Need A Creative Idea In 10 Minutes? Play With The Stuff On Your Desk

Designer Ayse Birsel explains why fiddling around with a bunch of pens and paperclips for 10 minutes each morning can get your creative juices flowing.

Need A Creative Idea In 10 Minutes? Play With The Stuff On Your Desk
[Photo: Slava Keyzman/Unsplash]

“Every morning I wake up and think of what I need to do, and I’m afraid,” Ayse Birsel confesses. “What if I don’t come up with a good idea? The only remedy to that is to start doing it.”


Ayse Birsel Cofounder and creative director, Birsel + Seck [Illustration: Eric Palma]
But Birsel, who’s the cofounder and creative director of design studio Birsel + Seck and the author of Design the Life You Loveknows it isn’t easy pushing past that fear in order to get started on something. “It’s the kind of thing I forget every night and have to remember every morning. I  put myself under pressure to come up with this great idea, and it never comes like that–sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes an hour, or a whole month–but this exercise is a way to get over that fear.” To help, Birsel takes a cue from illustrator Keri Smith, who has shared an exercise in which she scavenges objects from her home and the floor of her studio, then rearranges them in order to jumpstart her creativity.

In Birsel’s riff on Smith’s prompt, you don’t need a spacious art studio with a whimsically cluttered floor–you just need a desk with a few ordinary items on it.

How It Works

Ready to get started? “Find seven things on your desk at your studio, office, or home and make something with them. You could make a sculpture, a freeze-frame, a tool, a composition–whatever comes to you,” Birsel explains. “Try to pick random objects, different materials, and varying sizes, and don’t think, just do! You’ll improvise as you go.”

The trick is not to spend more than 10 minutes fiddling with your desktop objects–that’s enough time to experiment with some interesting combinations without beginning to second-guess yourself. In one of Birsel’s own recent attempts, she says, “I put together a Japanese toy (which I keep on my desk to entertain myself), my must-have Post-It notes, smiley-face stickers, earphones, some tape, and a thin wooden African figurine. Without really planning, I started putting these random objects together playfully and ended up creating a romance scene!”

[Animation: Ayse Birsel]
Birsel recommends doing this 10-minute exercise every day. “Come up with different mixes and matches of the same seven objects each day for one week, then change the items the following week–and the week after that, and the one after that,” she suggests. “If you created a sculpture, place it on a stool to highlight it. If you made a composition, place it on different backgrounds and post it on your social media.”

The main idea, she says, is to “take inspiration from your surroundings, nature, people, stories, and your imagination. And don’t forget to have fun! That’s a key component of creativity.” But don’t worry about the outcome, says Birsel. “It doesn’t have to be a new Picasso. It can just be a funky little thing. The goal is to get yourself “thinking about the same things differently. Once you’re in that space, you can move toward thinking about something else differently.”


Why It Works

Birsel sees this as a warm-up exercise, a “signal to your right brain that what you’re going to do next is be creative. It’s a way to break away from the other work you might be doing–to stretch your creative muscles without judging yourself.”

If there’s one prerequisite to creativity, Birsel believes it’s a sense of fun, a “playful spirit,” unlike the mind-set that rote or analytical tasks usually demand. “When you’re in a playful mode, you’re less of afraid of making mistakes and you’re less judgmental, which is really key to any creative endeavor. That little voice in your head that says, ‘Well that’s a bad idea!’–it’s the worst possible friction to creativity.”

By playing with the stuff on your desk for 10 minutes, “You’re not trying to prove that you’re the most creative person in the room,” she adds, you’re just trying to silence that voice and start having fun.

In fact, Birsel thinks it’s better if you don’t have cute figurines and interesting items to toy around with. The “constraints and limitations” of boring old office supplies, she says, “are actually the best, because you have to make do with what you have. Sometimes it’s harder if you have beautiful things on your desk and you don’t want to mess with them. If you only have some tape and paperclips, you won’t worry, ‘Am I destroying something?’ or ‘Is this an iconic object?'”

Late last year, Fast Company invited some readers to try out Birsel’s exercise. Here are a few creative arrangements they came up with:

[Photo: Pamint Andreea]
[Photo: Lucia Spinoiu]

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.