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3 ways to think more creatively about product design

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At first glance, many products may seem entirely unrelated. But, if you look closely, there is probably a point where their functions converge. Creativity lies at that intersection.

Many influential historic innovations stand at these intersections. Johannes Gutenberg combined a wine press and a die/punch to create the Western world’s first printing press. Josephine Cochran placed a wheel inside a boiler to invent the first reliable dishwasher. More recently, nanotechnologists gave their microscopic robots shells so they could mimic the movements of scallops and swim through your blood.

Merging two things that are wildly different can be a difficult cognitive hurdle, especially when combining two big, complex things, like industries. So, how can you get your brain to think like this?

Embrace absurdity

Some—if not all—of your ideas which combine industries or product functionality will be a bit absurd. That’s actually helpful. In a 2009 study, participants read an absurd short story by Franz Kafka before completing a pattern recognition task. They showed an enhanced subconscious ability to recognize hidden patterns over the control group.

1991 radio shack ad

Check out all the products in this 1991 Radio Shack ad. Your smartphone combines the main features and functionality of every single one of them. That’s the telecommunications industry, photography industry, entertainment industry all rolled into one. Earlier this year, the Coolest Cooler, a plastic cooler that merges a USB charger, blender, waterproof Bluetooth speaker, and bottle opener, surpassed its $50,000 Kickstarter goal, eventually raising a staggering $13M. It's clear. The consumer is embracing the Frankenstein product.

By encouraging nonsensical ideas, your product design benefits. You open yourself up to creative possibilities that lie on the edge of absurdity, which could answer all of your customer’s current pain points.

Use lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is defined as “a way of solving problems by using reasoning that is not immediately obvious.” Here’s an example of a lateral thinking problem: If a red house is made of red bricks, and a blue house is made of blue bricks, what is a green house made of?

The answer is glass.

Lateral thinking is about confronting assumptions—in this case—that the term “green” is describing the color of the building materials rather than the type of building.

Approaching the problem sideways instead of from the traditional top-down approach can be very helpful when trying to combine two unlike ideas. It can also help when confronting the assumption that a product has to be a particular way because of historical example in its industry.

For example, Skype popped up in 2003 with a innovative merger of internet chat rooms and telecom. Earlier this year, Richard Branson debuted the concept of a banking lounge, channeling the relaxed nature of a coffee shop while providing banking services.

Master Janusian thinking

Janusian thinking is the capacity to conceive and utilize two or more opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images simultaneously. The common example is Einstein and his theory of relativity. He was able to imagine something in motion (a man jumping off of a roof) and not in motion (any objects released by him, relative to him) at the same time. By mastering this way of thinking, you’ll be able to recognize and address the paradoxes that exist in combining two unlike ideas.

This kind of thinking is crucial for the evolution of companies crossing the product versus service delineation. So what does that look like, crossing a product with a service?

Two companies that have roots in service come to mind. Handy (on-demand home help) and TaskRabbit (on-demand errand running and miscellaneous tasks) are adopting the same business strategy as traditional “product” companies. Their model is shifting to allow the customer to purchase the service with one transaction—like a product in a store—without having the long term implications traditional of service-based relationships.

When creating these new concepts, what characteristics of each original idea should you keep? Why should you keep them? How do the original ideas differ in customer experience versus customer outcome? The answers to these questions will help inform your design.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Our modern world is filled with things that help us avoid feeling uncomfortable. We switch from air conditioning to heat as the weather changes. We run on treadmills in indoor gyms to avoid dealing with potholes or a rainstorm. However, creativity flows when you feel uncomfortable.

With routine, people tend to get stuck in patterned forms of thought. By forcing our minds out of our comfort zones, we can become a part of a more intellectually diverse crowd that helps us continue to learn and challenge our own assumptions.

After all, how can you solve a problem if you have none? The creativity required to solve an uncomfortable or difficult problem can be harnessed for your product design. Try solving a difficult logic puzzle or reading an article which challenges your beliefs before designing to capture this creative flow.

You might also feel uncomfortable when you’re presenting people your idea. Unfortunately, that’s also when you’re likely to be rejected. Regardless of how much human beings admire and desire creativity, there is a scientifically proven bias against new ideas. Keep that in mind when your company is taking a little while to catch on. By using creative supporting arguments and persevering through this discomfort, you’ll be able to overcome this bias and sway people to your side.

Creative thinking prompts to get started

As with anything, practice makes perfect. Here are a few prompts to get you thinking:

  • Different eras: How was business done in previous generations in your industry? What would it look like to run your business today back then, or vice versa?
  • Different objects: Think of two objects that are totally different from one another. What would it look like if they were one object? What qualities would you keep of each?
  • Different experiences: Consider two unlike experiences, one energizing and the other relaxing, or one elegant and the other rustic. What would it be like to have the one experience in the other’s environment? What part of the experience only works when in the correct environment?


The combination of ideas is endless, and that’s exactly what makes it so exciting. What industries would you like to see have a lovechild?

Author

Margaret Kelsey
Content + community at InVision. Newly Bostonian.

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