Trying to find inspiration to solve a problem can be tricky. Creativity doesn’t always arrive when we need it, so we have to find ways to stimulate it and bring it out into the open. For some years I’ve used a technique of creating quick abstract sketches and then combining them to find a solution works well, but it wasn’t until I stumbled on the Lego Architecture Studio that I realised I didn’t have to abstract in two dimensions.
Lego lets you think in three.
The technique is a simple three step process of creating sketched abstractions from a source object, then combining them to find a working solution. The aim is to strip back the object to its essence, removing superfluous details that can distract you, then using this to create the new solution.
Start with a photograph.
Your starting point is a photograph or object. It’s important that whatever you use is not something you’ve used before, and to this end I keep a massive collection of photographs of odds and ends that I use to inspire me.
For this exercise I used a tree.
Your first sketch models.
Try and model the object in its simplest, most abstract form. Don’t capture every nook and cranny, just sketch the general shape of the thing. It’s important to keep the model simple so don’t invest too much time in trying to create something perfect, and you can build as many of these sketch models as you wish. Usually I set myself a five minute timebox and try and build as many sketches as I can.
One of my sketch models of the tree. You can see the basic shape of a trunk and the leaves.
Select, combine and add detail.
Once you’ve finished these initial sketch models take one and start adding more detail. Alternatively you can take multiple models and start combining them. Your aim is to create a more detailed, yet still abstracted representation of the object. To avoid over-investing in this model I suggest timeboxing yourself and typically I’ll give myself twice as long to build this model as I did to build the initial sketches.
My second model brought out the inner structure of the tree, showing the branches.
The final model.
Finally, rebuild your sketch model again but this time with a specific focus. Imagine it’s a building, a machine or a vehicle and then use your model to inspire you as you build. It doesn’t have to be a whole building, it could be a detail. Nor does it have to be something large, you could build something small. It is important, however, that what you build isn’t the same as the source object; so if you’ve used as tree as inspiration don’t try and create another tree or flower. At this point you can invest time and energy into your model, although I’ll limit my time to twenty minutes so that I stay focused.
My final model was a building based around the structure of the tree. Note that I’ve flipped it upside down so that the trunk is up and the branches down.
If you repeat this process often enough you’ll start to find you can use the technique elsewhere. Rather than play with Lego bricks you’ll be able to see oppotunities to abstract in process maps, product designs, customer services and a host of other domains. You’ll also start to find abstraction itself becomes easier, giving you new insights into problems and challenges, and helping you find solutions and approaches faster.
And of course it’s a great excuse to keep a small box of Lego in your desk at the office and call playing with it work!