We can slice and dice creative best practices in infinite directions
This post is looking at two major themes in creative mindsets: inside the box thinking and outside the box thinking. And ultimately as you’ll see, I’m going to offer a third option.
Let’s start with Inside the Box thinking. This practice is most often referred to as Creative Constraints. In this methodology, rather than using the boundary conditions of our situation to constrain our creativity, we use the constraints as a challenge to be creative within a predefined space. There are many cooking shows that use this methodology. Chefs are put into tiny kitchens with limited cookware, limited appliances, and limited ingredients, and then challenged to create something that will WOW the judges.
Outside the box thinking is typically used when we see our constraints as holding us back. “OK Everybody, let’s think outside the box!” Outside the box thinking is often referred to as Blue Sky thinking. The Sky’s the Limit! In technical terms, we call this Divergent Thinking where no idea is a bad idea and where quantity beats the quality of ideas. Somewhere in that quantity is going to be a piece of gold. One tool we use to prompt more divergent thinking is challenge statements, which have an important distinction from need statements.
So, what’s this third option that I was referring to in the opening paragraph? This is what I like to call, Shaping Boxes.
For this, I defer to Lau Tzu, and in particular, this translation by J H McDonald from Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching:
Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that allows the wheel to function.
We mold clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.
We fashion wood for a house,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes it livable.
We work with the substantial,
but the emptiness is what we use.
We work with the substantial, but the emptiness inside is what we use. Indeed. Think about this clay pot as part of our kitchen in the cooking show example above. It is a useful vessel, and the emptiness inside of it will be used to create something. It could be anything. That is, anything that fits in the vessel.
In this illustration, the clay pot represents the constraints. When given the opportunity to shape the pot, we define those constraints. Consider again the cooking show. It is the art of Shaping the Box thinking that the creators of the show are using to set the stage for creativity. The shows writers, producers, and set designers are curating the kitchen. They are selecting various vessels with different cooking constraints and a set of ingredients to then set free the chefs to be creative within the box they defined.
Let’s dig into these two concepts of Need Statement Development and Visual Frameworks
Shaping a box or Molding Clay into a Vessel have been the metaphors used for Need Statement Development. A great example of this in practice was Trig’s involvement with the Sunscreer project; work that resulted in Trig winning an IDSA Design Excellence Award. The initial product was a standalone handheld device that could help parents detect whether their kids were fully covered in sunscreen. However, narrowly defining the market this way would have missed the larger opportunity.
The larger story is that the technology helps humans perceive the presence or absence of UV light, which is hard to pull off. It also happens to be useful to a company like ZEISS, the largest lens manufacturer in the world. They developed a coating that blocks UV light and wanted to demonstrate to customers proof that their coating works compared to their competitors.
In this case study, the way in which the Need Statement was defined can change the perspective of problems and technology solutions in a complex marketplace. We can define different “vessels.” The vessel for technology that helps humans perceive UV light has infinite possibilities. The vessel for all the ways to ensure children are protected from the sun has infinite possibilities. What are the other vessels?
If a need statement is one vessel, or one box; Visual Frameworks such as Levels of Alignment are a design tool for realizing complex relationships among multiple needs. Imagine a very simple framework like a Venn Diagram with the two needs as described above. Can there be something meaningful derived from the overlap?
Visual frameworks are assembled in much the same manner as you would stock a kitchen. Each block in the framework represents a different vessel, and the way each is used in relation to the other sets the constraints for creativity. There are some great advantages to using predefined frameworks, such as Business Model Canvas, Levels of Alignment, or Design History File-Ready Ideation (as mentioned above). These frameworks afford a repeatable process for consistent results, much like using a recipe from Alton Brown is at delivering a consistent and repeatable dish. However, they are context specific. A teapot is not the right vessel for cooking a steak. Nor is Business Model Canvas the right vessel for medical device innovation.
Inside the Box Thinking is using a predetermined Need Statement to do your brainstorming, or using a predetermined Framework, like Business Model Canvas, to design your business.
Outside the box thinking removes these constraints, but also loses any sort of contextual focus.
Shaping Boxes is designing both the vessels and their relationships to each other as a solid foundation to be creative.
Imagine for a moment that you’re designing your own dream kitchen. What pots and pans will you select for your cabinets? What cooking tools, knives, and utensils will you stock your drawers and countertops with? What ingredients will you have on hand in your pantry?
Each cooking vessel has infinite possibilities (as does a well defined need statement). Using various cooking vessels and their relationships to each other (the framework of your vessels) provides infinite possibilities within the creative constraints of your highly curated kitchen.
Challenging yourself to be creative and cook a gourmet meal in the confines of a food truck with limited ingredients tests your ability to be creative within constraints. Likewise, you may want to get outside your kitchen and cook in the wilderness to see the vast white space of cooking. I suggest doing both. Think inside AND outside the box. But when you are ready, consider curating your own kitchen.