Thinkertoys - Generate Art and Business Ideas

I’ve been on a quest to be more creative, to understand the creative process more deeply. I wrote about the difference between concrete ideas, the building blocks of finished products, and meta ideas, the blueprints that generate them.

Using meta ideas, I would have no problem generating new ideas. More often than not, though, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I’d get stuck, put the idea away for a while, hoping inspiration might hit me another way. Clearly, something was missing. A book called Thinkertoys filled in the gaps and has become absolutely indispensable to me.

Thinkertoys cover

Thinkertoys is a definitive guide to all things creative; from mindset, to defining challenges, to generating ideas, and putting them through the wringer. The book is the culmination of the author’s quest to gather every known creative technique. Linear techniques like SCAMPER and Lotus Blossom, and intuitive techniques like Hypnagogic analysis will put you on your way to becoming the creative powerhouse you dream to be.

Here’s my summary and how it filled in those missing pieces.

What are Thinkertoys?

Thinkertoys are blueprints - a set of steps that you bring a challenge to. Given your efforts playing, wrestling, re-imagining, and generating solutions to your challenge, fireworks of insight and inspiration can result.

Here’s an example. The Thinkertoy is called “False Faces” (Reversing assumptions) and the challenge is to “create a unique restaurant”:

  1. State the assumptions: “Restaurants have menus” (etc)
  2. Reverse the assumptions. “Our restaurant won’t have a menu.” (etc)
  3. Ideate solutions based on the reversal. “Chef designs personalized meals for each customer”
  4. Refine the concept as if you’re going to market. “The Creative Chef” - customers choose ingredients, chef creates a custom dish, recipe printout included.

Foundational Principles

Now that we’ve got the gist of what Thinkertoys are, here are some foundational ideas to help you get the most out of them.

Creativity isn’t a special talent

Studies show that simply believing you are creative leads to creative action. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”: you can either change your identity (“I am creative”) or act creatively until that identity becomes yours. Both paths lead to the same destination – becoming an empowered, relentless generator of ideas.

Creating isn’t dependent on your DNA. Getting started involves a simple mindset shift.

Getting Ideas

  • Inspiration is everywhere: from breathtaking landscapes, works of high art, to (shockingly!) junk mail.
  • Step outside your routine: Travel to new places, network with diverse individuals, and embrace randomness.

Fuel Your Idea Factory

  • Set an idea quota: Challenge yourself! Aim for a specific number of new ideas each day, week, or month. This consistent exercise strengthens your creative muscle and combats procrastination.
  • Keep an idea log: Capture everything! Jot down snippets, sketches, or even seemingly nonsensical thoughts. Your log becomes a treasure trove of potential, waiting to be revisited and refined.
  • Save judgment for later: When capturing ideas, silence your inner critic. Quantity matters at this stage. Let every thought, however wild, find its place on the page.

My takeaways: 1) Stop judging and throwing away ideas in the generation phase. 2) Live it - be creative regularly, ideally daily.

The well-defined challenge

Using Thinkertoys requires a concrete challenge as a starting point. Do you want personal growth, to unleash artistic genius, or to solve a tricky business problem?

After you’ve decided, dive deeper: Expand the scope of the challenge. Narrow the scope to a sub-problem. Reframe it, vary the words, and make the challenge as motivating as possible to be ready for a Thinkertoy treatment.

My takeaways: Having a well-defined challenge is equally or more important than the ideas we generate.

The Two Types of Thinkertoys

Now, onto the Thinkertoys themselves.

There are over 30 Thinkertoys fitting into two categories:

  • Linear Thinkertoys help you structure existing information to build new ideas. These data points become Lego bricks that you can now combine in innovative ways. You’re guided step-by-step through processes like SCAMPER (which I discuss below) to manipulate and analyze information. Other favorites include: Lotus Blossom (8 by 8 grid), Think Bubbles (mind mapping), False Faces (reversing assumptions), and Brutethink (random stimulation).
  • Intuitive Thinkertoys transform imagination and intuition into tangible ideas. They use sensory, parallel thinking, encouraging you to tap into your inner-knowing and generate entirely new concepts. My favorite techniques include Dali’s Technique (hypnagogic analysis - discussed below), Stone Soup (fantasy questions), and Da Vinci’s Technique (free drawing).

By combining both Linear and Intuitive Thinkertoys, the possibilities are endless. The structured approach of Linear techniques helps refine and focus your ideas, while the open-ended Intuitive tools fuel creativity and exploration.

My takeaways: Randomly select Thinkertoys. Combine them. Don’t get too attached to one or two techniques.

Linear Example - the SCAMPER technique

For both Linear and Intuitive techniques, I’ll go beyond the business-oriented examples the book provides (like improving restaurants) and adapt the techniques to generating music and lyric ideas.

SCAMPER prompts you to brainstorm ideas by manipulating existing concepts 7 different ways (the letters of the acronym):

  1. Substitute: What can be replaced?
  2. Combine: How can elements be combined or integrated?
  3. Adapt: What can I borrow from existing ideas, behaviors, processes?
  4. Modify: What can be added to, magnified, or modified?
  5. Put to another use: How can the idea be used in a different way or for a different purpose?
  6. Eliminate: What can be removed or reduced?
  7. Reverse: What can be reversed or rearranged?

Learn more about SCAMPER - Wikipedia

What if we apply SCAMPER to songwriting?

  1. Substitute: Consider replacing or substituting elements of the song, such as lyrics, chords, or instruments, to explore new creative possibilities.
  2. Combine: Explore how different musical elements, such as melodies, rhythms, or harmonies, can be combined in unique ways to create a fresh sound.
  3. Adapt: Look for ways to adapt the song to different moods, genres, or musical styles, allowing for a more diverse and innovative approach to songwriting.
  4. Modify: Consider modifying or altering existing parts of the song, such as the structure, tempo, or dynamics, to bring a new perspective to the composition.
  5. Put to another use: Explore how the song or its elements can be used in different contexts, such as repurposing a melody for a new song or adapting lyrics to fit a different theme.
  6. Eliminate: Identify and eliminate any redundant or unnecessary parts of the song to streamline and enhance its impact and cohesiveness.
  7. Reverse: Experiment with reversing musical motifs, lyrical themes, or structural elements to create unexpected and inventive compositions.

My takeaways: Linear techniques like these are goldmines for getting unstuck on songs in progress.

Intuitive Example - Dali’s Technique: “Slumber with a key” (hypnagogic analysis)

Here’s a powerful (and slightly tricky) way of exploring the subconscious mind.

Salvador Dali’s “Slumber with a key” technique aims to harness hypnagogia, the fleeting dream-like state between wakefulness and sleep. By holding a key, the clanging noise upon falling asleep would jolt him awake, where he could capture fleeting imagery for his surrealist masterpieces.

Salvador Dali

Learn more: How to Dream Like Salvador Dali | Psychology Today

Before drifting off, propose a challenge to yourself. If you accidentally fall asleep, that’s ok too! Analyzing any resulting dreams (also a Thinkertoy) can be just as fruitful.

My challenge: What’s core to the creative process?

What I saw How I interpreted it
Clowns “Send in the Clowns” - looking back at life
Elephant Parable: blind people touching and describing an elephant (the many facets of life and creativity)

The elephant parable led me to ask AI: what are some of the physiological responses to art - when you have a sublime experience - what happens in the body?

  • Sublime experience characterized by a mix of positive and negative affective states.
  • Fear, not happiness or arousal, associated with making art sublime. It may be less physiologically intense than everyday fear, but psychologically profound.
  • Awe, which is related to the sublime, is considered a complex emotion characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness) and negative affective components.

As a result, it got me thinking… “Fear, eh? That…actually makes sense! If I’m in an ocean and contemplating how vast it is and how small I am, fear is definitely a component. (Light bulb!) Now, how does the song I have in progress blend these emotions, if at all?”

My takeaways: You can actively tap into the subconscious with Intuitive Thinkertoys. There’s more than just “walking away” and passively letting your subconscious work on its own. (I’ve encountered this “walking away” idea countless times, one good source is The Breakout Principle.)

Evaluation: The Murder Board

The CIA institutes a group of individuals to evaluate and critique ideas before final approval. The goal is to terminate worthless ideas, expose negative aspects, and provide feedback. You can institute a Personal Murder Board for any idea that would have a serious impact.

My takeaways: There’s a time and a place for evaluation. It’s much later in the process and you should do it purposefully (with trusted collaborators if you’ve got some).

Final thoughts

I’ve made Thinkertoys part of my daily process. I took the author’s advice to heart and randomized the order of the chapters, made a list of challenges I wanted to solve, and worked with all of the Thinkertoys. It’s amazing how well they work! It’s satisfying to get ideas more reliably and have more ways to tap into the subconscious. It’s also gratifying to be able to say “aha! I know which Thinkertoy(s) could really help us right now!” and be able riff off of them.

While the book offers mostly business-specific examples, Thinkertoys can be adapted for anything - any artistic endeavor, whatever challenge you have!

To recap:

  • Believe you’re creative and that anything can be a source of ideas.
  • Capture ideas regularly, log them, don’t criticize at this point
  • Define your challenges
  • Use linear and intuitive thinkertoys
  • Evaluate and profit

So, I hope you’ll try these out. And maybe you too will experience a boost in creative productivity.