Don't believe the old adage to "think outside the box." The new recipe for real inspiration? Old experiences and past knowledge get those creative juices flowing much more than any fancy attempts to innovate your way to the eureka!, says a new study titled "Do the best design ideas (really) come from conceptually distant sources of inspiration?" out of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. The reason? Trying to find the perfect solution from blind experimentation is a bit like stumbling around in the dark, explains the lead researcher, UPitt's Joel Chan. Chan, a graduate student in psychology who co-wrote the paper with two professors at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, succinctly rejects the popular premise in the TED Talk age that all disciplinary knowledge is inspirationally transferable. "It's unlikely that you'll get insight for a biology problem if you went to a jazz concert," he says.
Chan and his team sifted through 2,341 concepts from OpenIDEO, a online crowd-sourced innovation platform that addresses various social and environmental issues ranging from the solving the world's e-waste buildup to restoring vibrancy in economically declining cities. On this site, people can post 150-word solutions, which are then evaluated by an expert design panel. Chan's statistical analysis revealed that those participants who cited sources of inspiration related to their own subject matter were actually more creative and were soon favored by the OpenIDEO's expert panel. A conservative finding as far as creativity research goes: "If you build on prior stuff, you're a lot more likely to be creative than when you completely try to break with tradition or completely ignore what has come before."
It's helpful advice for designers like Erik Olesund, a teaching fellow at one mecca of interdisciplinary creativity, Stanford University's Institute of Design. When it comes to creativity, everything is a "remix" of the past, he muses. "Original ideas don't just come out of nothing. It's a combination of all the inspiration and impressions that your brain collects and then builds into new things," Olesund explains. These findings could have real-world implications for any startup, policymaker, writer, artist or inventor in need of a muse. And it's not just about big ideas: Users of online collections that amass and share ideas such as Pinterest and the U.S. patent database can benefit too, by focusing more narrowly. A counterintuitive idea? Sure. But one that just might kick your butt away from your infinite web of procrastination and into high-gear discipline.