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What Do Great Designers and Children Have in Common?

The Tribe
January 14, 2014

One of the most important abilities you can have in design is the ability to think outside of the box. Yes, you’ve probably heard this before. Everyone has, because it’s an old ass saying. Thinking outside of the box is a great way to foster true originality in creative work, but how is it accomplished?  How do you come up with a truly original creative idea? The truth is that you can’t. Yet still there are over 285,000 designers in the U.S. alone coming up with a sh*tload of creative ideas every single day. How do these people keep their jobs?

As a designer, I struggle occasionally (ok, way more than occasionally) with not being able to think outside of the parameters given to me a.k.a not being able to “think outside of the box.” This frustrates every creative professional to no end. It’s the pull your hair out, eat really unhealthy food, AND chocolate kind of frustration because I would keep generating THE SAME IDEAS. They’re the boring, safe, unoriginal, lazy, “looks familiar” types of ideas. It happens to us all at some point. Just because we were given the gift of being creative doesn’t mean we don’t slam into the (insert word here) wall every once and awhile.

Alien With a Mohawk

So, I recently watched a very interesting show on the National Geographic Channel that really put things in perspective for me. It was more of test or as they called it on the show a “brain game.” Let’s give this brain game a try, shall we? Look at the image below. In the next 7 seconds name as many things as you can that this shape looks like. Ok, go!


Back already? Ok now honestly, how many ideas did you come up with? If you said, “Alien with a mohawk” you are just awesome. On the show, a group of 20 something’s were asked the same question and presented with the same image. The 20 something’s averaged only two ideas per person. Only two ideas! Boo! A group of children ranging from 8-10 years of age were asked the same question with the same image and the children averaged 6 ideas per child.

The Difference

So, what the show was explaining is that in adults (me and you), when we create memories, are actually creating paths in our brains. And so everything is and becomes relative to something else. The paths allow everything to become familiar to us. So when we see something that doesn’t look like anything else we have a hard time coming to any conclusions about what it is or could be. Where as in children that haven’t been predefined and don’t have these engraved ideas or paths already in their brains, are just completely open to imagine anything! They are free to come up with absolutely anything because their brain allows them to, and they do. Their imaginations have no limits. The ideas that the children were coming up with might not be anything you or I could have imagined but once the idea was said, we could instantly see it, imagine it and it makes us think, “Wow, how in the world did they come up with that?” And as a designer, that is one of the biggest compliments that you can ever receive…ever.

Thinking Outside of the Box

So the same group of 20 something’s were again asked the same question with the same image, but this time they were asked to “think like a child” before they looked at the image. It triggered something in their brains to allow them to see the image in a way that wasn’t necessarily realistic or true to form. In other words they weren’t trying to make the image something that came from a preconceived idea, they were truly thinking outside of the box.

When you apply this way of thinking to design, new original ideas are born. It’s limitless. Thinking “outside of the box” or “thinking like a child” (as I now like to call it) allows your imagination to run. It’s allowing yourself to push down the parameters of your mind; to go out into the open field where there are no borders and no boundaries. It allows you to completely explore the space that is your imagination.

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