The Element of Surprise (or the Next-Gen Kindle)

If you follow the seempli Daily Creative Challenge, chances are you came across The Next Kindle challenge. Based on the Next-Gen Prism we defined the following challenge: think of an upgrade or a redesign of the Kindle. As inspiration, we picked a random seempli Seed, and this is what we got:

I am often asked about the nature of the ideation activity. Can we formalize it as a process? Where do ideas come from? And what does “anything goes” (our motto across the seempli platform) means?

So today I would like to walk you through my chain of thoughts when playing with The Next Kindle challenge. It is far from being “a process.” As you will see, if anything, it is quite arbitrary. But while this might seem to be a downside, I see it as the best “process” possible. Why? Because when anything goes, something is bound to surprise you. That is the nature of creativity. And, it is purely fun.

So, here’s what happened when I approached The Next Kindle challenge.

First, I need to clarify that following the instructions on the Next-Gen Prism, I indeed selected the device first, and a random Seed later. I use Kindle on a daily basis, and it provides me hours of fun, so the choice was pretty obvious. It was the Seed that caught me by surprise: what does a Flood have to do with my precious Kindle? I could have picked a different Seed, but part of the game is working with what you got and not picking an allegedly easier challenge. So, I started to associate.

My first association was pretty trivial: water. What does that have to do with Kindle? Well, that’s pretty obvious: it could be water resistant. The only problem with that is that a water-resistant Kindle already exists (this by itself is not an issue in the context of our little challenge, but the fact that I know about it is).

So I tried a different line of thought: how about the action of flooding. Can we somehow bring the notion of flooding to the Kindle? When I played with that direction, I came up with the idea of letting the sentences flood the screen. That’s not really usable, so I refined the concept to allow the sentences flow across the screen, like an animated banner. In retrospect, I know a very similar feature is already available (called Word Runner) only it shows one word at a time, which to me is less natural — it just doesn’t flow. Still, I felt this is not what I was looking for.

All this time, I remembered the Seed and thought about its title. What I accidentally did next, changed the entire gameplay: I went back to my desk, and I stared at the Seed card. I cannot tell you why I chose to do that, or why hadn’t I did that before. I didn’t have any special intention or expectation. But something unexpected happened. I saw this:

Somehow, on a second look, I accidentally filtered out the meaning of the word and saw the shape of its letters. Or, more accurately, two of its letters. And somehow the association they have created in my mind was of reading glasses (well, the “reading” part was naturally derived from the context of the challenge).

This new and surprising association triggered a new feature idea: making the Kindle readable for people who need reading glasses, without having to wear them!

Let’s reflect on this chain of thoughts. You can argue that since reading is the primary purpose of a Kindle, thinking about reading aids like glasses is pretty trivial. In other words: it’s not that surprising. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t… for other people. For me, this was a revelation. Believe me when I say that as a Kindle user I never thought of this aspect before. At least as far as I remember. Maybe this idea was there all the time safely buried in my mind. It doesn’t really matter. The fact is, it was the random trigger in the form of two letters from a random Seed that ignited it (or re-ignited it). And for me, that is magic!

The point of the game was just to ideate — to come up with several creative ideas, without considering their feasibility, effectiveness, or any other real-world concern. When you face a creative challenge in the real world, these questions will come next, after generating a pool of ideas. But, I got curious: is my Super-Vision Kindle feasible? A quick search led me to this experimental work with screens that can be adjusted to address vision problems. So it appears I was not the first one to come up with the idea. Does that make it any less creative? Did I just fail the challenge? Far from it. My goal doing this exercise was not to submit a new patent application. We don’t get a score on the “objective originality” of the idea (whatever that is). We are just aiming to push our own creative limits and develop our creative skills. The point of reference is personal. If I came up with an idea I didn’t think of or knew of before, it is a creative idea.

There are a few takeoffs from this little exercise. All of them can be applied to any creative “process,” whether it is aimed to solve a real-world problem or to play with a creative challenge.

1 Creativity Cannot be Captured as a Process

Many people already acknowledge the fact that creativity is messy. It cannot be captured as a process. At the same time, others still believe they can define or follow a predefined process that will result in creative Insights.

My experience with the Next Kindle exercise is an excellent example of why defining a repeatable creative process is futile. The “process” I initially practiced was based on association of Flood. But the best Insight I eventually came up with was derived from a visual queue I didn’t expect. That is the true nature of creativity.

This does not mean, we can’t aim for an optimal (or just better) setup that will allow us to generate creative insights. The fact that I used a Seed as a random input means I’ve tried to create a very specific setting for this exercise — a setting which I believed would contribute to my success. But there is quite a difference between creating an optimal setup and defining a repeatable process.

2 Anything Goes or The Element of Surprise

I probably say it dozens of times a week: In creativity in general, and when working with seempli in particular, anything goes. This cryptic mantra often doesn’t enable people to understand what exactly should they do next. It also seems to contradict the well-known idea that constraints boost creativity. Where’s the constraint if anything goes?

I believe the chain of thoughts described above is a good example of the mindset I am aiming for. It starts with a constraint, and a very strict one: your idea must be inspired by the Flood Seed. Such an arbitrary constraint can leave you perplexed, at least until you realize that you can actually do with it whatever you want. And that’s what “anything goes” means.

I started with an association based on the meaning of the word. But then somehow I was drawn to the shape of the letters. And these are merely two options. This is your game to play (or in a real-world context: your challenge to solve), so you can shape the rules. Despite the constraints, you have unlimited options. And when you adopt this “infinity mindset,” creative ideas will just flow.

3 External Triggers Work in Mysterious Ways

And while we are discussing constraints and unlimited options, it is worth noting the beauty (and effectiveness) of adding arbitrary external triggers to ignite our imagination. The Flood Seed (and any other seempli Seed for that matter) was not designed or selected to help us solve this specific problem or even this type of problem. We added it to the problem space as an unrelated external ingredient to play with. And that was precisely the ingredient that enabled us to do some creative magic.

The Seed allowed our mind to make surprising connections. Mindfully exploring the world can have the same impact and ultimately this is our goal: to use whatever we see around us as inspiration. But playing with a concrete Seed also adds the element of constraint. It literally turns the challenge we are facing into a game. And playfulness can make a huge difference when it comes to creative problem solving and ideation.

4 Creativity <> Originality <> Feasibility

Last but not least, we often confuse creativity with originality. It is easy to dismiss my “killer idea” just because someone else already came up with it. But that is not the point. My idea was a creative idea from my perspective. Whether it is feasible technically or business wise is a valid question, and if I were the Kindle Product Manager it would have been my responsibility to analyze these aspects. But while this analysis is required to turn a creative idea into a real-world innovation, it is a distinct activity from the creative ideation activity.

So, we can come up with a creative idea and later find out it is not original. This does not make it any less feasible. Or we can come up with a genuinely original creative idea which has no business prospect. Feasibility and in some cases one or two of the other aspects are essential to the success of your idea. But this doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate creativity in its purest sense, even if eventually it ends up with nothing feasible. Why should you? Because this is precisely what will enable you to be even more creative the next time.

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