Ask a friend to imagine a creature living on another planet with a different atmosphere in another solar system. Then ask your friend to draw a picture of the creature. What you’ll find is that most people draw creatures that are remarkably similar to animals on earth, even though they’re asked to draw what a creature might look like in another solar system with a different atmosphere and are free to imagine anything they wish without constraints.

Most people draw creatures that resemble life as we understand it, even though we’re free to think up anything. Namely, creatures with sense organs to see, hear and smell, and arms and legs with bilateral symmetry. Rather than creating something that’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable, most people create creatures that have a great deal in common with one another and with the properties of typical earth animals.

There is no reason why animals on other planets would have to resemble animals on earth. People drawing space creatures could have tapped into any existing knowledge base, such as rock formations, tumbleweed or clouds to get an idea for the general shape of their space creature, and each person could access something different and novel. But most people do not and draw animals that have similar properties to animals on earth.

What we’re exhibiting is a phenomenon called structured imagination. Structured imagination refers to the fact that even when we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in highly predictable ways according to existing concepts, categories and stereotypes.  This is true whether the individuals are inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, businesspeople, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life.

Research shows that we call up typical instances of a concept faster than less typical ones. To see this for yourself, quickly name the first five birds you can think of. Your list is likely to be populated with very typical birds, such as robins, blue jays, and sparrows, and less likely to contain unusual birds, such as pelicans, ostriches, and penguins.

Because more typical instances of a concept spring to mind first, we naturally tend to seize on them as starting points in developing new ideas. And because the most typical members of a concept are the ones that have all of its central properties, this can reduce innovation even further.  For instance, robins fly, lay eggs, and build their nests in trees, but penguins do not. If you base a novel alien on the more typical robin, it will resemble a stereotyped bird more than if you base it on a penguin.

We need ways to unstructure our imaginations to explore the outer limits and dazzling variety of our concepts so we can go beyond the typical and concoct novel ideas that are wonderfully unusual. This often involves visiting seemingly unrelated topics or concepts, ideas that can appear quite foreign or even hostile to the problem at hand. But time after time, this way of cracking the problem code has been successful. All modern thought in invention and discovery is permeated by the idea of thinking the unthinkable.

It is this playful freedom from design or commitment that allows you to juxtapose things which would not otherwise have been arranged in this way, to construct a sequence of events which would not otherwise have been constructed. 3M chemist Spencer Silver also liked to play and fool around mixing chemicals just to see what would happen. One of the things that happened was the invention of the Post-it note pads which accounts for over hundreds of millions of dollars.

Spencer wrote “The key to the Post-It adhesive was doing the experiment. If I had sat down and factored it beforehand, and thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. If I had seriously cracked the book and gone through the literature, I would have stopped. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do it.” And so Silver, in one of those ‘Eureka’ moments discovered that he had developed an adhesive which created impermanent bond.

But now the problem was how to use this discovery. The company climate permitted Silver to continue with his efforts to realize the potential of his discovery, but no one could also develop it into a useful product. The breakthrough when another 3M employee, Arthur Fry, got his inspiration. Art was a member of the church choir and used to use paper slips as book marks to identify the songs to be sung. Sometimes when the paper would fly off, it created problems. The idea of using Silver’s adhesive to make “better bookmarks” came to him while singing in the choir.

The success of using the adhesive encouraged Fry to start thinking of developing a product out of the adhesive. Top management was skeptical but allowed Fry and Silver to work on the project. Fry assembled a small-scale basic machine in his own basement, which was successful in applying the adhesive on a continuous role of paper. The whole process of bringing the product to the manufacturing stage took another two years.

The first marketing attempt was a miserable failure. Consumers seemed uninterested in this novel product. It was the Mid-Atlantic sales manager who saved the Post-It. He went to the home office and said, “I know you will think I’m crazy but the way to sell this product is to give it away. Whenever I give a consumer a sample, they beg me for more when I return.” So 3M sent free samples to the whole universe of secretaries and within a short period of time the Post-It became one of its most profitable products.

Thought is a process of fitting new situations into existing slots and pigeonholes in the mind. Just as you cannot put a physical thing into more than one physical pigeonhole at once, so, by analogy, the processes of thought prevent you from putting a mental construct into more than one mental category at once. This is because the mind’s first function is to reduce the complexity of its experiences with a basic intolerance for ambiguity. It was Spencer Silver’s love of ambiguity and directionless play that enabled him to play with his chemicals to see what would happen that led to the Post-it. We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the fact that many inventions had their birth as toys.

Artists are also upfront about their love of ambiguity and freedom of directionless play. One artist friend, a potter, showed me how he would create beautiful pots and then, while they were drying, whack them with a stick. Sometimes they just broke, but other times he’d get an interesting shape that he’d never seen before. Then he’d make a whole series based on that new shape. He is wonderfully successful.

Another interesting way to stimulate your imagination is to use historical events or people selected randomly as stimuli.  Get a website that constains a dictionary of events or the birht and death of a person. Try any date (today’s date, birth date, birthday of a pet, etc.), select an entry because it is bizarre, exciting, or makes you think of something. Imagine yourself present at the event, or being that person. How would they look at your problem? What would they do about it? What different perspectives would you get from being at the event or from the sort of activity? What are the parallels in history between that event and today?

The mix of people and events gives a rich source of inspiration. Just as a random picture gives much more than a random word, an event with all its associations will normally produce more than a single person. Try conceptually blending them to generate interesting effects. How would Charlie Chaplin sell a proposal to a board of directors?

One gym owner randomly went back to October 25th 1881 and discovered that was the birth date of Pablo Picasso, which got him to wondering how Picasso would market his gym. This inspired his brainstorm. He hired a free lance caricature artist to sit in front of his gym with a sign offering “free caricatures in five minutes.” The artist draws a caricature of the person in a well developed body with his gym prominently in the background. The person also gets a brochure and business card. His business increased substantially almost overnight.

Look at the two tables below. The tables appear to be decidedly different. One is narrow, the other wide. Yet, believe it or not, the tables are identical.

                                                                A                 B

You can prove this to yourself by cutting out the top of table A and, turning it 75% to the right and placing in on the top of table B, or by measuring and comparing the lengths and widths. Here you take a situation that seems impossible and, by tinkering, discover that the impossibility is merely an illusion created by the artist’s perspective. This is one of the values of playing with absurd ideas. By tinkering with them, you begin to see things that you normally would miss.

In the following thought experiment there are unusual combinations of objects. This is a workshop technique where participants randomly write nouns on small slips of paper. Then they are randomly combined into unusual objects. Combining apparently contradictory or impossible objects forces participants to stretch and bend their concepts to meet the constraints of the task. The objects below are from a past workshop.


Try to imagine each object and draw a picture of it. See if you can imaginer it into something feasible. For example, a piece of furniture that is also a fruit could be designed as a giant pineapple carved into a chair.

A vehicle that is also kind of fish.

An aquarium that is also a toilet.

A parking meter that is a kind of person.

A bird that is also kind of kitchen utensil.

A food flavoring that is also kind of tool.

A park bench that is a kind of person.

A computer that is also kind of teacup.

A cooking stove that is also kind of bicycle.

A lampshade that is kind of book.

Below are some of the ideas this experiment inspired.

  • A vehicle that is kind of fish = A dolphin pulled boat
  • A cooking stove that is also kind of bicycle = The tubes of a bicycle frame were filled with steam that could be released to do the cooking. The pedaling is the energy source for the cooking.
  • A parking meter that is also a kind of person = Manufacture a parking meter with infrared sensors and lithium-powered computer chips to “see” parking spaces much like a person “sees.”  When a car leaves, the remaining time on the meter is erased.
  • An aquarium that is also a toilet = A toilet that looks like an aquarium. An engineer designed a toilet with a glass aquarium tank. The mechanics of the toilet are hidden behind a wall with the front a glass aquarium with tiny fishes swimming around. A restaurant bought the toilet as a gimmick and his business increased as customers told their friends about the toilet. 

How about a bench that is a kind of person? Visitors to the public square in Cambridge, England see six benches and six rubbish bins, but this street furniture is something very different. The benches and bins are equipped with sensors that allow them to move and flock around the square. When no one is sitting on a bench, the bench will move to another position in a new space to make itself more attractive for visitors. Often the benches will arrange themselves into different patterns. When it rains, the benches move to shadier, drier places. The bins are more solitary and seek more quiet spaces to occupy.

The benches and bins drift slowly around the square no faster than a strolling human. Sensors stop them when they are close to other objects. Sometimes when most of the benches are being sat on, they will burst into song with the bins joining in with soprano voices.

Michael Michalko

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