Abstraction

Take a moment and imagine all the things that the figure below might represent. If I asked you to list all the different things that you imagined, I have no doubt that you would come up with several fascinating ideas. However, if I described the figure as the rear view of a washerwoman on her hands and knees washing a floor, and then asked you to list alternative explanations, your list would be minimal and much less creative.

Once the figures are given names and meanings, it is almost impossible to look at them and have the same perception which existed before you knew what it was. The names and meanings fixate you along a certain line of thought.

This is why if you want to produce something creative, say a creative design for a new automobile, don’t think of an automobile — at least not at first. There is much suggestive evidence that a process of accessing a more abstract definition of a problem can lead to greater creativity and innovation than the more typical ways. This is the creative strategy of some of the world’s leading creative designers, including Kenton Wiens, architect Arthur Ericson, and Martin Skalski, director of the transportation design sequence at Pratt Institute. Skalski, for example, doesn’t tell students to design an automobile or study various automobile designs on the market. Instead, he begins the design process by having them draw abstract compositions of things in motion. Then by progressively making the process less abstract, he eventually has them working on the real problem (designing automobiles) tying in the connections between the abstract work and the final model.

Suppose you want to improve the design of the umbrella. If you work with the more abstract definition “protection from the rain,” you are more likely to explore more possibilities including raincoats or even a new type of town design where there are arcades everywhere and umbrellas are no longer required. Or, consider the bookstore owner, for example, who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a provider of information and entertainment, a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening, and it would have opened up new opportunities.

BLUEPRINT

(1) Describe an abstract definition of your problem. What is the principle of the problem? What is its essence?
EXAMPLE: Our problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The principle is protection.

(2) Brainstorm for ideas on protection generally. Generate a number of different ideas.
EXAMPLE: Think of general ways to protect things.

Place in a bank.

Rustproof it.

Provide good maintenance.

Get an insurance policy.

Hide it.

(3) Restate the problem so that it is slightly less abstract. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.
EXAMPLE: Think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable.

Hire a guard.

Watch it constantly.

Drape it with camouflage.

Put a fence around it.

Keep it well lighted.

(4) Consider the real problem. Use your two abstraction processes’ ideas and solutions as stimuli to generate solutions.
EXAMPLE: The real problem is how to protect rural mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The idea triggered from “get an insurance policy” is to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.

IMAGINEERED IDEA: By following this approach, progressively stating a problem in less abstract ways, you will eventually be working on a solution to the real problem. The diminishing abstraction of each process guides your focus to the real problem, and its eventual solution.

2 Comments

  1. Very helpful explanation of abstraction. The examples were easy to follow and concrete. Thank you.

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