Design Inspiration

The Art and Science of Generating Great Ideas

Simon Martin By Simon Martin October 12, 2016

According to the ancient Greek story of Archimedes, the legendary mathematician was tasked by his king to determine whether or not the royal crown was pure gold after discovering that it may have been cut with silver. Without the ability to melt the crown into a liquid state from which the metals could be separated, finding a way to determine the material properties proved to be a challenge for Archimedes.

During a trip to the public bath house soon after, Archimedes noticed that the water in the bath became displaced over the edges the further he immersed his body. It occurred to him that he could measure the volume of the crown—an irregular shape just like his own body—by simply submerging it in water and comparing the result to that of a similar chunk of gold purportedly used to create the crown.

As legend has it, he jumped out of the bath immediately and ran home naked shouting “EUREKA!” or, “I have found the solution!”

Thus, the concept of the “eureka moment” was born.

But perhaps most importantly, the story of Archimedes’ eureka moment is an important lesson in how great ideas don’t come out of nowhere. They’re already inside of us—we just need to know how to find them.

THE BRAINSTORM - A spontaneous group discussion or personal exploration to produce as many ideas and ways of solving problems using words, images, and stories.

While it may appear that Archimedes was able to generate an ingenious creative solution out of thin air, he had already taken quite a few baths (he was an adult, after all) and had been studying the science of fluids for some time as a mathematician. His “eureka moment” was more or less the moment when hundreds—if not thousands—of similar past thoughts that already existed in his brain came together in that exact instance to reveal the seemingly obvious (to him, at least) solution to solving the king’s crown conundrum.

Sure, Archimedes went on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and likely possessed more intellectual prowess than the average modern-day human, but the method in which he landed on his eureka moment is a method that we can all use. The key is stimulating your brain enough that you can connect multiple thoughts—thoughts that already exist in your brain—together.

THE MIND MAP - A hierarchical radial visual map that shows a wide range of different relationships between multiple concepts and a central concepts.

Just look at Steve Jobs as a more modern example. His idea to develop a user-friendly graphical computer interface was born out of his ability to blend what he knew about technology with his appreciation for the design of posters hanging around his college campus. Of course, he followed this up with a level of persistence that few will ever match, but we all know what happened next. The world was forever changed by this clash of thoughts.

Or take Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA who would buy large quantities of matches and sell smaller units for a profit as a young boy. When he was older, he grew frustrated with trying to fit furniture into the trunk of his small car and thus invented the concept of assemble-it-yourself furniture using his knowledge of buying product in bulk.

Both of these entrepreneurs leveraged the knowledge that already existed in their brains and simply found a way to mash different thoughts together with a positive connection. Ultimately, these great ideas didn’t just come out of nowhere—they were the final piece of a much larger puzzle that already existed in their brains.

THE FORCED RELATIONSHIP - An approach to thinking that connects dissimilar or otherwise unrelated objects, elements, and thoughts to obtain fresh perspectives on a preexisting idea.

While the exact science of what happens in the human brain during idea generation is extremely complex and involves the synchronicity of multiple neural networks, what we do know is that great ideas are generally born in the right hemisphere of the human brain.

It’s been widely argued that the left hemisphere is considered to be better at analyzing, performing logical tasks, and interpreting language, while the right hemisphere is considered to be less inhibited and better at expressing emotion or performing creative tasks. Because the right brain is less constricted by preconceived notions, it is considered to be a “go to” place when attempting to think outside of the box.

Although most of us may not have the next Apple Computer or IKEA floating around in the back of our right hemispheres, we nonetheless have the same tools available to us whether we write, design, invent, or simply just want to tap into a more enlightened thought network.

THE SCAMPER METHOD -  An idea generation technique founded on the belief that everything new is an alteration of something already in existence. SCAMPER is an acronym for the act of Substituting, Combining, Adapting, Modifying, Putting to another use, Eliminating, and Reversing attributes of an existing concept to arrive at a new idea or perspective.

Similar to how a photographer may take hundreds of photographs before nailing that perfect shot, the key to having a single great idea is to have many ideas to begin with. Yes, those bad ideas count, too—so don’t worry.

In many leading design firms around the globe—places that exist solely to generate great ideas—brainstorming sessions can involve individuals from all corners of the company. While it may take a designer or a writer to carry a great idea into a finished product from the brainstorm, getting perspectives from multiple life experiences is key to finding that one perfect idea.

You likely won’t have a 100-person team at your disposal the next time you’re developing a winning pitch for your next sprint meeting. That’s okay—you don’t need to. The deeper you can tap into your own life experiences to generate a variety of ideas, the more likely it will be for that single great idea to reveal itself.

THE REVERSED THOUGHT: A mental exercise that focuses on reversing the wording of a problem to generate a freeflow of reverse solution ideas.

After understanding how great ideas formulate in our brains, the next logical step is to iron out how to cultivate a fertile ground for stimulating original ideas.

The good news is that since great ideas already exist inside all of us, the challenge—and ultimately, the skill of making thought connections—is to simply know how to cook them up and bring them to the surface. Naturally, the more that we can distance ourselves from our everyday brain patterns and free up thought space to focus on new ones, the easier this process becomes.

By practicing these idea generating techniques ahead of your next project, you’ll be well on your way towards streamlining your thought processes and landing on your own eureka moment.

One final piece of advice: If you suddenly happen upon a eureka moment and find yourself wanting to jump out of the bath to run down the street like Archimedes, don’t forget to grab a robe on the way out.

Read more about the creative process and the power of uncertainty.

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