Isaac Asimov asks „How Do People Get New Ideas?“

by Andreas Koller

It’s been a long time since my last post. I’ve graduated from RCA in July 2014 and been working as a designer at Skype in the meantime, where I was responsible for prototyping innovative product features and developed tools for the design workflow. Just recently I have started my new job at EPFL+ECAL Lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, where we look at how design can transform technologies into meaningful experiences.

I’m taking this opportunity to revive this blog as a research tool. Today I came across the January 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review and found an article from 1959 entitled „On Creativity“ by the science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (1990-1992) , which has been unpublished before. In it, he discusses the question how people get new ideas.

His hypothesis is that he might find the answer to this question by looking at innovations that have been made simultaneously by several people in different places – for example the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. His theory is that making the cross-connection between several known facts is key. After this connection is made, everyone will ask themselves why they didn’t think of it first.

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable.

A creative person’s mind is constantly working on problems, and the presence of others can only inhibit this process. Mostly, because during this process you will have a lot of foolish ideas – even the best solution will look foolish first.

Creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Summarising, Asimov says:

  • creativity means connecting known facts in previously unknown ways
  • creativity thrives in isolation
  • an informal, relaxed discussion in a group of around five people, where foolish ideas are exchanged, is a good way to sparkle new thoughts
  • the value of these sessions doesn’t come during, but after these sessions in isolation
  • involvement of economic dependence hinders creativity
  • a new idea always seems foolish at first, but obvious after discovering it

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