The Beautiful Clash

Curiosity and creativity go hand in hand — a desire to try new things, look into the unknown, break some rules, and constantly ask "what would happen if … ?"

One means to this end is combinatorial creativity, or more specifically disparate combinatorial creativity. By this I mean what happens when we intentionally take unrelated things and make them work together in unexpected ways? Awesomeness, that's what. Rapping nuns, felons and felines, BA and Murdock. Irony mixed with intrigue mixed with impact.

An educator at some point likely challenged you with an exercise in combinatorial thinking, as it's known to stimulate the brain in very cool ways. Innovators and inventors are known to spend lots of time in this realm. Steve Jobs suggested "Creativity is just connecting things."

Some Simple Examples

Children's Mix and Match Monster Book

Mix-and-match children's books


Madlibs (random nouns + adjectives + verbs)

Mismatched Fashion Patterns

Intentionally clashing patterns

Mismatched Fashion Patterns

Mix-and-mismatch fashion combos

Beetroot, Raspberry, Mackerel

Beetroot + raspberry + mackerel

Oyster, Coconut, Lychee, Rose

Oyster + coconut + lychee + rose

George Lois' Braniff Ads

Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston clash in George Lois' 1967 Braniff ad

George Lois' Esquire Cover

George Lois' 1965 take on the masculinization of the American woman 

The Challenge

Try being more intentional about this type of exploration and good things will happen. As a starter, simply consider pairing items from lists to create combos (some disparate, some not). This works well for especially open-ended creative thinking, and it helps get you focused by pushing you to think within some artificial constraints. Here are two scenarios where we've used this at Viget recently:

Mobile Brainstorm Challenge

List one: Common Mobile Functions

  • photo/video, geo-location, accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, stopwatch, QR scanner, compass, contacts, messaging

List two: Subjects and Scenarios

  • emergency services, golf course, wrestling, cooking, fashion, toys, tourism, concert, interior decorating, beer, olympics, scrapbooking

Goal: Think of mobile app ideas that map each subject/scenario to the common mobile functions.

  • emergency services + photo/video, emergency services + geo-location, emergency services + accelerometer, etc.
  • golf course + proximity sensor, golf course + ambient light sensor, golf course + stop watch, etc.

Example: When we discussed emergency services + photo/video, we pondered the idea of "crowd-sourced citizen patrol." Citizens with the app would be able, at the click of a button, to begin streaming video and associated geo-data of a heightened event to law enforcement. On-screen, authorities could see the collective videos of an event and a map plotting where the streams are coming from, the orientation/viewpoint of the onlookers, etc. In theory, they could then start understanding the situation and convey helpful information/data to officers arriving on-scene. Yes, there are all kinds of challenges and snags with this idea. The point isn't to be entirely realistic at first, but just to get ideas on the table.

Poster Design Challenge

List one: Modes of Transportation

  • minivan, hot air balloon, fighter jet, VW Beetle, horse, steam engine, bike

List two: Styles and Genres

  • art nouveau, Native American, cubism, pointillism, pop art, constructivism, graffiti

List three: Verbs

  • explode, laugh, cry, point, run, fight, eat

Goal: Design posters for the following combos.

  • minivan + constructivism + run, hot air balloon + cubism + fight, fighter jet + art nouveau + point, VW Beetle + Native American + laugh, horse + pointillism + explode, steam engine + graffiti + cry, bike + cubism +  eat

Example: We haven't designed even one of these yet, but hope to. Does one stand out to you as the most interesting/curious?

Any examples of combinatorial creativity/thinking that come to mind for you? Also, take a look at related posts by Maria Popova from 2010 and 2012.


Peyton Crump

Posted in Article Category: #Design & Content