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Where Great Ideas Come From

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A few decades earlier, the artist Paul Gauguin had flouted convention by abandoning his wife and children and moving to Tahiti. Living in his private Eden, Gauguin incorporated indigenous art into his paintings and woodcuts. Picasso noticed. Picasso was fascinated by indigenous art, especially from his native Spain. Picasso mined the raw materials that surrounded him, and by doing so he was able to bring his culture somewhere it had never been before.

His peers all had access to the same sources that he did. Just as nature modifies existing animals to create new creatures, so too the brain works from precedent. Whether manufacturing cars, or launching modern art, creators remodel what they inherit. They absorb the world into their nervous systems and manipulate it to create possible futures. In , she suffered a nearly fatal infection that crippled her memory. The basin of her memories was largely emptied, and the ecosystem of her creativity dried up.

She stopped painting because she could think of nothing to paint. When she sat down in front of her paper, there was nothing but a blank. She needed the past to be able to create the future. She had nothing to draw upon, and therefore nothing to draw. Creativity relies on memory. But surely there are eureka moments, when someone is suddenly struck by an idea that materializes from nowhere? Take, for example, an orthopedic surgeon named Anthony Cicoria, who in was speaking to his mother on an outdoor payphone when he was struck by a bolt of lightning.

A few weeks later, he unexpectedly began composing. But, on closer inspection, Cicoria also turns out to rely on the raw materials around him. Just like Lonni Sue Johnson, he required a storehouse of materials to mine.

Lessons In Innovation 2: Where Good Ideas Come From

His sudden desire to compose may have come from out of the blue, but his basic creative process did not. Many people have figuratively stood in thunderstorms, waiting for the creative lightning to strike. But creative ideas evolve from existing memories and impressions. Instead of new ideas being lit aflame by lightning bolts, they arise from the interweaving billions of microscopic sparks in the vast darkness of the brain.

Used with permission of Catapult.

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At the Smithsonian Visit. New Research. Curators' Corner. Ask Smithsonian. Photos Submit to Our Contest. Photo of the Day. Video Ingenuity Awards. Smithsonian Channel. Video Contest. So Niemann routinely needs to generate ideas on demand, often on a tight deadline.

How does that happen? NIEMANN: I guess with these kind of metaphoric illustrations, what I do is I try to — these images are like words, and like written language, it requires did the writer and the reader speak the same language. So when I think of a symbol I have to think of what symbol is known. And when you have Sisyphus pushing up the rock, I have to assume people know that image.

But so basically it is running these two wheels against each other and then being very, very attentive and seeing what clicks. And this usually happens in the process of drawing. I need to have that in the paper because in the act of drawing things, they turn out a little different than you would imagine in your head.

They were generally in response to a commission: basically, a buyer contacting him with a request to generate a sellable idea. What do we know about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation when it comes to creativity? Christoph Niemann, interestingly, has been able to shift over the years, from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

But also: the shift was necessitated by changes in technology and the economy.

Where Do Ideas Come from? - Scientific American Blog Network

This whole deadline-driven imagery is not that relevant anymore. It involves a lot of letting go, trusting myself a lot more. The good thing is, I like to call it the Stockholm Syndrome for art. It was more about unlearning something. Michael BIERUT: All designers in my experience, almost regardless of what the field is, sort of feel that they have some sort of intrinsic urge for self-expression.

So most designers, he thinks, have a strong intrinsic urge. What about Bierut? Bierut thrives on getting a brief from a client; those briefs do, however, range from specific to amorphous. Now those things are meant to be functional. They can be attractive, they can be aesthetic, they can even be playful sometimes. But getting to the bathroom is an urgent matter.

Getting to the fire exit in some cases is a life-or-death matter. And those have to really do their job very, very efficiently. On the other hand, sometimes people will ask me to design a logo for their business or enterprise. And in those cases, a logo can be more open-ended. It can be in many ways more creative. It can be open to interpretation, people can impose different meanings on it. And I think at the very heart of it indeed is that moment where you make something from nothing.

And I think many of them are reluctant sometimes to admit how rarely that moment comes. We spoke with Anne Pasternak , director of the Brooklyn Museum, one of the oldest and most prestigious art institutions in the United States. But in her previous job, she ran a big public-art group called Creative Time, which did lots of big and audacious commissions.

It was new technology. Think about a searchlight, but a really mega searchlight. It was actually a very enormous installation. It takes weeks to actually set up the lights. And there was a lot of stuff that was invisible to the public that had to be realized. Pasternak had another opportunity for a big commission when she was contacted by the owners of an enormous old building — the former Domino Sugar factory, on the Brooklyn waterfront. It was going to be turned into a park; and the owners thought Creative Time might like to do something with the space before it was time for demolition.

And Kara was not so interested. And it was just about eight inches of molasses on the floor, molasses dripping from the ceilings. It was such an incredibly intense experience, it just activated all of your senses: your sight, your touch. I mean literally, you had to wear big rubber boots when you went in there and they would fall off because they would get stuck in the floor. And the smell, the smell and the heat and the moisture. So I thought that the space was so enormous that maybe Kara — we would do a group exhibition.

But I wanted to bring Kara there first. I thought there was no way one artist on the micro-budgets that Creative Time was working on could actually do something that would really work within that space. And the next morning I woke up and I think there were over 60 different proposals that she had sent to me. Literally all these drawings just — she must have stayed up all night long, just one drawing after another.

And I loved every single one of them. But over the next four or five months, she just kept coming up with more ideas. Did you come to understand it differently or better? Once I was in the space and I saw the great sugar Sphinx, that if she was standing tall she would have been as tall as the Statue of Liberty. And I realized she was this great symbol of an African woman of great power and vulnerability and strength.

Quite frankly, I was in tears over and over again. And that, to me at least, seems like a creative act in itself. And one of the things I have learned is that artists tend to, like everybody else, like some structure.

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What do you want to do? And your job is to inspire them to think creatively. Teresa Amabile is a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School. Amabile has done a lot of research inside firms to see how creative work actually gets done. Gather all 10 to brainstorm?

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  8. Send them all off to come up with ideas on their own? Or maybe some combination? Five to seven tends to be the best size to really solve a complex problem. Later on, when you have to implement the solution, obviously can have much larger teams when you need them. They have skills. And then let them go off and individually try to figure out different routes for climbing the mountain. But then bring them back together and have them share their ideas. And what about brainstorming? Is that indeed an effective way to generate good ideas?

    Osborn wrote about brainstorming in a book called How to Think Up. NEMETH: When Osborn talked about the brainstorming technique, it had four very specific rules to it, and he thought they were very important ways to stop things that tended to get in the way of generating original ideas. As a scholar, Nemeth is particularly interested in the role of dissent in organizations. So, this cardinal rule of brainstorming — no dissent, essentially — intrigued her.

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    She designed an experiment to test whether the criticism that Osborn warned against actually does shut down creativity in a group. They thought that there would be no creativity, it would be worse than no rules at all. And the reverse was the case. When you permit debate, even criticism, you open that up. There were more ideas, and they were better quality ideas, when you welcomed this criticism and debate.

    Go from Quantum to Cosmic

    NEMETH: As I listened to these tapes over, and over, and over, and over again, what became clear is that when there was a dissenting viewpoint, particularly one that persisted, is that the nature of the deliberation was just much better. They considered more evidence, they considered more ways of looking at the same so-called facts.

    They were more inclined to look at the downside as opposed to the upside of a particular position that someone was espousing. And they evidenced all the things that really define good decision-making and that, you kind of hope you can train people to do, and dissent was doing that. Nemeth argues that dissent is valuable in a decision-making process even when the dissenter turns out to be demonstrably wrong.

    Their challenge gets you to reassess your own position. Like the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. He now lives in Berlin, which is where we spoke with him. So I was born like this. Some would call it contrarian. They see you are dangerous. They see you are someone who could have a potential to make big trouble.

    But I try to live up to that kind of conditions, too. I am not satisfied with what I did. There was another artist I visited in Berlin; her name is Jorinde Voigt. Voigt is a star on the German art scene. Her work combines painting, drawing, collage, and more — including musical and scientific notation. Her pieces are breathtakingly original, and engaging. I wanted to know where her ideas originate, so I started by asking about her daily routine.

    Then for one hour I sit in my kitchen and in my garden and drink coffee and think about the day, the upcoming day. Then, I wake up my son and help him getting up, get dressed, get breakfast. By a. And then, also questioning them, a riddle, like that. I wake up with that. And then I have to find out why, and what it is, and how which questions I can ask, or how, what kind of actions, I could do to find out what it is.

    I think they are kind of language, like a kind of communication from the intuition, I guess. When it started, I was very irritated, and I thought something is wrong with me. And then I just accepted it. And then it started to be really interesting. She too relies on her subconscious for ideas. So Maira Kalman gets her ideas from serendipitous encounters that she prepares herself to receive — but not too much preparation.

    Jorinde Voigt gets her ideas from images that present themselves in the early morning. I recently spoke with someone who needs to come up with multiple ideas every day. And I also just finished an city live tour that healed the nation And I have a program on T. And it involves narcissism. Coming up with ideas is a job; really, it is the job. Like all jobs, it can get a little routine. And I started my career as a writer, but I really — what I probably love most is being out of control and unprepared. The musician and writer Rosanne Cash sometimes gets her ideas in museums.

    I take it to melody. And sometimes, well, it all can be going to the Met and standing in front of that painting of Joan of Arc. That painting has inspired me. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, you think, and then it turns out that they came from the future. And I call those songs postcards from the future.

    I wrote it in March. And my stepmother died in May and then my dad died in September. Her dad was the country-music legend Johnny Cash. And there have been other times. You might go to H and Z first, and then come back. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Visit From the Goon Squad , a sharp and spiky novel with multiple narrators, and which has absolutely nothing to do with baseball.