In 1818, a nine-year-old boy in France was accidentally blinded while helping his father make horse harnesses.
A few years passed and the boy who had loved books is sitting in his garden wallowing over his inability to read. The familiar sadness and resignation that he had never grown accustomed to washed over him
His brother handed him a pinecone. The boy ran his fingers over the cone feeling the distinctively raised differences between the scales.
An idea flashed through the boy’s mind. He realised he could create an alphabet with distinctive raised dots on paper.
Louis Braille had just invented a method for blind people to read.
Although Louis was unfamiliar with the term he had just used conceptual blending to create a solution to a universal problem.
Blending disparate items, concepts, or methodologies to create something new is the basis for many creative strategies that solve problems, disrupt markets, and, well, change the world.
In this case, blindness + the distinctive raised differences between the pinecone scales blended to inspire the idea of braille.
Conceptual blending is one of the critical elements in critical thinking.
“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosnt mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are. The olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.
The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet tp see.
The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsolniuscoy.”
Pretty cool, huh? This is a program your brain uses to conserve energy.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together”
Neuroscientist Donald Hebb first used this phrase in 1949 to describe how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition.
The more the brain does a task, the stronger the pathways become making the process more efficient each time
Our brains follow the path of least resistance.
They use programs and patterns to make decisions. This is why you often see people repeat the same old mistakes — or get involved in the same bad relationships time and time again.
Our brains create repeatable pathways to save energy.
The same goes for decision-making. According to Microsoft’s research, we make 35,000 decisions a day.
99% of the decisions are made unconsciously. This is why our thinking is often flawed by biases, and poor programs, which, again are shortcuts in our unconscious decision-making process.
This also explains why our creative thinking often sucks.
Our brain programs keep running the same old patterns generating the same old ideas. Our innovation becomes stale and we fall into the herd thinking trap.
We need to disrupt our thinking patterns, jolt them into new connections, and hack our creativity to generate new ideas.
The good news is there are frameworks you can follow to help you come up with creative ideas and solutions.
Bowie’s first attempts at finding success were blighted by his boring persona and lyrics. He spent 9 years failing with 3 albums, 9 singles that flopped.
Bowie’s final desperate attempt at becoming a clean-cut pop star was an excruciatingly bad novelty song called the Laughing gnome.
This is the BBC’s review of one of David Bowie’s bands 👇
“There is no entertainment in anything they do. It’s just a group and very ordinary, too, backing a singer devoid of personality.”
It was only when Bowie started getting involved in avant-garde theatre, mime, and the obscure fringes of the art world that he started to think differently.
This is where he discovered Dada
Dadaism was an Avant-guard creative art movement in the 1920s and 30s mostly found in New York, Paris, Berlin, London, and Zurich.
One of their creative strategies was called the cut-up technique. This is the framework Bowie used to create his unique lyrics, characters, and concepts.
Bowie collected mood boards of poems, lyrics, images he liked. He would cut them into pieces and throw them to the ground and blend different ideas together to create something new.
“if you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative.” — David Bowie
You have to hack your thought patterns to create new connections.
Quentin Tarantino was a 29-year-old part-time actor and video store clerk when he wrote and directed Reservoir Dogs.
He hadn’t been to film school, nor did he have Hollywood parents or industry connections.
What he had was a huge obsession with movies. He had watched thousands of them. He also harbored a knack for thinking differently. (See, I told you…)
Pulp Fiction catapulted Tarantino to the top of Hollywood and disrupted the movie business.
And he used blending to achieve that.
Tarantino blended three common movie themes together to create something new.
“It was an omnibus thing” a collection of three different caper films, similar to stories written in 1920’s and 1930’s pulp magazines.
“That’s why I called it Pulp Fiction” says Tarantino.
However, it’s the way Tarantino writes and shoots his movies with non-linear storytelling that really makes them stand out.
Nearly every movie follows a linear path: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Tarantino wrote and shot Pulp Fiction as though it was a novel. In novels, authors rarely follow a linear timeline. The first chapter can be the end, the second chapter can be the middle, and so on.
Novelists often chop up the story into little parts and use different characters’ perspectives of the same event to give more depth and create tension.
This appealed to Tarantino.
Step 1: Tarantino blended common movies themes together to create something new.
Step 2: Then he combined the non-linear storytelling of novel writing with directing a movie to create an exciting new storytelling aesthetic which combined with the acting and dialogue disrupted Hollywood.
Pulp Fiction is generally considered one of the best movies ever made.
Conceptual Blending in Business
One of the best ways to inspire creativity is to create a playful environment.
The most innovative companies in the world know this.
“How might we make our workplace more like a playground?”
This is the question Google blended when they designed their HQ.
The walls in Google HQ are whiteboards so that when employees are discussing ideas, they can write on the walls.
Google clusters creative teams into groups of three or four, with tent-like awnings overhead that creates a quirky sense of clubhouses and promotes collaboration.
Google invites employees to pursue 20-percent projects—developing their own passions for up to 20 percent of their paid time. This invitation to “play” in areas of personal interest maintains high levels of enthusiasm and mental agility.
Google HQ, Googleplex, is designed to be a creative space. Employees are encouraged to come up with wacky ideas.
Google knows that the best ideas are rarely logical. It is often the illogical ideas that resonate.
How to invent new products with blending
When scientists at Oral B were trying to innovate the first electric toothbrush, they used blending as their creative process.
They focused on ‘electric cleaning’ and looked at various methods already in existence.
They looked at:
They went with car washes. They were inspired by the way electric car wash heads swiveled and rotated for maximum cleaning, and used the same actions in the electric toothbrush.
Oral B invented the first electric toothbrush by blending a regular toothbrush with a car wash.
67% of Brits use an electric toothbrush. That’s 34 million in the UK alone and Oral B is the market leader.
Blending is not a new concept.
Leonardo Da Vinci used conceptual blending. He blended art and science and did alright for himself.
In 1787 Levi Hutchins blended a clock with an alarm.
In the 1940s, bored surfers in California put wheels on crates (crate scooters) and invented skateboarding.
Thinking differently is a choice. We are born with divergent thinking and creative genius. The NASA creativity research is very clear about this.
We just unlearn it through the education system. We lose our curiosity and start viewing the world through a narrow lens.
We fall into myopic thinking, start following the herd, and miss out on opportunities to drive change and innovation as a result.
N.B If you want to learn more on this you can watch the most viewed Ted talk of all time “Do schools kill creativity?”
Sir Ken Robinson was an incredibly smart and funny man. I highly recommend it.
“ If you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never truly be right“
We can’t blame the education system entirely. We have to accept some of the responsibility.
Creativity and innovation are humanities greatest skills. We literally wouldn’t exist without them.
If we have a growth mindset, we can hack our creativity and learn to think differently.
We can serve our audiences better, create work that truly matters, our companies can drive change, make the world a better place, and make good shit happen.
Or we can have a fixed mindset: accept our status quo, shrug our shoulders, yet look on enviously while others bring our ideas to fruition and drive the changes we once dreamt of.
We will never be comfortable and creative. The sooner we accept that and lean into uncomfortableness the more we will create.
👉 I build disruptive creative strategies for founders and CEOs who want to stand out and gain a competitive advantage by thinking differently 🧠
👉 I also create workshops to guide your team through innovation frameworks that solve problems, minimise pointless bloody meetings — and, crucially, make decisions that get shit done 💩 ✅
You can find out more here
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