[R03] Creative heuristics

The recipe in the last tutorial is a very general outline of what we can do to come up with new ideas. But more specifically, if creativity involves manipulating ideas, what are the different methods available which would help us come up with ideas to be tested? Here we present some heuristics that might be helpful.

Feature list

A feature list for an object or process is simply a list of its main features. Having obtained such a list, one can examine the features one by one and consider how it might be changed. For instance, a typical table has a fixed round or rectangular flat top that rests on one or more supporting pole. An exotic designer table might instead have movable multi-level worktops of irregular shapes supported by a wired frame.


The use of analogies might help us imagine new features. By comparing X with Y we can consider whether special features of Y might have analogues in X. Thinking of an airplane as a bird leads us to see whether the evolutionary solutions for aviation in birds might be applied to the building of aircrafts. Similarly, a new kind of swiming suit designed to reduce drag for swimming competitors was actually inspired by shark skins.


Sometimes solving a problem is a matter of searching through a long list of possible solutions. It then becomes important to find a systematic search method. When Edison was designing the electric light bulb, a crucial task was the search of a suitable filament which conducts electricity well enough to give off light, but which will not burn up or melt as a result. It became very important for him to classify the different types of material (e.g. ceramic or metallic) that was being tested in order to narrow down the search. When we have a large search space we should divide the space into portions to that the search can be done systematically, and device tests of represenative samples from different regions to eliminate unlikely candidates.

Perspective shift

When dealing with a problem that involves people, one might consider the problem from the different perspectives of the parties involved. Suppose we are trying to improve the effiency of a company, we can imagine how we might deal with the problem from the CEO's point of view, or from the perspective of the sales department. Taking different perspectives in turn might help us appreciate difficulties or opportunities which we have not thought of before.

Perspective shift involves also thinking about different ways of formulating a problem. Sometimes when we are dealing with a difficulty we might be fixated on one particular aspect. Trying to formulate the problem differently can help us discover new approaches. For example, a developer working on a site might be faced with the difficulty of having to clear and remove a significant amount of topsoil from the site. Instead of seeing this as a source of expenses, the developer might try to see the problem from a different perspective. He might discover for example that the quality of the soil is actually quite suitable for farming purposes, and so someone might actually be willing to pay some money to purchase the soil. So sometimes we do need to leave aside our preconceptions for the time being and explore alternative ways of looking at a situation. As Einstein said when he was asked what single event was most helpful in developing his theory of relativity, he replied: "Figuring out how to think about the problem."

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