How to bulk up your creativity muscles.

Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo faced a hefty creative challenge: to design suits that would improve the performance of competitive swimmers by reducing the effects of drag—the forces the water exerts on the swimmer's body.

Art Markman, Ph.D.Art Markman, Ph.D. is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He got his Sc.B. in Cognitive Science from Brown and his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois. He has published over 150 scholarly works on topics in higher-level thinking including the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning, categorization, decision making, and creativity. Art serves as the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas. He spent 9 years as executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and currently serves as a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

For inspiration, Fairhurst and her team looked to the animal kingdom. They noticed that sharks swim fast even though the shape of their bodies ought to create a lot of drag. They analyzed samples of sharkskin at the Natural History Museum in London and found that sharkskin has tiny structures on its surface called denticles that keep water molecules from sticking to it. The team created a fabric that mimicked the denticles and designed full-body swimsuits with it. Soon after the new Fastskin swimsuit was introduced, world records were shattered. Everyone wanted one.

You might not be a designer or inventor per se, but like Fiona Fairhurst, you are probably being asked to be creative at work, by, say, being more resourceful with less money or coming up with new services to provide. Unfortunately, you likely haven't received much formal education about how your mind actually works. I believe there is a basic formula for being more creative: Insightful solutions to problems often happen when people reuse knowledge that they did not realize would be valuable when they learned it.

That kind of creativity requires three components: improving your knowledge about the way all kinds of things in the world function; developing strategies to pull out the knowledge you need when you need it; and developing thinking habits to support these skills.

Fiona Fairhurst had to learn broadly about the way the world works to create her ingenious suit. The design team didn't focus on the movements of the human body; they went beyond that. If nobody on the team had been aware that sharks swim fast despite the shape of their bodies, it would never have been possible for them to consider modeling a swimsuit after sharkskin. And even after realizing that sharks were a source of inspiration, the team had to do some research to really understand why there is less drag on a shark than you might expect.

When you're grappling with a creative quandary, either you don't know anything that will help you out of it or you do know something but haven't been able to retrieve it. If you can't retrieve the information you know, then you must not be describing the problem in a way that allows that information to come to mind. So when you get stuck, the way to apply your knowledge is to keep changing the description of the problem until you are reminded of a helpful tidbit.

Fairhurst and her team stopped thinking about swimmers and traditional swimsuit designs. Instead, they focused on the kind of problem they were trying to solve. What is it about swimming that can slow a swimmer down? By changing how they described the dilemma, the team was able to think about other (non-human) kinds of swimmers.

Similarly, James Dyson noticed that vacuums lose suction when the bag starts to get full. The dirt picked up by the vacuum clogs pores in the bag, reducing its effectiveness. Rather than finding a way to improve the bag, Dyson thought more broadly about what the vacuum is trying to accomplish. He realized that the vacuum pulls in a combination of dirt and air and has to separate the two. From that description, he was reminded of sawmills, which use industrial cyclones to separate sawdust from air. After much tinkering, Dyson developed a small version of the industrial cyclone in a portable vacuum—and created a very successful company.

None of this is easy, of course. That's why innovators are so highly valued. But by learning more about the way the mind works, you can truly become smarter, no matter what your IQ is.

The next time you are faced with a difficult problem, remember Fiona Fairhurst, and reduce the mental drag on your creativity.


Here are two ways to develop the habits that will make you a more effective problem-solver and creative force, no matter what field you are in:

  • When you encounter a new device or an unfamiliar situation, make sure that you really understand the way it works. Take a few minutes to explain it to yourself before assuming that you get it. By teaching yourself, you will identify gaps in your understanding.

  • When you are stuck on a problem, seek its essence. To practice finding the essence, play around with proverbs. For example, what does the proverb, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” really mean? At a glance, this proverb refers to flies and honey and vinegar, but it is really about how you can influence people more effectively by being kind than by being nasty. Find a list of proverbs online and practice defining them. This skill will also help you see the essence of a problem you are trying to solve rather than keep you focused on the surface information.


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