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How to Spark Lateral Thinking and Creativity When You Need It

Disclaimer: This article is written from the perspective of a professional in the design field who uses various levels of thinking and decision-making. The target audience includes individuals with similar professional backgrounds. The ideas presented here draw from popular studies and thought leaders in design and metacognition, with the aim of providing clarity on thought processes and enhancing one's ability to create and develop better solutions for the future.

As a designer specializing in developing new physical products and innovative services, understanding thought processes is crucial for problem-solving and decision-making. This article will explore the foundations of analytical and creative thinking, vertical and lateral thinking, and how they intertwine with design thinking.

Analytical vs. Creative Thinking

People are often categorized as analytical or creative thinkers. However, these generalizations overlook the fact that many great contributors to science are both creative and analytical. Our educational system conditions us to think about "what is" rather than exploring the "why," "how," and "what could be." To create better solutions, we must ask higher-level questions and adopt new approaches to problem-solving.

Vertical/Linear Thinking

Vertical thinking is an analytical, linear thought process that we use to navigate everyday problems and decisions. This way of thinking connects memories and ideas through neural networks, making it familiar and requiring less attention. Vertical thinking helps maintain focus and relevance to a problem, but it may limit the discovery of breakthrough ideas or alternate solutions.

As designers, it's essential to be aware of mental models, or schema/schemata, which is why user research is crucial. Gaining insights from multiple disciplines and stakeholders can help frame problems in various ways, leading to more innovative solutions.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a non-linear thought process that moves from one alternative to another, disregarding the feasibility of the outcome. It deviates from the normal pattern of thought and is where new ideas reside. To generate disruptive innovations, we must explore other territories and crossover departments.

A fruitful and innovative solution requires a combination of vertical and lateral thinking. Being deliberate about the mode and process of thinking can aid in this endeavor. In organizational settings, fostering a multi-minded system and encouraging employee feedback can lead to unique ideas and better problem-solving.

Lateral Thinking and Creativity

Lateral thinking is closely related to creativity, as it is a systematic way of generating novel ideas. Individuals with less creative confidence can use lateral thinking to develop unique perspectives, while more creative individuals can use it to generate ideas quickly instead of waiting for inspiration to strike.

Applying Lateral and Vertical Thinking

One approach to utilizing both lateral and vertical thinking is to define an outcome using data and logic, and then generate a large quantity of alternative solutions. During this process, it's essential to separate critical analysis from idea generation to allow for more creative exploration.

Various lateral thinking techniques include abstract laddering, concept blending, the first principle, 5 whys, random word technique, and brainstorming. When collaborating with others, encourage the suspension of judgment and classification during idea generation.

Understanding and applying both linear and lateral thinking is vital for the betterment of society and improved human experiences. By redefining how we think and approach problem-solving, we can create innovative solutions that drive success in product development and entrepreneurial ventures.


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