If you have been reading my (rare) blog posts over the past couple months, you have been aware of my ongoing work to attempt to visualize the concept of ideation as a system. I have been doing with work in support of MIT's Center for Media Dynamics alongside fellow classmate and SDM'er, Matt Harper. (Matt's blog can be found here: http://blog.hbs.edu/hbsinov8/) Our final submission is contained below, complete with a link to our latest animation. Please provide feedback if you have ideas for improvement. Thanks!
The goal of this project was to develop a visual representation of “ideation” – the creation of
ideas. We achieved this by representing ideation as an evolving system of interconnected,
hierarchically structured elements.
To represent the system visually we developed a metaphor which structures the ideation
process in three tiers. The first tier represents the environment in which the idea creator
generates the idea, and includes the resources, ideas, experiences and knowledge that exist
in that environment. The second tier represents the idea creator, who absorbs, filters and
recombines those environmental elements. Finally, the third tier represents the idea itself, made
of elements from the environment and constructed in response to the creator’s intent. Each tier
filters and passes information to adjacent tiers in the system.
The visual metaphor provides a comprehensible view of ideation as a system, and shows
how ideas emerge from elements both internal and external to the idea creator. Finally, this
visualization allows a viewer to simply understand how the creation of new ideas depends on
ideas that already exist, and how cultural, technological and economic factors can have an
impact on how this system behaves.
The development of new ideas is traditionally viewed as an unpredictable and ambiguous
process best left to creative people and brainstorming sessions. Yet, history has shown us that
ideas do not arise as haphazardly as one may think. In fact, the most well-known ideas often
emerge, adapt, and evolve in predictable patterns. More specifically, the majority of “new” ideas
are not new at all, but simply existing concepts that are re-purposed, evolved, or merged to
create some new instance of the existing idea. As these ideas come together, they collectively
behave in a Darwinian manner, slowly evolving, branching, and discarding as necessary with
each innovation. Ideas can be as grand or as simple as one would like, from Einstein’s Theory
of Relativity down to a home-owner’s clever fix for a creaky floorboard.
Our intention was to improve the viewer’s understanding of the formation ideas by presenting a
novel visual metaphor that evokes both insight and clarity.
Development of the Ideation visualization was a highly iterative process. It required the
development and exploration of a great range of visual metaphors. We developed a series of
hand-drawn sketches, with each iteration incorporating a peer review process for validation and
ideas for improvement. This highly experimental process took us through the design metaphors
of blueprints, DNA strands, musical notation, nested spheres, and finally, a multi-tiered structure
with strands of information being filtered between tiers.
Over time, the form of our final output evolved from a series of static representations. We
realized that a dynamic treatment would be required to fully illustrate the cause-and-effect
relationships that define the creation of a new idea. What was a static representation of the
Ideation system turned into a dynamic, narrated, animated story. We produced this output
through a series of a hand-drawn sketches that were digitally photographed, imported onto a
computer, then cleaned and rendered in Adobe Photoshop. From there, the rendered images
were transferred into Adobe Flash, where they were brought to life through placement on an
The animation had two main sections. The first presents a personal narrative of a particular idea
being created, dependent on the knowledge that the creator has within their environment. The
second part of the narration introduces and describes the tiered model itself, and discusses the
factors and dynamics which can affect how and when an idea comes into being. Both sections
are both narrated and animated, with the verbal and visual components reinforcing one another.
This adherence to the principles of visual storytelling yields a compelling, cohesive result.
Final peer reviews of this approach have been positive. We believe that the success of our
approach lies in the combination of the different elements that were combined to yield the final
work. First, the combination of both visual and audible information allows the greatest possible
bandwidth for the communication of information, with the two elements at times reinforcing one
another, and at other times providing different but complementary information.
Second, the graphical elements used to visualize this system – the ontology developed – is
again a combination of several different types of entities. Where the representation of hierarchy
was required, we divided elements from one another and arranged them in a way that showed
their hierarchical relation. This was used in particular in the separation of the environment –
creator – idea structure, which showed hierarchy both by nesting concentric circles and by
arranging layers vertically. Conversely, where appropriate we combined concepts into a single
visual element; an example here is how the elements of an idea are shown as lines within a
layer, while the passing of those ideas between layers is represented by the same line element.
This technique – of adding complexity where needed but keeping other elements as simple as
possible – increased the comprehensibility of the model overall.
Finally, the approach of incorporating a story within a descriptive narrative seemed to resonate
particularly strongly with individuals who have reviewed the work. The system this work
describes is quite complex, but describing that system in the context of a simple, relatable story
makes the system much less complicated for the viewer to understand.
Future work will expand on the existing animation to discuss how the mechanics within each
layer can be made more effective. In particular, we will look at the cultural aspects of idea
creation, and consider both how the culture within a society (the human environment), and the
cultural context within which an individual works, can contribute to generating more great ideas.