Think Like a Dog


An enlightening experiment was done by Gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs. The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a white square and avoid it when shown a gray square. When the dogs learned this, the experimenters switched to using a gray square and a black square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object when shown the gray square (which had previously triggered avoidance) and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not previously been associated with an action). Presumably, rather than perceiving the gray, white, and black as an absolute stimuli, the dogs were responding to a deeper essence—lighter versus darker.

Many of us have lost the raw sensitivity to essences because we have been educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. For example, suppose we were asked to design a new can opener. Most of our ideas would be driven by our experience and association with the particulars of can openers we’ve used, and we would likely design something that is only marginally different from existing can openers.

If we determine the essence of a can opener to be opening things, however, and look for clues in the world around us, we increase our chances of discovering a novel idea. Think for a moment about how things open. Some examples are:

  • Valves open by steam.
  • Oysters open by relaxing a muscle.
  • Pea pods open when ripening weakens the seam.
  • Doors open with keys.
  • A fish’s mouth opens when squeezed at the base.
  • A car’s accelerator opens when a pedal is pushed.

Our raw creativity allows us to make thousands of indirect associations, some of which may lead to an original, novel idea. For example, you can take the pea pod and work it into a new way of opening a can. Instead of creating a can opener, design the can with a weak seam that opens the can when pulled (inspired by way pea pods open when its seam is weakened. This novel idea results from thinking about and approaching the problem ina different way than you’ve been taught.

Creative people in the arts, sciences, and industry often use this thinking strategy. Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express, said people in the transportation of goods business never really understood why and how he became so successful. He became successful, he said, because he understood the essence of the business, which is peace of mind, and not just transportation of goods. Grasping this essence, he was the first to make it possible for customers to track packages right from their desktops

Martin Skalski, director of the transportation design sequence at Pratt Institute, teaches his students to tackle problems in terms of essences. For example, he doesn’t tell students to design an automobile or study various automobile designs on the market. Instead, he begins the design process by having them create abstract compositions of things in motion. Then by progressively making the process less abstract, he eventually has them working on the real problem—designing forms of transportation—by creating connections between the abstract work and the final model.

World-renowned architect and designer Arthur Erickson also uses this thinking  with his students to help them avoid visual and functional preconceptions and to unlock creativity. For example, if he is looking for a new chair design, he will first ask his students to draw a picture of a figure in motion. Then he will ask them to build a wood, plastic, metal, or paper model of a structure that supports that figure in motion. Finally, he will have them use the model as the basis for a new chair design.

Erickson teaches his students the importance of finding the essence of designing furniture. As he puts it, “If I had said to the students, ‘Look, we’re going to design a chair or bed,’ they would have explored the design on the basis of previous memories of chairs or beds. But by approaching the model from the essential direction, I was able to make them realize the vital essence of furniture.”

In one group exercise, Erickson had his assistants generate a list of how to store things, a list of how to stack things, and a list of how to organize large objects. Then he gave his assistants the real problem, which was to design a parking garage using the ideas and thoughts from the three different lists.

The mind gets into ruts very quickly, particularly when it stalls and spins its wheels. It gets mired in the details of some perception. Charles Darwin asked the grand question “What is life?” instead of getting mired down classifying the mite or fungus. Getting right to the essence of the problem creates space between thoughts sunken into each other. It forces you to test assumptions and explore possibilities.

Suppose you want to improve the design of the umbrella. The essence of an umbrella is protection from the rain. When you examine the essence, you are likely to explore more creative possibilities for rain protection, such as a new kind of raincoat or even a new type of town design where there are arcades everywhere and umbrellas are no longer required. Or, consider the bookstore owner who viewed himself as a seller of books—a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. However, if he had viewed himself as a “provider of information and entertainment”—a more abstract and general characterization—the switch toward electronic media would not have been threatening; it would have opened up new opportunities.


  1. First, describe the problem and determine its essence. Ask the group, “What is the principle of the problem?” Example: Our problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The essence is “protection.”
  2. Ask the group to generate ideas on how to protect things. Give the group an idea quota of thirty or more ideas. Don’t mention the real problem, which is how to protect rural mailboxes.


  • Place in a bank.
  • Rustproof, to protect from weather damage..
  • Provide good maintenance.
  • Get an insurance policy.
  • Put a chip in it so you can track its whereabouts.
  • Protect it with an armed guard.
  1. After you’ve generated a number of different ideas, restate the problem for the group so that it is slightly less abstract. For example, think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.


  • Hire a guard.
  • Watch it constantly.
  • Drape it with camouflage.
  • Put a fence around it.
  • Keep it well lighted.
  • Install an alarm system.
  1. Finally, address the group with the real problem. Review and discuss the ideas and solutions to the two previous abstractions and use these as stimuli to generate solutions. Example: The real problem is how to protect rural mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The idea triggered from “get an insurance policy” is to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.

Scientists at Gillette wanted to develop a new toothbrush. They decided that the essence of a toothbrush is “cleaning.” Among the things studied were:

  • How are cars cleaned?
  • How is hair cleaned?
  • How are clothes cleaned?
  • How are arteries cleaned?
  • How are waterways cleaned?

They got excited when they studied car washes. Cars are washed and cleaned in a car wash. Car washes use multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions. They incorporated the principle of multiple brushes brushing in different directions into the toothbrush known as the Oral B, which is the leading selling toothbrush in the world.

When creating ideas think of essences, principles and universals. Think abstractly.

(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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