Edible Clothing

Time for another "What If of the Week." It's a fun, imaginative question. And you think of some of the consequences of such a possibility.


Today's question is:

"What if the use of edible clothing
were widespread in our society?"

What do you think would happen?

Clothing_210_3 Would fashions change as different foods came into season? Would taking someone out to lunch take on new meanings? Would people become more aware of the food they put next to their skin? Would some fruits and vegetables become gender specific? Which ones? What would sports teams (and their fans) wear? What would "high-status" clothes be?

What do you think are the implications (serious, off-beat, social, economic, courtship, religious, and political) of this idea?

For example, Grigor Coric suggests we might end up with: organic clothes, nutritious clothes, diet clothes; freshly fashion and farm fashion; plum, apple and watermelon sizes instead of S, M, L; fridges instead of wardrobes; no ironing; “grow your own clothes” movement.

Shelbey asks: What about a blazer made of Oreos? If so, there'd be plenty of new venues for 'strategic product placement' or whole new forms of advertising. You could have the shirt under the blazer made of the Oreos, and the blazer made of the corresponding wrapper.

And Kris Bordessa adds that edible clothing could mean that we'd never throw away another pair of jeans; we'd just toss them into that night's stew.

See the Big Picture

It's time for some creative inspiration, so let's take a card from the Creative Whack Pack. Today's is "See the Big Picture." Let's see what it says.

See_the_big_picture_260 In 1866 an Iowa farmer watched the construction of the transcontinental railroad near his fields. After seeing the track laid and a locomotive steam through, he thought, "So that's what railroading is all about: tracks and trains."

What didn't he see? That he could get his products to more markets more quickly, and that once there they would have to compete against products from many more places. That people could travel from coast to coast in less than a week. That more ideas would be shared, and that different people would meet and get married.

He saw the steel and the wheels, but he didn't see the consequences.

What are the larger implications of your issue? How does what you're doing fit into the Big Picture?

Donkeys Prefer Garbage to Gold, Part II

In a recent post, I introduced the following enigmatic epigram from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

"Donkeys prefer garbage to gold."

Donkey_right_roger_von_oech Like most of Heraclitus' ideas, this epigram can be understood in a variety of ways. I think the creative strategy here is:

Recognize that things change their value.

Heraclitus is saying is be careful what you strive toward because it just might change its value.

This moral is brought home in a provocative episode of the  early 1960s television series The Twilight Zone, entitled "The Rip Van Winkle Caper."

After robbing a bullion train from Fort Knox, four thieves stow their fortunes in gold bricks in a cave and enter suspended animation for one hundred years, certain that they will evade all pursuit.

When they awaken a century later, they find that their plan has worked perfectly except for one problem: when they try to spend their precious metal, they discover that it doesn't have the value they thought it would.

Because of advances in industrial chemical engineering in the intervening years, gold has become a ubiquitous commodity and is actually worth less than its weight in water.

A few questions to think about:

  • Will what you're striving for still be valuable in the future?
  • Under what circumstances might its value change?
  • Might something you now consider worthless on take on value in the future?

Reverse Living

In a recent post, I shared a TV ad produced by Leo Burnett Italia called "Underwater World" that won the 2007 Clio Grand Prize. While poking around on the net, I discovered another ad also produced by Leo Burnett Italia. It runs forty seconds: check it out.

This is a powerful ad. And I hope its message is heeded by those at whom it is directed.

But it reminded me of what a wonderful mind-opening technique looking at things in a reverse manner can be.

Here is one of my favorite examples of "reverse." I'll quote a section from my book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, called "Reverse Living":

Life is tough. It takes up all your time, all your weekends, and what do you get at the end of it? Death, a great reward. The life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, and get it out of the way. Then you live for twenty years in an old age home, and then get kicked out when you’re too young. You get a gold watch and then you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement.

You go to college and party until you’re ready for high school. Then you go to grade school, you become a little kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating, and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.

What can you look at backwards? How might you see it in a fresh way?

Combine Ideas

Time to reach for another card from the Creative Whack Pack. Today's is: Combine Ideas. Let's see what it says.

Combine_260 "The time has come," the walrus said, "to talk of many things: of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax - of cabbages - and kings." Combining unrelated ideas is at the heart of creative thinking. The ancients mixed soft copper and even softer tin to create hard bronze. Gutenberg combined the wine press and the coin punch to create movable type and the printing press. Joseph Pulitzer added large-scale advertising to high speed printing to create the mass circulation newspaper.
What different ideas can you combine?

Speaking of combining ideas, there is a wonderful set of articles in the current issue of The Economist called "A World of Connections" that discusses some of the interesting possibilities that arise when combining microprocessors and radio technology. If just a bit of this stuff happens in the next few years, it could significantly change the ways in which we think about the objects around us. Check out the above link for more articles on this subject.

Question/Exercise: In my previous post, "Death Notice of an Innovation Metaphor," I asked for new "innovation metaphors" to replace the light bulb. Let's go one step further: What two unrelated ideas can you join together to create a new "creativity symbol"? What two ideas combined say "aha" or "wow!"

Death Notice of An Innovation Metaphor

Light_bulb_240_2Today, I'm announcing the death of a long time metaphor for creativity and innovation: the light bulb.

If you think about it, it's really quite amazing that a 125-year-old invention has had such longevity as a symbol for fresh thinking.

Imagine, for example, if the Long Play (LP) phonograph album (the 33 RPM version popularized in the 1950s) had become the metaphor for "new ideas." It would have been laughed out of existence no later than the early 1980s.

This hit home to me in a recent conversation I had with an art director with one of my publishers. We were reviewing cover mock-ups for one of my upcoming projects. One of them had a light bulb — symbolizing a "new idea."

I told her: "We can't use the light bulb for two reasons. First, it's a very, very, very old metaphor for a new idea. And second, the environmentalists are going to vilify the incandescent light bulb in coming years."

So long, trusty innovation metaphor. You served well! But it's time to find something new.

Question: What are your suggestions for the new creativity metaphor?

My All-Time Favorite Print Ad

The American artist Jasper Johns was once asked what was involved in the creative process: “It’s simple," he replied. "You just take something, and then you do something to it, and then you do something else to it. Keep doing this and pretty soon you’ve got something.”

This idea is reflected in one of my all-time favorite print ads, which was created in the 1960s by Charles Piccirillo to promote National Library Week. The headline consisted of the alphabet in lower case letters like so:


It was followed by this copy:

“At your local library they have these arranged in ways that can make you cry giggle, love, hate, wonder, ponder, and understand.

It’s astonishing to see what these twenty-six little marks can do. In Shakespeare’s hands they became Hamlet. Mark Twain wound them into Huckleberry Finn. James Joyce twisted them into Ulysses. Gibbon pounded them into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. John Milton shaped them into Paradise Lost.”

The ad went to to extol the virtues of reading and mention that good books are available at your library. There are several messages here, but to me the most important is that that creative ideas come from manipulating your resources ­— no matter how few and simple they are.

With this outlook, we try different approaches, first one, then another, often not getting anywhere. So, what we’re talking about is attitude of experimenting and trying different approaches, first one  and then another. You rearrange things and turn them upside down. You may ask some “what if?” questions and look for hidden analogies. You might even challenge the rules. And, as a result of this playing around, you just might come up with a workable new idea.

Question: What basic resources at your disposal can you manipulate into something new?

Think Like A Fool

It's that time of year again! And it's time for one of my very favorite creative thinking strategies:

Think Like A Fool
Image from the Creative Whack Pack

Carrying the strategy of "looking at things differently" to extremes brings us to the realm of the fool, the being for whom everyday ways of understanding have little meaning.

It's the fool's job to extol the trivial, trifle with the exalted, and parody the common perception of a situation. In doing so, the fool makes us conscious of the habits we take for granted and rarely question. A good fool needs to be part actor and part poet, part philosopher and part psychologist.

And throughout history, the fool has been consulted by Egyptian pharaohs and Babylonian kings, Chinese emperors, Greeks tyrants, and Hopi Indian chiefs.

The fool will reverse our standard assumptions. He'll say, "If a man is sitting on a horse facing the rear, why do we assume that it is the man who is backwards, and not the horse?"

The fool notices things that other people overlook. He might ask, "Why do people who pour cream into their coffee do so after the coffee is already in the cup, rather than pouring the cream in first and saving themselves the trouble of stirring?"

The fool can also be irreverent. He'll pose riddles such as,

"What does a rich man put in his pocket that the poor man throws away?" When he answers, "Snot," he forces us to re-examine the sanctity of our everyday rituals.

The fool can be cryptic. He'll say the best way to see something is with your ears. Initially, this may seem weird, but after you've thought about it, you might agree that listening to a story conjures up more images than watching television.

The fool can be absurd. Having lost his donkey, a fool got down on his knees and began thanking God. A passerby saw him and asked, "Your donkey is missing; why are you thanking God?" The fool replied, "I'm thanking Him for seeing to it that I wasn't riding him at the time. Otherwise, I would be missing as well."

The fool will take the contrary position in most conversations. Whereas many people would agree that, "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well," The fool might say,

"You don't have to do things well! Indeed, it's okay to do them poorly; otherwise you'll never let yourself be a beginner at a new activity."

The great benefit of the fool's antics and observations is that they stimulate our thinking. They jolt us in the same way that a splash of cold water awakens us when we are drowsy.

Question: Where has "thinking like a fool" helped you look at a problem in a helpful way?

©Roger von Oech


Let's check in with Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher whom I consider to be the world's first creativity teacher. His thought for today is:

"The sun is new each day."

Like just about all of Heraclitus' insights, this one can be interpreted in a variety of ways. But today, the creativity strategy I see in his words is:


The act of forgiving can help us let go of past assumptions and also open our minds up to new possibilities. Here's an historical example.

After World War I, the victorious countries, still smarting from their huge financial outlays, demanded reparations from Germany. This was the most costly political decision of the entire World War I era. It undermined Germany's enfeebled economic political system, and fostered the conditions that led to the rise of Hitler.

A generation later, after World War II, Europe again faced economic and political chaos. But instead of demanding reparations from the vanquished Axis powers, the Allies took the opposite approach. Through its massive Marshall Plan aid, the United States helped to build much of the continent's infrastructure, including Germany's.

In doing so, it created conditions that encouraged economic health and political stability. By not perpetuating past grievances, they broke the cycle of war and poverty that had cost the world tens of millions of lives in the first half of the twentieth century.

Question: What can you forgive in a current problem or situation? What new assumptions can you bring into play? What solutions does that now make possible?


Think Like A Kid

Let's pick a card from the Creative Whack Pack. Here goes. It's "Think Like A Kid," one of my favorites. And timely as well! As you read this, think about how this creative strategy applies to a current problem or issue.

Think_like_a_kid_260 A high school teacher drew a dot on the blackboard and asked the class what it was. "A chalk dot on the blackboard," was the only response. "I'm surprised at you," the teacher said. "I did this exercise with a group of kindergartners and they thought of fifty different things it could be: an owl's eye, a squashed bug, a cow's head. They had their imaginations in high gear." As Picasso put it, "Every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain an artist after you grow up." What are the first things a kid would say about your problem?

If a kid were looking at your problem, and asked you the following questions, how would you (thinking like a kid) respond?

How can you be more playful in how you think about it? • What's really fun about your problem? What's not fun?
• What doesn't make sense?
 What new rules you can make up?
What imaginary friend you should have to help you with this problem?
• If your problem or issue were a game, how do you score points? What rules do you need to follow? What constitutes a brilliant play? What puts you in the record books?
What gets you kicked out? What receives a standing ovation from the fans?
What do you have to do to get booed? Do you care?

Question: Where are your opportunities to "think like a kid" today?

Reading Books or Twittering: Which Stimulates Your Creativity (More)?

This is how our "exchange program" got its start.

Piano_tunerIn a recent conversation with designer David Armano, I asked him how many books he'd read in the past year. "Only a few. I've got too many demands on my time." Among these demands is mastering the various Web 2.0 tools that stimulate conversation such as Twitter.

I told David that he's wasting his time with Twitter. I said, "I've got enough going on with my own innocuous thoughts let alone a lot of other people's inanity."

I continued, "I'm trying to improve my attention span. If you want to create anything worthwhile, you need the ability to focus on what you're doing for a period of time."

David countered saying something to the effect that Twitter is right on the edge of . . . well, something, and he wants to be there to see it. He also mentioned that I was being too narrowed-minded.

I said to him, "Reading — especially fiction — gives you a much better sense of 'story' and 'narrative.' These are important aspects of the design process. You are short-changing yourself by not reading more books."

So we decided to have a "Digital-Analog Exchange Program."

Each of us assigned the other a task for the following week. Then we'll compare notes to see what each of us has learned.

Twitter David assigned me to join Twitter (which I have). Go here if you'd like to be my Twitter Friend. As I write this, Paul, David, Gavin, Liz, Ann M., and Drew are my Twitter Friends.

I assigned David to read a novel. I thought about Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (which I adored), but at 1,000 pages I thought it might be a little much. So, I picked The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, which I read before I went to Burma last year. This is from Publisher's Weekly:

Edgar Drake lives a quiet life in late 19th-century London as a tuner of rare pianos. When he's summoned to Burma to repair the instrument of an eccentric major, Anthony Carroll, Edgar bids his wife good-bye and begins the months-long journey east. The first half of the book details his trip. Edgar then meets the unconventional Carroll, who has built a paradise of sorts in the Burmese jungle. Edgar ably tunes the piano, but this turns out to be the least of his duties, as Carroll seeks his services on a mission to make peace between the British and the local Shan people. During his stay at Carroll's camp, Edgar falls for a local beauty, learns to appreciate the magnificence of Burma's landscape and customs and realizes the absurdity of the war between the British and the Burmese.

I think David is getting the better end of the deal: he's going to enter the world of faraway, long-ago Burma. And I'm going to Twitter! I will keep an open mind.

Question: Who is getting the better end of this exchange? What kind of exchange programs would you recommend?

The Origami Art of Robert Lang

Mt_diablo_spider_258 I just finished a wonderful profile of physicist turned professional origami artist Robert Lang. (It appeared as the "The Origami Lab" by Susan Orlean in the February 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker.)

Shown at left is Lang's origami piece called "Mt. Diablo Spider," made from one uncut 7" square piece of paper. Amazing. The crease and fold pattern Lang meticulously designed to make this shape is shown below.

Lang has a master's in electrical engineering from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Caltech in applied physics, and also holds 80 patents. But seven years ago, he left his profession to devote himself full-time to his life long passion, origami.

To view some of Lang's origami art constructions, go to his website. Many of these are available for sale. There is also a discussion about the science and mathematics involved in origami.

I'm a big advocate of taking expertise from one field and applying it to another. On this score, Lang does not disappoint; he still does some part-time consulting for industry. But Lang's current assignments involve "folding" and packaging rather than physics.

Scaled_koi According to Orlean, "One medical manufacturer hired him to figure out how to fold a heart implant — a mesh heart support system for people with congestive heart failure — so that it was compact enough to be implanted via a skinny tube but, when released from the tube, would unfurl properly around the heart." A recent project had Lang working on a similar problem: compactly folding a telescope with a 100 meter diameter lens into a shape small enough so that it could be packed into a rocket and sent into space.

Question: Think of one of your hobbies or side interests. What skills or knowledge from it can you apply to a current problem? What do you discover?


Ask "Why?"

Let's check in with the Creative Whack Pack for some inspiration. Here goes. It's card #2: "Ask Why?" Let's see what it says.

Ask_why_260 Leonardo da Vinci: "I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells exist on the tops of mountains along with imprints of plants usually found in the sea. Why thunder lasts longer than that which causes it. How circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone. And how a bird suspends itself in the air. Questions like these engaged my thought throughout my life."

Curiosity is wonderful! It jump starts the creative process. It makes us ask questions. It encourages us to go beyond current right answers. It makes us become explorers.

These are the things I'm curious about today.

• Why was Jack Nicholson's best period of work done from 1973-1976? (The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Missouri Breaks)

• Why do adults (over 25) use Twitter? (Personally, I have enough on my hands with my own innocuous thoughts. Also, I'm trying to strengthen my ability to concentrate and not be distracted. I think anyone who is trying to get something done would try to do the same. Why use yet another technology that runs counter to that?)

• Why does the moon appear much larger when it's on the horizon than when it's overhead?

• Why do women put up with men?

• Why does the "Letters to the Editor" section of the New York Times read like the "comments" section of DailyKos?

• Why is that sometimes we'll spend a lot of thought and time on a post and receive one comment, and sometimes we'll take five minutes to throw something out and end up generating a lot of conversation?

• Why, if we call oranges "oranges," don't we call bananas "yellows," or apples "reds"?

[As you can see, I'm not in Leonardo's league, but these should get me through the morning.]

What are you curious about? Why?

What Makes David Armano Tick?

This is my 100th Post! To celebrate this rite of passage, I interviewed David Armano, creator of the very popular Logic + Emotion blog, to find out what makes him tick. 

David_armano_photo David is my "blogfather." Here's the background: In September, 2006, I saw his name mentioned in BusinessWeek as a rising opinion-maker. I called him out of the blue and we chatted for twenty minutes. He made blogging sound so easy and fun that he motivated me to do it myself. He's given me a lot of pointers ("go comment on other blogs . . . do it now and do it often"), introductions (Mack Collier, Paul McEnany, Ann Handley), and advice ("as much as you like serif fonts in print, sans serif is easier to read on-line"). Since then, we've become friends and typically talk on the phone every other week to share stories and opinions. I'm delighted that my 100th post features David! I hope you enjoy this Q & A.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

RvO: You went to Pratt ('95). What design lessons did you learn there?

Bathroom_person_173 DA: I had great teachers, and they made me bring my “A-game” to class. Students competed with each other for the praise of our fickle instructors. If you put something on the wall that was crap — it was called crap and you were encouraged to do better. This experience helped me to develop a thick skin and take criticism. I also learned how beneficial (and fun) healthy competition can be. More professional environments should be like this. From this experience I developed my design mantra which borrows from Pratt's motto: “Be true to your work and your work will be true to you.”

RvO: What do you wish you'd done differently at Pratt?

DA: My major was Computer Graphics.  Computer aided design was pretty new back in the early 90s and while I got a lot out of some interesting computer animation classes, the desktop publishing classes were a snoozefest. We learned to use stuff like Quark and Illustrator. Big deal! At first I thought this would give me an edge since many designers didn’t know these programs — but I would have been better off taking more traditional design classes and learning the technology on my own.  That said, my overall experience there was fantastic

RvO: What jobs have you had since Pratt?

DA: My first job was a graphic designer for Columbia House.  I designed spreads for their alternative music catalogs. From there I moved into broadcast design and helped Fox News Channel launch the network back in ‘96. I moved to Chicago in ‘97 and cut my teeth in the interactive space doing what we called “interactive storytelling” at the Chicago Tribune. I then decided to go agency side in 1999 leading up the interactive deparment for a small ad agency. In 2000 I moved to where I made my home for nearly six years doing all things Web. I came to Digitas in October of 2005 and started my blog in February of 2006.

RvO: You’re a VP at Digitas. What do they do?

DA: Digitas is a digital marketing agency.  We create what we call “active branding” which means that we believe in experiencing a brand vs. passively receiving marketing messages. It’s a combination of art and science, mixing insight, creativity, technology, and analytics.

Here’s a metaphor: if Digitas were a kid in high school, it would be the kid in class who was both kind of geeky yet cool at the same time.  And I would be the guy sitting next to him poking fun at him — but secretly wanting to be him.

RvO: You manage creatives. What are your specific techniques for getting them to 1) do really good work that 2) pleases the client, and 3) meets the deadline.

Bathroon_people_264 DA: I view my role as a “persuader.” I can’t force my teams to do great work. I also can’t force clients accept our ideas and executions at face value. I need to convince my teams and clients that pursuing the right kinds of solutions is a worthy effort.

Sometimes I succeed and sometimes it’s not that simple.  But my secret weapon is being hyper-engaged at the “defining moments” in a project.  There are times when the client or someone on my team is willing to settle for “just OK.”  This is where I’ll kick in high gear.  I make the case for “more than OK”.  I’ll do whatever it takes — searching for examples to aspire to, telling stories or using metaphors to get everyone on the same page.  But I don’t make the horse drink—I can only lead them to the water as best I can.  As far as deadlines — they are a simple fact in this business.  I’ve never not met a deadline and I encourage my teams not to over think or “overcook” their work.

RvO: What are you really good at in your job?

DA: I once received an endorsement from a peer which said that my energy is both “boundless and contagious.” I think I’m good at keeping my teams motivated. I challenge my teams, and I also expect them to challenge me.  If someone on my team feels strongly about something — I’ll expect them to “sell” me on why we should do it.  But in a nutshell, I think I’m good at taking an idea and seeing in through to something tangible.  Whether it’s a site that goes live or conceptual prototype—I enjoy “making things.” I can’t do this alone, and this is why team dynamics are so important.

RvO: What are the two biggest mistakes you’ve made in your profession?

DA: Not giving my teams enough “space,” and not managing peer relationships effectively. An effective creative director should excel as a facilitator.  I wasn’t very good at this early on in my career and I’ve had to work on it. The mistake I made was using my teams as a production crew to execute my own ideas vs. cultivating an environment where they could come up with the idea while I helped refine them.  I’ve learned that though project success is important—it’s also just as important that your team grow during the project.

I have a better track record of managing both down and up vs. sideways. However, if you want to have influence your organization, you need to manage at all three levels.  I’ve learned this throughout my career, but still find it doesn’t come naturally for me.  So it’s a work in progress.

RvO: Let’s suppose Digitas says, “David, we’ll pay you to take off two months to write a 200 page book about marketing, creativity, and new media.” What would your “take” be?

DA: The title of my book would be: “The Relationship Renaissance: How design, social media and technology have created an explosion in creativity, and communication.” And the premise:

Some have called it a revolution. Others evolution. But are we really living in an age of digitally fueled invention and re-discovery?  Enabled by technology, architected through experience and supported with an “open source” thought democracy—we are living in a relationship renaissance which is forcing us to re-think the definition of brands, marketing and how we think about “consumers.”

RvO: You recently celebrated your one year anniversary as a blogger. How has blogging changed how you design, both for the better, and also for the worse?

Book_208DA: Without hesitation, blogging has made me better at what I do. It keeps me informed, and helps me validate ideas. I’ve used the blog several times this way and what it does is force you out of your personal mental limitations.  The key however, is to have a qualified “following” on your blog.  I’m fortunate to have access to people like you who follow Logic + Emotion.  You make what I do better, and this is the key.  It’s also why comments are so critical. It’s not about turning them on or off—it’s about cultivating, facilitating and sharing ideas.  Doing this on my blog has also helped me be a better creative director.  That’s what direction is ultimately—it’s facilitating.

Now, here’s the dark side of blogging — and I’m only speaking for myself here —but I have a hunch some of you may relate.  Having a successful blog can turn into a “soft addiction.” You begin to crave the intellectual stimulation.  It can tempt you to throw your priorities out of whack. You get a thought provoking comment and your mental gears go into overdrive.  My head is not naturally wired this way — to always be thinking.  I need to give it rest.  I need to be with my family and not be thinking about what someone just said about something I wrote.  Like any good thing in life, blogging can have a downside if discipline is not applied to it.  I’m working my way through this and trying to strike a healthy balance.  I’m not too far off —but I think the more I get the hang of it, the better I get.  Boundries are good — we need them.

RvO: What blogs do you read?

DA: In total I probably follow about 75 blogs more or less. And While I have a great deal of admiration for bloggers like Kathy Sierra, Guy Kawasaki and Steve Rubel — I find that I visit blogs like Hee Haw Marketing, Servant of Chaos, Experience Curve, Nussbaum on Design, Organic’s Three Minds, The Viral Garden, and Creative Think on a more regular basis.  It’s really hard to narrow down blogs to a few favorites — you can also see my blogroll for an extended list of what I like.

RvO: What will social media tools be like in 2012?

DA: In 2012 there will be mobile devices that support most any kind of digital social interaction we can think of including audio and video.  We’ll be able to instantly connect with each other in ways that move well beyond text or audio.  But this connectivity will have a price—some of us will be having conversations of our choosing when we really need to be engaged in the here and now.  Come to think of it—I think I just described the present.  So maybe the future is simply more of the present with a few more bells and whistles.

RvO: What’s with those “bathroom people" you use in many of your designs?

Robbery DA: What’s up with those quirky illustrations in your Creative Whack Pack?  Seriously, the “bathroom people” stem from the original Olympic symbols done in the 60’s-70’s.  What I like about them is that they're a symbol of my philosophy which is to make complex things simple.  What’s more complex than a human being and what’s more simple than a basic, flat icon of one?

I’ve also been a fan of information design for a while, keeping an eye on the masters such a Tufte.  I worked as a broadcast designer for Fox News and also as an interactive designer for the Chicago Tribune.  Both positions required the simplification of information in visual communication.  I also do this at Digitas with the help of my teams.  We create “artifacts” such as personas and customer lifecycles which really help bring our clients along to making better decisions.  All of these activities include iconography and information design—or in other words, making the complex simple.

RvO: You were a wrestler in high school. What lessons did you pick there that you can apply to design?

David_arnoldo_2 DA: What wrestling taught me most was that you could win if you had heart.  And even if you didn’t win—if you gave it your all, you could walk away feeling good about yourself.  I once made it to the second round of a tournament once after pinning my first opponent. My second opponent was better and stronger than me. I went at him hard and he came back harder. He elbowed me square in the eye and nearly knocked me out. I lost the match but fought like hell not to get pinned. I will never forget what my coach said to the team the very next day: “Armano went out there and busted his ass . . . and his eye!” I approach my work in the same way I approached wrestling. I’m not a naturally gifted designer or anything.  I’ve worked really hard and put my heart into it—even when taking elbows to the face along the way.

RvO: I’m really lucky because ___________!

Duckwhacks_1 DA: I have a wife who puts up with me and has enough energy to stay at home with two active boys. I live in a city with a gorgeous waterfront and good laid back people. I’m privileged to work in a profession that I actually enjoy. And, I’ve always wanted to be a Superhero, and my kids think I am one. [Note: Duck/Whacks sculpture at left by six-year-old Max Armano.]

RvO: Thanks for your time and ideas!

DA: It was my pleasure! Happy 100th!

Be Willing to Be Led Astray

It's been a while since we've checked in with Heraclitus (the ancient Greek philosopher whom I consider to be the word's first world's first creativity teacher). Let's do so now and see what advice he can offer us. His words for today are:

“Expect the unexpected,
or you won’t find it.”

As always, Heraclitus can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The creativity strategy I see here is:

“Be willing to be led astray.”

When we explore for ideas and information, sometimes we find things that are better or more exciting than what we were originally looking for. Thus, we need to keep our minds open to unsought-for possibilities.


For example, in the 1930s physicist Karl Jansky improvised a new antenna to study the effects of telephone static. Instead, he discovered radio waves from the Milky Way galaxy, and in the process helped create the science of radioastronomy.

In 1856, chemist William Perkin searched for a synthetic quinine to combat malaria. Instead, he discovered a dyestuff (he called it “Mauveline,” which the public shortened to “mauve”) that was the first practical synthetic color.

In 1984, biologist Alex Jeffreys studied the gene for the muscle protein myloglobin, hoping to gain an understanding of how genes evolve. Instead, he stumbled on a stretch of DNA in the middle of that gene that varied greatly from one individual to another. This led to his pioneering work in the creation of “DNA fingerprinting,” which has revolutionized not only forensic science but also other disciplines such as anthropology and epidemiology.

Think of the times in your own life when one thing has led to something entirely different. How did you get interested in your line of work? How about the times you’ve gone to the library in search of a particular book, and then found something even better on the shelf behind you?

As writer Franklin Adams put it,

“I find that a great part of the information
I have was acquired by looking up something
and finding something else on the way.”

Here's my question for you: What mindset do you adopt when you want to see and take advantage of the unexpected?

This is what I do (sometimes it works fine, and sometimes less so):

  1. I try to loosen my preconceptions about what I expect to find in a situation;
  2. I pay special attention to the anomalous things I come upon rather than ignoring them; and,
  3. I try to use what I discover as stepping stones to something very different.

When I’m in a hurry or narrowly focused on a task, I have a hard time adopting this mindset. That's because I tend to filter out information that strikes me as irrelevant. Conversely, when I’m relaxed or playful, there’s a greater probability that unexpected things flow my way.

What works for you?

Give Me Some Space (Between Words)

Sometimes just the smallest little change to an existing way of doing things can have enormous — and unexpected — positive consequences. Here's one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon.

One of the most significant but unheralded communications developments of the past 1,500 years is the adoption of spaces between words.

Notice the words you’re currently reading. They are separated by spaces, written in lower case letters, and easy to read. Prior to approximately the eighth century AD, however, Latin and Greek were written in capital letters in a “run on” fashion — that is, without spaces between the words. Here’s an example:


As you can see, this type of writing slows you down. In ancient times, though, Latin and Greek texts were almost always read out loud. (This method is known as “reading by ear.”) Ancient readers, sufficiently familiar with their own language, easily identified words by sound instead of sight, and had little difficulty. Thus, word-separating spaces were considered unnecessary.

Such familiarity wasn’t the case in later times. Eighth century AD priests, living at the periphery of the former Roman Empire, had a weaker grasp of Latin, and so couldn’t always determine where one word ended and the next one began when reading Mass. The priests solved this problem by inserting spaces between the words to serve as a recognition aid.

Over time, the addition of the spaces created an unexpected benefit: faster reading. That’s because if you can see the beginning and ending of a word, you'll recognize it more quickly; moreover, the brain can sight-read words in much less time than it takes to speak and hear them. By the twelfth century, most of the literate world had adopted spaces, and sight-reading became widespread.

Question to think about: Think of a current project you're working on. What can you do (in this project) that would be the equivalent of adding spaces? How might that make it better?

Tribute to Vowels: The Greatest "What If" Ever?

In my opinion, one of the most important “what if” questions ever asked was posed in the eighth century BC by an anonymous Greek scribe looking for ways to improve the reading process.


A little background: at that time, the Greek alphabet — like previous alphabets such as the Phoenician (on which the Greek one was based) and the Hebrew — consisted only of consonants, no vowels. This writing system made reading a slow and imprecise process. To understand a word, the reader had to guess the missing vowel sounds between consonants to correctly grasp the meaning.

For example, a modern English equivalent might be, what does this two-consonant word stand for?


Does it stand for “bad”? How about “bed,” “bid,” “bod,” “bud,” or even “abide”? As with most other cognitive activities, context and experience would be the guides to interpretation.

Much of creative thinking involves looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different. And that’s what this innovative scribe did. As he pondered the alphabet before him, the “what if” question he must have asked himself was,

“What if I looked at these symbols in a different way, and let some of the letters represent the vowels we actually speak rather than just consonants? What would be possible?”

The eventual result was the creation of seven written vowels  (alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, and omega, shown above). By combining these with existing consonants, he — and the other scribes of the period who contributed to and adopted this convention —

created the first fully phonetic alphabet.

This is a truly powerful invention! A fully phonetic alphabet — that is, one capable of expressing all the spoken sounds in a language — enabled writers to translate spoken words into written words, and readers to do the opposite. The fact that children could easily learn this new system certainly contributed to its success. Thus, with the addition of vowels, these early Greeks both simplified and gave new power to writing and reading. Considering the importance of language to our thinking processes, it is difficult to understate the significance of this development.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Think vowels are amazing, but there's something even better? I'd love to hear your nomination for the greatest "What If?" question ever asked.

The Water Model of Finance

Here's something fun. Check out these terms:

Flood the Market       Laundered Money      Liquid Assets       Solvency      Deposits      Slush Fund      Pump Money In     Frozen Assets      Float A Loan      Bank      Currency      Take A Bath      Cash Flow      Washed Up      Sinking Fund      Capital Drain      Underwater Pricing

Notice anything?

Our language is quite metaphorical, so much so that often we don’t realize it. One example is the metaphor used by some teachers who view their work as though they were horticulturalists. They talk about their students’ basic ability to learn as the “seed” and their role is to provide the right "soil” and “sunlight” for their “growth.” Some students are “potbound,” while others “flower” and reach “fruition.” Some students need a “hothouse” to develop, while others could prosper in a “desert.”

My favorite example of this phenomenon is the language used by financial people. Whenever I do any work with bankers or accountants, they talk about what they do as though they were plumbers. And no wonder! The metaphor they use to describe their work is what I call

“The Water Model of Finance”


Feel free to share some of your favorite metaphors!

Be Like Janus: "Think Something Different"

Janus_1 So here we are in January, named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, who in their mythology was the god of gates and doors, and beginnings and endings.

I  believe that Janus's double-faced nature also symbolizes much of what goes on when we engage in creative thinking, that is, seeing something in more than one way. I love how the Nobel prize winning physician Albert Szent-Gyorgyi describes creative discovery:

Discovery consists of looking at
the same thing as everyone else
and thinking something different.

When we tap into our "Janus-like" powers, it's as though we use one head to "look at the same thing as everyone else," and the other head to be creative and "think something different."

When we think like Janus, we take something out of a familiar context and then think about it in other contexts so that it takes on fresh new meanings. Human beings have been using their imaginations in this way since the beginning.

  • The first person to look at an oyster and think "food" did this.
  • So did the first person to look at a ship's sail and think "windmill."
  • As did the first person to look at sheep intestines and think "guitar strings."
  • And the first person to look at a perfume vaporizer and think "gasoline carburetor."
  • And the first person to look at baby's urea and think "skin moisturizer."
  • And the first person to look at a trapeze safety net and think "trampoline."

Do you have these Janus-like powers? Well, if you've ever used a pen as a weapon, or a potato as a radio antenna, or a T-shirt as a tourniquet, or a telephone book as a booster seat, then the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

So, this month, every time you see or hear the word "January," think to yourself:

"Oh yes, Janus — that's my cue to use my
imagination and think something different."

Have a good month!

My Favorite New Year's Eve Story

Russian_guy Not long ago, I read about a group of Russian immigrants in Los Angeles who have the tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve on the afternoon of December 30th. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times heard about this and, thinking that there was a story there, went out to interview them.

“Why are you celebrating the new year thirty-six hours before everyone else?” she asked.

One of them, a man in his late sixties, responded, “When we were growing up in the Soviet Union forty years ago, we were very poor, and we found that it was a lot cheaper to get a band on December 30th. That’s how the tradition started.”

The curious thing is that most of these people are now well off — they've prospered in America. They could easily afford lavish entertainment on New Year’s Eve, and yet they still celebrate it on the previous afternoon.

I think we've all experienced this phenomenon many times.

  1. We make rules based on reasons that make a lot of sense.
  2. We follow these rules.
  3. Time passes, and things change.
  4. The original reasons for the generation of these rules may no longer exist, but because the rules are still in place, we continue to follow them.

Almost every organization I’ve ever worked with — including my own — has some of this mentality of celebrating New Year’s Eve early for an obsolete reason.

I think this story highlights an important aspect of innovation:

Creative thinking means not only generating new ideas;
it also means escaping from obsolete ones as well.

Walk the Labyrinth with Jonny Baker

Johnny Baker : "My job is to give the church a whack on the side of the head."


[Above Photo: Remove shoes before entering the labyrinth.] 

A great joy of "working the web" is discovering (or being discovered by) someone in quite a different realm who shares some similar interests. This has happened to me in the past month with Englishman Jonny Baker.

Jonnybaker2Jonny found this blog last month through a post I did on Heraclitus, and made a link on his blog to my site. When I noticed a huge amount traffic coming from this link (from Jonny's many, many fans), I went to Jonny's blog and discovered a fascinating man. Since then, we've been emailing one another.

Jonny describes himself as "a spiritual creative helping re-imagine worship, faith and community in postmodern and emerging cultures." Put another way, he says, "my job is to give the church a whack on the side of the head."

Jonny is a wonderfully curious mixture of talents, passions, and interests:

  • BSc in Statistics and MA in Applied Theology from University of London;
  • Independent record producer (Proost) and father of two "amazing" sons;
  • A lover of Belgian beer and coordinator of worship at Greenbelt Arts festival;
  • Author of Alternative Worship  and lover of Chelsea football.

The following is from an email interview I did with Jonny.

Roger: Your faith seems quite important to you. I get the sense that you are using your creative abilities to shape and discover alternative forms of worship. Correct?

Jonny: Yes, faith is important to me. I am inspired by and try to follow in the way of Jesus Christ (who got killed for his attempts to creatively whack the religious understandings of his day).

I believe that God is the ultimate artist. Like a lot of people at the moment I find a big disconnect between faith and church.

Attending church can be like visiting another planet. You live your everyday life six days a week and then Sunday morning enter another world at church, and then go back to the real world. I'm generalising, of course, and there are creative exceptions. But alternative worship was a creative movement in the UK that was begun by people saying "what if" we created worship that related to that real world.

Roger: What happened?

Jonny: The results were a breath of fresh air - culture, theology, music, artistry, all remaking the world. I have been a part of this movement and involved in a community of Grace that has been an amazingly creative group to be part of.


If your readers are interested in finding out more is a good hub, though my favourite is probably which is a photo site run by a friend Steve Collins who has taken photos of lots of alternative worship gatherings over the years.

Roger: Tell me about the labyrinth.

Jonny: The labyrinth that you refer to in your title was one of the creative ideas that we came up with along the way that has had an amazing journey. This took the old idea of walking a labyrinth and gave it some contemporary twists.

It's like an art installation meets a spiritual journey which you are guided through by listening to a series of meditations and music. The response to it has been overwhelming in many countries round the world.

Roger: Is there an on-line version of the labyrinth?

Jonny: Another creative guy who always inspires me is Bruce Stanley.  He designed an online version that's fun - see  Your readers should check it out!

Roger: What about youth groups?

Jonny: I've worked with young people for years but not so much now. The stuff I do in that area is training leaders in creativity and imagination — abilties that are so important in youth work. And conversely young people have so much creativity and energy that they are an inspiration.

Roger: My blog is not a religious blog. But over the years, I have heard from many religious people (clergy, believers, etc.) who like my books and other products.

Jonny: Religion has a great tradition of creative characters — prophets, tricksters, mischief makers, etc — that have remade their traditions so that they live again after they've become deadened. Their strategy is often to take the resources of the tradition itself, the dangerous memories located there as the spark to remake it.

So I'm not surprised you have found fellow travellers from faith communities and equally that they have found your resources an inspiration.

Roger: Any words of wisdom on how to get ideas or boost creativity?

Jonny: The single most important route to being creative is to believe that you are. If you say you're not it will become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Roger: What do you do to stimulate your own creative juices?

Jonny: I live in London — there is so much creativity here.

  • I love talking with and hanging out with creative people - they always spark me. Friends in Grace are one such group for me.
  • I visit art galleries - especially contemporary stuff.
  • I love design/image books.
  • I read a lot.
  • Travel to other cultures and places.
  • One of the strategies that I have embraced from Edward de Bono is what he calls provocations — learning to embrace things that happen to you even when it seems like they are things going wrong and see what creative can emerge as you are knocked off your usual pattern/track.
  • Photography has been my big thing this year. I have loved being part of the flickr community ( - I think the thing I love about photography is that it makes you look at things in a different way when you are looking for a shot to take. It increases awareness.
  • I have two teenage sons — they and their friends are amazingly creative — they spark me in wonderful ways.
  • Attending the Big Chill festival is an annual boost to my creative juices.
  • And taking time out - walking alone, embracing silence often recharges me.

[Photo below by Jonny Baker: Southwark Bridge at Night with dome of St. Paul's in rear]


Roger: What career choice did you have along the way that had you made a different decision, your life would be quite different now?

Jonny: At one stage, I was thinking of being a church leader but they sent me away for a couple of years. I never went back. I think that enabled me to hang around much more on the edges of the institution where I have stayed to provoke and encourage change.

Looking back I think that route gave me space to be creative. If I had gone the more institutional route I wonder what would have happened. I suspect there would be less room to manoeuvre.

Roger: Thanks for your time!

Jonny: Thanks for your interest and inspiration.

Move On

It's time for another dose of creative inspiration from Heraclitus, the ancient Greek Philosopher. (Heraclitus lived around 500 BC, and I consider him to be the world's first creativity teacher.)

Today's epigram to ponder is: “A thing rests by changing.”


What do these words mean to you? How would you apply them to a current problem? Pretty cryptic, huh?

Follow along with me because I believe there's a creative strategy here.

In this paradox, Heraclitus poses the counter-intuitive notion that change is more restful to us than staying still. It is resolved by understanding that Heraclitus believed that everything is continually changing, and that it often takes less energy to move on to the next phase of a process than fighting to stay in the current one.

It's like rowing a boat on a river: it requires more effort to resist the current and remain stationary than it does to go with the flow.

Simply put, the creative strategy Heraclitus is advocating is:

“Move On.”

This is a really valuable piece of advice. In a world that is constantly changing, it's best not to get too locked into how things are now or once were.

Here's a personal benefit: I find that when I allow myself to let go of a cherished position, strategy, or belief — especially one that takes increasingly more energy to hold on to — it's much easier for me to discover new alternatives.

Try applying this strategy to a current project or problem. Ask yourself: "Where would my energy be better focused: on where I've been or on where I'm going? Isn't it time for me to move on to the next phase?"

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Mccabe72_1 Film director Robert Altman died on November 20, 2006.

Earlier this year, I rented and watched about ten Robert Altman films over a two-week period (MASH, "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Nashville," among others).  It was an "Altman Orgy." My clear favorite of all of these was the 1971 "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

I first saw "McCabe" in the early 1970s at a Sunday Night "Flicks" at Stanford along with 1,500 "enthusiastic" students. It's the story about John McCabe, a gambler (Warren Beatty) who goes to a Northwest frontier town to start a brothel. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and convinces him his brothel needs a woman to turn it into a more profitable enterprise. The two build the business into a success. Then the bad guys from a mining company arrive on the scene to buy McCabe out.

When I saw "McCabe" thirty-five years ago, I thought it was hauntingly beautiful. When I watched it again recently, I still agree. It's one of those rare movies you see when you're younger that still holds up today. In fact, I liked it so much I watched it twice — the second time with the Robert Altman commentary running.

One especially interesting point was Altman's comment, "McCabe was the only movie I ever made in which I shot the movie entirely in sequence." (This was because the film had to follow the weather changes from autumn through to winter.) This must have been challenging, but Altman and his team handled it well. (I don't think I've ever created anything from beginning straight through to end. I jump around a lot, and I would imagine most of you do as well. Can you imagine having to execute your next creative project in a linear fashion?)

There are two things I always liked about Altman. First was his working style: he'd have a clear plan of what he wanted to do, but he'd always leave plenty of room for improvisation in the execution of that plan. It was often messy for others, but it gave him the results he was after. (I can identify with that type of creative process.)

And second, fame and glory came relatively late to him — his first feature, MASH, was released when he was 45. Before that, he was making baseball instructional videos, among other things. I think that helped him keep a relative sense of humility in the ego-crazed culture of Hollywood.

What's Your Mantra?

Not that long ago, if you were to ask me what my “mantra” was, I would have thought that you were curious about my meditation practice.

More recently, however, I've heard the term “mantra” used much more in a business context, as in that “guiding principle” which inspires you to do whatever special things you do. In the past I might have called it a "motto," or a "creative strategy," but today: it's a mantra.

Handscandleclean For example, several weeks ago, I watched “Mr. Art of the Start” Guy Kawasaki tell a room full of would-be entrepreneurs, "Forget mission statements — they're worthless; instead create a powerful mantra for yourself."

And several days ago, brand consultant Mike Wagner left a provocative comment on my post “Letter from a Frustrated Taiwanese Student,” telling the student:

My suggestion: find a creative life mantra that will remind you to stay creative. Charlie and Maria Girsch have "what if, what else, why not" as theirs. Walt Disney's was "dare, dream, do." I've adopted the Girsch's as mine for now.

This all got me to thinking, "What's my mantra?" As I reflected on this question, I came to realize that, yes, I do have a mantra, and yes, I've been acting on it for the past thirty or more years. My mantra is:

“Look for the Second Right Answer.”

I find that this strategy informs a lot of what I do.

  • When I'm looking for information, it tells me to go beyond the right answers that have worked in the past and to dig for others.
  • When I'm trying to be creative, it playfully advises me to put my ideas in unusual contexts to give them new meanings.
  • When I'm evaluating concepts, it implores me not to get stuck in the negative and to not fall in love with one particular approach.
  • And, when I'm implementing ideas, it reminds me that if one way doesn't work, a different one just might and to act accordingly.

So, all in all, it seems to be a good working mantra (for me, at least). I think I'll keep it for a while longer (of course, I could always use a "second right mantra").

Here's my question for you: What's your mantra? How does it inform your thinking and your actions? I'd love to hear what's worked for you!

Update from Joey (Taiwanese Student)

Here's an update from Joey Ting, the Taiwanese high student school I wrote about several days ago in the post "Letter from a Frustrated Taiwanese Student." Many of you wrote in your suggestions, and this what Joey has to say (very lightly edited for clarity).

Thanks guys.

I'm appreciated that I received so much comments, about blogging, photoing and painting. I actually had a blog (in Chinese sorry) long time ago, which is truly good for my creation, as well photoing- most of the Taiwanese students are having photophone, so i can often grab the image funny or full of edification home, maybe some of them will inspire me in near future.

Painting, ha I have drawing tiny people doing things in different posture since I'm in elementary school(of course teacher don't like what I'm doing), and that's also why I still keep textbook I used when I'm young.

And also i heard some advice like choosing creative programme in school, but sadly we cant choose what to study here in Taiwan (shock, aren't you?) so here i read, heeh, i learn things by outclass reading.

By the way, i WILL keep my offbeat sense of humor, hahaha.

On the other hand I'm glad to found there ARE opposite voices here, that make me so respect this place, only I can do is expecting to meet a boss that knows grade means not everything.

Frankly Taiwanese education IS improving, slowly but improving, as the [older] films I see ordinary Taiwanese students just remember WITHOUT knowing what they are remembering. Awful!  I'm lucky that [I was] not born at that time, though I'm not THAT lucky 'cause I born in THIS time. I hope young "whackers" in Asia could lead their children in better path then mine, I hope.

Joey Ting

Good luck to you, Joey. You show a lot of wisdom and perspective for your age.

Thanks also to all of you who shared your advice and comments.

Letter from a Frustrated Taiwanese Student

A recent article in the New York Times bemoans test scores by American students in mathematics. One country whose students typically do a lot better in standardized math exams is Taiwan. What kind of thinking is cultivated there?

Let's take a quick look (a sample of one). I received the following email from a Taiwanese high school student earlier in the week.


I'm a student who just read the book A Whack On The Side Of The Head. I'm really impressed about book and admire the writer, so here I e-mail you!

I'm a 17-year-old-high-school-boy, who likes to think and be creative (I don't memorize then recite). I used to invent things, the most memorable one was Nano High Technology Manual Air Conditioner. I'm not the "GEEnius" you imagine. NHTMWC is nothing but a plastic paper holding on a long ruler with a long yarn. It was a hot summer, and my arm was tired of swinging plastic paper to cool me down, so there's the WHACK, after that I only have to move my finger that tie the line, and the wind was even stronger than swinging it by hand.

Sounds cool huh? Wanna buy one for your children? But here comes a BUT. BUT, I'm a 17-year-old-high-school-boy WHO LIVING IN TAIWAN. Have you heard of Taiwan? Normal students here only memorize the texts, then take the exam, and memorize texts for next exam, guess what, later my poor NHTMWC was removed by my teacher. . . . This country IS sooo serious,

That's why I e-mail you, as your book says, I am explorer, artist, judge, but no warrior (I'm not sure if it is right 'cause mine is Chinese version).

I wanna be but i CANT be! I believe I'm creative and have been given the talent to create, but I'm afraid. . . . It's big pressure because designers have hard time to live in this country, especially when they are young.

It's midnight here now, so I guess this is the end of letter, I hope I can share more next time, there might be some mistake in my letter, but....... who care? Rules are born to be break, isn't it?


Joey T.

I think Joey is probably experiencing what a lot of East Asian students experience: the frustration of competing for university slots that are awarded on the basis of how well they do on the standardized tests. Whatever creativity you have can be easily snuffed out if you spend most of your time memorizing facts and spitting them back out on exams.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not advocating abandonment of basic skills; it is, after all, difficult to become an effective mechanical engineer if you don't master mathematics, physics, etc. But if you want to be innovative, it's important to cultivate a type of thinking in which you imagine unorthodox uses and applications for the facts you do know -- and then turning these into practical new ideas.

This is Big Picture stuff:
in a world that is
continually changing,
being creative gives one an
important competitive advantage.

My advice to Joey is:

  • Do what you can to keep your imaginative side alive.
  • Take on creative projects.
  • Seek out the odd teacher or two at your school who can help you keep your creative fire burning.
  • Contact people (as you did me) who can inspire you and give you different perspectives (you are fortunate that you have a great command of English -- you can contact many people around the world on the Internet).
  • Continue to look for the second right answer.
  • Keep your offbeat sense of humor

What advice would you give to Joey?

Also, I know a number of you reading this have some experience with the east Asian educational system: what comments do you have to help them generate more creative people?

Tom Hirshfield's Rules of Thumb

Some years back, I received an unusual letter in the mail. The envelope was wrinkled and the name scribbled in the upper left hand corner was one I didn't recognize: T. Hirshfield.


I opened it, and it turned out to be from a research physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory by the name of Tom Hirshfield. In his friendly, breezy way, Tom told me, among other things, that he enjoyed my writing, and that he also was a "student of how to solve problems effectively."

Tom went on to say, "Here are some rules of thumb that I've personally found useful in my work. Use them as you wish."


Tom Hirshfield's Rules of Thumb

1. If you hit every time, the target's too near -- or too big.

2. Never learn details before deciding on a first approach.

3. Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms as it was brought to you.

4. The second assault on the same problem should come from a totally different direction.

5. If you don't understand a problem, then explain it to an audience and listen to yourself.

6. Don't mind approaches that transform one problem into another, that's a new chance.

7. If it's surprising, it's useful.

8. Studying the inverse problem always helps.

9. Spend a proportion of your time analyzing your work methods.

10. If you don't ask "Why this?" often enough, someone else will ask, "Why you?"


As you can see, these simple and straight-forward "heuristics" show a keen observant mind at work. I've tried to incorporate them into how I approach problems, and feel that I've benefited from their application. Do they ring true for you? Do you have any of your own that you would add to the list?

(I never met Tom, but some months later, I found out from one of his colleagues that Tom was a relatively young man, had contracted a rare form of cancer, and had died shortly thereafter.)

Fun Metaphors of "My Company"

Lightbulb_2 "Doing research here is like playing stud poker. The company will put money into your project just as long as your hand shows promise or the next card doesn't cost too much to buy." —Creative Think seminar participant.

I love metaphors! When they're fresh, they ignite our imaginations and stimulate our creativity. One exercise I do with my workshop participants is have them make metaphors for their companies. I've found that the metaphors this exercise produces give me a lot of insight into the nature and morale of each company. They also provide me with a pretty good sense of how well that company will do in the near term. Here are a few of them. You might even be able to guess their names. As you read along, ask yourself, "What's a good metaphor for my organization?"

 Our company is like a supertanker. It's large and powerful, but moves slowly. Also, once the course is set, it's tough to change.

 Our company is like a winery. We have different products and some vintages are better than others. We also have two kinds of users: on the one hand we have connoisseurs who greatly appreciate what we've done; on the other hand, there are "Ripple drinkers" who take our software and manipulate to their own ends.

 Our company is like the sun shedding light on the computer world.

 Working here is like a nightmare. You'd like to get out of it but you need the sleep.

 Our company is like Peter Pan. It's childlike and wishes to retain the good parts of being a small company even as its grows larger. Being able to fly is a kind of fantasy as is making the best product. Our president is like Tinkerbell -- the spirit and imaginative force of the company. Our chief financial officer is like Wendy -- he's practical, has both feet on the ground, but he's also pulled along in the magic. Our chief competitor is like Captain Hook -- but we'll overcome him with imagination rather than "guns and knives."

 Our company is like a galley ship without a drummer. We've got some people rowing at full beat, some at one-half beat, some at one-quarter beat, and some dead beats. Also, the captain is steering by the wake.

 Our company is like a three-ring circus with marketing, R&D, and manufacturing each trying to occupy the center ring. The president is the ring master. Marketing has the high wire act, R&D has the magic act, and manufacturing are the elephants. Advertising is in charge of tickets sales; customer support are the peanut vendors; the customers are the audience; the field engineers are the clowns between the rings; and the grand finale is when we successfully install a system that works!

 Working here is like urinating in a dark suit. It's warm and it feels good, but it doesn't show.

 Our company is like a maze looking for a mouse.

 Our company is like a giant human body. Administration is the guts. Sales and marketing are the mouth. Corporate management is the mind making decisions. R&D is the reproductive system. And the secretaries and technicians are the skeleton that supports the body.

Here's a challenge to you: What is your company like? What metaphors would you use to describe your organization? By all means, please share!

Be Dissatisfied

Let's see what the Creative Whack Pack holds in store for us today. Let's reach in and draw a card at random. Why, it's card #44, "Be Dissatisfied," which is one of my favorites.

Be_dissatisfiedframe An inventor was asked why he spent sixteen hours every day tinkering with his work. "Because I'm dissatisfied with everything as it currently exists in its present form." Dissatisfaction is beneficial to the creative process. Otherwise you lose the prod you need to spot potential problems and opportunities. What are you dissatisfied about? How can you turn irritation into inspiration?

Maybe I'm "old school," but I think a lot of people don't make changes unless they're really dissatisfied with the way things are. I recently had several exchanges with Nedra Weinrich at Spare Change, (A Social Marketing Site) on the subject of "Do Symbolic Gestures Make A Difference?" She was addressing the issue of becoming aware of various social issues in order to make changes.

But I personally feel (as does Nedra, I think) that awareness is only the beginning of a longer process.

Here's a model I learned about long ago that I have found quite useful. If you want change, first you have to make people AWARE of the problem. Then you have to help them UNDERSTAND why the problem exists. Next comes the tricky phase: You have to lead them to a state of DISSATISFACTION in which they'll consider making some change. And finally comes CREATIVE ACTION. Moving from level to level can be a tough slog, but that's what's necessary if you want to solve some of the appearingly intractable problems.

I'm not sure most people change (start companies, quit bad habits, buy something new) unless they are DISSATISFIED with what they're currently doing. And DISSATISFIED enough to make changes.

The Hand Stimulates the Brain

Whackintoballsmall People often ask me, “How do you get yourself into a creative mood?”

One of my favorite techniques is to take an object about the size of a ball and then play with it. I’ll flip it back and forth from hand to hand. I’ll toss it in the air. I’ll try grasping it in various ways, or let it roll from finger to finger. Sometimes I just hold it, feel its surface, and let it soothe me. Doing this stimulates a different part of my brain, and gets me into a creative frame of mind.

Indeed, some recent studies have shown that activating your basic motor functions can improve mental performance. I read about a particular one that had two similar groups of people take a mental acuity test. Prior to the test, members of the control group sat quietly in a room for twenty minutes. Members of the target group, however, spent the same time in another room cutting skins off apples with sharp knives. Then both groups took the test. The motor skill-activated group — the apple-parers — performed better. One reason is that a considerable portion of the human brain is dedicated to hand-related functions. So, there’s something about getting people’s hands and eyes working together that gets their neurons firing!

For me, the same thing happens when I handle the Ball of Whacks, which is my newest product. It consists of 30 magnetic design blocks that I can manipulate and turn into many different shapes. If you'd like to know more, Here's a one minute video on the Ball of Whacks.

Find A Pattern

Let's suppose that you have problem you're trying to solve or an issue you're exploring, and you want some inspiration. Let's further suppose that you reach for the Creative Whack Pack, and randomly select card #10 which is Find A Pattern, and it reads:

Find_a_pattern_roger_von_oech Poet Alexander Pope: "Order is heav'n's first law." Much of what is called "intelligence" is our ability to recognize this order in the form of patterns. We recognize cycles (plankton yields conform to a strict four year boom-and-bust cycle), sequences (the order in which you put on your clothes), tendencies (cracks in dried mud usually form 120º angles), shapes (the stars that make up the constellation Leo), similarities (stellar galaxies and water emptying in a bath tub spiral in the same way), behaviors (etiquette on a crowded bus), and probabilities (the likelihood of throwing a "seven" at a crap table). What patterns do you detect in your issue?


How do some of the following patterns relate to your problem? Do they trigger any ideas in your situation?

  • There is a tendency for a group, individual, or team to go soft after it has been successful.
  • The amount a person uses his imagination is inversely proportional to the amount of punishment he'll receive for using it.
  • If a swimming pool is comfortable when you dive into it, then it is too warm to do a serious workout in.
  • When a school of fish changes direction, a new fish becomes the leader.
  • Good things tend to happen in pairs.
  • Bad things tend to happen in threes.
  • If you drop a glass on the floor, the largest piece will fly the farthest from point of impact.
  • For maximum lift at takeoff, an airplane flies into the wind.
  • Rewarding a specific behavior encourages it; punishing a specific behavior discourages it.
  • A storm clears the air.
  • If a tree doesn't get its roots deeply into the soil, it will be blown over in a storm.
  • When there is no moon, you can see more stars.
  • If you exercise a muscle, it strengthens; if you don't, the muscle atrophies. "
  • Warm air rises and cool air sinks.
  • The closer an ice skater's arms are to her body, the faster she's able to rotate.
  • If you smile at another person, they'll probably smile back at you.
  • A river with power will create a straight path; a weak river will meander.
  • People remember their first love.
  • The squeeky wheel gets oiled.
  • The nails that sticks up gets hammered down.
  • Even cold water feels warm when your hands are freezing.
  • People tend to treat other people the way they were treated as children.
  • Telephone operators receive most of their crank calls during the full moon.
  • Long wide brush strokes make restful landscapes.

Get Support

This is Card #54 from the Creative Whack Pack:

One reason gypsies have a good health record is the role the family plays in establishing a positive health environment. When a gypsy gets sick, it's common for six or eight others to accompany her to the doctor. Such family participation provides not only a support system for the ill member, it also creates a high expectancy for getting well. Similarly, it's easier to be creative if your environment expects new ideas. What support systems can you create? What resources can you draw upon to help you? Whose support do you need to be successful?

I've been blogging only for a short period, but I'd like to single out one person who has given me both ideas and support as I attempt to learn the ins and outs of this medium. He is David Armano, a Chicago designer who in addition to his daytime duties as creative director at Digitas also publishes Logic + Emotion (he had some nice things to say about the Ball of Whacks).

I was particularly taken by David's recent post that he calls his Manifesto. There are 14 tenets in all, and this is one of my favorites:

Be Both Evangelist and Agnostic.

"Do you believe in something?  Be an advocate for it.  Others will see your passion and know that you have a vested interest in what you do.  But when it comes to using creativity to solve real-world business challenges—be an agnostic.  Throw pre-conceived notions out the window.  Don’t make assumptions and do your best to avoid personal bias.  Innovation comes from seeing the world through the eyes of a child."

Good stuff and worth a "Creative Think Tip of the Hat."

Connect the Unconnected

The following quote is from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (flourished 500 BC), and at the right an interpretation (by me) of this insight.

Connect the Unconnected

I think what Heraclitus means is that making new connections lies at the heart of the creative process.

• Inventors combine components to create new products (Gutenberg joined together the wine press and the coin punch to create moveable type and the printing press).
• Entrepreneurs brings together resources from different arenas to build new businesses (Joseph Pulitzer added large-scale advertising to high speed printing to create the mass circulation newspaper).
• Engineers mix different materials to create new ones (ancient Greek metallurgists alloyed soft copper with even softer tin to produce hard bronze).
• Poets mix unusual images to create provocative metaphors (Luciano de Crescenzo, "We are all angels with just one wing -- we can only fly while embracing one another").
• And, humorists juxtapose unrelated situations for comic effect ("What do you call a clairvoyant midget who just broke out of jail? A small medium at large!").

Today, I'm going to try to connect some previously unconnected ideas! How about you?

Today's Whack


Only the most foolish of mice would hide in a cat's ear," says designer Scott Love, "but only the wisest of cats would think to look there." Don't miss the obvious. What are you overlooking? What's the most obvious thing you can do? What resources and solutions are right in front of you?

This has always been one of my favorite Creative Whacks. I find that there are two main ways I attempt to "See the Obvious." The first is to get away from the problem. How many times have you found the obvious solution after you've been exercising, or gone to the beach, or were reading a great piece of fiction?

My second method is to "Simplify." What I try to do is write a paragraph about my problem. After some effort, I try to simplify the concepts in the paragraph down to a sentence. By then, the obvious has come out.