June 23, 2018
Exploring creativity with toothpicks
As a day-dreaming, attention-deficit, never-really-paying-much-attention, creative person, I of course had no idea just how weird I was. That is, until I started teaching graphic design in the 1990s, especially doing a class that was called "Concept Development".
This class really should have been called "Introduction to Creativity", because it showed how creative people think. And for many people it was wonderful beyond belief, and for many people it showed them that they don't have a clue what creativity is all about. And for me, the best assignment was with toothpicks.
I decided on toothpicks although the book that went with the class used bricks for this assignment. But the point is that it doesn't really matter. I started doing this assignment in the late '90s and got to see class after class do it for many, many years. And it was both wonderful and awful. I'll see if I can explain.
The idea is to imagine what you could do with toothpicks. The assignment wasn't graded, and students weren't required to participate in it if they chose not to. As it unfolded, it taught everyone in the room, including me, the true meaning of creative thinking. Since it was kind of a game, I found that everyone was enthusiastic to try it, at least in the beginning. I told the class that they could stop anytime they wanted to, but as a courtesy to others to just be patient. The first part of it took about a half-hour, and this is how it went:
I would ask people to write down three things that they could do with toothpicks. The first three things for most people was fairly easy - you could pick your teeth being the one that most people started with. This was a class of people who wanted to learn a career in computer graphics, or graphic design, that sort of thing, so I expected most people to be enthusiastic about it.
After the students had written down their first three things, I'd ask for three more. I would often say that this is how clients would ask for things, expecting you to come up with creative ideas. As I recall, after most people got to six they were beginning to figure out that this was about flexible thinking, and imagination, not coming up with an answer to a specific question. And then the fun started, and for some people, the pain. Because, you guessed it, I would ask for three more. At that point I'd start to see some of the pencils going down.
Then I'd ask for ten more. And while the heads were down, I'd write "ten more, please" on the board. Each class was different, but sometimes it would go for quite a while, as the more crazy and creative thinkers would just keep scribbling. Sometimes I'd just have apologize and say "we need to stop now".
And that was the first step. The next step was when people started sharing. I never called on anyone, I waited for people to speak up. And the magic that I saw still dazzles me to this day. It dazzled everyone. There would be uses for toothpicks that went way into the realm of imagination. There would be laughing, and cheering.
Many of the "superstars" appeared in those classes. And many of them didn't do well in school, and were worried. After this, they weren't worried at all, they knew that they would have a wonderful life, being creative!
Posted by Brad Hall