A few months ago, I presented a session at my companies annual Tech Conference that focused on what science and design pros had to say about creativity. The session went really well and I got a lot of good feedback on it, so I have decided to turn the session into an article. Here goes….

What Science Says About Creativity

“Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer


Research from the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam has shown that certain constraints can actually increase creative thinking. When people are given something to struggle with, either a physical obstacle, or difficult question that must be answered, people tend to shift into what is called “global processing”, which tends to increase a person’s creativity in problem solving.

An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore. (Mathew May, How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity).


Find the constraints in the problem you are trying to solve, and if you have none, create some. It could be as simple as determining some parameters, such as “must be responsive and must not take longer than 1.5 seconds per page to load.” If you are doing a brainstorming session, give the participants clear constraints to focus their creativity.

SOURCE: Stepping back to see the big picture: when obstacles elicit global processing.


One of the classic idea-generation techniques is the group brainstorming session. A group of people get together in a room and throw out ideas about how to solve a problem. How good are the ideas generated from such a session?

Not very good, according to research conducted in 1963 by Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. In the study, multiple groups were given different topics to brainstorm over. Some groups were allowed to brainstorm alone, while others brainstormed in traditional groups together. What was found was that the quantity and quality of ideas generated from solitary brainstormers was higher than from group brainstorming sessions.


Next time your team wants to brainstorm about a topic, give the topic, along with constraints or parameters that the solution must meet, to each team member and allow them to brainstorm alone. Then bring everyone together to review the solutions generated. Without the peer pressure to “show off” in a group dynamic, or to conform to popular opinions, you might find that the solutions generated are more feasible and of a higher quality.

SOURCE: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Chapter 3: When Collaboration Kills Creativity


A common stereotype about creatives is we tend to have a lot of clutter in your workspaces. This clutter can be from books, toys, papers, sticky notes, maybe even the odd plant or two. Research from the University of Minnesota suggest that those of us who embrace our need to be surrounded by objects tend to be more creative and produce more ideas than those of us who are more zen-like in our work environments.

To be fair, the research was not terribly scientific and was much more about subjective observation than a rigid scientific methodology, so take this insight with a few grains of salt. Study participants were either placed in a cluttered room or an orderly room. Participants in the cluttered room tended to make choices that suggested openness to new ideas, while those in the orderly room tended to make choices that were more expected.


Again, this research is not as scientific as I would prefer and therefore we are relying more on subjectivity, but we still might benefit from creating workspaces that are filled with objects that we love. It makes a certain sense that constantly seeing objects rather than seeing a blank wall, could spark more creativity than not. If your workspace is pristine, consider adding a few things, such as a plant or a toy or two, to increase the visual stimuli that surrounds you.

SOURCE: Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits

“But anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Ever notice how sometimes you get so engrossed in what you are doing that time seems to stop and your output increases? This state of being is called “flow”, defined by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus.”

Research suggest that those who are able to get into a flow state more readily, “high flow” individuals, tend to not only be more positive and have more feelings of contentment, but tend to also be more creative.


Some people can naturally enter a flow state while for others it requires a more systematic approach. Flow starts with a clear, singular purpose. Abstract goals rarely produce flow. It also helps to produce a creative challenge that is somewhat hard-our brains tend to get bored without interesting challenges. Make sure that you are in an a environment that matches your personality. If you need stimulation, then maybe that is a coffee shop. For others, being alone might be the ideal situation. If possible, try to prevent any disruptions or interruption-they pull you out of flow. Read more about how to achieve flow.

SOURCES: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Rub Some Bacon On It

I have found that the number one obstacle to my being creative, to generating ideas and solving problems, is my attitude. When I am stressed, annoyed with someone at work, or frustrated because I can’t figure something out, my brain locks down and nothing useful comes out. I force myself to do things to change my mindset, and being that I am generally a goofy person, watching silly videos or listening to comedic music tends to change my attitude rapidly. There is science to support the idea that simply feeling happy can positively impact your intelligence and creativity. So next time you want to drop kick someone at work, Rub Some Bacon It and get back to being awesome.

SOURCES: Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus
Happiness and Creativity: Going Along with the Flow

“The brain looks different if you’re trying to solve a creative problem than if you’re trying to solve a math problem”
Dr. Jeffrey Thompson of The Center for Neuroacoustic Research in San Diego


According to Dr. Jeffrey Thompson of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research in San Diego, music can alter your brainwaves and change your state of consciousness to be more receptive to creative ideas. The types of music that have been shown to aid creativity are ones that are slower paced with regular patterns, like classical or more ambient music. As you listen to the music, your brainwaves attempt to time themselves to the speed of the pulses in the music.

“That alters your consciousness, creating a more dreamlike state,” he says. “That dreamlike state, Theta, mirrors the state of consciousness associated with creativity.”


Next time you are trying to get into idea-generation mode, turn off the Nine Inch Nails and turn on some Enya. Leave the gangsta rap for when you are in “get r done” mode.

SOURCE: http://www.howdesign.com/design-creativity/music/

SHELL’S “I need to be Creative NOW” PLAYLIST

What Pros Say About Creativity

“creativity is just connecting things.”
Steve Jobs

8 Steps of Creativity

According to the book Zig Zag:The Surprising Path to Creativity, there are 8 steps that the author has found are essential to the creative process:

  1. ASK Look for the right problem to solve
  2. LEARNBe a constant student, always learning new skills, mastering your craft
  3. LOOK Regularly seek out the new in all facets of your life
  4. PLAY Engage your imagination to release your unconscious mind
  5. THINK The more ideas that you generate, the more likely some of them will be great
  6. FUSE Ideas come from multiple sources and are fused together to create a unified vision
  7. CHOOSE Curate your ideas and only choose the best ones to cultivate
  8. MAKE Now bring your idea to life and make something real

Random Thoughts on Creativity

Stay a Beginner

When we become experts at something, we become burdened by that knowledge. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Be a Collector

Keep a morgue file, or swipe file, filled with anything and everything that inspires you, that is done well, that you wish you had designed. Go through it every time you need to spark your creativity. For this digital age, I recommend using Evernote for your morgue file.

Take Mental Breaks

If you are getting stuck on an idea or a solution to a problem, walk away from it for awhile, switch tasks, and allow your mind to generate unconscious connections. You may find when you go back to the task that you have a fresh take on it that you hadn’t thought of before.

“Limitations often force you to view things from a perspective you are not accustomed to and, in turn, can stimulate the clarity and purpose of the design, rather than debilitate and hinder your creative process.”
Joshua Brewer, Constraints Fuel Creativity

“I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Read more about the 10 Paradoxical Traits of Creative People

“Creativity is just intelligence having fun.”

Albert Einstein

“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want-that just kills creativity.”

Jack White

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic”

Jim Jarmusch

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is we do not get them from our laptops.”

John Cleese

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Howard Aiken

“The creative act is nonlinear.”

Josh Linkner, Jazz Musician

Related Links

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. ”

Albert Einstein




  • SITE: Lumosity  Lumosity is a subscription-based site that lets you play games that are designed by neuroscientists to improve core cognitive functions-smart people are creative people. I have been using this service for the past two years and highly recommend it.
  • SITE: Coffitivity  Recommended by a company colleague, Coffitivity is a site and app that plays the sounds of a coffee shop, to act as background sound, meant to aid creativity. There are downloads for MAC, iPhone, and iPad as well as the site itself.
  • SITE: Safari Books Online: Safari is an online book shelf, with thousands of technical, creative, and business-related books and videos. An important aspect of being creative is being knowledgeable and having access to information. Safari is subscription based and allows full access to the included resources and also includes apps for iOS, Android and Blackberry. We have a subscription at work that I use extensively.


  • PUT THIS ON REPEAT: Couleurs by M83. This is my creative anthem, it feels like the backing track to an awesome montage scene of me being awesome 🙂
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