Mycelium drafting table, a 10x10 grid breaking knowledge down into 100 different fields
Drafting table for the game Mycelium, breaking knowledge into 100 categories

Creativity has two very simple parts.

1. Know lots of things about lots of things

2. Be able to join those things together

I want to give you a really simple tool, or exercise, that shows you what this means. It’s one I use pretty much any time I tackle a creative thinking problem. It’s really helpful for

• generating unexpected ideas

• enabling you override your mind’s tendency to tell you that certain things don’t belong together, that “this or that isn’t relevant here”

I call it “taking an idea for a walk.”

It’s really just another way of taking the idea that interesting things happen when different fields collide; or that you should think from different perspectives — and turning it into something concrete, a practice that you can apply at any time.

Let me explain how it works using one of the classic creative thinking problems. How many uses can you think of for a paperclip? How would you go about thinking of things? The danger is that you will feel like a writer confronted with an empty page, and you will end up with nothing.

If you’re slightly more used to problem solving, you might take your cue from what a paperclip looks like. So you might think of a whole load of things that look like a paperclip — a diving board, a coat hook, a heating element and so on, and devise new uses by listing those and adding to each “for ants”.

It’s often easy to get stuck on this track, and to end up generating what look like a whole load of ideas that are all, actually, just the same idea spelled out in different ways.

So how do you break out of this kid of rut? There are all kinds of ways, but I want to show you a really systematic one. I love the flow of being really creative and outside any rules or structure. But let’s face it, sometimes the only way we can reach that flow is to have a go-to that we can fall back on that’s so familiar and so clearly laid out it takes no additional effort to use it.

The approach I take is to go through each area of my knowledge, and for each one figure out whether there is any way a paperclip could be useful.

It’s very simple. But to be able to make the most of it, you need to be able to access every different part of your knowledge bank quickly, and not get lost in any one part of it.

I use the drafting table I devised when making the game, Mycelium. It’s a really artificial but nonetheless handy, and easy to use and learn, way of dividing the whole of human knowledge into 100 headings. It’s a really useful tool for helping to build a wide knowledge bank too (learning at least one thing under each heading, then starting over).

So, to go back to our paperclip example, I might start at the top left of the drafting table with “deserts” — a paperclip might act as a heat transfer element in a solar panel, or you could put it under the ground at the desert’s edge and encourage roots to grow around it so as to avoid soil erosion and desert encroachment. Eventually your “idea journey” will go through headings like business (we all know the book “One Red Paperclip”, fashion (punk revival for office managers), education (the different lengths of metal might make it useful for performing calculations), fish (prosthetic for an angler fish who’s lost its lure), and the law (might we introduce a “paperclip standard” dictating that all openings in drinks cans have to be the size of a standard paperclip or more?) — and so on.

Without this systematic approach, I might not have come up with any of those ideas because I would be left without a clear place to start. Try it out.

Next time we’ll use it for solving a problem generated with Mycelium, something that looks for ways to connect two things together, and see that by providing 100 different contexts for the answer you can spark a vast array of ideas.

Meanwhile, you can download a FREE printable full colour pdf of Mycelium here and you can buy the book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, which goes into detail on lots of different creative techniques, as a paperback (£7.99) or ebook (£2.99) from Amazon here as well as from all other ebook stores