Ideas Above My Station

Inventor Advice

I've begun thinking about what I do that seems to make me inventive. Is it the half-bucket of espresso every morning or the temporal lobe seizures (might these be somehow related?)

I've gradually become aware, over the course of my last 500 or so ideas, that there are several modes of thinking from which ideas for inventions emerge. I've tried to describe these elsewhere but I think it's mostly to do with being able to see the world in a connected way. As children, when we draw things, we seem to know that 'm' is the same as a seagull in flight. Only later, when we start to get formally educated, do we begin to divide the world into iconic representations: every hand must have five fingers, every face the standard number and layout of features. It's why, I reckon, people stop being able to draw (they look at a scene, recognise, from a shady image of three fingers, that there is a hand present and then reproduce an iconic 'hand shape' in their drawing, which then bears no relation to what they actually saw.

Anyway, all this clever labelling and categorisation we develop may make reasoning and communication easier, but it cuts down on the creative ability to spot connections that are the seedbed for my inventiveness.

The more education you get, the better you become at boiling down everything into these neat, symbolic categories. I'm sure that's why most inventors I know have largely been rejected by Education (or have rejected it) as simply too prescriptive of how to deal with reality.

I'll probably have more to say later about why universities are full of very smart but strangely uncreative people. (I was once told that my application for funding to a very high flying university committee was rejected because "(I) was having ideas incompatible with (my) status as research student" !)

Anyway, one of the tools I tend to use is something I call visual metaphor. This simply means spotting that two unrelated items share something about their configuration or their mode of operating. Examples of this can be seen here .


How can this be useful to an inventor? Here's an example. I spotted someone listening to an MP3 player at the same time as playing with a yo-yo. My first thought was that getting all that stuff tangled up would be a real pain. It then occurred to me that this stupid visual metaphor points to one possible solution to knotted cables: use the ear-bud wires as the string of a yo-yo. Every time the yo-yo spins back upwards, it automatically winds the wires neatly around its spindle.

Everyone, it seems, hears the voice of an internal censor which is there to keep a grip on reality by dismissing crazy notions and demanding strict labelling. Mine doesn't normally get much of a hearing, but the visual metaphor trick is a good way to get around that nagging, dismissiveness.

Patrick Andrews
Guest Blogger

Patrick Andrews is a compulsive inventor, engineer, father of three and caffeine addict. He has the correct answers to questions such as 'How can I lose 100lb?', 'What is art for?' and 'Is TV destroying society?'