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ZIG ZAG Book Review (By a Ten Year Old) April 16, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, is dedicated to my 10-year-old son, Graham. He just returned the favor by reading and reviewing the book for his 5th-grade book review assignment. The teacher used good arts integration pedagogy: she had the students do their review in multiple media (decorating a brown paper bag, and then filling it with items related to the book). Here’s the report my son turned in. First, the front, with title, author photo, and the 15-shape invention exercise from inside the book:


On the back, his short review:


“My favorite part of the book” is the 15-shape invention exercise, where he writes “the object you make normally seems cool!” And, here’s what he says under “My opinion on the book”:

I liked the book because it helps you use your creativity. It encourages you to move forward, and gives you 8 steps to follow for creativity. It has games in it as well to enhance your creativity. It made me want to keep reading it because I couldn’t wait to find the next game. Another reason I like it is because my dad wrote it, and he dedicated it to me! This books explains the who, what, where, when, and why.

Thank you, Graham, for this impartial and unbiased review. ;)

Bob Mankoff’s Life in Cartoons March 29, 2014

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Bob Mankoff has been drawing cartoons for the New Yorker magazine since 1977, and he’s been the magazine’s cartoon editor for years. We’ve had some great conversations about the creative process of cartooning; he was a fan of my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and I’m a huge fan of his work, too, especially his 2002 book The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity. Mankoff makes a strong argument that cartooning is a special window into the creative process.

He’s just published his latest book, a memoir, How About Never–Is Never Good For You? with the subtitle “My Life in Cartoons.” (Today it’s Amazon.com sales rank is an awesome 108!) To learn the story behind the title, read Mankoff’s own blog post about his new book, here, or this excellent review in the Wall Street Journal.

Thinking In New Boxes October 12, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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Thinking in New Boxes is the title of a new book by Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny of Boston Consulting Group. They write “Thinking outside the box is dead” and propose “thinking in new boxes processes” like: doubt everything; research; generate ideas; introduce reality; and implement and evaluate relentlessly.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, with over 100 creativity techniques based in research, I make a similar point. In Chapter 4, on how to get yourself into the playful mindset where great ideas happen, I recommend “Find The Right Box” and I introduce a group of four practical techniques with this:

There’s a popular belief that creativity comes from the absence of constraints. People assume that if you’re not creative, it’s because you’re thinking inside the box—so all you need to do is to get rid of the box!

But research shows just the opposite: creativity is enhanced by constraints. They just have to be the right constraints. The techniques of this section show you how important it is to draw boundaries around the space in which you play. If you’re stumped for an idea, maybe you just need to play with different toys for a while; start a new game, with a different set of rules.

As the famous G. K. Chesterton put it: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

Ten Lessons for Design-Driven Success September 20, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Uncategorized.
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Check out Fast Company’s 10th annual issue devoted to “Innovation by Design”, showing how good design drives innovation. These are their ten key factors that drive the “new kind of creativity”, and each one is elaborated in one of the articles in this special issue:

  1. Design starts at the top. In innovative companies, the CEO is very close to the top designer. “Only the CEO can get the entire company to focus on something,” says Google designer Jon Wiley.
  2. Apple was the first to show the way. Max Chaifkin contributes an oral history of Apple’s design, arguing that Apple’s design strategy has been completely misunderstood.
  3. Good design often takes years, not quarters, to bring results. Sometimes a failed product, like Apple’s 2000 Cube, sows the seeds for later successes.
  4. There are many different ways to build a design and innovation culture. Google, for example, does not have a chief designer and doesn’t have any design “rules.” At other design powerhouses, there’s a lead designer in the C-suite. It depends.
  5. Sometimes innovation and design doesn’t seem to be the wisest financial design. It can cost a lot of money, and the revenue stream isn’t always obvious. Apple stores all have a Genius Bar and their services are free. What other retail chain devotes 20% of floor space to something they give away for free? And yet, Apple Stores have the highest sales per square foot of any retailer.
  6. Today’s consumers want good design more than ever. The examples of success are online bazaar Fab, and Samsung, and new brands including Nest and Warby Parker.
  7. Watch consumers to get new ideas and good design.
  8. Design has to be embedded and linked to every other aspect of the business. Manufacturing, marketing, finance. It can’t just be shape, color, or even just interaction design.
  9. You need both the big picture, and a mastery of the small details. Examples include Jawbone, Flipboard, and J. Crew.
  10. Treat every day like it’s the first day of your business. Jeff Bezos of Amazon uses the expression “day one” to emphasize that Amazon is still just at the beginning.

I particularly liked their timeline of key design moments from 2004 to 2013, starting on page 35. Remember when Chicago’s Millennium Park opened in July 2004? It seems like it’s been there forever! Remember when Dan Pink published A Whole New Mind in 2005? Read these prophetic words:

It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.

This is a must-read issue! (October 2013)

25 Ways To Be More Creative September 8, 2013

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Inc. Magazine just published a review of my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Reporter Christina DesMarais selected her favorite 25 techniques, out of more than 100 I wrote about in the book. DesMarais writes:

The book is a gem, chock full of fascinating findings from research studies and a deep well of tactics that will get you thinking differently. Check out Sawyer’s book if you want to know more–he claims it offers more than 100 tips on how to be more creative.

This great book review definitely made my weekend!


Trade Shows Make You More Creative (If They’re Not Your Own Trade) August 26, 2013

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I’m in Chicago to deliver a keynote tomorrow morning at McCormick Place, the huge convention center on the South Side of Chicago. My event is called “The Collaborative” and is organized by Maritz Travel. I arrived early today, and I discovered that there were several other conferences taking place at this cavernous facility, completely unrelated to my own business and research. But I like to practice what I preach, so I took this as an opportunity: In my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, one of the creativity techniques that I recommend is to attend trade shows that are totally different from your own daily business. So I walked around and asked questions, and I learned all sorts of things that have no obvious benefit to me whatsoever…but paradoxically, these strange bits of information are the secret to creativity.

One show was already open today: It is the American Public Works Association (APWA) annual meeting. The attendees are cities and municipalities, and people that sell products to them. I walked through the vendor exhibition booth, and I saw huge snow removal vehicles, augurs for digging sewer lines, temporary construction barriers, and solid waste disposal technologies. This was very big equipment, and it was fascinating!

Another conference starting in a few days is Print Expo 2013. At the bar, I chatted with a guy who works for one of the largest “finishing” companies in the U.S., Standard of Andover Mass. I learned that “finishing” is anything that happens to paper after it’s already printed–cutting, folding, stamping. I learned so much about how the business has changed in the last ten years. The guys sitting on my other side at the bar were from the APWA conference; they were with a vendor from Minneapolis that sells treated lumber for bridge construction and salt storage. (Salt that’s used to melt icy roads in the winter.)

So what does this have to do with creativity? The research shows that great ideas always come from combining very different areas, professions, and disciplines. And in many cases, new insights come by analogy–when you adapt a solution from one field to a totally different field. Most likely, the things I learned today will never translate directly into a clear creative outcome. But the thing about creativity is, you never know…any one of these conversations, or the ones I might have next month, could spark a new insight that might not happen any other way. Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

How to Educate Yourself for Creativity August 5, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Everyday life.
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At Hamilton College, first-year student Bret Turner asked a music professor, “Why is music important?” He got such a passionate response, he developed a long-term plan: He would talk to EVERY teacher on the campus, and ask them that same question. He just graduated May 2013, and he’d had the “why is your field important” conversation with 200 of the 223 professors at the college.

Why did he do it? He says “I have shallow interests”–he wanted to know a little about a lot. And after all, isn’t that the goal of a liberal arts education?

The reason why this is so great for creativity is that research shows that the most creative people are the ones that know a little bit about a lot of things. Sometimes I think of them as “professional dilettantes”. The trendy term for such people is “T-shaped thinkers”–the vertical bar of the “T” shape symbolizes that you need depth and expertise in one narrow thing, and the horizontal top bar indicates that you need shallow knowledge of lots of different things. If you have only specialized expertise, but you can’t talk to anyone outside of your area, you won’t realize your full creative potential.

So with Bret Turner, what about the vertical bar, the deep expertise? He ended up majoring in chemistry—but only after having his conversation with a really energetic chemistry professor. The most creative people do develop a strong expertise in a chosen field.

(Come to think of it, this creativity research provides a rationale for the course requirements of most U.S. universities–where you have to specialize in something by declaring a major and taking lots of courses and developing expertise; but you also have to take “general education” or “distribution” requirements, that provide the horizontal bar of the T.)

*I read Bret Turner’s story in the New York Times Education Life of Sunday, August 4, 2013.

Executing On Creativity July 30, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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I’ve just finished delivering a ZIG ZAG workshop at the “Convene LIVE” annual event, hosted by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in beautiful Ottawa, Canada. The theme of this year’s event was “Executing on Creativity.” In addition to my workshop today, Todd Henry delivered yesterday’s workshop on the theme of his 2011 book, The Accidental Creative.


Todd Henry on his new book “Die Empty”

I arrived a day early so I could watch Todd’s workshop; he does great stuff and I was eager to see him in action. His title was “Harnessing creativity: Concepts and processes that lead to everyday brilliance.” His session closely followed the messages from his book. For example, the second half of his session was about the “five elements of rhythm”:

  • Focus (staying focused on business priorities, vision, and what’s important)
  • Relationships (interacting with people who will help you get great ideas)
  • Energy (how to sustain a high energy level)
  • Stimuli (make sure you expose yourself constantly to new and interesting stimuli)
  • Hours (time management)

My overall take-home from Todd’s talk: great advice about productivity, work effectiveness, and time management, but with a particular focus on creative professionals. Todd’s message reminded me of Scott Belsky (the author of Making Ideas Happen). I had a chance to watch Scott’s awesome keynote when he and I both gave keynotes at the Creativity World Forum in Belgium in 2011.

My workshop today was four hours, giving me plenty of time to engage the audience with hands-on activities from all eight steps of the creative process (each step has one chapter in Zig Zag):

  1. ASK: Find and formulate the problem
  2. LEARN: Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem
  3. LOOK: Gather a broad range of potentially related information
  4. PLAY: Take time off for incubation
  5. THINK: Generate a large variety of ideas
  6. FUSE: Combine ideas in unexpected ways
  7. CHOOSE: Select the best ideas
  8. MAKE: Externalize your ideas

Here are some photos of the attendees, using the “Affinity Diagram” technique to develop creative solutions for planning their next meeting.

WP_20130730_011 WP_20130730_005

And I learned a lot about event planning! Thanks to Kelly Peacy of PCMA for doing such a great job organizing the event.

Tips to Maximize Creativity at Work July 23, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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These tips, from Scientific American Mind, are all also found in the book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity:

  • Become an expert. You need a solid knowledge base. (Zig Zag Chapter 2: LEARN)
  • Observe. Carefully study how people use what they currently have, and what problems they face. (Zig Zag Chapter 3: LOOK)
  • Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. (Again, LOOK)
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. (LOOK again)
  • Be willing to work alone. Balance group time with alone time.
  • Talk to outsiders about your work. This helps with novel perspectives. (Research on how to balance solitary and group time is in my book Group Genius)
  • Have fun. A good mood helps! (Zig Zag Chapter 4: PLAY)
  • Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can get you past the impasse. (Again, PLAY)
  • Take a break. Occupy your mind with a different task. (PLAY again!)
  • Challenge yourself. Disrupt your daily routine. Go beyond your initial idea and look for more. Try to improve on other people’s answers. (Zig Zag Chapters 5 and 6, THINK and FUSE)

This is a wonderful set of advice, prepared by Professor Evangelia G. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas.

Creativity Advice “Greatest Hits” July 19, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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You should really take a look at the free “creativity sampler” containing excerpts from some of the best-selling creativity advice books. And guess what: It’s completely legit; the publisher of all of these books (Wiley) is putting this out for free:


Here are some quick summaries of the authors and material in the sampler:

  • Josh Linkner’s Disciplined Dreaming. Linkner draws on jazz improvisation as a metaphor for innovation and collaboration.
  • Keith Sawyer’s Zig Zag. My latest book, published April 2013, maps out the 8-step creative process and contains over 100 fun exercises to enhance your creativity.
  • Shelley Carson’s Your Creative Brain. Carson draws on brain science to identify a core set of creativity “habits of mind” and also provides hands-on techniques.
  • David Burkus’s The Myths of Creativity. Challenges many of the common creativity misconceptions.
  • Ken Robinson’s Out Of Our Minds. Sir Ken’s TedX talk continues to be the most watched of all TedX talks. This book, published even before he was invited to TedX, describes how to transform schools to foster greater creativity.

Where else can you find so much free creativity advice, from five leading experts? Of course, we all hope you’ll read this and then want to buy the books :)


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