Katie Wilhoit
Jun 3 · 6 min read

From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. Creative Creature is your collection of lessons from nature and tools to practice creativity, so Welcome! I’m your host, Katie Wilhoit, a designer curious about animals and the stories they have to share. So, swim, fly, and jump on in!

Today let’s talk about Octopuses (octopuses not octopi, who knew?). Octopuses are a type of cephalopod, in company with squid and cuttlefish, that are known for “juggling” many tasks with their eight arms, camouflaging swiftly to confuse predators and even predicting the world cup. Some of you might also know about how they decorate their habitat from the reference in the Beatles’s Song, “Octopus’s Garden”.

They are brilliant, nimble, and truly creative creatures.

These natural teachers are here today to teach us a splash course on how understanding and modifying your environment can increase your creativity.

Octo by Katie Wilhoit

Let’s dive a little deeper into the art of octopus camouflage first though. The master of disguise not only can change color in 1/10 of a second but some octopuses like the mimic octopus can also impersonate, in attempts to confuse predators, the behavior of other animals like venomous snakes and fish. Well.. to the best of their ability. Check out a popular example of an octopus mimicking below ( see more here).

Mimicking sea snakes (source here)

and here is an example of a common octopus camouflaging:

Photos by Dr. Roger Hanlon

Now, the really cool part is how octopuses can do this magic “morphing” especially because they can only see black and white out of their eyes. They have special cells in their skin that hold pigment called chromatophores. Controlled like muscles, these cells can help many octopuses “see” with their arms and learn patterns, colors, and textures of other animals they want to imitate. Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus shares, “three-fifths of an octopus’ neurons are not in their brain, but in their arms” and to her that, “suggests that each arm has a mind of its own”.

There is still a lot to learn about how octopuses and largely cephalopods scatter light and “see” with their arms. Yet, there are humans today using what we do know about them to discover color-changing materials and maybe even one day help find solutions to melanoma.

So, what can we learn about creativity from how octopuses “see” and camouflage?

Working with the definition of creativity as expanding your mind to make new connections and ideas, there is so much we can learn from how an octopus lives and sees.

  1. Exposure

Octopuses are great at tricking predators into thinking they are other animals by understanding how animals move and mimicking the body language of them (along with color and texture).

Research shows that octopuses who spend little time in the ocean and mostly were raised in captivity have a lesser library of creatures to mimic compared to ocean-living octopuses (Soul of an Octopus). What can this teach us? Putting yourself out there and exposing yourself to new critters or in a human case, backgrounds, experiences, disciplines, and maybe even uncomfortable situations can increase your breadth of creation.

It’s often uncomfortable to put yourself out there or try something new but some of the best ideas come from looking outside the world you live day to day. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind shares how the power of synthesizing seemingly unrelated topics can help brew new ideas. He mentions an activity about picking three magazines up you would never think of like, “Modern Farmer”, “Men’s Bodybuilding”, and “Cosmo” and try to make an idea from the three magazines that seem drastically unrelated. The practice of synthesizing will help you make connections beyond your imaginations.

2. See life in new ways

Exposure is one way to put yourself in new environments to help you make fresh connections and ideas. Changing how you grasp the world can also prompt moments of creativity.

For example, like an octopus, I wonder what it would be like to see with my arms…. maybe we can’t see with our arms as humans, but we can see the world in novel ways.

Scientists have scientifically proven with science (Bill Nye says, “science” in the distance) that when you walk a different route going home your brain becomes more creative. Why? Because you're increasing your flexibility and likelihood for something spontaneous to happen. Have you ever went for an aimless walk and found yourself finding a coffee shop, running into an old friend, or noticing something about the sky you hadn’t seen before? Taking your brain out of your routine, even if it is just a little bit, can help shiny ideas flow. If you are open to them…

Here are some ideas to see the world a little different. And I’m curious to hear what realizations, ideas, or conversations you spark up.

  1. Add a little more color to your wardrobe or try something on a little out of your comfort zone. Winter socks in summer? Three t-shirts at once?
  2. Change your transportation method for the day. And if you walk, try altering your pace or if you are feeling brave, try a skip.
  3. Try eating your breakfast with your hands behind your back or nose plugged.
  4. Wear some sunglasses inside.
  5. Dine alone at a restaurant or invite a stranger out.
  6. Read a book upside down.
  7. Sing instead of speak for an hour.

These unfamiliar and random activities will change how you see your surroundings slightly but only if you pay attention to them. Ask yourself when doing the silly tasks: How is my environment changing or how does my perception of my environment change? How does what I’m doing differently at this moment change my view? What stands out in this new way of seeing?

3. Let’s camouflage

I am a true believer that being your authentic self is the way to be. But, for this exercise, let’s try some other people on for a change, like our friend the octopus. Imagine you are a shy Octopus about to hide into a rock or pretend to be a pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, about to see land. This believing act of trying on someone else’s personality is called “psychological halloweenism” in Tinker Dabble Doodle Try by Dr. Srini Pillay. Pillay describes a study how when people believe they are an “eccentric poet” vs. a “frigid librarian” they are more creative. So, next time you are feeling a little uninspired, channel your inner Albert Einstein or Grace Hopper. You are creative if you believe you are.


In the spirit of “psychological halloweenism”, I hope you can try on some learnings from the octopus moving forward. We may not be able to study changes in our environments and change our bodies into another animal but by channeling our inner octopus, paying attention to our surroundings, seeing in unique ways, and believing we are as creative as the greats, we can push our openness to sparkly ideas. Maybe while reading upside a word stands out to you. Or maybe you meet someone interesting when trying a different style. Or maybe when you are pretending to be Freddie Mercury, you hear the lyrics to a brand new song. You are creative. And octopuses think so too.

Thanks for reading!

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a blog and a collection of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems teachers on earth. Feel free to recommend animals or concepts in the comments. #creativecreature #casefornature

Creative Creature

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a guide of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. #design #creativity #biomimicry #animals

Katie Wilhoit

Written by

Designer and lover of animals. Founder of Unsize and former @IDEOColab fellow.

Creative Creature

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a guide of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. #design #creativity #biomimicry #animals

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