One of my favourite creativity techniques is conceptual blending, or synthesis. It simply involves taking random or unconnected objects/words/topics and blending them together to form new ideas. Almost every idea or invention is a blend of, or an inspiration from, an existing idea. Our ancestors would have invented fire after observing lighting strikes. DaVinci combined the wheel and the horse to sketch a prototype bicycle. Gutenberg invented the printing press after visiting a vineyard and seeing how the crushed black grapes left imprints on the wine press. The man who invented the typewriter (Christopher Sholes) was inspired by watching a pianist. If each key on a piano could play a different note, he wondered, then why can’t I produce keys that each stamp a different letter?
Creative people look for these connections by forcing ideas and objects together. In my creativity workshops I play a game with random objects. Each person finds a partner and selects a random object from a hidden list (they don’t know what object they’ve chosen until the game starts). They then have to work with their partner to come up with a new object or idea by blending the two selections together. The key here is to think laterally. Let’s say one person selects the word ‘cake’ and the other person gets lumped with ‘trumpet’. Now, at first glance you might think you’ll never find a connection there. You could just opt for the obvious, a cake in the shape of a trumpet, but that’s hardly creative. The trick here is to remove the physical manifestations of the cake and the trumpet from our minds and to start thinking more about the ‘concept’ of the objects. To do this, write down or shout out the characteristics of a cake, or things you associate with a cake – it’s made up of ingredients; baked in an oven; it can’t be stored for too long; icing; candles; eaten at parties etc. Then do the same with a trumpet – made of brass; blown into, valves that move up and down; part of an orchestra etc. Then you have more to blend, so you look for inspiration by connecting the characteristics or concepts. I’ve just spent five minutes thinking about this (because I honestly did pick cake and trumpet randomly for this example!) and here’s what I came up with …
How about a cake icing device that you blow into, or push air into, to enable the icing to flow through the nozzle? Then how about adding valves, like on a trumpet, so you can alter the thickness of the icing without having to change the nozzle? It’s saves time, washing up and makes your icing patterns more creative!
OK, I won’t win any prizes for that, but you get the gist. Now how about a hose pipe and a spider? A compass and a telescope? A wheelbarrow and a firework? This type of random blending is a great ice-breaker to get the creative juices flowing. The challenge is to force connections, not to give up. And you do that by breaking the object down into characteristics, get your mind away from thinking about the object itself and more about what it does, how it works, how it’s made etc. I’ve done this exercise with dozens of groups and nobody has ever failed to come up with a great idea.
To take things further, introduce a problem, rather than another object, into the mix. Try blending a work problem you need to fix with a random object from the list. This brings it into the workplace. For communicators, a common problem is getting the message to stick. So combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with the name of an object drawn from a hat. Let’s say a purse, for instance. How can we combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with a purse? You may start thinking of what people keep in a purse, like credit cards for instance. Could we produce key messages on a credit-card sized piece of plastic so people can carry them round with them? How about a torch? Does that give us ideas about ‘shining a spotlight’? I was looking for inspiration the other day for communicating a project I’m working on to do with performance reporting. I walked past a Virgin Active health club and it got me thinking about the term ‘active’ – how business performance is not unlike measuring fitness. I came up with a concept of using the word ‘ACTIVE’ alongside the company logo as a brand through which we’d communicate performance, and we’d use fitness-style graphics like you see on running machines to show business metrics. It’s a tiny example but it all came about because I happened to look into a window, saw something that caught my eye and blended it with a challenge.
On my workshops, I send participants out into the street to look for random objects to blend. They go into shops, look at signs, watch people and study products … and they always come back with some incredibly creative ideas drawn from blending or inspiration. It’s not hard to do. Play the game in the car on a long journey or walking round a park. Play it with children for really great results. And play it with your team when faced with a problem that needs solving. Go on, Blend it like Beckham!