Thinking About Thinking


Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

Two Underrated Creative Strategies: (1) Start Now (2) Finish Early


My classes are past midterms and now beginning to focus on the later part of our definition of creativity – usefulness. The definition of creativity we go with is, the production of something novel and useful. So far, we’ve covered the novelty side of things. We’ve learned a lot of strategies for generating more, unique ideas. But for the next step, we’ll find ways to make these ideas more functional. Two incredibly effective strategies to make creative ideas more useful are to “start now” and “finish early.” On the surface, these may not seem like creative strategies, so let’s take a look.

Start now: The sooner you jump on a project, the more time your brain gets to spend with it. If you begin immediately and work in a start-stop-start-stop fashion, you give your brain more time to reflect on what you’re doing. Therefore, by the end of the project, your subconscious brain has refined the concept many times. This is called, discontinuous problem-solving.

Binge working in one shot to meet a deadline forces you to continue in one direction until it’s obvious the concept isn’t working. Therefore, you really don’t know if what you’re doing is the best solution. However, by working periodically on a project, you utilize what’s called the incubation process where your subconscious brain makes random associations. These are where “Aha” moments come from.

Finish early: This is an excellent method to get all the kinks out. The way this works is to set the deadline a few days to a week before the real deadline. You finish the work early and get feedback from others. Having a real prototype enables you to gain empirical evidence and tangible feedback from your peers.

When a project itself is a hypothetical, the criticism others give you on it is totally dependent on those hypotheticals actually working. Your ability to convey your thoughts to another are very limited without a product. Also, having a finished product early allows you to see what tiny things should be tweaked to make it perfect.

So start now, and finish early to create more useful designs.


Contribute to SCAD student, Lisa Levine’s Kickstarter


A past student of mine, Lisa Levine, has a Kickstarter running called, Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s a great student and it’s a great idea. Please contribute at Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s only asking for $1,100. It’s part of a “traveling community mining and recycling project.” Small contributions count.

Certitude – The Creativity Killer

Mindset may be the best determinate of one’s level of creativity. Creative people tend to be curious. They question their surroundings and seek out new things. While those with a strong conviction toward having all the right answers don’t.

This can be related to relative knowledge, or perception of relative knowledge. I often see people who are less informed on a topic being more certain they know everything about it. And as they learn more, they learn that there is much more to be learned. Teachers regularly witness this phenomenon in students. When students are freshmen, they are less inclined to question their opinions. As they advance, and learn more, they become more aware of the vast number of approaches to any given task. Thus, they are less obstinate about being right and more inclined to conduct research to confirm their opinions. The philosopher Dylan once said, “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” That sums it up.

In his essay, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” George Loewenstein states how knowing one doesn’t know something increases their level of curiosity. Those who think they know everything aren’t compelled to learn more. But those who know they don’t know, especially those who are aware they kind-of-know, feel compelled to seek more related information.

To ensure that we maintain a curious mindset, we should constantly be learning more stuff. Through learning, we find how entropy works. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And we become more aware the universe is a very complex thing. This means there is always something new to learn. Any topic is complex when looked at from a variety directions. And several viewpoints may be correct all at the same time. From this, any one problem can have many solutions that are equally viable.

To further embrace curiosity as a means to creativity, we should embrace process as a means to a better outcome, even when we know we have the right answer. The more time we spend researching, brainstorming and reflecting, the better our ideas become. And from these better ideas, the better our solutions will be. How do you know you have a good idea? It’s when you have a lot of others to compare it to. There’s no magic number on how long one should spend on ideation, but the more one works on a problem, the more one knows the complexities related to it.

Why are Art and Design So Important?

We live in a time when almost everything we do is related to art and design. This is different from times past. Utility, and scarcity determined value before. And there were few choices. It used to be that sharing a photograph was just that. You’d pass your friend a print. They’d view it, cordially comment and then hand it back to you. From there, it went back into its Kodak envelope to be filed in a shoebox under your bed. Other parts of life were the same; many aspects of life had little choice. For hardware, you went to the hardware store in town.

Now things are different, we have lots of choices for everything. We can choose an unbelievable number of venues to share our experiences. That’s great, but accompanying that is the curatorial and aesthetic decisions associated with doing it well. That’s design. And design is everywhere.

Additionally, we have the power to reach many more people than in the past. My posts are regularly read by people in a huge range of countries including Pakistan and Indonesia. Ten years ago, that was impossible. What that means is that when I post something, I should consider that. The flipside of that is more people have access to me. That means competition is greater than ever before.

When I go to the grocery store, I am overwhelmed by choices. My Walmart has 72 choices of tomato sauce, and the cereal aisle is five shelves tall and about 60ft long. Which cereal do I buy, the one designed to fit my interests. If I want healthy, it better be brown and green. If I want cheap, it better not look fancy.

Many of the skills related to artistic production like creativity, expression and design are important because we live in an era of abundance where choice abounds. To be heard, to be seen or to be chosen, one needs to consider that there are others out there who want to be heard, seen or chosen. So developing what are often considered soft skills, the ones related to art and design, is essential for anyone’s success.

How Do You Know If You Are An Artist?

Last week a colleague of mine, Patrick Mohr, sent me a bunch of links related to art careers and how artists see themselves. They were enlightening. But honestly, for a person who teaches art and design, they weren’t that surprising.


Here’s one: Sure, I Do Creative Work, but I’m No Artist

This information comes from a research group named the Strategic National Art Alumni Project (SNAAP). Generally, many artists don’t see themselves as such. Many, who often engage in artistic practices, don’t classify themselves as professional artists. Maybe it’s the term professional that skews the data. How much of your personal income do you have to make from art to classify yourself as such? Or, is it the term “artistic” that should classify our professional path. There are many “artistic” things we do at work now that for some reason, don’t add up to make us artists.

Maybe it’s because we’ve put too much weight on the term “artist” for it to be attainable. However, the romantic definition implies that you make almost nothing from long hours of labor and slight neurological disorders. But what artists do is observe, express, collaborate, empathize and design—among other things. So if your job includes these things, you might be more of an artist than you think.

Another way to put it could be “creative career.” If we classify ourselves as creatives, that makes it a little easier. Why separate art and design when they are so closely aligned to begin with? Just because we intend to make money off what we do, does that make it design? I’m sure Jeff Koons intends to make money off his work. And I’ve seen plenty of designs more transcendent than some work sold in galleries. So maybe all of us who make designs, films, illustrations, music, paintings, performances, sculptures, stories, and videos should just consider ourselves artists. As a bunch, I think we’ll have more leverage and reap more benefits.



In the Age of Abundance, Software is Free for Creative People

Autodesk 123D

In the Age of Abundance, it’s amazing what’s free for creative people. All you have to do is look for it. As I’ve mentioned before, there are great classes offered online for free. The Y Combinator startup class in my last post is just one example. But in addition to education, the tools are free too. For 3D rendering, look to Autodesk. There are nine of these Autodesk 123D online apps that offer and incredible array of 3D rendering capabilities.

Catch: Create 3D scans of virtually any object.

Circuits: Design, compile, and simulate your electronic projects online.

Creature: Have a perfect character idea in your head? Bring it to life with this free app for iPad!

Design: 123D Design is a free, powerful yet simple 3D creation and editing tool which supports many new 3D printers.

Make: Turn your amazing 3D models into even more amazing do-it-yourself projects.

Meshmixer: The ultimate tool for 3D mashups and remixes. Mash, mix, sculpt, stamp or paint your own 3D designs.

Sculpt: Push, pull, pinch, paint, smooth, tug. More fun than a Renaissance studio, cleaner than clay.

Tinkercad: Get started with basic 3D modelling – no downloads required.

Sandbox: Here you’ll find some technology in progress.


If you think these are to complex and you’ll never figure them out, think again. Two years ago, I put my son on one to see how easy there were. He was ten at the time. Within a few hours, he had the Design app figured out and made the coffee cup below. Yeah, to him that’s a coffee cup. It look s more like a transformer/tank. You have to drink out of the spout on the right. He filleted and chamfered all the edges on his own. By the time he finished, he could manipulate the program to a high degree. The only thing I showed him was how to get into the program.


I think the reason he did it so easily is that these programs are similar in nature to minecraft and the Lego Digital Designer. They have a modular sense of construction and the navigation tools are similar.

If you are still intimidated by software, take a look at this video. Using the Catch app, all you have to do is to take some pictures of an object and the program will stich the images together for you, creating a 3D rendering. Take some time to poke through these apps. It’s well worth your time.

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator is one of the best startup accelerators for tech entrepreneurs. It’s been around since 2008 and launched an amazing array of success stories including: Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit and Twitch. Now, they’ve launched an online course explaining their methods. And for the best part, it’s free. The course, “How to Start a Startup” is exactly how it sounds, a course on how to start a startup. And it’s great. I haven’t watched all the lectures. But the ones I have are really informative.

I recommend it for any creative person wanting to take control of their future.

The Definition of Creativity is …Complicated

Courbet in his studio

Courbet in his studio

With the  level of press creativity gets these days, it would seem that we’d have a better handle on the definition. But still, there are many who differ on how the term should be used or to what it applies. Partly, this can be attributed to the long and twisted history of the term itself. Bear with me while I travel through time to elucidate the history of creativity. The following is paraphrased from a section in my book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Etymology related to creativity is extensive. The root of create and creativity are the Latin creates and creare. Both of these words convey a sense of making—not innovating. The transitive verb creo means to conjure up or be born. Creativity is also derived from the old French base kere, the Latin crescere and the Roman creber. Already, it’s a little confusing. From these comes the Roman goddess of the earth, Ceres. Another goddess, the Italian corn goddess Cereris, is linked as well to creativity. In this sense, creativity means to grow and has a strong connection with the earth. Other modern day terms derived from these origins are cereal, crescent and creature.[i]

So for the most of history, creativity has been tied to making, growing or putting together. Obviously, this is not how we view it today. Present day usage of creativity implies a more individualistic, unique or artistic connotation. How we understand the word is relatively new, and it was not seen much until several hundred years ago. You can see below how Herman Melville used it in Moby Dick back in 1841:

‘…There is some unsuffusing think beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all they eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it…’

Way back in the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), creativity was linked to rationalism. This rationalistic belief of creativity categorizes it as conscious and deliberate.[ii] This corresponds to the notion of art at that time. The Greeks referred to art as techni (craft). Greek artists were not the type of aloof, expressive individuals we see artists as today. Instead, they were lower class laborers. To be an artist was to be a craftsman.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance (1400 AD – 1550 AD) that artists achieved recognition as individual geniuses. Before the Renaissance, creativity for artists meant the ability to imitate past masters. Essentially, they copied—again, not how we conceptualize creativity today. But during the Renaissance, individualism began to take form. From this, artists became more expressive and vocal. Leonardo da Vinci, himself, argued that genio (genius) was not only imitation, but should also incorporate originality. However, at this time painting studios were not personal retreats where artists found their muses. These were workshops filled with apprentices painting large portions of the artist’s work. The artists of this time served as masters to apprentices and finished the more difficult areas.[iii]


Wanderer above the sea of fog

Wanderer above the sea of fog

The notion of the modern painter—aloof and idealistic—took shape during the nineteenth century’s Romantic period. Artists during this time did look to their inner muse to draw inspiration. Thids adoption of the inner muse for inspiration, they took from the Ancient Greek conception that poets were agents of the gods and devoid of talent themselves. “The romantic artists and men of letters, in particular, revived the classical notion of divine mania or inspiration and established it as a divine mark of the extraordinary individual”.[iv] Rationalism therefore was dismissed, and men of letters argued that “creativity requires temporary escape from the conscious ego and a liberation of instinct and emotion.” Wordsworth even stated that is was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[v] To get a good view of what it may have felt like to be overwhelmed in such a way, Casper David Friedrich (above) paints a good visualization.  In this mode of thinking the artists contemplates nature as a mysterious beckoning force.

Oddly, it was technology that liberated artists from their studios and enabled them to work directly from nature—painting their immediate experiences. In 1841, an American portrait painter by the name of John G. Rand found a way to fabricate a tube from tin. Sealing it with a screw top, it was perfect for holding paint. Before there were tubes of paint, artists mixed pigments in their studios and stored the paint in pig bladders.[vi] As you can imagine, pig bladders are neither durable nor portable.  Taking them on site would be a messy affair.

Consequently, artists would make sketches in the field and return to their studios to paint final versions. With the ability to store paint in tubes, artists could carry a number of colors around with them and paint directly from nature instead of from the drawings created before. Additionally, this innovation set forth a whole new genre in painting, en plein air (in the open air). This is where we get the image of an artist standing (alone) with his easel in a field, rendering nature.

Innovations like paint tubes came about frequently during this time, which was the Industrial Revolution. Pretty much every domain was being innovated including agriculture and manufacturing. Before the Industrial Revolution, inventions were slow to come about. But this time of scientific inquiry created a new vision of the future and drove people to improve their surroundings.

In the 20th century, the notion of creative expression ping-ponged back and forth between romanticism and rationalism. Rationalism returned through Modernism and the conscious experimentation of form and materials. Modernist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé heralded the significance of consciously developing skill. Shortly thereafter, Abstract Expressionism brought a burst of romanticism through artists who created spontaneous expressions of pure emotion.[vii] The arts of this time were seen as free of planning or rational thought. Finally, the following isms that wrapped up the 20th century brought back the objective notions of creativity and creative production that remain today.

Whew, that’s quite a history.



[i] Piirto, Jane Ph.D. Understanding Those Who Create, 2nd Edition. Scottsdale: Gifted Psychology Pres, Inc., 1998

[ii] Sawyer, Keith. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 .

[iii] Ibi

[iv] Becker, George. “The Association of Creativity and Psychopathology: Its Cultural-Historical Origins.” Creativity Research Journal, 2000-2001, Vol. 13, No. 1: 45-53.

[v] Sawyer 2006

[vi] Hurt, Perry. “Never Underestimate the Power of a Paint Tube.” May 2013. (accessed October 29, 2013).

[vii] Sawyer 2006

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative




If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.


While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.


To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.


How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.


How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .


What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.


What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.


How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.


For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.