Creative Brain Joggers

Creative Brain Joggers

Oblique Strategies DeckYears ago, I was in the middle of developing a set of my own graphic design axioms, like “Make something really big! Then make something really small! Split the difference!”, “Steal the colors from Mother Nature!”, and “Create color harmony through irresponsible tinting!”…evil stuff like that. I became curious whether other people had already come up with a list, searched the Internet, and came upon across the Oblique Strategies. They were created way back in the 70s by experimental musician Brian Eno and his painter friend Peter Schmidt. Eno writes (via the Oblique Strategies site):

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.”

While there are electronic versions of the deck available (including one for your Palm Pilot), I like the feel of crisp coated cardstock, so I ordered the 5th edition reprint from England at EnoShop. It’s not exactly artisan quality, but isn’t it nice to have actual printed cards? Yes, it is! Although, they were a bit expensive at £30 a pop plus international shipping.

UPDATE: Here’s a cool Dashboard Widget for Mac OS X.

AmazonIf Oblique Strategies is the creative way to solve problems, then TRIZ–the name comes from the Russian acronym for Theory of Inventive Problems Solving–is the systematic engineering approach. I first read about it in a BusinessWeek article a couple years ago, and picked up The Innovation Algorithm soon afterwards. TRIZ is the self-described science of invention, with well-defined methodologies and processes. What attracted my attention were the 39 Contradictions and the 40 Inventive Principles. “The Contradictions” are properties of an invention that you want to optimize (with probably tradeoffs between conflicting desires), and “The Principles” are the methods by which you can try to work around them. There’s tons of stuff on the Triz Journal site, much of it quite dry; this article, Creativity Breakthroughs with Children Using Higher Level Thinking, is one of the more accessible ones.

Decision DiceTo date, I haven’t looked at either of these systems that deeply–The Innovation Algorithm remains largely unread next to my copy of Flow–but I was excited by the idea that there were many systems for creative thinking. Even if I didn’t apply the systems rigorously, I reasoned, I would still have pre-seeded my mind with great ways of getting un-stuck…it would just take a while to find ’em all. Fortunately, idea consultant Martin Leith has already cataloged dozens of idea generation systems over the past 15 years. Leith writes:

This website lists and explains every idea generation method I’ve encountered during the past 15 years. It is the result of extensive research; my many sources include books, management journals, websites, academics, consultants and colleagues. The methods have been drawn not just from the worlds of creative problem solving and innovation, but also from other worlds such as organisational change, strategic planning, psychotherapy, the new sciences and the creative arts.

If you are a multi-disciplinary problem solver, then you really should haul ass over to Leith’s All Known Idea Generation Methods website and drink it all in. I found it humbling—and inspiring! It’s a really fantastic resource…thanks dude!


  1. Beth 19 years ago

    You should check out David Byrne’s book.  It touches on some similar issues, and would definitely go well with these cards.  It comes with the Power Point presentation I saw him show on tour.

  2. Nollind Whachell 19 years ago

    I actually had some cards a long time ago from Roger Von Oech called the Creative Whack Pack based after the name of his book “A WHACK ON THE SIDE OF THE HEAD: How You Can Be More Creative”. They were pretty good and definitely made you think.

    Other than that I’d have to say that Nature itself and the Tao Te Ching (The Tao of Power translated by R.L. Wing) are two of my greatest sources in helping me to think outside of the box.

  3. MaryM. 19 years ago

    Hey, very interesting!
    Very.  You like lists, and these have a lots of lists.  I liked the 40 inventive principles much more than the 39 contradictions…  does that mean I’m hopelessly positive?  :)

  4. Dave 19 years ago

    Neat! I’ve heard of the Byrne book, never actually have seen it before though.

    The Whack Pack sounds familiar too…I think a client of mine in the past had it too.  I’ve never read the Tao Te Ching…never thought it would be applicable to unblocking creativity.

    The image that comes to mind when being stuck, in my head, tends to be military. It must be all those violent video games I played when I was a kid. :-)

  5. Nollind Whachell 19 years ago

    Dave, your example of being stuck is exactly why I often refer to the Tao Te Ching and Nature to unlock and unblock my thinking. Think of water flowing down a hill and what happens to it when it reaches an obstacle. Does it sudden become stuck and stop? Of course not, it’s flexibility and diversity allows it to break it’s form apart, bypassing the obstacle, and allowing it to reform on the other side. If it could only remain as a single solid form though then it would remain stuck there.

    And your example of playing military games fits perfectly with this as well. When I used to play Counter-Strike (under the alias of Gentle Nova) my goal was always to “flow” past my opponents instead of clashing with them directly. In doing so, I was often able to pass them and strike their teammates from behind them in surprise on the opposite end of the map. As I said, the idea isn’t to clash and lock with the opponent but instead to continuall flow through your engagements.

    Japanese swordmasters, such as Miyamoto Musashi, teach the same thing when striking an opponent, as mentioned in The Book of Five Rings. You should never be thinking of just striking directly at the opponent because when you hit them, you will often stop. The idea is to think of your blade flowing through your opponent and in doing so your mind will give your hand the power to do so. If you tell your mind to focus on just hitting the opponent though, once you hit and touch them then your hand will often stop. The same applies to martial arts when striking with your fist. Strike “through” your opponent and visualize it with your mind.

  6. Cuccu 18 years ago

    Martin Leith no longer publishes or maintains his list, but if you contact him via his website (Martin Leith), he may point you to the zip file of his old site.