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Creativity for Left-Brained People

As a systems-thinking, ridiculously rational INTP, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to, “Stop overthinking!” After all, rational thinking isn’t naturally associated with creativity. I admittedly find it difficult to act on creative whim, preferring designs that are the logical outputs of a rational thought-process. To me, a “beautiful” design is one that is logically coherent and rich with meaning.

These left-brained tendencies can be a liability at times: I tend to dig deeply when I should be thinking broadly and can turn a simple idea (or sentence, sorry readers) into a complicated one by logical extension. But in trying to fight these tendencies, I’ve instead discovered ways to channel them into creativity.

I got to try these techniques with others when facilitating a recent workshop for some fellow left-brained people. I loved these guys — they thought like I thought and didn’t hesitate to bring up rational nits, like “Shouldn’t that one be a blue sticky note? Maybe we should fix it.”

By introducing some “Left-Brained Creativity Methods” (learned from colleagues and conferences) to give structure to our thinking, I found I could channel our analytical energy into thinking experientially and generating out-of-the-box ideas. Here are two of the methods I used during this workshop on understanding and re-imagining the experience of learning online.

Experience Mapping

Concept maps can serve many purposes, but at Adaptive Path, we’ve found them to be useful tools for getting systems thinkers to think from the user’s perspective.

Creating an “Experience Map” involves identifying all of the parts of a system, connecting them, and describing these connections from the user’s perspective. For example, in a typical concept map, we might link the concepts of “tags” and “items” by saying “tags are added to items.” But if you take a moment to ask, “But how does this help the user?” you might get something richer, like “tags help users find and re-find items.”

While seemingly impersonal and abstract, for us left-brained folks, taking a moment to re-think every connection from the user’s perspective helped us get our left brains into the users’ minds.


Metaphor Analysis

Once we’d identified the core concepts and activities in this site’s experience — which included “Sets” and “Collecting” — we took one concept at a time and played a “word association game” where we threw every word we associated with that concept up onto the board. We also brought in random participants from AP for this activity, whose minds were a blank slate (they knew nothing about the site), to join us in free-listing associated words and metaphors. For the concept of “Sets,” for example, we came up with everything from “Bento Boxes” to “Coral Reefs.”

Then, inspired by Chauncey Wilson’s “Metaphor Brainstorming” and Edward De Bono’s “Random Word” methods, we chose random metaphors and deconstructed their characteristics: Games like Marbles and POGs are about “keeping what you win” and have “discrete, tangible, hand-held parts.” We clustered metaphors with similar characteristics together, then used these characteristics to inspire design ideas.

The free association game got us thinking outside the box, while the clustering and analysis activities leveraged our left brains to produce a rich soil from which concepts could sprout.


The team loved these activities, and we produced solid concepts we’ve been able to carry forward. One participant said that brainstorming can be challenging when it’s totally open-ended, and that, for an analytical person, these structured activities and templates made it much easier to generate ideas. More importantly, because the ideas were grounded in rational thinking, he felt more confident that they would carry weight in the long run.

Tapping into left-brained thinking can reveal a powerful force for idea generation. I’m looking forward to discovering more ways to harness the left brain by giving structure to creativity. If you’ve experienced any interesting methods, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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