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  • Writer's pictureJ.Margus Klaar

How 'bout them apples!

Since we started doing design thinking and service design trainings, we’ve always included a section on creativity and how people remain stuck in established thinking patterns. According to Leonard Mlodinow, who wrote the book Elastic, there are three principle ways of thinking:

  • The simplest and most common type of thinking is prescriptive thinking. We think (and do) what we are used to doing. This means (and you can try this at home) that you do what you’ve learned to do (and think). If you ask a random group of strangers to draw a house in 10 seconds you’ll inevitably end up with a bunch of drawings of squares with triangles on top. Some will have chimneys and some will have doors and windows, but overall they are all the same.

  • Logical and analytical thinking requires the ability to synthesise, but depends on short-term and long-term memory. More complicated, but happens based on experience. If you give people a little more time, they will improve on their drawings and start considering reality. They will expand and change their concepts based on their experience and what they can infer from their available knowledge. However, it is predictable and people tend to move in a linear fashion.

  • Elastic thinking. Creative, flexible, experimental. Only this type of thinking can create new connections and solve new types of problems. This type of thinking is hard, because it requires letting go of preconceptions and making lateral connections that are not obvious. But they are also not predictable, which means that we’re getting into the area of originality.

A really good way to test these three ways of thinking is through an exercise know as crazy eight’s. The exercise is simple enough: fold an A4 paper three times to create 8 rectangles. The task is then to draw an apple in the first rectangle. The next task is to draw a completely different version of the apple in the second rectangle. And continue drawing completely different apples into each subsequent rectangle.

We’ve done this exercise with hundreds of people, from bankers to public servants to secondary school students. For the first 3-4 apples, the results are predictable. The apple gets a bite taken out or a leaf is added. Or it is cut in half, but it is still a recognisable apple. This is also the point where people run out of ideas and start scratching their heads.

The task is still to draw a completely different apple from the previous one. This is where logical and analytical thinking starts to be replaced by elastic thinking. Apple juice. Apple pie. A mobile phone. An Android figure - a different kind of Apple! I love New York. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

Interestingly, what affects the level of creativity is not individual’s creative ability but rather the level of organisational conformity that is expected of them. The bankers were very creative. The bank as a staid and boring organisation is an image of the past. The people we met were inquisitive, intelligent and willing to challenge every pre-conception. Unexpectedly, the high school students were the least creative - what does that say about the education system?


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