• 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 from Smart.fm. 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 Smart.fm’s online learning experience.

    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!

    There are 16 thoughts on this idea

    1. Alexa

      Hi! If you click the pictures, you should be able to see them on Flickr. After creating the whiteboard experience map as a group, we did a more high fidelity version where we pushed making sure everything was written from the user’s perspective even more. Hope to share that soon as well!

    2. Love it

      hah I’m INTP too and get told “Stop overthinking!” ALL the time.


    3. Ashok Nare

      Nice article and definitely something I can relate to. I especially liked the way you described the process — “harness the left brain to give structure to creativity”. I am not sure if I am INTP or not (need to explore that a bit more) — but concept mapping has helped me do exactly that while creating architectures for complex business systems.

      I have been using conceptual modeling in software development as well for a while now (more specifically, Object Oriented Analysis & Design), albeit in a slightly different context. While these models are not exactly the concept maps described here, they do serve the same purpose. Early stage conceptual models are used to capture the general concepts and the corresponding relationships that exist in a domain and are then used as a starting point for more detailed analysis and design efforts. It’s a great way to mine the requirements (via use cases and human interaction) and capture a high level visual model of the concepts and relationships. We generally end up using UML for capturing these after the initial brainstorming session on white boards — so in the case of software development these models tend to be a bit more formal and use UML as a notation to capture them.


    4. guanxsi

      very nice article. but is it possible to provide pictures with higher resolution. it is very intersting to observe them)

    5. Vicki

      As an ENTJ, I often get tarred with the “you’re not creative” brush – it seems that the popular feeling says that analytical people are not creative, and so you can get pigeonholed by people who have never even worked with you. I challenge those people to define what creativity is – to me, creativity is just thinking differently about a problem to come up with an inventive solution.

      I find that analytical people’s solutions tend to be inventive and creative because we define the problem differently to how right-brained people do. My experiences with analytical people is that we are fantastic at pattern matching, and will often see links that other people don’t because our brains just work differently 🙂

      It’s often difficult to explain without inadvertently reinforcing the stereotypes to people (everyone’s favourite friend confirmation bias). Some people say that creativity is an intuitive leap that comes from nowhere. People think that analysing something is a mechanical, robotic process, but computers can’t analyse on any sort of intelligent level: we are constantly making these intuitive leaps when we see patterns or when we instinctively grasp the real problem that needs solving.

    6. allen bukoff

      Great insights. There is a lot more left-brain-ness in “creativity” (even pure artistic creativity) and especially idea-generation-creativity than popular wisdom holds. I have spent a lot of time working in advertising (working in marketing research, consumer insight, and strategy planning) trying to help some of the key left-brain functions be more creative. I’ve even developed a variety of “brainstorming” activities to help accomplish this (you can find a list & some how-to’s here – http://workingcreativity.com/activities/index.html ). These were developed for specific tasks in the insight-and-strategy-development process in advertising, so I am not sure if you will find them useful/adaptable for the tasks you face. I have also found that well-structured activities can be used to harness left-brain thinking for idea generation. It’s as if the left-brain doesn’t “trust” open-ended, impressionistic, quantum-leap activities, so you have to provide an almost mechanical sequential structure to get there (it trusts organization). You have to “trick” it into “playing.” And this, as you’ve discovered, is not so difficult. A lot of left-brain planning for the ideation meeting, means more right-brain results–the more you design it for the left-brain, the more comfortable the left-brain feels in “playing” and letting the right-brain play, too!

      I hope you continue to post your adventures and discoveries here.

    7. uxbooks.com

      Wow. Kind of jealous… what a great place to work!

      Also of interest along these lines: Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young

      In the info/engineering age we live in our brain’s frontal lobes are getting more than enough exercise, so it’s great to exercise the limbic system often enough too, and trust that “thinking without thinking” (intuition, emotional intelligence) is an equally valid and useful way think, too. Always has been 😉

    8. uxbooks.com

      BTW the right/left brain split is a myth, if a useful metaphor. But if it were true, many of us web/software/design/tech. types would be the psychological equivalent of ambidextrous… ambipsychrous? Or we should strive to be, if not. Great post Alexa!

    9. allen bukoff

      In response to #8 comment by uxbooks.com: To say that the right/left brain split is a “myth” is sort of true and sort of not. It’s clear that when surgically separated the two brains can function independently and that they perform quite different functions and act quite differently. This is the historical source of the notion that the left brain is the logical/linear/analytic one and the right brain is the intuitive/relational/creative one. In a normal, integrated brain, mental creativity is not localized to a single area of the brain or a single mental process–a complicated variety of different mental processes & parts of the whole brain get involved. Many of us continue to use the “right/left brain” metaphor because it does capture and express the strong mental differences we all (and see) between analytical thinking and artistic expression. I keep looking for a better, simple metaphor or analogy to use instead of the somewhat misleading “right/left brains” metaphor, but haven’t found a “better” one yet (i.e., one that is as simple and as broadly useful as well as more accurate).

    10. Laura

      I’m an ENTJ and get told the same thing… “stop overthinking!”

      It must be the NT thing.

      Great article!

    11. adaptive path » blog » Alexa Andrzejew

      […] the experience mapping and metaphor brainstorming exercises that I wrote about previously, we selected some of the most compelling […]

    12. Nina

      Mm, these are really nice brainstorming tools. Thanks for sharing!

    13. OsandiSAYs

      insightful, bookmarked and on repeat. thank you for sharing.

      #designStrategy #experienceDesign #designThinking

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