Creative thinking, also referred to as thinking “out of the box,” is currently regarded as a key job skill and a core competency able to produce economic value. But as any parent knows, young children do not need to be taught how to think out of the box. They already do it all the time with tremendous success. Actually, they do not know how not to think this way—probably because “the box” does not exist for them. Over the years, several methods claiming to encourage creativity have been devised, with related workshops, classes, and conferences frequently held. A search of Amazon results in more than 30,000 relevant books. Still, in spite of the abundance of approaches and information related to creative thinking, three human traits have largely been overlooked that, if cautiously used, can considerably contribute to the creative process: stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense.
In 1754, W. Hogarth created an engraving for J.J. Kirby’s pamphlet on linear perspective titled “Satire on False Perspective.” The engraving was meant to show the kinds of absurdities that may result from ignorance of the pamphlet’s contents. It included the subtitle: “Whoever makes a DESIGN without the Knowledge of PERSPECTIVE will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece” (Figure 1). But Hogarth managed to achieve exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. The resulting picture is highly imaginative and a lot more interesting than the thousands of other paintings made by people who possessed and applied “the Knowledge of PERSPECTIVE.” In other words, Hogarth’s creativity was unknowingly sparked by an intentional combination of what he deemed as utter stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense.
At this point it should be strongly emphasized that this article does not suggest replacing other established and valued resources of (creative) thinking and design with stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense. It merely indicates that these human traits—if properly and knowingly employed—can positively contribute to the originality of the end result. Just like a spice, they cannot replace an actual meal, and too much of them will eventually spoil it (or the eater’s health).
Our everyday lives are full of nonsense. There is so much of it that we rarely even notice. In fact, nonsense constitutes the very essence of our lives, as we still don’t have a clue about its actual meaning. Probably this is why humans are so good at making sense out of nonsense. The Gestalt Psychology , epitomized by the phrase “the whole is other than the sum of its parts,” devised a number of organizing principles of perception that the human mind follows in order to make sense and simplify the multitude of received stimuli (see Figure 2). These “laws” include proximity, similarity, closure, symmetry, continuity, past experience, and so on.
“Nonsense is so good only because common sense is so limited.” —George Santayana (1863–1952)
Most scientific domains utilize various forms of nonsense, including ambiguity and paradox, in order to form new questions, challenge established theories, and find better ways to explain the chaotic nature of our universe. Nonsense and science can sometimes be so interweaved that there are cases when differentiating one from the other becomes difficult. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physics professor, created a parody of an academic journal paper that was published in Social Text, a leading postmodernist journal. Some years later, three MIT students created SCIgen, a computer program that randomly generates computer science research papers.
In fairy tales, magic words are often pure nonsense, for example, abracadabra, alakazam, or the more imaginative abba-dabba-ooga-booga-hoojee-goojee-yabba-dabba-doo. This is not by chance. Nonsense is far more powerful than sense, mainly because it can take any meaning, thus leaving open a window for imagination to sneak in. When a magic word is even partially meaningful, its powers automatically diminish; for example, open sesame can be used only to open a thieves’ cave or the entrance of a smart home.
Nonsense also has the power to provide solutions to problems that according to logic may be deemed unsolvable. A simple example can be drawn from the realm of card games. In Figure 3, two poker hands are shown: At the top, a hand where X = 5 of hearts results in a straight flush, and at the bottom, one where Y = king of clubs will rank as four of a kind. Common sense suggests there cannot be a single card that can concurrently solve both “equations.” However, in about 1860, a “nonsense” card was introduced that became known as the joker or wild card, which is allowed to be interpreted as any other existing card.
Real-life design problems are frequently chaotic in nature, comprising several unknown, ambiguous, or even nonsensical parameters. For example, when one is designing a major operating system like Windows/iOS/Android, there is no way to define the profiles of the potential target users. Still, what designers are often taught is that the first step to success is to thoroughly define and analyze a problem at hand and then try to devise the solution. Thus, during the process of making sense out of ambiguity and nonsense (a form of translation), inevitably some information is irreversibly lost or misinterpreted. Furthermore, as human-centered design preaches, it is also very likely that there may not exist a single solution to a problem, but rather several solutions, according to different “values” or interpretations that its diverse aspects may occasionally afford. A radically different approach is to acknowledge nonsense as an essential design feature instead of a flaw in the problem specification and seek to encompass it as part of the resulting “solution.” In this case, the outcome will be a constellation of solution constituents able to reconfigure and transform itself in order to adapt to any alternative manifestations in which the problem at hand may materialize (i.e., make sense). Embracing nonsense during design amounts to embracing and catering to human diversity.
Design suggestion #1. Whenever possible, try to encompass “nonsensical” (ambiguous) parameters as an integral part of your design. Sometimes nonsense may also be part of the solution.
In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the three slogans of the Ministry of Truth is “Ignorance Is Strength.” Although Orwell uses this sentence ironically, mainly to suggest that the ignorance of the citizens is power for the Party, there are cases where—in contrast to what common sense and formal education dictate—ignorance can indeed be strength.
When seven postgraduate computer science students were independently shown the image in Figure 4 and asked to state which of the central circles is bigger, they unanimously answered that they are of the same size. When seven children, ages 3 to 6, were asked the same question, they all pointed to the right circle, which is 8 percent larger. When the students were questioned about the reasoning behind their answers, they admitted that they were already familiar with optical illusions where the shapes, regardless of what their brain dictates, are identical. Thus, children’s ignorance, much like in the tale with the emperor’s new clothes, allowed them to be free of any bias and state an obvious truth. This is an example of what is scientifically called the Einstellung effect , a term coined in 1942 by Abraham Luchins as a result of experiments in which subjects were asked to solve problems involving measuring water quantities using a set of jars. The experiments revealed that after solving several problems with the same solution, the subjects would mechanically adopt it even for problems that had a simpler solution or a different one. Also, Karl Duncker , with his “candle box experiment,” introduced “functional fixedness” as a mental bias limiting a person to using a known object in novel ways. Additionally, an interesting finding in decision-making research is what is known as the “less-is-more effect” , according to which under certain conditions, individuals with less knowledge make more accurate inferences than those with more knowledge. For example, when American and German students were asked to choose whether San Diego or San Antonio has more inhabitants, only 60 percent of the Americans answered correctly versus a stunning 100 percent of the Germans.
Not knowing that what you attempt to achieve has already been “proved” to be impossible (or the opposite) may lead you to revolutionary results. In 1941, Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, a film considered by most critics as one of the best ever. At the time, Welles was just 25 years old. This was his first movie and he lacked any related experience. During an interview by Huw Wheldon in 1960, when Welles was asked where he found the confidence to make the film, he answered: “Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance—you know there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid or careful.” About 100 years before this interview, Charles Darwin had noted in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Often the basis of our thinking (i.e., our knowledge) can also become the (subconscious) limit of our creativity, as according to the contemporary philosopher François Jullien, “There is not only what I am thinking. There is also the basis upon which I am thinking and as a result I am not thinking about.”
“No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.” —Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658)
Today’s children are often characterized as the “Google Generation,” having grown up with a humongous wealth of ready-made answers to any question available at the blink of an eye. But it is not answers that move the world forward. Questions do that—especially new questions to old answers. Thus, what the following generation will badly need in order to make a step forward is an inverse-Google engine that will be able to take answers as an input and generate “unthought” questions, essentially creating new ignorance (by the way, a great demo of the high potential of such an engine is any child up to 5 years old).
In practice, there are cases where ignorance may lead off the beaten path, to innovation. Thus, contrary to widely applied scientific practices, one may take advantage of one’s (acknowledged) ignorance—or the ignorance of a third person. First, one may try to devise a solution to a problem without looking into what other people have already done, and later one can seek related knowledge for identifying and harnessing any useful “ignorant” qualities (i.e., something that no one has ever thought or tried before).
Design suggestion #2. Try to devise design solutions prior to seeking related expertise and knowledge (or ask someone else who does not have this expertise/knowledge). Then, strive to identify innovative aspects by comparing them with previous work and assessing their potential value and impact.
Historically, there have been several cases where stupid ideas were deemed intelligent and vice versa, even by people considered intellectually gifted. For example, Aristotle, in The History of Animals (350 B.C.), assumes that “males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine.” Lord Kelvin, the great mathematician and physicist, in 1895 predicted that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” A.G. Bell spent about 30 years of his life and tens of thousands of dollars to (unsuccessfully) breed multinippled sheep, on the assumption that they would be more fertile—he even published a related paper in Science. When Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio and Nobel Prize in Physics winner in 1909, wrote to the Italian ministry of Post and Telegraphs about the possibility of wireless transmission of sound, the minister noted in his letter that he should be committed to Rome’s mental asylum. On the other hand, in 1949 the neurologist António Egas Moniz, who developed lobotomy (i.e., the surgical severance of the frontal lobe of the brain) as an all-in-one “cure” for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to depression, anxiety, and chronic headaches, shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Many dictionaries define stupidity as the lack of intelligence. In essence, the main relevance between the two is that they are both ill-defined concepts that do not hold a universal value or status. They are subjective in nature and constantly change through time and space, habitually formed by some type of majority—something is often considered to be stupid if it contradicts common practice, knowledge, or sense. “If stupidity were not confusingly similar to progress, ability, hope, and improvement, then no one would want to be stupid,” notes the Austrian novelist Robert Musil in his famous lecture “On Stupidity.” Hence, the overall problem is that there is no reliable way to differentiate between an idea that seems to be stupid because it is groundbreaking or far ahead of its time, and an idea that sounds stupid simply because it truly is.
From a designer’s point of view, it is better not to instantly disregard seemingly stupid ideas or the persons who suggested them. Instead, they should be encouraged and kept in the design loop for future reference, so that they can be used if and when their time arrives, or in case everything else fails. Furthermore, as the world changes, there is a possibility that a formerly stupid idea becomes—without any modification—a good one. A suggested related creativity tool is a “stupidity refrigerator,” where all “stupid” ideas can be collected, kept fresh, and prevented from “contaminating” each other. Every now and then, or as needed, one can open the refrigerator door and have a quick check to see if the time has come to defrost some of its contents, or simply to be inspired.
Design suggestion #3. Never totally dismiss an idea on the assumption that it is stupid. Keep it in your stupidity refrigerator for future reference, as it may become of value as your design progresses or as technology, science, and society change.
Stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense are massive human powers. Unfortunately, throughout human history they have been primarily used with catastrophic effects: wars, mass destruction, environmental detriment. Still, mankind has managed to master and harness other great powers such as the wind, the sun, and even the atom. So maybe if these powers are properly studied and used with care and respect, one day we will be able to take advantage of them while limiting their damaging effects.
To this end, what this article aims to communicate can be summarized in five brief statements regarding stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense (the Axioms of SIN):
- There is no box—just thinking!
- If you already know where you are going, you are not going someplace new.
- Stulta ratio, sed ratio  (or, in other words, Don’t worry, be stupid).
- At least one of the axioms of SIN is probably false (including this one).
But most important,
This article is an edited version of: Grammenos, D. Abba-dabba-ooga-booga-hoojee-goojee-yabba-dabba-doo: Stupidity, ignorance & nonsense as tools for nurturing creative thinking. CHI ‘14 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA ‘14). ACM, New York, 2014, 695–706; DOI=10.1145/2559206.2578860. The paper’s presentation is available (including a voice-over and English subtitles) on YouTube: http://youtu.be/atA0puIrRqA
Dimitris Grammenos is a principal researcher at the Institute of Computer Science (ICS) of the Foundation for Research and Technology—Hellas (FORTH). He is the lead interaction designer of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory. firstname.lastname@example.org
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