Creativity Hack: Combining Unrelated Ideas

One of the most potent ways to find creative ideas is to take two completely unrelated concepts and try to combine them. This ability to associate unrelated ideas is a natural process for our brains but we often underuse this capability in finding novel ideas.  

About The Hack

Associative thinking, the ability to combine unrelated ideas, underlies a lot of innovation we see in the real world. Google search, one of the most well known inventions, is the product of associative thinking. When Sergei Brin and Larry Page were students working on improving search, they hit upon an interesting insight. The problem that they were trying to solve is to point users to high quality web pages that contain information users would find useful But how do you determine which websites are good and which ones are not? Their “aha” moment came when they realized that academic journals have a mechanism to identify high quality papers — the number of times a paper is cited by others. Applying the same concept to web pages, they realized that the more a web page is linked to by others the more authoritative it must be. They used that idea to create their first algorithm to rank web pages and Google was born! 

To use associative thinking in product design, find random objects or concepts and try to connect it to your central problem. For example, suppose you are tasked with making a new kind of mug. You then think of different objects or attributes, not typically associated with a mug, and see if there are ways to combine it. Suppose you picked a ball to combine with a mug. The simplest way to combine would be a ball-shaped mug. But, you could go further and use an attribute of the ball in a more meaningful way. Let’s say you pick “inflatable” as an aspect to incorporate. That leads you to creating an inflatable mug that is easy to pack on trips and provides good thermal insulation thanks to the layer of air in between. 


Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it in product design or with students.

DescriptionTo find a creative idea for product improvement, try to combine a random object or attribute with the product. 
ExampleIn designing a new kind of mug, you combine it with a ball. One attribute of the ball is “inflatable” which leads to the idea of an inflatable mug. The mug is useful because it packs more easily for hiking trips and also provides better thermal insulation due to the layer of air in between.  
Tips Instead of combining objects directly, use an attribute of the random object to combine. That often leads to more interesting and novel ideas  
ExtensionsTo build associative thinking in students, ask them to incorporate other famous characters (fictional or otherwise) into their stories, or do a project that combines their hobbies with a subject they are learning (e.g. music and math)
Creativity Hack: Combining Unrelated Ideas