A vector graphic of a lightbulb
Creativity is a skill.
Chapter 5

How to be creative

by Amy J. Ko

In our chapter on  how to design , I mentioned a mystical abductive process called “creativity”. But I didn’t explain where it comes from, how it works, or how you “do” it. Is this something that you can learn to do? It is something you’re born with?

We don’t understand creativity fully, but researchers are actively trying to understand it 3 3

Farooq, U. (2006). Eureka! past, present, and future of creativity research in HCI. ACM Crossroads.

. Here’s my take: I believe creative thinking is an inherently  divergent generative  activity that  all  people can do. However, most societies do not value creative thinking and so our skills in generating ideas rapidly atrophies, as we do not practice it, and instead actively learn to suppress it 1 1

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Society, culture, and person: A systems view of creativity. Springer Netherlands.

. That time you said something creative and your mother called you weird? You learned to stop being creative. That time you painted something in elementary school and your classmate called it ugly? You learned to stop taking creative risks. That time you offered an idea in a class project and everyone ignored it? You must not be creative. Add up all of these little moments and where most people end up in life is possessing a strong  disbelief  in their ability to generate ideas. Some of my students have also argued that pressure to pursue more “logical” careers rather than creative ones disincentivizes youth to pursue (and therefore practice) creative endeavors.

Here’s another take on this same basic idea by David Kelly, who founded IDEO, a famous modern design firm:

An IDEO founder believes creativity skills are unlearned

His point? Half of being creative is  believing  you can, because the ability is already in you.

Here’s another reflection, this one by Ira Glass of  This American Life :

Creativity is taste

And here’s yet another talk expressing the same idea, this time on how the design of our current educational systems suppress creative confidence:

Do schools kill creativity?

Now, creative confidence is not all you need to be creative. Kelly would argue that you also need  process . Glass argues that you also need to develop  taste . Wisdom from many creators have found many strategies that might be called  process  that can organize and channel your naturally creative mind. 

Let’s discuss a few of these.

First, I just argued, people are inherently creative, at least within the bounds of their experience, so you can just  ask  them for ideas. For example, if I asked you, as a student, to imagine improvements or alternatives to lectures, with some time to reflect, you could probably tell me all kinds of alternatives that might be worth exploring. After all, you have more experience than nearly anyone sitting through lectures that haven’t met your needs, causing you to fall asleep, be bored, or be confused. These alternatives might not be well formed, or they might just be gestures toward a space of possible ideas, but they will be grounded in the realities of a problem. It would still be your job as a designer to help craft those beginnings of a creative idea into something more concrete. That partnership between a stakeholder of a problem and a designer who can help them express an idea is a powerful form of design justice.

Another way to generate creative ideas is to  steal  them from other contexts. Why would you spend a bunch of time generating good ideas when there are so many good ideas already out there? Find those good ideas, combine them into something new, and you’ll have something even better. These good ideas can come from anywhere: look to products on the market, products that are no longer on the market, the solutions that people are already using to solve a problem. One of the least studied repositories of great ideas is in libraries, which store descriptions of nearly everything ever invented. Want to design a better input device for mobile computing? Researchers have spent  the last 60 years investigating thousands of them , and they’ve carefully described how to make each and every one of them, detailing how well they worked. You could take any of these, start a company based on them, and never have to invent anything.

So you’ve done your market research, your literature search, your user research, and every solution you’ve found is still inadequate. You want to invent something better. Another strategy is called  quality through quantity . Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, once said:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Your best idea will probably be your 100th idea and not your first, because it will incorporate all of the wonderful things about the first 99 ideas. So start generating those bad ideas, figuring out what’s wrong with them, and then making better ones.

How do you figure out what’s wrong with those bad ideas?  Externalize often . The more you express those ideas—in words, in sketches, in prototypes, in demos—the more visible those flaws will be to you and other people. There’s a reason that Leonardo da Vinci kept a notebook in which he sketched and wrote every idea he had: it allowed him to see those ideas, share those ideas, critique those ideas, and improve those ideas. Had he kept them all in his head, his limited capacity to see and reason about those ideas would have greatly limited his productivity.

I still haven’t said where you  get  ideas. In my experience, ideas come from surrounding yourself with  rich context.  To illustrate, let’s try a little experiment. Let’s think about the problem of how to get people in Seattle to work more quickly. Have any ideas?

It’s hard to generate anything in a vacuum with no stimulation, right? Now let’s try generating some ideas after looking at some context:

A photograph of the SR 520 floating bridge in Seattle.
This does inspire anything?
A packed bus stop shelter with several elderly people waiting.
How about this?
A homeless man in a wheel chair in a crosswalk with a sign that reads ‘Vietnam Vet, homeless, disabled, US Marine Corp, please help“
What about this?

Can you think of any ideas now? What kind of ideas are you thinking of? Surround yourself with the complexity and rich contexts of the world and you’ll have no problem generating ideas, though they’ll be inherently informed by what you see 2 2

Dorst, K. and Cross, N. (2001). Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem-solution. Design studies.


Other creativity strategies are more analytical. For example, if you want to think of something new,  question assumptions . Einstein asked whether time is really uniform and absolute in space. That’s a pretty disruptive idea. Even questioning smaller assumptions can have big design implications. Consider several of the assumptions that recent software companies questioned:

  • Do hotels have to be big box businesses (Airbnb)?
  • Do people have to use a checkbook to manage their money (Mint)?
  • Do cars have to be powered by gas (Tesla)? (Actually, electric cars were  invented in 1832 ).

These are not big, challenging questions to  ask , they’re just big, challenge questions to  answer .

Another analytical route to generating ideas is  analogical reasoning , which Plato and Aristotle called “shared abstractions.” The basic idea is to take something concrete (like a horse), generalize it to something more abstract (a grass-powered human vessel), then modify the abstraction (a gas-powered human vessel), then finally make something more concrete (car). See? We just invented cars with analogy. Here’s another example: what is a teacher? If we really abstract away the details of what teachers do, they’re entities that shape the future thoughts and behaviors of people, by consent. If we take that abstract idea of what teachers do and try to make it concrete in a different way, what can we come up with? Intelligent tutoring software that shapes people’s behavior. Maybe  advertisements  are teachers because they also try to shape behavior, but not by consent. What if there were advertisements that  did  teach by consent? See how this abstract idea of what a teacher is starts to generate new conceptions of how to shape behavior? The creative strategy here is finding the essence of something, and then manifesting that essence into something new. By no means is it a mechanical process—there is still a synthetic leap required from one domain to another—but analogies can scaffold this leap.

All of these strategies require some faith. You have to believe that you can generate things, you have to trust that surrounding yourself with the rich detail of the world that you will notice things, and you have to trust that by noticing many things, you’ll generate many ideas. Yes, some people may be better at these skills than others, but that’s only because they’ve practiced more. So start practicing.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Society, culture, and person: A systems view of creativity. Springer Netherlands.

  2. Dorst, K. and Cross, N. (2001). Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem-solution. Design studies.

  3. Farooq, U. (2006). Eureka! past, present, and future of creativity research in HCI. ACM Crossroads.