about it. Again, first-person if possible but from someone else’s perspective this time. Don’t go in with any assumptions, let the story answer your questions as you write it. Every time I do this I