Tools for thinking

Friday, May 1, 2015

In my last two posts I discussed 'platforms for creativity', the topic of a collaborative talk I gave with David Gauntlett in Dundee in January. This time, I'll focus on the theme of the workshop we ran that afternoon: tools for thinking.

(I'm only just getting round to this now because I've been busy writing a book - very exciting! - and being pregnant - even more exciting!)

Anyway: tools for thinking. Before the workshop, we said: Each participant is asked to bring along one object – or set of objects! – which you think might be fruitful ‘tools for thinking’. This could be anything really. Don’t worry about it, but bring something. David and I also brought a pile of stuff for people to play with.

During the workshop we asked the participants to fill in a Top Trumps-style card to evaluate the 'affordances' of their tools: what they could do with them.

This got me thinking about different types of tools for thinking, that can be used in different ways. I'm interested in tools that can be used either for a group discussion, or for individuals making individual responses to a question or prompt, that they can then share. 

Tools for fiddling

Lots of the tools that worked well were things that you could fiddle with, keeping your hands occupied while a conversation unfolds. This is quite a basic type of tool for thinking, but a very valuable one, I think. When we're engaged in a practical activity we talk more openly, partly because we're saved from having to keep eye contact, and also because there's less pressure to keep the conversation going - there's time to think, and reflect, and just contribute when we're ready. When people are undertaking the same activity together, it creates a sense of connection, and that supports open discussion, too.

There are loads of objects that you can fiddle with - though stuff that you can transform, connect or build with in some way is probably the most satisfying. In general I prefer everyone to be fiddling with one type of stuff, rather than - as I've found is often the case - being presented with a random pile of craft materials. And I think it's nice if the material you're fiddling with bears some relation to the topic at hand - or at least, doesn't actively distract from it.

When choosing your tool, you might consider: Is this stuff good for fiddling with? Are any skills needed? Do the group have those skills? Is any instruction required?

Also: Is the stuff familiar to the group? Will it appeal to them? Does it complement or clash with the topic we want to discuss?

Tools for creating metaphors

Tools for thinking can be used in another way: to create metaphors that represent ideas, people and emotions, which you can combine to build up models. This is the basis of David's great work using Lego in social research and, recently, other academic contexts. In order to do this, you need things with metaphorical affordances - they might be objects, like Lego, or you could also draw pictures, or even (boringly but straightforwardly) write down keywords using the seemingly omnipresent post-it note.

It's worthwhile thinking about how easy it is to use the tool for representing things; if it's too vague, you're likely to get confused or spend too much energy trying to work out how to use it. And with some tools (plasticine, for example) it's easy to get bogged down in trying to make a perfect representation - rather than thinking about the thing you're representing.

It's good for the elements to be repositionable: that way, you can think and reflect as you build, and change your mind. This is why I think drawing a diagram - which seems like such an obvious means of building a metaphorical model - isn't great; once you've put something down on paper, you're stuck with it. I also have a preference for 3-d objects over 2-d representations, partly because I find them more engaging, but also because 3-d things tend to also be good tools for fiddling. Double-good tools for thinking!

Tools for making connections

Finally, there are tools that are good for making connections. I can think of three versions of this:

  • You could use something long and thin (or things that you can join together to make something long and thin) to connect some of your metaphorical tools in significant ways; this might add complexity and space to your model.
  • If your 'tools for fiddling' allow, you could work together using the same lot of stuff; this would create physical connections between the people in the group which visualise the shared activity and conversation.
  • Alternatively, you might come up with a shared hare-brained scheme, that breaks out of the expected discussion format; one of the groups in Dundee thought tea was a good tool for thinking, and took off to find a kettle together! I like to think that this created a sense of connection, and that they had a fruitful discussion while the kettle boiled.

Happy thinking, everybody!


Platforms for creativity #2

Monday, March 30, 2015

In my last post, I mentioned the talk on Platforms for Creativity that I co-presented with David Gauntlett in Dundee in January. Having had more time to reflect, I now want to capture a few points that I/we made in the talk, that aren't written down elsewhere.

In talking about 'platforms for creativity', we were thinking about initiatives that support people to creatively express themselves - from the perspective that these activities have many benefits in terms of openness, connectedness, well-being, social change and sustainability. (You can read our discussion about the links between creativity, sustainability and social change in our blog posts on sustainability and small steps.)

Our starting point for the Dundee talk was a list of eight principles for building platforms for creativity, which David came up with after working in collaboration with three different media organisations. All of these projects aimed to create digital platforms through which people could 'contribute their own creative expressions within a structured environment'. You can read the eight principles in this blog post, originally written in April 2012.

In our talk, we discussed the idea of platforms for creativity and then a number of initiatives which could be described in this way. One of these projects was my Knitting Circle, part of the Keep & Share Knitting Tent which has popped up at various summer music festivals over the past few years. Although David's eight principles had been written in relation to digital platforms, when I first heard him talk about them I realised that they applied just as much to my 'real world' Knitting Circle as to online environments. This helped me to see my own project in a new way, and think about how I might amplify the positive characteristics of the experience. (You can read a bit more in this post from July 2012.)

Other examples of platforms for creativity that we discussed - and which the eight principles could also potentially apply to - included the many workshops using Lego that David has run over the years (notably discussed in his book, Creative Explorations); the fabulous Smörgåsboard project by Melanie Bowles and Kathy Round, which supports people to design their own printed textiles; the Global Cardboard Challenge, which simply invites children to create amazing stuff from cardboard; and De Chocoladefabriek in Gouda - a fantastic, multifaceted, creative civic space.

In discussing this diverse range of examples, we realised that although platforms for creativity often involve tools - physical or digital things that support making - there is an important role for elements which are often less tangible and visible: tasks and spaces. In the case of the Global Cardboard Challenge, for example, the 'tools' are commonplace; the 'platform' is essentially the open task which invites people to participate, and the online space where they can share their creations.

We also discussed the workshops I carried out as part of my PhD research, where I supported a group of amateur knitters to try out a range of re-knitting techniques, and eventually to creatively rework an item from their own wardrobes. This project can be seen as a platform for creativity, because the participants went beyond what they had previously thought possible, in terms of their ability to design for themselves and make confident creative decisions. 

The workshops took place at my knitwear studio, which was seen as being a creative physical space. More importantly, the structure of the project offered a conceptual space in which the knitters were given 'permission' to be creative: to experiment, to make mistakes, to try out ideas - and to 'waste time' in doing so. As one of the participants observed:

Well, that's been the thing about these workshops, and the space between them, is... I'm getting permission by being here. To play around with things, and it's not wasteful to spend time doing things and pulling them back.

It's a freedom that you have, but you don't know you've got.

At one of the early workshops, I asked the participants to gather inspirational materials that they might subsequently use to design with. I wasn't sure how they'd respond - would they find it tricky to find stuff? But at the next workshop they turned up with piles of fantastic inspiration! Intriguingly, they'd managed to gather all of this from within their homes - suggesting that, in this case, they already had the physical 'tools' which would help them to be creative. Through the structure of the project - the permissive space and the specific task - I'd enabled them to see things they already owned through a creative lens, with new potential.

At the end of our talk we concluded that platforms for creativity can take many forms, and vary in scale - but that all are about creating opportunities. They need structure, which can be created through tools, tasks and spaces; and successful platforms are underpinned by a sense of invitation, or even permission.

With all this in mind, I'm now wondering: How simple can platforms for creativity be? How much can we incorporate pre-existing tools, rather than inventing new ones? What are the qualities which create that sense of permission? And might it be possible to frame elements which initially appear rather fixed - such as a conventional knitting pattern - as a platform for creative exploration?


Platforms for creativity #1

Sunday, February 15, 2015

At the end of January, David Gauntlett and I went up to Dundee to give a talk on Platforms for Creativity and run a workshop on Tools for Thinking. Both went really well, and we were especially pleased to be part of the celebrations for Dundee being named as a UNESCO City of Design. 

You can read some information written in advance of the event here, and see a fantastic Storify of the whole day - put together by our host, Mike Press - here. Many thanks to all the participants for tweeting and blogging so comprehensively!

In our talk, we explained that we were thinking about platforms for creativity as being opportunities for people to creatively express themselves and transform their worlds. Importantly, we thought about the 'platforms' as supporting people to achieve things beyond what that they might otherwise think possible.

David spent some time hunting for a nice image to represent this idea - but found that most images of real-world platforms start broad at the bottom, and gradually become narrower. In contrast, we wanted to show that our conceptual platforms opened up new opportunities - so, visually, the shape should start narrow and grow upwards and outwards.

When I got home, I realised that I had the answer to this visual conundrum in my bag: two sets of building blocks. I'd taken one set along to the workshop as a potential tool for thinking, and picked up the other in the Dundee Contemporary Arts shop as a treat for our house. As I started to play with them, I realised that there's a natural tendency when playing with blocks to try to defy gravity - to grow upwards and outwards! (That's particularly possible with the ace new set of blocks - the hexagonal 'Brutalism' set from Areaware.)

So, here we go: a couple of visual representations of 'platforms for creativity', just a couple of weeks too late.