Generating Ideas at Apple

The creative process is mythicized in our culture. There is a sense that ideas are flashes of genius that people have, all at once. But many of history’s best ideas were generated from a process of brainstorming, experimentation, and iteration. This is one of the most important things I took away from my time at Apple. Apple never magically visualized a product; they developed their ideas over time.

Creativity is just connecting things

Your brain is a metaphor machine. It makes sense of the world by trying to understand things in terms of what it already knows. The most recently evolved part of the brain is the neocortex. In humans, it’s essentially a giant pattern recognizer. Creativity is no more than synthesizing associations between existing stored patterns and ideas. Steve Jobs famously said, “creativity is just connecting things.” You might think that quote trivializes the creative process, but I like to think of it as a reminder that we all have the capacity for big, innovative ideas.

There is no Eureka Moment

I once had the opportunity to visit the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. There, I got to see Guernica, one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous masterpieces. The painting is gigantic and displayed in its own room. What struck me was not the piece itself, but what surrounded it: Smaller rooms each exhibiting pencil, charcoal, and paint studies of different parts of the masterpiece. In one room, 30 different strokes to get the bull’s head; in another, 25 attempts at the soldier’s arm.

Picasso did not paint the masterpiece in one go. He experimented; he made mistakes; he iterated. When you approach product design, treat it like a great artist treats building a masterpiece. Try and discover: You will uncover new ideas.

The Power of Lateral Thinking

Edward de Bono is a cognitive psychologist who has written on the topic of creativity. He distinguishes between two types of thinking: vertical and horizontal. Vertical thinking is logical thinking — thinking deeply about a problem and making chain after chain of decisions based on the previous ones. Horizontal thinking, aka lateral thinking, is about thinking broadly, and is the basis of creativity.

There are several techniques for stimulating lateral thought. I worked on a team at Apple that frequently used a technique called “Random Entry” to generate new product features. I generated at least a dozen patents using this technique.

Here’s how it works: You start with a well-defined problem statement. Then, choose a random word; de Bono provides a table of words that you can traverse by rolling dice multiple times. Then spend the next three minutes coming up with as many ideas as possible that associate that word with the problem statement. Discuss the ideas amongst your team, building on them where they stimulate deeper discussion. Rinse and repeat. This exercise generates a tremendous number of ideas that you likely would not have thought of if you were not using lateral thinking techniques.

To give an example, let’s start with the following problem statement: “Video editing is too hard, and should be more fun.” Now, let’s say you pull the word “bicycle.” Come up with solutions that would make video editing easier and more fun that have to do with bicycles.

When I tried this exercise, here are just a few ideas I came up with:

  • Stream live video with superimposed iPhone sensor data
  • Automatically detect bike tricks and post them to Vine
  • Render a “travel-by-map” montage, using known bike routes
  • Create an 80's BMX effect pack for iMovie.

The goal is to free associate. While brainstorming these ideas, don’t even consider which ideas are the most practical or feasible. That step will come later. Just write down what comes to mind.

This is just one technique. There are several.

Creative thinking is a completely different process for your brain than problem solving. You must make room for it, and exercise it. It takes practice.

Don’t wait for a big idea to come to you. You can generate new ideas at will. Make room for exploration in your thought process. Your inventions will surprise you.

PS: since I wrote this article, I’ve released a pet project I’ve been ideating on for years. Literally 5 years. Check out Rheo. Rheo is video watching whittled down to its simplest form: watch, skip, choose your mood. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s super-simple, but like nothing you’ve seen before. Search for “Rheo” on your Apple TV. Enjoy…