Teaching and Testing for Creativity


Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein recently posted, Do Arts Teach Creativity?, on Psychology Today. In their essay, they discuss the difficulties educational institutions face when trying to implement creativity as part of the curriculum. It’s an interesting article and they are correct in what they say.

First, they tackle tests designed to assess creative aptitudes. These tests include the Torrence test developed back in the 1960s. Creativity tests focus on stuff like the fluency and flexibility of an individual’s thinking abilities. Michele and Robert consider these tests shams, and they are correct.

Testing individuals on components of the creative process does just that, test individual parts. And possessing the ability to generate ideas, doesn’t mean you’re creative. It just means you can generate a bunch of ideas.

The authors also go on to explain how including art in a student’s curriculum doesn’t mean that creativity is being taught. And they are right again. Much of art making is craft oriented, technical stuff dealing with eye-hand coordination. In drawing courses, it’s very important to work on line quality. To do so, you repetitively draw lots of lines. But that’s not creativity. Yes, you could say that in a small, personal way it is. That’s because the person may not have drawn in this way before. But for most of us, changing a tire would also be a creative act since very few of us have done that.

So how do we include creativity in the curriculum? We do so through project base work where students go through the whole creative process to see how it works. That begins with finding problems. Then students should follow by conducting research, generating a bunch of ideas, synthesizing concepts, choosing the best ones, prototyping, reflecting on what’s happening, changing one’s mind and then making the final product. Only after going through that whole process time and time again do students get it. It’s not one step, it’s a process.

The good thing for art departments is that it’s most easily done through the arts. It can be done through any subject, but it follows naturally in art classes. That’s because the art departments employ this thing called the studio model. And by design, the studio model presents students with ill-defined problems which they are expected solve in novel ways. It’s real-world learning; there really is a product. So the knowledge sinks in.

The trick for art departments is to stress ideation and for students to record the process.  Recording the process helps students reflect on how they came up with their new solutions. It’s easy for students to forget how they came to a solution. Process books serve to refresh their memory.

Creativity isn’t a trick. It isn’t a single task. And it isn’t just for artists. It’s a process—one that can be learned. Testing for creativity can only come when the whole process is taken into consideration, not just one part of it.


How Sculptures Are Becoming Spaceships

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

For decades, the gravity defying sculptures of Kenneth Snelson have risen to the skies with a unique state of energy. These expansive nests of cable and steel rods possess a tranquil and rhythmic aesthetic quality linking geometry with art. It’s a process Snelson has perfected over the years. His sculptures are always a hit with the art-loving community and the not-so-art-loving community. He calls his combination of tension and compression, “tensegrity.” He and Buckminster Fuller seem to have come up with the idea together.

But as things go, good ideas have a multitude of applications. And now there is a new use for tensegrity—spaceships. NASA is now planning to build tensegrity robots called Super Ball Bots. These flexible robots are to roll like tumbleweeds around on the surfaces of planets sometime in the near future. NASA plans to drop the robots from high altitudes and just let them squish on the surface of the planet. Once they’ve done that, they’ll flex back into form and be good as new. Their combination of tension and compression makes these structures both flexible and durable. Without a central body, they basically look like a ball of sticks. Each little stick has its own brain and motor. Each brain works fairly independently and gang together to create an interesting system of interconnected computers that can continue navigating the robot even if some fail. The bots navigate by the each motor tightening or releasing tension in the cables.

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

It’s interesting to find useful solutions in one domain and then see those same principles jump to solve problems in other domains. You can call it synthesis, emulation, association or whatever. But in general, it’s creativity.

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.


How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website


I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.

Forget High-Tech, Plenty of Low-Tech Solutions are Still Waiting to be Invented

With all the 3D printers, flying drones and app designs getting so much of the attention related to innovation these days, it’s easy to think technology is the answer for all things creative. But on the contrary, there are still tons of low-tech creative solutions to be designed. Many times, because of the simplicity in many low-tech solutions, they are the most useful. And what an amazing rush to create something new from things like cardboard, yard sale finds, or just plain garbage.It just takes is some open-mindedness, experimentation and time. Take a look at these examples of low-tech innovation.

Forget High-Tech, Plenty of Low-Tech Solutions are Still Waiting to be Invented Plastic Bottle Light



Forget High-Tech, Plenty of Low-Tech Solutions are Still Waiting to be InventedRocket Stove 


Forget High-Tech, Plenty of Low-Tech Solutions are Still Waiting to be InventedCardboard Help Desk


Forget High-Tech, Plenty of Low-Tech Solutions are Still Waiting to be InventedPlastic Disaster Relief Shelter


Here are some related posts on some related creative strategies

Creativity and Innovation: Lead User Innovation

Creativity and Complexity: The Solution is Often a Product of How You See the Problem

Creativity and Curiosity: Doodle Your Way to Ideas


Be More Creative, Starting…Now!

Be More Creative, Starting…Now!

Now is the best time to be more creative. This sounds kind of obvious. But what I mean is that you should start working on creative projects as soon as you get them. When I lived in Baltimore, I’d always ask my neighbor John (a master carpenter) to help me with repairs around the house. Each time he’d say, “Let’s do it now.” In John’s mind, if you do everything now, burdensome tasks aren’t hanging over head, sucking up your brain power. And that’s very true. Doing things now enables one to escape the depression that sets in with looming deadlines.

But another side of doing things now is that the sooner you start something, the sooner the creative process begins. Once you engage any kind of creative process, the cogs in your subconscious brain start turning. The subconscious brain doesn’t worry about rationality, so it creates a bunch of crazy associations from all the recent information you’ve been absorbing. The more time you give it, the more bizarre associations it has time to make.

The products of these associations are moments of insights, epiphanies, or aha-moments. If you wait until a project is almost due, you limit the ability of your brain to make associations. Therefore, you limit your ability to generate creative ideas.

So, whatever it is, start it now.

Creativity and the Avant-Garde: Was Duchamp’s First Readymade Creative?

Creativity and the Avant-Garde: Was Duchamp’s first readymade creative?

In a recent discussion with the art historian James Elkins, we came to talk about art and creativity. He was curious  how the definition of creativity related to art. One topic in particular included the relationships between the avant-garde, originality and creativity. He had a great question. Was Duchamp’s first readymade creative?

Marcel Duchamp was an avant-garde artist who changed the way we view art. His famous “Fountain,” a simple urinal laid on its side, is seen as one of the twentieth century’s most influential artworks. Back in 1917, it was quite a stir. And sometimes, it still is a contentious work. In general, Duchamp would take common objects: a hat rack, bicycle wheel, or snow shovel and re-conceptualize them by reorienting them or connecting them in some way. What was an off-the-shelf object then became art.

But it appears that before he called his readymades art, he just had them around. I can’t confirm this, but a story goes that he had nailed a coatrack to the floor because people bumped into it. He himself admitted that when he connected a bicycle wheel to a stool, “I didn’t want to make a piece out of it, you see […] There was no conception of ready-made nor of anything else, it was just a distraction. I didn’t have a specific reason for doing so, or any intention of an exhibition, or description. No, nothing like that …” [Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp (Somogy : Paris 1995) 58].

This is real sense of the avant-garde. He was being so original, there wasn’t an audience. And therefore, there was nothing to compare it too. It took time for these to be recognized even by the artist. So, was the first readymade of Duchamp, possibly a coat rack nailed to the floor, creative? The answer is “no!”

Why you may ask. It’s in the definition. Creativity is the production of something novel and useful. To be useful, someone has to recognize that it solves a problem. And in this case, no one did—not even the artist. It was only when they had an audience and a level of appreciation that they became creative. On a smaller scale, things we personally do for the first time are considered “little c” creative—creative with regard to ourselves. This would fall under that understanding of creativity.

Creativity and Innovation: What Exactly is the Creative Economy?

Creativity and Innovation: What Exactly is the Creative Economy?

Over the past decade or so, more and more types of jobs have been added to those contributing to the creative economy. Between Richard Florida and John Howkins, it may appear that everyone is currently a member of the creative class.

Essentially, what we are experiencing is a transition from back breaking labor to mental adeptness. Our jobs require us to think, not just do. In the past, most jobs were agrarian. People lived by working the land. They would tend fields, cultivate livestock or have a job related in some sense to these types of occupations.

During the Industrial Revolution, things changed. New inventions made the tools of old more efficient. Subsequently, fewer and fewer people were needed in the fields. Displaced workers then migrated to cities were factories popped up and a new type of work force was created. These jobs were low to medium skilled monotonous occupations where people spent their days doing repetitious things. The work was tough and physical.

But as technology has changed the nature of doing things, hard labor seems to be losing ground to white collar jobs. And still, the nature of those jobs is changing. We work on our computers more and move around less. Our jobs are becoming less defined and our mental abilities to adapt are becoming more valued. We are being asked to solve problems, not perform tasks. That’s the creative economy.

These days we have to use our brains for more than memorization. It’s not good enough to just know something, computers can do that. Now, we have to conceptualize things and to re-conceptualize things.

John Howkins listed in his book, “The Creative Economy,” that: advertising, architecture, art, craft, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, research and development, software, toys & games, TV & radio, video games are all part of the creative economy. Then, Richard Florida went as far to say that “More than 35 million people are currently employed in creative class work in fields like science, technology, and engineering; business, finance, and management; law, health care, and education; and arts, culture, media, and entertainment.”

In a sense, we are all becoming part of the creative economy as the less creative jobs recede into the background of the work force. Cities are growing with new, inventive people who see innovation as a way of life. It’s an exciting time.

Creativity and Ideation: Fusing Unlike Concepts Leads to More Creative Ideas


Creativity doesn’t come from one idea. It comes from a combination of ideas. This process is called synthesis. Therefore, to generate creative ideas, you should make a practice of fusing concepts –especially unlike ones. Fusing similar ideas, or ones that seem natural, will create incremental advances in product design—a bluer paint, or a more concentrated detergent for example. But fusing dissimilar ideas can result in totally new approaches or products. The Dyson vacuum is an example of this. Dyson combined the functionality of a vacuum with the separating properties of a cyclone separator.

This also works to make projects more interesting. In a talk the other night, I was asked, “How do you make a project that is boring, more interesting.” My answer was to combine concepts. Specifically, my answer referred to the design matrix which you can see here. But synthesis is the overarching strategy for creating new and interesting ideas. Recently, I had students push the idea of a book. To do so, we combined the lyrics from songs on their playlist with the concept of a children’s book. Many of these songs were totally inappropriate for the audience. So we expanded our understanding of what a child is and what a book can be. We created some really interesting products. This video is an example of how far Alexis Ellis was able to take the concept.

If you want a creative idea, go take a walk!

Want a creative idea? Go take a walk!

Steve Jobs often asked people to his house for a one-on-one meeting that would turn into a walk through his neighborhood. Jobs felt more able to work through problems during these peripatetic get-togethers. Come to find out, he was on to something. Physical activity, like walking, can actually make you more creative.

A new study by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University shows that people walking are more creative than people sitting. It doesn’t matter where you go, inside or outside, just get going. Teachers have known for years that if you want to get a conversation going in a class, a little activity works wonders. The cliché, “getting the creative juices flowing” is now given a little more cachet.

As a teacher of creativity, I’ve found not only does physical activity work to help people think better, it also works to increase discontinuous problem solving. Discontinuous problem solving is when you stop working on a problem now and then to let it go into your subconscious. You subconscious continually associates unlike concepts while you do other stuff. Eventually, when a good association arrive, it send the message to your conscious brain for an “ah-ha” moment. Walking helps to take your mind off things for a little while so that “ah-ha” moment can arrive.