Smushing: A Creative Technique for Generating New Ideas
10 September 2018
Colony Member and founder of Chroma Copy, Michael Metcalf presents a facinating perspective and entertaining analysis of 'smushing'; a technique that promises to yield fresh results while igniting new sparks of creativity, - try it!
What is a wave?
A wave is a disturbance or disruption in a physical medium that causes motion of some sort.
In the ocean, for example, it causes the molecules of water to move up and down together. However, nothing is being added to or taken away from the water molecules. They stay the same. They remain water and nothing else.
What, then, is the wave made from? Does it really exist?
Of course it exists. It’s not made from water. (You can’t bottle a wave and take it home). It wouldn’t exist without the water molecules, though.
A wave is energy. A wave is more than the sum of its parts.
As humans, we are assembled from a finite number of cells. We are a complex biological machine.
We know that our consciousness is mostly centred in our brains. This is because when brains get damaged, consciousness suffers, or stops entirely.
Brains are made of cells, which are made of molecules. Consciousness comes from the chemical, biological and electrical interplay between these cells.
But if you take a brain apart and look at it very closely, you won’t be able to find anything special about the atoms and molecules that make it up. In that case, where is consciousness hiding?
Like a wave, consciousness exists beyond the physical substrate that supports it — ie., it is more than the sum of its parts.
One of the best ways of creating new ideas and things of value is to combine things together to make something that is worth more than its parts. This is what smushing is all about.
In certain situations, we might have to create something from nothing. Like if we’re committed to writing that novel we’ve been putting off for so long — even then, there’s probably a seed of an idea hiding somewhere.
Occasionally, in a professional or academic setting, we might have to create a presentation for the purpose of showcasing our presentation skills. Then, sure, maybe it’s a blank slate, but it’s easy enough to start by asking “What am I interested in?” or “What have I studied recently?”
So, every creative opportunity or problem that needs solving has at least something that we can start with.
Smushing involves taking that something and adding to it, perhaps in an unconventional way. Maybe a bit roughly, unevenly at first.
This plus that = magic.
The world of food is the best example of this.
Pastries and the everyday
In 2013, a New York pastry chef and his team wanted to bake something new. Someone mentioned a doughnut, but the chef — Dominique Ansel — was French, and didn’t have his own doughnut recipe. So he combined his heritage with the challenge before him, and then…
The Cronut was born
A hybrid croissant and doughnut. Like any idea, it had to progress much further than the conception stage to become reality. Dominique took two months to figure out the exact pastry recipe that could be built into the doughnut shape and hold its topping properly. After launching, it was immediately picked up by local food blogs, and became an internationally-renowned bestseller. Dominique continues to reinvent, remix and remake other dishes in his bakery.
There are thousands of similar culinary stories. Creative cooking so often entails the recombination of familiar and unfamiliar. What else?
- An amateur baker is decorating her house. She looks through a swatch book to choose a paint colour for the bedroom wall. In a satisfying moment of inspiration, she decides that her next creation will be a multicoloured layer cake, based on the rainbow array that she's been staring at.
- A mother reads a management book for a training course at work. It is about negotiation tactics in conflict resolution. She decides to apply this methodology to the parenting of her toddler when he is having a tantrum.
- A shopkeeper sees a nature documentary on TV, soundtracked beautifully by a classical orchestra. The next day, he plays Mozart instead of radio pop to measure its effect on his costumers' shopping habits.
These are people using smushing in every day life to bring disparate concepts together. They are not afraid to take creative risks. In fact, they might not even think of themselves as being creative.
According to an article from The School of Life,
“Creativity isn’t a rare and highly dramatic activity; it’s not a side-show incidental to the core concerns of our lives. It’s something that — ideally — we’re always involved in. It’s a refusal to accept the world as it is in all its facets, it’s a commitment to doing better with what we have. As creative people, we don’t have to write novels, we are just persistently on the lookout for ways (sometimes very small) of improving our lives.”
Commit to this way of living — realise the possibilities it brings — and it soon becomes second nature:
“The creative person is someone particularly committed to the idea that there must be a better way of going about things.”
Unicorns and Economics
There’s a common trope in the world of Silicon Valley that the next billion-dollar app is a simple idea waiting to be found — all you have to do is build [established service] for [new market] and you’ll be a unicorn in no time.
- Uber for Dogsitting.
- Evernote for dating.
- Ebay for body parts.
All probably pitches that have been thrown at investors at some point.
This method involves applying an established business model to a market that hasn’t seen it before. Smushing A with B and hoping for the best.
Although it’s a common model for casual ideation in pub discussions, it’s not really the most successful. A better model would be to identify a problem that needs solving and that people are willing to pay for, and then figuring out how to deliver on it, with lots of research, testing and tweaking along the way.
However! Smushing does play a key part in the creative process for all kinds of business activities.
Shifting business models like this doesn’t just apply to new businesses, but established ones that need to shift strategy to keep up with an evolving market.
Take the field of materials science, for example, and its evolving impact on the nature of electric lighting. As LEDs continue to replace old-fashioned filament light bulbs, the market for lighting will have a heap of competing pressures brought on by technological innovations in how lights work, their flexibility, what surfaces they can attach to, and more.
The winners in this competitive landscape will be those that adapt — and smush ideas from different fields together. As The Economist suggests in their MegaTech publication;
"By 2050 [LED] successors will no longer be discreet lighting fitments, but illuminating films incorporated into the ceiling panels of buildings. Ceiling manufacturers, then, need to think about becoming lighting engineers to avoid being disrupted by lighting companies becoming ceiling producers."
For technical challenges like these, our ability to execute ideas that we’ve smushed will increase rapidly.
With technological advances like 3D printing and rapid prototyping, the ability to quickly experiment with different designs has made it into the hands of the hobbyist with a bit of spare time and money. These things are available today, but materials, equipment and techniques are still evolving. We may be able to make real the fanciest of smushed ideas for products and gizmos sooner than you may think.
On top of this, there are some converging technologies that will truly expand our ability to smush ideas and test their efficacy. Look at design and engineering, for example.
Physicists are now getting ever closer to an accepted complete explanation of the physical and mathematical laws of the universe. Along with this, endeavours such as the Materials Project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are cataloguing the properties of hundreds of thousands of materials and how they interact with one another.
Previously, when you wanted to test if a new aeroplane wing design would work, you’d have to build it (or a miniature prototype), put it in a wind tunnel, and run tests on it.
With these data-gathering projects and complete physical laws, alongside the power of cloud computing, we are now getting to the point where distributed computing networks are able to run simulations of different designs down to the molecular level, giving us effective certainty over the results of our designs without having to actually make them.
These world-changing opportunities will be fuelled by our creative imaginations.
Imagine if you wanted to design a pair of shoes that have an incredibly bouncy sole. Today, you’d have to get all kinds of help, and spend a good amount of money sourcing materials, getting manufacturers to make prototypes, going out in the field and testing them, and continually refining until the desired result is achieved. Tomorrow, you might be able to pick from a list of materials, tweak a few parameters, and let the simulation do its thing, until you’ve designed the world’s bounciest shoe.
These abilities will be a threat to the incumbent manufacturers (imagine how Nike would feel about the above example) but for the creator who’s bursting with ideas, they are a potential goldmine. Smushing is about to get a lot more powerful.
The psychedelic imagination
Smushing isn’t just about solving problems and starting businesses. It’s a method of thinking and an idea-generating technique that’s a deeply important part of any creative task.
The German philosopher Hegel, in his logical theory of dialectics, promoted the idea of thesis, antithesis, synthesis:
- The thesis is an intellectual proposition.
- The antithesis is a critical perspective on the thesis.
- The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths, and forming a new proposition.
Essentially, in posing two opposing ideas, a whole new idea is created.
Two things join to become a third thing.
We can take this method and run with it.
Imagine a verdant meadow on a warm summer’s day. The birds are singing and a gentle breeze meanders through the air. A red blanket and a picnic basket are arranged neatly, with a tray of cheeses and a bottle of wine ready to be enjoyed. This is nice. Here, you have a scene.
Then add a meteor burning through the sky and violently crashing into the ground. Out from the crater, a giant red snake slithers, spitting fire with a deafening roar.
Now this is interesting. Now you have a story. You have a conflict, a drama, a situation, a problem to be overcome. You have the beginning of a novel, a painting, a film, a poem, even just a fantasy to daydream about.
We took one thing, added another, and now have an idea of significance. We can go further down this road.
Imagine now that just before the meteor landed, a marriage was proposed. The ring has now been lost in the commotion. Also, it’s the year 2248, and this scenario is not on Earth but in a biosphere on one of the moons of Jupiter. What happens next?
And thus begins the creative process.
I’m writing this in a park in a town on the western coast of Estonia. The name of the country reminds me of a girl I used to know called Antonia. She had red hair and we shared a common fondness for strawberry laces.
I ate strawberry laces once in a friend’s apartment in Vancouver. Vans are a brand of footwear. My feet are wearing socks right now. Socks was the name of the cat that lived in the White House when Bill Clinton was president. Bill Clinton liked to play the saxophone. Phone… I should phone my mum tonight, I haven’t spoken to her in a while.
That is a good idea. Thank you, Estonian park, for the inspiration.
Mental chaining like this, as well as the smushing example above, are hallmarks of divergent thinking. This is a term used by psychologists to describe the playful process of generating creative ideas by using a single stimulus to produce various different thoughts.
While there are links between certain personality types and a predisposition to divergent thinking, ability to do this is not set in stone. In fact, it can be practiced and learned. You are in control of how divergent your thinking is.
Smushing is a fun exercise in mental agility. It’s the kind of creative thought that is deeply human, unable to be replicated by machines of artificial intelligence. Playing with ideas, images, thoughts, and concepts keep us on our toes and allow us to bring unique ideas into the world through many different mediums. It helps us bring disparate ideas together and combine them to make something more than the sum of its parts.
I’ve got an idea.
What if there was a cronut… flavoured like a coconut?
You could call it a croconut.