Monday, April 14, 2008

48create - creative thinking method

About two years ago, I was approached by the President of Afeka College, Prof. Moti Sokolov. He had heard (quite correctly) that I was interested in taking a sabbatical, and teaching an interdisciplinary course at the undergraduate level. This is practically impossible at large, conservative, departmentalized universities, but Afeka is a top notch community college, focusing on engineering students.

The topic which we decided upon was "multidisciplinary creative thinking". Moti's stipulation was that the course be given in English. I happily agreed.

To develop and present the course, I enlisted my right hand man (literally, being left-handed myself), Dr. Alon Amit. Alon a young man of multiple talents and pursuits: internet whiz, dentist, cook, entrepreneur and chocolate aficionado, inter alia. We found that there are over fifty different techniques for creative thinking available. After looking at many of them, we decided to develop our own interactive course, bringing together a unique mix of internet and science, poetry and patents, copy writing and technology.

There were several important features of our course:

Fun, silliness and active participation were encouraged and pursued. Applause and praise were welcome; constructive criticism was tolerated. Each student was issued with the name badge of a famous pseudoparticipant. Thus, during the course, each student went by the name of his/her particular namesake: Sir Isaac Newton, Margaret Thatcher, George Gershwin, etc.

Most of our 'get togethers' were composed of a mosaic of different 'corners', including

  • vignettes from movies and advertising
  • inventions with 'legs'
  • famous innovators (this included writers and musicians as well as inventors)
  • riddle solving and composing
  • trying to improve erstwhile mundane objects and processes
  • show and tell

A few of the lectures were more focused, and less interactive, relating to specific subjects, such as

  • protection of ideas
  • current methodologies for creative thinking

We often wandered off the game plan, allowing ourselves to meander laterally on a wide variety of tangents. For example, a word which the students didn't know might lead us to a poem, song or website (we were online the whole time). These unanticipated outings were great fun and engendered the lots of creative thinking. If Alon and I otherwise discovered a classic movie, poem or innovator that the students were unaware of (for example Andrew Marvell's marvelous "To a Coy Mistress"), then the students were instructed to seek out the poem and we read it together during the next class. We 'rediscovered' Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, and Bing Crosby, just to name a few. They also brought in their favorite inventions, video and audio clips.

To get a high mark, students needed to actively participate in class and via e-mail during the week. They would get 'bonus points' for anything and everything clever, original and funny. The course assignment was to submit a written proposal for an innovative restaurant.

I must admit that we didn't anticipate how successful the course would be. The 40 engineering students that participated in the course had vivid imaginations, were great in lateral thinking (when encouraged to do so), and rose to the many challenges of the course. They developed splendid and sometimes hilarious ideas for innovative companies, improved existing products, invented restaurants of all kinds and shapes.

During the classes, we discovered that certain approaches worked better than others.

For example, we found that in order to 'think outside the box', it helps if you have a box. We discussed various ways that you can modify a product or process (e.g., changing various physical properties). But the students' and our own ability to think of new innovations worked best when we gave them examples of things to change.

This led us to the development of a very simple process which we now call "48create". According to this method, we give the students a list of 48 ways to change the world, and 48 things to change (of course the ways and things can both be modified and adapted).

Then we pick (randomly, or on purpose) several from each list. So, for example, the things we might want to change might be:

  • Coins
  • Ping pong ball
  • buttering bread
  • Parking space

The four ways might be:

  • Color
  • Direction
  • Frequency
  • Size

The advantages of this technique are its simplicity, and that it works. I tried it out at the University of Toronto last September, and within a few minutes, science students were busy discussing new (and very ingenious!!) of keeping maple syrup from rolling off buttermilk pancakes.

One important aspect of the technique is that it is open ended: it seeks to foster creative thinking and innovation per se. It is not aimed towards solving a specific problem at a given time, but rather to get the creative juices flowing.

Why don't you give it a try and let us know whether it works for you? Forty-eight ways to change the world, and forty-eight things to change are available at

And yes, of course, please feel free to add your own ways to change the world, and other things to change. That should make it even more fun!

1 comment:

Linda said...

Hi Dr. Mel,

I love the description of your course and wish I could have taken it! I will follow up on as well.

Are you familiar with this book on creative problem solving -- Jack's Notebook by Gregg Fraley? It is a book on innovation presented in an innovative way. I enjoyed both reading it and learning from it.
Hope you do, too.