The Shape of an Idea

Have you heard of the Napkin Academy? It’s a visual thinking online course by Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin and other insightful books. If you’re interested in significantly raising the quality of your thinking and learning life, you should check it out.
 
Among the many insights explored in his course, Dan highlights the fact that we remember ideas that have form. If ideas are vague or abstract, they slip out of our minds. For instance, when Google 2-Step Verification was introduced, it was a technical idea. Then, the idea of two-step security was explained with a drawing containing two steps:
 
  1. Getting past a bear
  2. Escaping a snake pit
 
Yep! Now, with the image, we get it. Visual thinking isn’t about dumbing down concepts. It’s about making an idea memorable enough to stick.
 
Similarly, when I tried to better understand the creative process, and encountered abstract, scientific explanations and piles of activities, I was lost. When I finally shaped the process into a form—creativity as a ramble through five mental rooms filled with distinct thinking tools—everything came clear. Naming this creative hideout “Writerly Play” gave further form to the idea. Each of the rooms has a different purpose, but together, they are all about story and a playful approach. 
 
Creativity is messy, to be sure. However, if we allow ourselves to think of the process as formless, we can’t help but become lost along the way. When we make something new, we need handholds and footholds. We need structure that gives us room to experiment and make discoveries.
 
Finding the shape of an idea is harder than it appears. Once the challenging intellectual work has been done, the results seem simple, even obvious. However, in order to boil a complex idea down to its core, you have to wrestle through the complexity. You must break the concept into what is essential and what is secondary, down and down. You’re finished when you’ve found a shape for your idea that is simple, but still comprehensive. 
 
What ideas are you trying to communicate right now? Consider your personal life, your creative work, your relationships, and your job. Are there thoughts you’re repeating over and over, with little result? Choose one concept you’ve tried to share recently. How might you give that concept shape?
 
Even if drawing isn’t your thing, when you’re shaping an idea, don’t be afraid to take out a pencil and doodle. Let your mind play with images and see what fits. Finding an idea’s shape is much more like solving a puzzle than it is like writing a definition. When you’re putting a puzzle together, you need to pick up pieces and try them out. Here, too, experimentation is your friend.
 
Once you’ve experimented, come on back and share! I’d love to hear the insights you gain by exploring the shape of your ideas. You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.
 
Here’s to you and your creativity!

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