ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards Now Available!


December 15, 2015

I’m excited to announce the release of the ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards!

The card deck has 48 cards, and each one has a different creativity exercise. There are also four cards that describe how to use the cards alone, in groups, and when you’re facilitating a workshop.

The cards are perfect for everyday use. You can do each technique in a few minutes, and use the cards throughout your day. The card deck comes in a hard plastic case so you can take it everywhere (cardboard boxes fall apart pretty fast). It’s time for a new set of creativity techniques that’s practical for everyday use, with exercises that are grounded in the latest creativity research.

The 48 techniques are taken from the book ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. They’re grouped into the eight stages of the creative process:

  1. Ask: how to ask the right question
  2. Learn: prepare your mind
  3. Look: spot the answers around you
  4. Play: imagine possible worlds
  5. Think: how to have great ideas
  6. Fuse: how to combine ideas
  7. Choose: make good ideas even better
  8. Make: make your ideas visible

The 8 stages are based on creativity research (for a summary of the research, see my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity.) ZIG ZAG  is a practical, hands-on application of that research.

















Here are two sample cards, with their techniques. If you’d like to see more cards, the card deck web site has a Daily Creativity Card that changes every day.

Card ASK 5


ASK is the first step toward greater creativity. Each of the 8 stages has its own color, and has six cards numbered 1 to 6. The six ASK cards help you make sure that you’ve identified the right problem. (This one is number 5.) Often when you’re stumped, and you can’t think of a solution, it turns out you’re asking the wrong question. (Kudos to artist Robert Cori for the illustrations, and to Nyla Smith for the graphic design.)




Card LEARN 6



The third step is LEARN, preparing yourself for creativity by filling your mind with a variety of information. I love to learn a little bit about lots of different things! It doesn’t take long to learn to juggle, or to play the harmonica. In the past year, I’ve been teaching myself how to repair old accordions! (And yes, I’m still a dilettante, you shouldn’t trust me with your accordion.)





The card deck is available from Amazon.com for $19.95. Visit the card deck web site, www.zzdeck.com, for more techniques and games–for individuals, teams, and workshop facilitation.

How to Write a Book

Here’s some great advice from the new book Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey:

  • I can’t teach someone how to write…but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
  • I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
  • You don’t have to only write about what you know. (Haven’t you read novels that contain murder scenes?)
  • “Show, don’t tell” is great advice–the same advice you’ll get in an improv theater class–but many great novelists do a lot of “telling” and it can be done very well.
  • You should probably avoid explicit sex scenes.
  • Take breaks during your writing, so that your subconscious mind has time to incubate new ideas for rewrites and revisions.

All of this advice works just as well for non-fiction writing. (Especially the advice to avoid sex scenes!) What really resonates with me is the emphasis on rewriting that’s signaled in the book’s title. Good writing comes from reading, editing, and revising–a zig-zagging path from the initial idea, through an emergent process where the characters and the story surprise you with something you didn’t realize was in there. My research shows that this zigzag is the source of all creativity. Allan Massie’s review of this book in the Wall Street Journal points out that close and careful reading is perhaps the most essential part of the creative writing process. That’s why all good writers are also very good readers…and all good creators are good critics, reviewers, and editors. In my book Zigzag, this ability is the seventh step in an 8-step process that I call “Choose: How to pick the best ideas and then make them even better.”

John Casey won the National Book Award in 1989 for his novel Spartina and he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.

How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.

25 Ways To Be More Creative

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!


Stamen Design Understands the Zigzag

Rodenbeck zigzag Feb 2013The creative process is not linear. Just the opposite: It zigs and zags. Eric Rodenbeck, founder and CEO of Stamen Design, really understands this. Check out this image he generated, for Business Week magazine, of how projects get developed at Stamen.* The neat stairway from left to right shows the traditional path of project development, from Requirements through Design, Implementation, Test, and Deliver. The zig-zaggy purple path is tagged “How Stamen works.”

For a hundred years, creativity researchers have tried to figure out the linear stages of the creative process. It usually looks a lot like the stairway in this picture, with the traditional stages being something like Preparation, Incubation, Insight, Verification, and Elaboration. But in the last decade or so, it’s become increasingly clear that the creative process zigs and zags constantly.

That’s why my new book about creativity is called Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In the book, I identify the eight steps involved in being creative, but I don’t think they follow one another in a neat line. Creative lives pass in and out of all eight steps, daily and weekly, as they zigzag toward that surprising, successful creation.

The first step in my book is ASK, finding the right question. And even though it’s the first step, sometimes it comes all the way at the end of the process. Eric Rodenbeck understands this too; as he puts it,

The important part is the questions you’ve discovered along the way.

*”Eric Rodenbeck on leading creativity.” Business Week, “The Design Issue,” January 28-February 3, 2013, page 67.

How To Be a Polymath

Many successful creators are polymaths: people who seek knowledge relentlessly, who teach themselves a broad range of odd things. The successful venture capitalist Paul Maeda noted that entrepreneurs have a common trait: they all keep educating themselves. For example, John Mackay, founder of Whole Foods, reads a new book every week.

One of my most popular posts, from 2011, summarized a 2009 article in Intelligent Life suggesting that today’s world is too complicated for anyone to be a polymath. Back in the 1700s, a smart person could actually learn just about everything humanity had ever discovered, whereas today, there is simply too much knowledge out there. In a way, that’s true. But there are still polymaths out there, and their thirst for diverse knowledge leads to greater creativity. And you can do it, too.

In 2012, The New York Times reported on a UCLA student, Jeremy Gleick, who has a unique habit: every day he finds time for a “learning hour”—one hour devoted to learning something new. In 2012, he passed his 1,000th hour of self-study, most of it done online.

Gleick has logged every hour of learning in a spreadsheet. The topics range over the breadth of human knowledge: Seventeen hours total on art history; 39 on the Civil War; 14 on weaponry; 41 hours on hypnosis. He’s also learned juggling, glass blowing, banjo, and mandolin. He is, unabashedly, a “dilettante”—defined as a dabbler, an amateur, a nonprofessional. And he says he has yet to find a subject that isn’t at least somewhat interesting to him.

Jeremy Gleick’s Favorite One-Hour Learning Topics:

Humanities (354 total hours):

  • “Papyrus of Ani” Book of the Dead (Internet Sacred Text Archive)
  • “Jazz Insights” audio series with Gordon Vernick of Georgia State (WMLB 1690 AM)
  • “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” audio podcast by Peter Adamson of King’s College London (iTunes U)

Science (254 total hours):

  • A Brief History of Time, 1998 book by physicist Stephen Hawking
  • “Introduction to Psychology” audio lectures by Jeremy Wolfe (MIT OpenCourseWare)
  • “What Technology Wants” lecture by Kevin Kelly (Fora.tv)

Skills (423 total hours):

  • Blacksmithing class, The Crucible arts center, Oakland, CA
  • “The Street Hypnotist’s Handbook” steps to hypnosis by Nathan Thomas (keystothemind.com)
  • ASLPro online dictionary, American Sign Language
  • Card trick tutorials, videos (Expert Village channel, YouTube)

As I write in my forthcoming book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity (coming in March, 2013):

Learning is a lifelong scavenger hunt. The wonderful beauty of the creative life is that no authentic, thoughtful experience, no new glimmer of knowledge, is ever wasted.