Type "beauty" into Google image search, and you'll see endless photos of white models. Search "beauty" in Yossarian, the metaphorical search engine, and it returns pictures of men shaking hands, a little boy dressed as a super hero, and burning money. Keep scrolling and new understandings of "beauty" pop up.
Compared to Google, the results seem random and confusing, but that's Yossarian's benefit, argues its creator J. Paul Neeley. "Google is an incredibly powerful tool, if you know what you're looking for," he told Fast Company. "But it's really problematic in creative terms, if you're trying to generate new ideas." Staring at Google's singular view of a given concept doesn't exactly inspire. All queries go through the filter bubble—the algorithms that guess what we want, like Google autocomplete. Filter bubbles, the theory goes, lead to group-think and hinder creativity. And even on Pinterest, a favorite among creative types, the visual representations of ideas tend to converge on one definition.
A search engine that spits out metaphors, like Yossarian, however, can get people thinking about how to define a topic in new and interesting ways. "With Yossarian you can increase the diversity and frequency of your aha moments," the site promises.
That's quite the sell, and a rosy view of technology as something that makes us better people. Yet, Yossarian isn't the first—and probably won't be the last—technological attempt to make us more creative. (If that's even possible.) Seenapse, a search engine that came out this summer, promises better brainstorming by bringing together disparate parts of the Internet. That might lead to new, interesting mental associations.
Neeley, along with two co-founders built Yossarian, which launched last month, based on some actual science: the widely held idea that visual metaphors help people think of original ideas. Neeley believes that "any supreme insight is a metaphor." A handful of research backs up a milder version of that theory. One study found just showing people an illuminated lightbulb led to more creative insights. In another participants that looked at an image of a brain outside of a box literally thought outside the box. At the very least, seeing metaphors about creativity, leads to creative thinking.
Yossarian takes that idea a step further, suggesting that metaphorical images will lead to more insights. "Metaphors are really weird, they're always patently false," said Neeley. "If I tell you love is a river, the first thing your mind does is say 'no, love is not a river.' It takes a moment where you have a flip: Love can be a river, it can ebb and flow, it's ever changing." By scrolling through Yossarian, a person's mind can get to that "flip" faster and more often.
For a given query, Yossarian parses language corpuses for metaphors, instead of direct text matches. (One of the other co-founders is a linguist.) Users can choose how wacky they want results to get from the mildest setting, "literal," to the most adventurous, "serendipitous." Depending on the level, the engine will surface somewhat related or completely random images. Searching "technology" on the "moderate lateral" setting shows pictures of spray bottles, cotton fields, and an elephant riding a motorcycle. The images all come from Getty.
An elephant riding a motorcycle might not, at first, seem like it has anything to do with technology. And that's the point. "It's suggesting to the user: hey this might be one way of thinking about technology," Neeley said. "It becomes a conversation between the user and the system."
That sounds like an ideal setup for someone always in search of ideas, but the experience feels aimless. Without explanation of how to use the search engine, it's confusing. How could looking at stock photos possibly lead to my next big breakthrough?
Technology might not be able to solve something like creativity. "Detecting metaphors is pretty difficult in itself, mapping between them is very difficult, and to do this with enough accuracy to be usable seems a bit hopeful," Phil Blunsom, a researcher in computational linguistics at the University of Oxford, said. Indeed, Yossarian asks a lot of the user. Take those results for "beauty" for example. Beauty is a boy dressed as a super hero? No: Beauty is imagination; beauty is make-believe. Some of the other images, like burning money, are even harder to translate.
The initial (and most obvious) use-case, Neeley says, is at advertising agencies, to help art directors and creative teams combat blank page syndrome. When not relying on serendipity, a terrible method for generating ideas, creative workers at many firms use Google, Flickr, and Pinterest for idea generation. Gifted searchers learn to bend Google to their will, using the search engine in creative ways. Most people spend hours staring at the same images until inspiration appears.
Not only does this take a lot of time, and result in frustration, Neeley believes it dulls originality. The name Yossarian, a reference to the main character in Catch-22, gets at that point. "We kind of joked about the catch-22 of Google," he said. "Google is incredibly powerful and helps us by giving us access to the world’s information. The catch is that it hurts us. The more we use it, the more we think like everyone else."
With Yossarian, however, the original ideas flow like yogis.*
The U.K. based media strategy company Initiative is testing out Neeley's theory and technology, hoping to "democratize creativity across the agency" using Yossarian, Lee Ramsay, head of innovation, told Fast Company. So far, Ramsay and his team have used Yossarian to find more compelling images for mood boards and presentations, to brainstorm, and to reframe business problems.
Not only has the search engine has made those exercises more interesting, says Ramsey, but have led to tangible results. Ramsey put the company through creativity tests. After three hours of using Yossarian, employee scores went up 50%-80%. "It starts the chain in a slightly different way," he said. "It's an ignition. It gives you a jump."
*I used Yossarian for this brilliant simile. It works!