Reviewing the Ultimate Desk exercise: Understanding innovation

From the course: Creativity Bootcamp

  • Course details

    Think you're not creative? Think again! Creativity is a skill—one you can develop with practice. And all it takes to start flexing your creative muscles is an hour of your time and our own Creativity Bootcamp. In this fun, hands-on course, creative director Stefan Mumaw guides you through five interactive training exercises that will help you (and a partner!) boost your creative output and produce even more innovative ideas. You'll explore some common misconceptions about creativity, learn the hidden value of the "stupid idea," and, through the course of the exercises, discover the three bootcamp commands for energizing your creative process.

    Interested in learning more about the creative process? Check out Stefan's other courses on


    • Click here to view Stefan Mumaw’s instructor page

      Stefan Mumaw

      Creative Director at First Person

      Stefan Mumaw is the director of narrative strategy at First Person, a story and experience design shop.

      In addition to his work with First Person—the San Francisco-based company where he currently leverages his storytelling expertise—Stefan has authored six books, the most recent being Creative Boot Camp, a 30-day crash course on creativity. Previously, he authored Chasing the Monster Idea, Redesigning Websites, and Simple Websites, and co-authored Caffeine for the Creative Team and Caffeine for the Creative Mind with Wendy Lee Oldfield. He has spoken at numerous creative industry gatherings over the years and has been known to embarrass himself and those around him if given the opportunity.

    Skills covered in this course

  • Defining creativity

    - So let me ask you some questions about your desks. Those of you who draw, you can look at it. For those of you who wrote it, just get a good picture in your head. How many of your desks have some sort of beverage dispenser at your desk? Of course it does, why would I want to move? (laughter) Right? How many of your desks are mobile in any way like they can roll, or fly, or ... Hey, you could, if you picked it up and walked with it, no, right? How many of your desks have some sort of water feature? Jacuzzi, pool, waterfall... It does now, that sounds like a good idea, I'm gonna write that in, I had no idea I could do that, that's fantastic. How many of your desks come with some kind of extra person that's there in a professional capacity? Chef, masseuse... - Something with access to. - Access to those things, right. Okay, good, alright, access to-- well, everyone's got access, you just get up, right? (laughing) - [Voiceover] No, no, no, no. - No, oh, no, you're not getting up, no. How many of your desks, let me ask you this, it should be an easy question. I want you to really picture your desk, okay? You at home, really picture your desk in your head. I want you to picture what it looks like, I want you to imagine yourself sitting at it, okay? How many of your desks have a large, flat surface? Have a large flat surface, everybody in here. So the question that I ask is what does your desk have a large, flat surface? - Because that's what we know. - Because that's what you know. Because I used the word desk and that's what you know a desk to be. And so, we start with what we know a desk to be and we start attaching things to it. And I bet you your desks have every manner of attachment added to it, right? We have become a society of attachers and we call it innovation but really it's improvement. And believe me, there's nothing wrong with improvement, but most of the time, our goal isn't to improve, it's to innovate and if we really want to innovate, we have to stop starting with other people's solutions and we have to ask ourself the really hard question, the one I know none of us in the room asked when we started this project which was, what is a desk now? What's the purpose of a desk? That last line, "The only rules that it has "to actually perform the function of a desk in some way." Most of the time when we're problem solving, we insert restrictions that aren't really there, we imply them. And in that implication, we implied that a desk has to have a large surface and it doesn't. I remember giving this exercise to a group of engineering students. And I was watching one of the tables and they started with this giant circle which a lot of desks start off in this exercise, people make them round. Like I wanna sit here and I just wanna have this thing all the way around me, right? And you're laughing because your desks has some of the same in it right now, right? When they started with this round thing, I thought, "That's where they're going," but they started doing this with their hands, and I'm like, "What are you making? What are you building?" And so I asked them to explain their desk, and their desk was this ball. It was a transparent ball that was submerged in water and was spinning at a high rate of speed. And you would get into this ball and basically there was gravity panels on the inside of it so you could just float inside of it without touching anything. And you wore this helmet that had the screen in front of you on your eyes like virtual reality. And the spinning of the ball in the water was creating energy that was powering the glasses and you basically thought work into existence. You're like, "Huh." (laughing) I'm not sure that is allowable in the laws of physics let alone in most corporate cultures. But let me ask you this, wouldn't that be a better place to start creatively and have to pull back from a ball submerged in water and spinning? Then to start with a large, wooden, flat surface and attach things to it? Because they threw out what they knew and they started again and said, "All the work "we do is digital. All the work we do-- if I could just, "if money is no object I can just think it into existence." And what a wonderful place to learn how to start creatively. Number one, our first creative boot camp command is that we have to learn how to get stupid. We know too much and it is killing us creatively. I'll prove this to you. I want you to grab a pencil or pen, grab a piece of paper in front of you. I'm going to ask you to draw an icon of something. I mean, I'm going to give you three seconds to draw this. So there's no thinking, I just want you to draw the icon as quickly as you can, okay? I just want you to draw the icon as quickly as you can. So, you ready? Draw an icon of a telephone, go! Telephone! Quickly! As quickly as you can! As quickly as you can! Now, stop! Okay? How many of you drew something to this effect? Right? Or ... That? Right? When's the last time you've seen that phone? (laughing) That phone isn't in existence any more. Right? I mean, it was when we were kids, right? When I asked my daughter, my daughter's 16 years old, I asked my daughter, I said, "I want you "to draw me a phone, ready, go!" She went... And I said, "What is that?" And she goes, "It's a phone." And then it hit me, that's the only phone she's ever known. You're like, "Hoooooo." And yet, what we know, what's in our head is killing us creatively. There is a mannequin... in the foyer of the Wieden Kennedy office in London. And this mannequin has a blender for a head, it's in a business suit, it's carrying a briefcase. On the outside of the briefcase, it says, "Walk in stupid every morning." What an odd call to action at an ad agency, right? But Dan Wieden was telling his creative group, "Listen, I don't want you to solve the problems of the world "from 10 years ago, five years ago, last year, last month, "last week, I want you to re-imagine what the problem "is today and I want you to solve it from scratch today." And it sounds exhausting, doesn't it? Like there's all this great experience and all these great solutions that are already in existence, why would I start from scratch when I can learn from what they've already learned? And I'm not saying not to take what they've learned and apply it but what I'm saying is re-evaluating what a desk is, and what we need a desk to be and how we work now. And there's an interesting question about the desk, how much of the work that we do is actually created because of the desk? How much paperwork exists? Things that are flat, things that have bases, they exist because desks exist. What if they didn't? What if you had no desk? What would have to be invented for you in order to do the work that you had? And what could you sacrifice? I bet you there's a bunch. But we're unwilling to start over. We're unwilling to start from scratch because it's just too much work but if we want to innovate, if we wanna really truly invent novelty in our creativity, we have to learn how to throw away what we know, and start from scratch. So number one, get stupid.

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