Ben Grey via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Ben Grey via Wikimedia Commons

We have all probably been there: The moment just after a speaker's open invitation to everyone to help generate new ideas, followed by –– silence.  Silence, or a short and unenthusiastic dribble of responses, sparking no new connections, no collaborative talk, no elaboration of the few ideas that are offered. 

Why might this happen? 

A team of researchers in Switzerland recently tackled this question from a fresh perspective — not in a face-to-face setting, but in the context of an entirely visual online creative collaboration.  They asked: Did it matter if ideas were visually presented in a very neat and tidy format, or instead as unfinished and provisional?   

Participants in the study (managers in an executive MBA course or students in master's level courses) were each assigned to an anonymous partner, with whom they interacted only through a shared computer interface –– a virtual whiteboard.  They were told:  

You are part of a task force charged with advising the program's strategic director.  How can the program's strategic director increase the program's value without significantly changing the course price or the budget?  You can suggest any type of change you like. 

Participants communicated their own ideas via the virtual whiteboard, and could elaborate on their own or their anonymous partner's ideas by adding text.  Each participant was assigned either an orange or a blue icon that indicated their own (versus their partner's) ideas, and each entered idea was accompanied by an icon. 

Some participant pairs saw icons that were purposefully designed to look highly finished and perfect. Other pairs of participants saw icons that were, instead, intentionally designed to look unfinished, roughly sketched and provisional. Below are illustrations of what an icon looked like when it was high in "perceived finishedness" (upper image) or low in "perceived finishedness."

Jonathan Binks, adapted from McGrath, Bresciani, & Eppler (2016)

Examples of finished and unfinished-appearing icons.

Source: Jonathan Binks, adapted from McGrath, Bresciani, & Eppler (2016)

The partners freely and interactively generated their ideas on the whiteboard for 10 minutes, during which all on-screen interactions were remotely recorded as screen capture video.  

Independent raters who evaluated the feasibility and creativity of the ideas that were generated found significantly greater creativity in the pairs whose icons appeared unfinished and roughly sketched than in pairs whose icons were highly polished and finished.  The partners whose icons were unfinished and sketch-like also significantly more often elaborated on the ideas they produced.

Why might this be? 

The researchers propose that the highly polished, perfectly finished looking icons acted to discourage interaction by giving the impression that they should not be touched or tampered with.  In contrast, the roughly sketched and unfinished-looking icons invited further approach and continued interplay with the ideas.   

Although symbols act as abstract pointers and carriers of our thoughts, they are physical too.  The precise peculiarities and concrete details of how they are made and exist in the physical world may prompt and prod our thinking and motivational responses in different ways.  Some physical pointers (particular fonts, images, handwritten notes) may invite us to playfully interact with them, exploring, improvising, elaborating.  Other physical pointers (other fonts or images) may instead send us signals of "hands off," subtly discouraging us from any further mental or physical interplay with the ideas. 

There is an analogy between the ways we capture our ideas in textual form and how we may capture and iteratively evolve our ideas for non-text-based creative projects, such as generating ideas for a 3-dimensional artwork, a building, a garden, etc.  As we observe in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (p. 58):

"During the early stages of generating new ideas, it is important not to aim for perfection or polish in the drafts or prototypes that we work with. Our initial exploration and discovery may require intermediate levels of detail — partial drafts or low-fidelity prototypes that are only approximately correct and not highly precise. This may work best if undertaken with a moderate degree of purposeful cognitive control leaving adequate room for spontaneity and unanticipated directions. Quickly cycling through multiple unfinished and partial attempts has many benefits. This process gives us rapid feedback, opportunities for recalibration, and a sense of progress, leading us in promising directions."

To think about:

  • How might the particular ways that ideas are physically represented –– captured, out there, in the world, in words or images or sounds –– influence your inclinations to interact with those ideas? 
  • Do the images and text (fonts, notes, sketches) that you use invite you and others to playfully elaborate on ideas?
  • What are the "icons" in your creative/making spaces and are they too perfect –– or are they roughly-sketched invitations to?

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