11 circles artwork left to right: Kim Fuller, Jeff Wagenheim, Hannah Fries, Tim MacKay, Moira Greto, Michèle Coppin, Ann Hallock, Margot Glass, Carolyn Eckert, Shoshannah Wineburg, Hans Teensma

11 Steps to get a more creative result from your next project.

Within limitations there are endless possibilities —
11 lessons learned from the exercise “11 circles.”

Jul 10, 2016 · 8 min read

When I started working on my book, Your Idea Starts Here, a few people said to me, “Carolyn, everyone can’t be creative, they just can’t.” And yes, not everyone is going to be Picasso, but you can train yourself to be better at anything if you have an interest. It’s about learning to look at your environment differently and having a desire to express yourself in some other way.

It was important to me that if this was a book about inspiration, it should show as many different perspectives as possible and should be visual, fun, and unexpected, because that’s what it’s supposed to feel like when you’re inspired. So, I wanted to include an exercise within the pages that would encourage people to see things in a different way, as the rest of the book suggests. I was curious to see what would happen if I gave people a specific task with limited instructions — so I designed a creative challenge with a single rule: send me 11 circles. As the collections of circles came in from over 100 people, the submissions were exciting, funny, personal, thoughtful, and mind-expanding. And what was really interesting was that all of these different points of view taught me a few lessons that can apply to any project.

1. Don’t Impose rules that don’t exist.

Some people felt that 11 circles challenge was still too wide open and they froze in even thinking about what to do. They created restrictions where they didn’t exist. Thoughts such as “I can only do one submission of 11 circles, so it has to be perfect” were common, and caused a lot of people to feel paralyzed and not submit at all.

On the other hand, the people who submitted more than once became more loose as they went. For example, Michèle Coppin first sent in her palette from her latest fall paintings. Then she went to Rome and started seeing 11 circles everywhere. She even captured 11 circle biscuits on the floor by mistake. In her final submission, she’d really broadened her reach: she sent in 11 circles of bird droppings on the roof of a car.

“Fall palette — still life with primary colors, pumpkins, gourds, apples, nuts”, and a series of images of 11 circles from Rome — Michèle Coppin

The takeaway? Try it, you might like it. If you worry too much about doing something wrong, you might never find out that you could make something funny, fabulous, or thought-provoking.

2. There is no right way.

Put your mind into “beginner brain” mode. Jay Silver, an inventor and computer hacker, writes about that state of mind where you don’t know what will or won’t work and so you continuously try, just as a child would, because you don’t know you can fail.

When I designed the 11 circles exercise, I think I assumed that each submission would arrive as a single image. Then, Kim Fuller sent in 11 pictures of circles, and I thought, “All right, this is going to be interesting.”

11 circular mindful moments

The takeaway? It’s your project. Make it your own.

3. Take the Easy Way Out.

You can find 11 circles almost anywhere. These circles are from my desk. So, ask yourself when you’re doing a project to ask “What’s the easiest solution?” Then, “How can I improve that?” It will at least be a place to start.

The takeaway? Don’t overlook the easy answer. It might be the best solution.

4. Make it personal.

If you can’t think of where to begin, think about who you are, what you like, what you like to do, or where you like to be.

Are you a chef? Use food.
11 cherry tomatoes would be perfect.
Are you a nurse? Use 11 circle band aids.
Are you a plumber? Use 11 pipe clamps.

Corey Cusson found inspiration in his passion for camping and the outdoors. His circular equipment shows that all the circles don’t have to be the same size or the same thing. Hans Teensma was thinking of his native Holland and doodled 11 skating circles. And Emily Spiegelman was feeling nostalgic, and shared a game she loved to play as a child.

The takeaway? Start from a familiar place to see where it takes you.

5. When you’re stuck, look to the written word.

Go further into the text for direction. Read a book, peruse instructions, or write a list or anything that gets words on the page. Hannah Fries wrote a poem with ten letter Os and then made her poem into a circle for number eleven. Ann Hallock reveals eleven books that have influenced her life and shares a circular window from each. Or look for circles where they already exist, as in Catherine Newman’s Facebook post. And Jeff Wagenheim looked at his keyboard and typed the first circles he saw.

“Here is a little window (circular-shaped) into eleven books that spoke to me at different times in my life — and still do. — Ann Hallock (detail from her 11 circles)

The takeaway? Procrastinate and read. Reading anything at all that you like can help to reveal a clue, and then help you make a connection to move your project forward.

6. Look at the numbers.

Why 11? Because even numbers are too easy to stack into neat patterns, there are too many things that come in dozens, and uneven numbers are always more interesting. One less than a dozen makes you have to pause, think, and notice. It also makes you more daring in trying to make — and break more combinations.

Eleven cents? It adds up to eleven, so is it eleven circles? 1 less than a dozen — 11 circles left from Henion Bakery and a recent find at an antique store — Carolyn Eckert

The takeaway? Use your math skills. Maybe you can add, subtract, or try another combination between what you’re doing to make it stronger. Or try another interpretation or combination to try to get another answer.

7. Think of a category.

Sometimes when there are too many options, it helps to narrow things down.

Make a smaller group from something you found or made. From a day’s purchase at a grocery store, Margot Glass looked at her fruit and then made a watercolor painting of imperfect orange circles. Shoshannah Wineburg made smaller groups from her first meal of the day and started arranging her breakfast cereal into different groups of 11.

“I was just playing with a some circles that were readily at hand and it occurred to me that as a designer I am always seeking balance and at times symmetry.” — Shoshannah Wineburg

The take-away? Organizing can help. Looking at just one part of your day can help to narrow a project down and find a starting point.

8. Time yourself.

Maybe categorizing things is still too broad and you need to limit yourself more. Give yourself a time or distance limit to see what happens such as:

“I can only use what I see in the next 20 minutes.”
You may find that there are exactly 11 manhole covers in North Adams on a walk from the office to the grocery store and back.

One of the 11 surprisingly different manhole covers from a walk around North Adams.

The take-away? If you have too much time to think, you might overwhelm yourself with options. If you have to make fast, impulsive decisions, you might surprise yourself with what can happen.

9. turn the rules upside-down.

You’re still allowed to break, ignore, or make up your own rules so the projects works. How far can you stretch the boundaries and have 11 circles still fit in the category?

Circles don’t have to be shown just one way: they can be sideways, they can be in a pile, or not shown at all. For this submission, you could tell people the 11 circles are right outside the frame (think of it as the emperor’s new clothes — they’ll just have to trust that they’re there).

The take-away? Sometimes you can follow the rules too literally and miss out on surprising results. Try seeing limitation as a possibility.

10. Think Bigger.

Sometimes you have to look outside the window and get inspiration from the wide world around you. Here Kevin Markey takes us on a trip, not only around the world, but also through time. Kevin supplied longitude and latitude coordinates from Google Earth, and he revealed 11 circles from around the world that hold special meaning to him in his life.

One of Kevin Markey’s 11 circles from around the world: “Often I feel like I’m going in circles: the writer’s life.”

The take away? Maybe what’s in front of you is not enough. Go bigger for the right solution.

11. expand your mind and your thinking.

Once you start looking around for 11 circles, you’re going to notice circles everywhere. You might not be able to stop.

This exercise made each of the participants think and look around their world and life a little differently, and more expansively. It opened up options they didn’t see before, and learned to observe in a new way — which is the key to being just a little more creative.

The take away? This simple exercise dares you to look outside of your usual routine to find something you haven’t noticed before. It also shows you that within limits you can open up so many more possibilities. It teaches you to be open to your environment and let it teach you something new.

— Carolyn Eckert
Find more exercises for unleashing your creativity in my book, Your Idea Starts Here:


Written by

I’m an art director who designs books, is a design mentor, a RISD graduate, and the author of “Your Idea Starts Here.”

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