The Box: Think Outside Of It

There’s no single recipe for creativity, as far as I know. But this week on the Podcast, Tom Nardi and I were talking about a number of hacks that were particularly inventive, out-of-the-box, or just simply “how did they think of that?”. One possible route to something new is learning from other disciplines.

We were talking about an inspiring video about 3D printing fabrics. At the moment, the design world is going crazy for all things 3DP, so it’s no surprise to see someone with a design background asking herself how to make stuff that comes off the 3D printer more flexible, and fit her needs a little bit better. But what if those of us on the building-purely-functional side of things took what the fabric folks learned and applied it to our work? You’d get something like this hybrid approach to folding mechanisms, or this approach to remove supports from your prints.

I’m continually surprised by how much the home-gamer can learn from industry, and this week was also no exception. [Anne Ogborn]’s piece on handling bulk material draws mostly on the hard work of engineers who are worried about properly emptying gigantic grain silos or feeding tons of screws into small boxes to ship out to customers. But the same physics are at work when you’re designing an automatic dry cat food dispenser for your next vacation, just on a smaller scale.

How about you? What things have you learned from other disciplines, possibly entirely unrelated ones, that have helped you with your hacking?

19 thoughts on “The Box: Think Outside Of It

  1. There is no single recipe for creativity, but they all seem to follow roughly the same technique.

    The best intro to creativity I’ve found is a video by John Cleese. Being John Cleese it’s a fun video, but what he talks about is completely accurate and based on how our brain works and is backed by research:

    https (dot) //www (dot)youtube (dot) com (slash) watch?v=Pb5oIIPO62g

    For an in-depth look at creativity, check out the book “deep work” by Cal Newport. Among other points, he talks about how artistic and highly productive people have managed to set themselves up for productive output throughout history. For another viewpoint look up Brian Tracy’s lectures on “the superconscious mind”. Many other sources say pretty-much the same thing.

    To summarize, at any one time your brain runs lots of competing little subroutines that are primed by what you encounter in the environment (see “priming” on Wikipedia) used to predict the immediate future, called “nexting”.

    When you set yourself in an environment with no distractions, these subroutines run their course and eventually die down, leaving your mind clear to think deeply about something with no distractions. During this time, if you have set up a problem for your brain to think about, it will do exactly that… and eventually give insight into the problem.

    The effect is real, and not something people usually experience or even know about. The experience is also highly pleasurable.

    It takes about 1/2 hour of uninterrupted time to *begin* this state if you are practiced at it. The first time might take a person 60 minutes and the first time they might not even be able to do it at all. It takes a few sessions to get the feel of it and know what to expect and where to put your mind.

    Anything that distracts you from the state will stop it completely, and it will take another 1/2 hour to get back into the mode. A phone call will do it, someone stopping by your office will do it, and checking twitter on your phone will do it. Any distraction will activate more subroutines in your head, and it takes time for these to die down again.

    There’s a brain neurochemistry explanation for this which I won’t go into (it’s in Cal Newport’s book, IIRC).

    Lots of famously productive people practice this technique, it’s the root of their creativity.

      1. Flow is a slightly different state. The flow state is where you are hyper focused and lose track of the sense of time, but it’s not specifically tied to creativity. If you are an expert in something you can get into flow and be highly productive by using your existing skills, but not necessarily creative.

        Creativity is described as being in the “open” or “closed” state, online it’s called “systemic mode” and “heuristic mode” (cf. wikipedia).

        A good distinction between flow and creativity is the target: if you have a task to complete (writing, coding, sewing, circuit design) you can get into flow and complete the task quickly and efficiently. At any point you always know what the next task is.

        Being creative is the opposite: it’s where you *don’t* know what the next step is, you don’t have a ready-made solution, and you have to mull over possibilities.

        If you can quiet your mind, and think through the issues, your brain will eventually pop up a creative solution seemingly at random.

        It’s weird – you’re thinking through a problem with no obvious solution, and suddenly the answer pops into your head with no obvious prior reasoning.

        That’s the open mode. It’s closely related to flow.

        (Flow also has a neurochemistry explanation.)

        1. Not that simple.

          Hannibal Lecter said that Schopenhauer said that ‘a true composer never stops composing, you know this because sometimes when otherwise distracted a solution just pops into your mind’ (para).

          Sometimes you need to clear your mind and focus on creating, sometimes you need to go shoot pool (to keep you front brain busy), sometimes you just need to poop. Creative solutions will come in their own time.

    1. That YouTube link was actually an interesting watch. Thanks for sharing.

      I’ve heard John Cleese is actually quite an interesting person. A friend of mine was at a recent Comic Con, and said Mr. Cleese was very interesting during the QA section, and provided very in depth answers.

  2. Maybe the box is actually where real creativity takes place and most of the time we’re just floating around outside the box distracted by trivia , slitting around like leaves blown on the wind?

  3. I’m a bit of an omnivore, I like cool nitty gritty tips and wrinkles from all fields.. unfortunately, the principle of the idea sticks, but I forget completely where I pulled it from. More obviously, the ancient texts Nick mentions are for me, 1800s and early 1900s shop hints, receipts and shop practice etc, tons of them on archive dot org these days. Spons, Practical Mechanics. etc.

    But trying to force yourself out of the box, means you’re stuck right? The conventional approach has a sour taste, from sameness, or because there’s a wee twist on the problem that makes it imperfect… well inventors block, whatever you want to call it.. routes around..

    Challenge your assumptions about the problem. Do you need to do something every clock cycle? Iterate maybe, get an answer every hundred milliseconds, somehow similar to how ramp/staircase analog to digital conversion is achieved.

    Start figuring out how to do it the stupidest way possible… this helps flip your thinking around a bit, and you might spot things that help you do it smarter. Or you could find that the stupidest way possible for your planned nth step, in adding 5 steps to do it, flips around the necessity for some earlier steps, allows folding of functions together, and though in theory your last step is now 5 steps, the previous 15 collapsed to 7. A kind of similar thing occurs when you go “that’s stupid, it will need 4 more gates…” but then you realise it can use an unused NAND off that chip, an unused buffer off another, and what looked like a multi component kludge was accomplished with basically a bit of extra wiring, leveraging chips already committed.

    Skip that bit… sometimes possible when you’ve got something that kinda works, but not perfectly, and you’ve been futzing with it to smooth out the snags for way too long… if you have invested some time in it, it’s likely you’ve lodged all the essential factors into your meatware and can move onto the next step, because while you’re doing something else, the perfect way to do it will pop out of the back of your mind.

    Switch materials or fabrication methods… if only figuratively or for mental exercise because sometimes you are blind to a problem you are not expecting with a given material or method, and thinking about how to adapt a different material or method to it, makes you realise exaggerated versions of what might be happening. Kind of “No I can’t do it in soft brass instead of steel, the force is too high it would burr over and … ohhh… yes, there’s a slight burr on that mild steel part.” … “I could only do it with that tool with extensive jigging and setup because the slightest amount out of true would have the part jamming… wait… is that other tool necessarily true?”. Or in other scenarios a straight upgrade, stop banging your head against the limitations of what you’re working with and put in a metal hinge, a teflon scuff plate, whatever.

    1. RW i like your entire comment but the last part of the first paragraph has me wondering what are some of those things that was really handy or something you’d recommend checking out(late 1800-1900s) . Recently I’ve been attracted to building tools from plans from old Popular Mechanics mags or making my own (designed from my brain) tools, jigs, and similar . I think with time and technology and narrative we have lost , forgot , or became oblivious to better designs, construction, “shop know how”, and a plethora of others. What I’m trying to get at , better, personally always striving for is to mix 1900, mechanics, design, knowledge and basic shop common sense with today’s tech, materials, know how and whatnot. I would love to gabe the mind of a 1930s machinists that had tons of hobbies with today’s infamous makers , hackers etc. Kinda like if Jack parsons, Howard Hughes, Jimmy diresta, elon musk, Kevin mitnek had a baby.

  4. These are all very good positive tips, Mr RW. I particularly like the one about deliberately being stupid, or in my own words, an idiot. There’s also a lot of negative factors that affect creativity such as pressure to get the job done and fear. If we were all working on our own then the fear element might not be so strong but then again, we still have our own personal demons telling us what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Be courageous and STRIKE OUT THOSE DEMONS !!!!

    The mind works a whole lot better if it is not under too much pressure – enough pressure and discipline to engage fully in the task, but not so much that it begins to become stressful and not enjoyable any more. Enjoying the task is the key factor and if we’re disillusioned with the project for some reason or have some other person watching us all the time then enjoyment is going to decline. The classic case would be an authoritarian team leader who does not appreciated our stupid technique for solving a problem and instead just says “That’s a stupid idea’. We reply, ‘Yes, I know that but …” and before we know it we’ve become unemployed. Actually, this comes back to fear and courage once more. Not being afraid to stand up to other people. If we dont want to risk losing our jobs, this could be practiced in other, non critical environments, like in the local pub / bar. What can possibly go wrong?

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