Use metaphors to brain kick your project!

In this blog post I will present a way to think differently about what you’re creating. To think laterally. Of all tips and tricks, methods and tools that promise to help you stay creative, this one is my favourite (and I’ve tried a lot).

So what’s the key? Answer: Thinking about and breaking down phenomena into mechanisms that can be applied onto what you’re currently working on. It may sound mysterious at first, but it’s actually really simple, yet powerful.

You don’t need pen and paper or any other accessory — You simply think of mechanisms that are succesful in areas totally different than yours and force yourself to think how you may appropriate it.

Let me explain.

Useful ideas often spring from what seemed silly at first.

Why do I need this?

“We should do something differently”…I know! But your ideas are often confined within your usual environment: your own way of thinking, your company culture, the planned additions to your project and so forth.

Thinking ‘outside the box’ is cliché, but that doesn’t make it less useful or important. You need to think wildly different sometimes. Every day actually, if you ask me. Alas, there are many times in your work life where you need to come up with new ideas or push the boundaries of what you’re already working on in a more innovative way.

This method of using metaphors is relevant to everyone really: entrepreneurs, film makers, designers, initiators, everyone who’s creating and innovating on some level.

Here’s four examples where using metaphors is relevant:

  1. Developing a new feature to your startup
  2. Taking a new spin on your film project
  3. Brainstorming sessions at work or university
  4. Pivoting from an unwanted situation in your project

Step-by-step guide

Let me guide you through it.

1. Visualise two cards in your mind

One the left side you have the thing you want to think differently about.

On the right side we’re placing the phenomenon we use to think differently with.

Two cards: Your Project and a phenomenon

2. Think of a phenomenon

Going on a roadtrip, taking the bus, picking something up from the ground, applying for college, running a daycare center, NASA sending up a rocket, a travelling circus.

These are examples you can use. It can also be an item. Try make it as different to what your project is as possible.

For this example, let’s pick a travelling circus.

3. Think about what characterises the phenomenon

Pick the phenomenon or item apart mentally. This takes practice.

What mechanisms are there in a travelling circus?

  • A group of people
  • Moving from location to location
  • Featuring different acts
  • Acts are recognisable and iconic
  • Charging per person per entry
  • Selling commodities on the side which is probably their main revenue stream
  • Managed front-stage by a single person
  • Managed back-stage by many

And so forth. Mind you that I never mentioned popcorn, lions, clowns, tents or anything like that. We strip it down to bare traits. This makes them reusable!

4. Apply a mechanism to your project

Now you want to force yourself to apply each mechanism to what you’re working on.

For this instance, let’s say my project is creating a theatre play with my friends.

Theatre play + A group of people…thinking…doesn’t give me any ideas.

Next one.

Theatre play + Moving from location to location…thinking…How about creating a mobile play, where the audience got to move around to different parts of a building to experience the full story, always missing out on something. That’s interesting.

Next one.

Theatre play + Featuring different acts…thinking…Instead of a linear story, we could make bite-sized acts, like 8 different stories during a 2 hour session. It might not work, but let’s write it down.

Next one.

And so forth…

Go through each mechanism until your creativity dries out. Then you pick a new phenomenon and rinse repeat. The phenomenon is just a means to an end, so don’t be afraid to toss it in favour of a new one.

5. Write the good ideas down

If the circumstances allow it, write the good ideas down, even if they’re not fully evolved yet, they can spark something.

That’s it really!

I said it was simple. But it forces you to think outside your common pastures and can be used when you’re lying in bed at night, in professional team sessions and without any accessories.

With the basics down, let’s look at how you can master this.

Pitfalls

  1. Not giving it time to work properly. If you’re not used to abstract thinking, it can be hard. But spend the time, it’s worth it, and everyone can do it.
  2. Not stripping it fully. When stripping a phenomenon it’s a common mistake to not strip it far it enough. In the “travelling circus” example, many end up saying “people going into a tent”, “showcasing animals” and “selling popcorn”. These are too specific and will limit your creativity. Instead they should be “people gathering in a dedicated place”, “showcasing exotic things” and “selling commodities as a side business”. Those are usable. It’s like taking a black and white picture and only analysing the lines and shapes rather than what the picture displays in characters, motives and so forth. The denotations are the important part while the connotations are stripped away.
  3. You shouldn’t apply all mechanisms at once. Take one at a time and see if it sparks any ideas. In this example the “theatre play” shouldn’t have all the listed mechanisms of the travelling circus — they are there to ignite ideas, one at a time.
  4. Trying to keep everything in your head. If you’re not comfortable with the method yet, write everything down as shown on the images in this post.
  5. Scepticism. How is a tv show about birds in any way relevant to my business concept? It might not be, but it most likely is in some way. Using lateral thinking you can uncover it. Force your brain to think: how can I use the information I get here even though it seems so different and far fetched? Useful ideas often spring from what seemed silly at first.
  6. Focusing more on the method than on the ideas. Remember that it’s meant to spark your creativity, not block it. On one hand you should take the necessary time to go through the learning curve, on the other hand you shouldn’t take it too seriously if it doesn’t work out at first. Appropriate the method to what works for you.

List of phenomena to get you started

Bar mitzvah

Pirates

Bumblebees

Bridge building

Street food

Recycling

Couples therapy

JFK airport

Moonlight bike trips

Supernova explosion

Vacuuming

Applying for insurance

Going on a picnic

Funding your startup

Galla red-carpet photography

Croquis drawing

Folding paper planes

If you got questions or need help, write a comment below or send an email, I’ll happily help you get started.
By Emil Villumsen, co-founder of Craft