Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often

One of the most solid findings from creativity research is that you should externalize your thoughts early and often. By “externalize” psychologists mean to take your nascent ideas out of your own head, and create a visual or spatial representation. This helps drive creativity in several ways.

  • First, in most cases you have to transform your idea, usually a little but sometimes a lot, to make it visible. That transformation is always a productive creative process. Working hard to get your idea on paper makes you more creative than if you simply think harder and longer inside your own head.
  • Second, once your idea is visible, it takes on its own life. And then, you can start to interact with it, to engage in a dialogue with your work.
  • Third, this process drives creativity by helping to make it more clear what’s great, and what needs more work.

This research is so important that in my creativity advice book, Zig Zag, the eighth and final step of the creative process is “MAKE: How getting your ideas out into the world drives creativity forward”. Externalization is a core component of design thinking; it’s why design firms have white boards all around the room, and even silly putty and Tinker Toys on the table. In my chapter about this research, the first and most important creativity technique that I describe is “Draw a Picture.” I quote the American painter, Robert Motherwell:

In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.

Today’s Wall Street Journal (7/30/2014) reports on additional research showing that doodling has many cognitive benefits–all consistent with the creativity research I drew on in writing Zig Zag:

Research research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information…allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.

Jesse Prinz doodle faceThey cite a cool new book by Sunni Brown, called The Doodle Revolution. The WSJ article is published with some fascinating doodles that were done in meetings and during presentations, like this one at the right by Professor Jesse Prinz (we both used to be colleagues together at Washington University in St. Louis). Dr. Prinz tends to specialize in face doodles; others specialize in “font doodles” (writing down key concepts but using fancy elaborate fonts). This new research continues a long line of research that leads to the most important creativity advice I know of: Get your ideas out into the world, early and often.

3 thoughts on “Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often

  1. Hi Keith: Great post again, as I’ve come to expect from your blog!

    I teach songwriting at Berklee College of Music, and I am very interested in ways of teaching creative process and especially collaborative process. Your post on cognitive benefits of externalization and “doodling” remind me of the work of comic and graphic novel artist Linda Barry, who has a well-developed and well-articulated artist’s practice. She is a strong proponent of the power of thinking with pen and color.

    From a musician’s standpoint – “doodling” often appears as “noodling.” That is, the “inception” moment or seed inspiration for a creative work often begins with instrument in hand. On the other hand, there is also a benefit to cultivating the cognitive ability to hear musical ideas away from one’s instrument. You get to different kinds of ideas via these different pathways. And sometimes it is the thinking through vocal melody or lyric, while noodling on the instrument, that is the real work. In these cases, perhaps the instrumental play is the closest equivalent to the sort of absent-minded doodles that happen in meetings. (By the way – that is a different activity, it strikes me, than the “intent to depict” an idea.)

    What really strikes me as the closest analogy, though, is the process a musician or songwriter goes through of NOTATING their musical ideas. These days, with ready availability of iPhone recorders, it is a temptation to capture ideas instantly as audio and leave it there. But I’ve observed powerful benefits in the activity of transcribing and notating a musical idea – even in an informal and perhaps imprecise notation. The activity pushes you to “concretize” the idea, to unfuzz countless little choice points. I tell students they need to develop their skills of musical memory. But paradoxically, faithfully transcribing their ideas will actually help them retain them better in memory as well. It seems to be a “bootstrapping” sort of process.

    It would be interesting to know about research that compares the benefits of these activities in different sensory modes (visual, auditory) – and where tactile, motor activity is involved vs. visualization (or audialization as the case may be!).

    Thanks – Mark Simos
    Associate Prof, Songwriting
    Berklee College of Music
    Blog: http://songwriterscompass.wordpress.com/

    1. I agree completely, thank you for those great analogies! This is why my own studies of musical creativity have focused on improvisation. Also, because you mentioned cartooning I highly recommend Bob Mankoff’s book THE NAKED CARTOONIST, about creativity in the cartooning process.

  2. Pingback: Mark Colling!

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