#6 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 2          September 1992

Techniques for Creative Thinking:  Yes, They Work
by Gary A. Davis, Ph.D.

Dr. Davis, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of Creativity is Forever (3rd ed. 1992), Kendall/Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.

Creativity techniques are deliberate thinking processes designed to help find ideas and solve problems.  They are not mental tricks dreamed up by ivory-tower professors but rather strategies used by many—if not all—productive, creative people.  Although the techniques are not complicated, most people are uncomfortable using someone else's thinking or problem-solving methods.  

Nonetheless, you might be pleasantly surprised after trying some of the following strategies.  They have worked for many others.

Analogical Thinking   

The most common creative process is analogical thinking--the transfer of an idea from one context to a new one.  Perhaps 80 percent of creative ideas are rooted in analogical thinking, and examples abound in every field of human creativity. 

In music, Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring was based on the Quaker folk tune, Simple Gifts.  You may know that the U.S. national anthem Star Spangled Banner originated as an English drinking song.  And the Broadway musical Cats was based on T. S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats.

Political cartoonists and creators of cartoon strips continually borrow ideas from movies, television commercials, the Bible, children's stories, and the headlines.  Remember the caricature of Ronald Reagan, Ronbo?  Did you notice the caption by cartoonist Gary Larson: "Moses as a kid," under a boy who was raising his arms to part the milk in his glass?  Many movies, from Gone with the Wind to The Ten Commandments, derive from historical or Biblical themes. 

We also see analogical thinking in  the mechanical realm.  The irreplaceable fastener Velcro was inspired by the obnoxious cocklebur.  Gutenberg's printing press was a combination of the stamper used for minting coins and a wine press.  Eli Whitney was inspired to invent the cotton gin after watching a cat pluck at a chicken through a fence.  The resulting pawful of feathers apparently reminded him of cotton fibers. 

One technique is asking how nature has solved a similar problem.  Pringles Potato Chips were conceived via the analogy of wet leaves--which stack compactly and do not destroy themselves.  Darwin reversed the situation, using a human solution to explain a natural phenomenon:  His origin of species explanation stemmed from selective cattle breeding practices.

Finally, virtually every architect and designer keeps stacks of books and magazines filled with ideas waiting to be adopted.

But you need not sit back and wait for analogous connections to appear by themselves.  Analogical thinking can be a conscious technique if you deliberately ask questions like these:
            "What else is like this?"
            "What have others done?"
            "Where can I find an idea?"
            "What ideas can I modify to fit my problem?"


The granddaddy creative technique, brainstorming, was the brainchild of Alex Osborn, co-founder of a major advertising agency.  The procedure is simple and familiar.  First you devise wild--even preposterous--ideas, and jot down every one.  But the key is this: save the criticism and evaluation until this process is completed.  Osborn tells us, with disarming logic, that we cannot simultaneously be creative and critical.  Furthermore, he adds, wild ideas can often be "tamed" into workable solutions.

Although most people consider brainstorming a group technique, you can brainstorm by yourself as well as before a large audience.  But the recommended small group, with 10 or 12 members, is usually suitable to a variety of situations.  Brainstorming, I'd say, has survived for half a century because it works.

Attribute Listing

While brainstorming is a general procedure, attribute listing is a specific idea-finding technique (one that could even be used while brainstorming).  You identify the key characteristics, or attributes, of the product or process in question.   Then you think up ways to change, modify, or improve each attribute (in design engineering this is called the substitution method). 

Almost anyone can "disassemble" a product into its attributes and then think of modifications for most of them.  For example, a can of soda has these attributes: size, shape, color, color pattern, decorative theme, material, possible uses after modification, other audiences for the product if modified.  Can you invent alterations for each of these attributes?  Fran Stryker supplied himself with plots for Lone Ranger radio and television episodes for a couple of decades by modifying these characteristics: characters, goals, obstacles, and outcomes.

Morphological Synthesis

Morphological synthesis is a simple elaboration of attribute listing.  After completing the list of attributes, list changes in one attribute (such as “products”) along the horizontal axis, and list changes in a second attribute (such as “markets”) along the vertical axis.  Idea combinations, or syntheses, will appear in the intersections, or cells, of the table.  Morphological synthesis will force you to look at many surprising combinations.

Idea Checklists

Have you ever consulted a telephone directory or a supplier's catalog as a "checklist" of resources or ideas for solving problems?  You may not know that checklists have been written expressly to solve problems creatively.  The best known is Osborn's "73 Idea Spurring Questions."  Consider how you would invent a better mousetrap as you read these examples from his idea checklist:

            Put to other uses?  New ways to use as is?  Other uses if modified?
            Modify?  New twist?  Change meaning, color, motion, sound, form?  Other changes?
            Magnify?  What to add?  Greater frequency?  Longer?  Extra value?  Duplicate?             Multiply?  Exaggerate?
            Minify?  What to subtract?  Condensed?  Miniature?  Lighter?  Split up?     Understate?
            Rearrange?  Interchange components?  Other sequence?  Change schedule?
            Combine?  How about a blend, an assortment?  Combine units?  Combine                    purposes?  Combine appeals?

Of course, none of these techniques is guaranteed to solve your research problems.  But they can help you find ideas without forcing you to wait for an uncooperative muse.

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