Fast Company's Eric Jaffe writes this week about new research on the relationship between visual metaphors and creativity. Jaffe first cites a 2012 study by Angela K.-y. Leung and her co-authors. Here is Jaffe's summary of that study:
Test participants enacted various metaphors for creativity, then took an association test designed to measure original thinking. (For "thinking outside the box," they actually sat outside a box made from PVC pipe and cardboard.) The results showed that embodying metaphorical creativity did, in fact, enhance it.
Jaffe goes on to examine a new study by Alex Marin, Martin Reimann, and Raquel Castaño. They confirmed that visual metaphors can enhance creativity. However, these authors also found that visual metaphors can have a deleterious effect. For instance, showing people an image of a burned-out light bulb can decrease their creativity. Scholars don't know exactly why these visual metaphors affect our thinking, though they have demonstrated their impact.
What's the implication for practitioners trying to nurture innovation in their companies? Jaffe suggests that we pay close attention to the environment we create in our workplaces. If we want a team to brainstorm, we might take care to shape the environment in which they will do their work. Of course, that emphasis on environment should go WAY BEYOND the placing of appropriate visual metaphors. It should involve creating a space that has plenty of materials available, as fuel for creative thinking. It should involve plenty of materials, such as post-its and the like. It should involve appropriate wall space for displaying ideas, sketches, etc. We need to think holistically about creating a space that nurtures creativity, rather than simply hoping that a few visual metaphors can have a profound impact.