How a simple list can spark creativity

Being a creative seems like a daunting task, but truly everyone can do creative work.

Donn shares his method of systemising creativity by simply making a list of objects or words that act as triggers for creating new ideas and generating new questions or parameters. In following a structured way to creativity, you just might find yourself working your creativity muscle and finding connections in the most unexpected way.


  • A creative person
    a) Thinks in a tangential way
    b) Looks around the edges of a typical solution
    c) Creates useful things
    d) Finds new and unexpected answers while driving it back for utility
  • “I believe that everyone can do quite some creative work.”
  • Starting with a blank slate can be daunting, and ideas generated may revert to standard solutions
  • A simple hack to create an idea is to start making a list of items around you, then use this list of items as a trigger to pair with the object you are trying to ideate around (e.g. How can a water bottle pair with a cup? How can a water bottle pair with a bookshelf?); this opens up new questions which consider less typical parameters
  • After generating new ideas with various triggers, ask the question, “In what context and to what kind of persons is this relevant?”
  • “When we want to find new and creative solutions, we are walking around the edges… (and) we’ll find a lot of things that we don’t need.”
  • Creativity is a muscle, “the more you work it, the better your connecting of the dots gets.”

Full Transcript

Okay why don’t you start by making a list of all the objects around you. The moment that you have this, suddenly you have new triggers, then you open up new questions which are slightly less typical, like modular, resizable, etc.

So today we want to ask some questions about creativity. So maybe we can start off with the first question of how would you define a creative person?

You think of things in a little bit more of a tangential way; you look around the edges a bit more than the typical solution but yet at the same time creative means you make something right, you create something useful right. While you are looking around the slightly untouched areas or the more obscure ways of thinking, you still have a very strong desire to bring that oddness back to some kind of resonance with people or usage/purpose.

So yeah in short, creativity is about being able to find new, maybe more unexpected, answers while being able to drive it back for utility.

I think that kind of, if I were to give you a quick anyhow definition of it, yeah that’s what I would say.

So actually do you think that these can be learned? Or if I’m someone who wants to cultivate my creativity and learn to be more open and more able to think tangentially, can that be learned?

Oh certainly yeah, certainly.

Do you have any… are there quick, maybe not quick but tangible things that someone who wants to start going into creativity can do?


I believe that everyone can do quite some creative work. Some would be more talented, more gifted in the area and they would do it a lot better, but I think that most people can do quite some creative work if given some methods.

Now, if we were to talk about a very tangible example, just from the idea of dealing with a topic and you’re given like a blank slate, say you need to solve a problem around water bottles (like I’m just seeing whatever that’s on your table). And if you were to ask someone to start from there and create new possibilities, it might be really difficult. You might start to get very standard answers like, hey let’s make it modular, let’s add colours to it, let’s give it a handle, let’s make it big-sized, small sized, collapsible, adjustable… you will get the very standard answers. Some people who are not attuned to this process even would find it quite daunting because the blank piece of paper is quite scary right, anything that you put down is almost like a representation of your thoughts and your person so you’re a bit embarrassed to even start.

One way to really hack this, because it’s difficult to say create an idea, but it’s actually not difficult for people to make lists. It’s really easy to make lists and you just say okay why don’t you start by making a list of all the objects around you. You say okay I have a chair here, I have some shelves behind me, I have hair on people around here, I have lights that are around, I have a cup here. And once you have a list like that, this list can be very quickly made by anyone right, 20-30 long (item) list. The moment that you have this and you say, okay why don’t you start to think of a new water bottle in relation to each element on this list? Suddenly you have new triggers. You might say, hey a water bottle and a cup have some interesting relationship with each other, they are somewhat related. What if a water bottle was more like a cup or could become a cup? Or what if my cup on my desk could become my bottle? Then you open up new questions which are slightly less typical, like modular, resizable, etc.

And then now if you look at the other things in your list that we have mentioned, shelves…I have no idea what a shelf and a water bottle has any relation to each other but if we were to try to squeeze something out then what if a water bottle was designed to sit more neatly on shelves? Would there ever be a… that’s a trigger thought, a starting thought, but will there ever be a context where this is necessary? I do not know whether we can immediately find one like that but the initial premise of that thought: water bottle that is good for shelves might lead us to think about schools and how preschool children all bring a water bottle and then at the start of the class, they all deposit in the corner in a tray or something like that. Is there some way to innovate in this space so that maybe either the water bottles don’t get mixed up, so that maybe in COVID-19 times it’s more hygienic? Maybe it’s just neater, that it doesn’t look like a cacophony of colours in the corner of the classroom and the straps are everywhere. Does the shelf or the bottle manage the straps so that it doesn’t get frustrating for the teachers?

So there are many possibilities the moment that we trigger our minds and we hack it using certain kind of clever techniques that don’t put us in the spot of having to have an inspiration. We have a systematic way to get inspiration. We say, let’s make a list, everyone can do that. Now from the list, let’s find something that’s a bit more sparked off by that list as a beginning idea; that usually would be somewhat unusable or irrelevant to people. Then we have to ask the question, “In what context and to what kind of persons is this relevant?”

And with the shelf bottle thingy, we can jog our memories a little bit to see, oh maybe preschools, maybe in the army, or maybe in hospitals, is there’s some kind of need for a bottle that is more compatible or more well considered in relation to shelves? Or you could be very flexible and say that like, hey maybe shelves is the key idea but it’s not so much about shelves, but it’s maybe about organisation and storage. So what is a water bottle that is better for organisation and storage and who in what context will need this? Yeah this five minute quick example to show you that there are methods around creativity if we were to get trained on it.

Because you have introduced this sort of method to some of us in NUS (Division of Industrial Design) where we were studying, and I guess for myself, I’ve always found it a bit like… I understood it in theory because you’re able to… I think what you used was (the idea of) “Forced Marriage” right, and kind of taking things and intentionally putting them together to think of new ideas. But for me, I’ve always found it more difficult when I had to answer a particular project brief and I felt as though like… say we go back to the water bottle for example. While I can come up with a list to pair the water bottle with, I’m not always able to make it then relevant to the project and that’s where I always found it to be a bit difficult when there are additional constraints on more than one level, more than one plane, that I have to grapple with. So yeah I’d always understood it in theory but I could never properly apply it to be completely relevant to what I was trying to do.

It’s true that sometimes such a method may bring you kind of outside of the project, and we have to kind of accept that when we want to find new and creative solutions, we are walking around the edges. And when we walk around the edges, we’ll find a lot of things that we don’t need. That’s part of the natural waste of innovation, that we have to deal with. A lot of people can accept when we say we’re in an R&D situation in the sciences and we’re doing experiments year after year with not much results; everything is money burning down the drain somewhat. Not that it’s really burning down the drain but out of like the $99-100k that is spent in it, sometimes there’s just a small experiment costing $1000 to do that gives you the answer. But if you hadn’t done that $999k worth of things, you cannot find that $1000 big answer that you’ve been finding.

So creativity, sometimes people put too much expectations on it that it’s meant to be like some magic bullet, you work on it, you get answer immediately, always guaranteed, but it isn’t. When you’re trying to find new things, you have to find new irrelevant things.

That said right, creativity is also one of those things where it’s like a muscle. At least in how I’ve experienced it myself and with students, it’s like a muscle that the more you work it, the better your connecting of the dots gets. And if you are frequently exercising it in such a manner to make disparate connections between things, you might find that you find answers that are relevant faster also. So the moment that you are faced with a constrained situation and you want to find an answer specific to it, you connect the dots better than others just because your mind is always firing all these type of various connections. And this is where you will get that kind of response, if you’re coaching students, they’re like, “How do you do that? I hear you explain this, it seems to be yes logical, makes sense, but how do you do that?” Of course this has been trained and trained and trained over so many years. One will do it a lot faster if you are trained, whereas if you aren’t and you’re new to it then work that muscle.

What I’m just saying is that like any kind of a useful skill, it doesn’t just come naturally. Some of us might have it a little bit better, more adept at it, but still even those who have some level of talent in this have to work it to get it to be in a place that’s usable.

And the thing is, I find that creativity interestingly is not so exclusive as certain type of talents. Certain type of talents actually you can work your butt off at it and it will just never happen; if you cannot sing, I think maybe some level of training can get it to be better but yeah… But creativity, I’ve seen that it’s very possible with most individuals.

Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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