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Creative Collisions: How to Spark a New Idea

A few years back, I was invited by a design professor to be a guest critic for a student presentation. It's fairly common for design educators to bring in professionals from the outside. It allows for different points of view and opinions of the work to surface, and also saves the teacher from having to say something constructive and relevant about every student's project within a few hours' time frame... a challenge in itself.

It was a sophomore class and the assignment was pretty basic. The students were instructed to analyze how an existing product was made: the parts, construction, materials, and manufacturing process. For their deliverable they had to make large presentation boards illustrating the product in an exploded view showing each part along with associated information. The presentation boards had to be clearly labeled with the product's name at the top.

On the day of the presentation I arrived at the classroom and each student's project was neatly pinned up on the wall for everyone to view. But before we could get started, there was a sudden outbreak of commotion and laughter around one of the projects. The student who was responsible for the project appeared red-faced and visibly upset. Here's what happened:

flicker-razorThe student had selected a women's shaver called the "Flicker" for her product analysis—the "Flicker" women's shaver was introduced in 1971 and discontinued in 2006; it was the first disposable shaver designed specifically for women. At the top of her presentation boards she had placed the product's name in very large capital letters—something like this, FLICKER. The problem was that in her rush to finish on time, she had spaced the individual characters very closely together, so close that the lower leg of the "L" merged with the bottom of the "I" forming a new letter and a completely new name for the product. It was a mishap caused by focusing in on the details but failing to step back and see the big picture. I think you get the idea, but just in case you don't I've included a brief illustration showing various conventional character spacing below.

FLICKER - expanded character spacing

FLICKER - normal character spacing

FLICKER - condensed character spacing

FLICKER - extra condensed character spacing

F#&%ER - inappropriate character spacing

In the end it all worked out Okay, with a few small pieces of white tape applied to separate the "L" from the "I," bringing the product's name back to the original. The funny thing is that out of all the student's projects that day, FLICKER is the only one I can remember, not because it was the best work in the class (typography aside) but because there was so much emotion around this particular project.

In the FLICKER caper, haste made for an unfortunate mistake. But sometimes accidents or unexpected collisions can be beautiful, too. In design, connecting different elements in new ways is core to the creative process. It's difficult to arrive at a completely new and original idea unto itself. In fact, it's almost impossible to come up with a good idea by staring at a blank piece of paper (or computer screen.) But by combining seemingly disparate elements, the imagination often begins to stir. Depending on the design problem, the effort can require tying a variety of ideas and factors together. This is where design gets truly exciting—when we look at how to put those elements together and start to see possible directions and outcomes.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the inadvertent connections you've made, how you spark creativity, or words you've transformed into new words or ideas when you spaced the letters too closely.

Read more of Tom Dair's SmartDesign blog

Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends.

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.