Category Archives: creativity

Learning from the Alternative Uses Task

There’s a creativity test called the Alternative Uses Task, where you’re asked to come up with as many different uses as you can for an everyday object (for example, a paperclip or a brick). I was thinking about it recently because I was curious about programming and creativity, and how my clients sometimes tell me, “I had no idea XYZ could be used for that!” (Javascript, AutoHotkey, etc.). I like coming up with alternative uses when programming, and for things in general. I was wondering how I could get even better at divergent thinking based on what I can learn from the research into it.

From “Evaluating the Alternative Uses Test of Creativity” (Caitlin Dippo, National Conference on Undegraduate Research, 2013), I learned that while the first few responses tend to be pretty common, the more responses you make, the more you tend to come up with original ones. “Divergent thinking: strategies for generating alternative uses for familiar objects” (Gilhooly et. al, 2007) identified a number of strategies that people used when coming up with ideas: memory, property use (breaking it down into properties), broad use (looking at broad categories), and disassembly use (considering its parts). I also remembered the forced association tips from various creativity games – when you try to relate two different ideas together, your brain’s pretty good at filling in the gaps.

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

How can I use that to be more creative? Well, coming up with more answers helps – especially more different ones, not just variations on a theme. Elaborating on ideas and smooshing them together is fun, so I wonder how I can incorporate that kind of play into my learning – maybe through drawing, or brainstorming alternative uses for the tools and tech I have?

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research


Priming the idea pump

I really like Sumana Harihareswara’s post on ‘From “sit still” to “scratch your own itch”’ because she shares great tips for people who don’t feel like they have big ideas of their own. I’ve been learning more and more about building things based on my own ideas. I often hear from people who struggle with coming up with ideas and who don’t feel like they fit in, or who are waiting for that one great idea before they go ahead and explore their dreams. There are lots of ways to get started even without that clear spark, though, and it’s great to read about some things you can pay attention to.

Here are Sumana’s tips and how I can relate to them from my own life:

  1. Embrace boringness. It’s good to know you don’t have to create something new and wonderful all the time. It’s okay to not always be breaking new ground. I spend time writing about everyday things and trying out things that lots of other people have figured out before, like cooking, and sometimes I find interesting ideas along the way.
  2. Embrace silliness. It’s okay to play instead of always trying to solve big problems. Drawing is starting to become play for me, and coding can be fun and silly too. (Like the time I made a smiley-face generator…) One of the things I love about W- is that we can be silly together. The other week he made funny sounds by patting his cheeks, which boggled and delighted me, so I had to go and figure out how to do that too. =)
  3. Find someone else’s pain point. I like doing this a lot. I get a kick out of writing a small tool or creating a script that automates a painful or repetitive part of someone else’s work.
  4. It’s fine to take a class. I’m not as good at doing this because I often talk myself out of spending money on in-person classes and I haven’t really engaged much with online classes. That said, I enjoyed my sewing class, and I learned a lot from my Japanese lessons. Maybe I should give this another try!
  5. Work with scraps. I like doing this with writing. I pick up scraps of ideas from books, blog posts, questions, and experiences, and I combine them into new blog posts. When coding, I pick up scraps of API functionality and write something that glues them together. There are so many good things out there. I could probably spend the rest of my life connecting the dots instead of adding new ones, and that would still be a good life.

If you’ve ever told yourself, “But I don’t have any good ideas!”, you may want to check out Sumana’s blog post:

From “sit still” to “scratch your own itch”

Paper is the new PowerPoint

… and that’s a great thing. =)

Check out these creative presentations by Betsy Streeter:

If you like my hand-drawn presentations, have fun making your own! All you need is a something to write on, something to write with, and a camera. Alternatively, you can get all fancy-like and buy an inexpensive drawing tablet. Enjoy!

Livening up your laptop lid: self-adhesive reusable surface

All you need to transform your laptop lid into a reusable surface
where you can display your latest doodles are: one photo album with
self-adhesive pages, a knife, and double-sided tape. Get a photo album
that uses plastic and a sticky(ish) surface. Life is easier and neater
if the strip that keeps the plastic attached to the book is on the
outside edge. You’ll see what I mean.

Step 1. Position the laptop face-down on one page of the photo album
so that the strip that keeps the plastic attached to the book is along
the top edge of the laptop lid. Trace laptop outline onto one page of
the photo album. (If you feel particularly diligent, you can measure
it instead.)

Step 2. Cut the photo album page to size. Trim a bit off the bottom
part to avoid hitting the laptop hinge.

Step 3. Attach double-sided adhesive tape to the laptop.

Step 4. Mount photo album piece on laptop.

Step 5. Peel back plastic and put in stuff.

I like this approach because it doesn’t require me to bring any
special supplies in order to add to the display. For example, I can
add fortunes from fortune cookies, Post-it notes, or even business

This is handy for my wild idea about selling advertising on my laptop. This laptop hack’s primarily about creatively expressing yourself, though. =)

Good stuff.

I came up with a terrific plan B: a whiteboard with a plastic
protector to keep it from being erased in one’s backpack. That one’s
pretty cool, too. I’ll blog about it more on Sunday, Aug 27. In the
meantime… enjoy!

Creative Thursday: Conference commando!

On the way to jazz choir practice, I thought about what I like
creating and when people have called me creative. One of the things
people have complimented me on is the way I hack conferences, from
modding conference T-shirts to posting people’s tag clouds along the
wall in order to spark conversations.

I _love_ going above and beyond the usual ideas of what a conference
should be like. That’s one of the reasons why I’m really excited about
CASCON 2006: as part of the organizing team, I can try out many cool

I’d love to start a bigger conversation around that, and I’d love to
share my thoughts with more people! I think it would make a great
blog. I want to share tips and ideas with participants, speakers, and
organizers. It’ll also be a great place to post my conference reports
and pictures of hacked T-shirts! ;)

I already have a name for the blog: Conference Commando. I came
across the term “conference commando” in Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never
Eat Alone. Good stuff, and I think I’ve got a lot to contribute to
this space.

So I’m going to make it happen! Here’s what I need to do:

  • Make a logo so that it’s not just a boring WordPress install. ;)
  • Set up a blog and JUST START BLOGGING! I can probably install
    Wordpress or something like that on some computer somewhere. Maybe
    Richi will let me virtualhost on
    his computer. I need a MySQL database. Alternatively, I could host
    it on, which is currently underutilized anyway. Yup,
    that’s also a possibility…
  • Extract some of the relevant blog posts from my main blog. For
    example, my notes about the social computing workshop might be of
    interest to organizers. A review of the relevant section in Never
    Eat Alone would be handy for participants, and my blog entry about
    keynote styles would be good for speakers.

Fun! Hooray for Creative Thursday!

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