Thinking Outside the Dots

I write and talk about creativity a lot. But when I do, I rarely have a ready illustration of what creativity is, distilled.

That changed recently. While prepping a creativity workshop I gave at Pratt a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a fantastic book in the school’s lovely glass-floored library in Brooklyn.

James L. Adams’s Conceptual Blockbusting has been reissued four times since its original publication in 1974. I’ve barely managed to get through it, there’s so much good synthesis of psychology and education and industry, and such wonderfully mindbending examples of creative thinking.

Here’s the one that jumped out at me a few weeks ago.

It starts with a familiar puzzle.

Without lifting your pencil from the paper,
draw no more than four straight lines
so that they cross through all nine dots.

dots, 3 rows of 3


Our tendency to stick within the imagined boundary of the square is what makes this puzzle difficult.

The puzzle can be solved only by going outside that boundary:

dots, solved width=


But that isn’t the only possible solution. Far from it.

The solutions that follow exemplify true creativity, and remind us how important it is — if you want to increase your creativity — to develop a mindset unrestrained by category or context. 

dots, solved width=


The psychological phenomenon of functional fixedness is a classic block to creativity. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits us to considering an object according to its intended function. 

The next solutions beautifully defy that phenomenon by transcending the “bias” that the two-dimensional plane of a sheet of paper is inviolable.

The dots may be intersected by just one single line if the sheet is curved into a cylinder:

dots, solved width=


Or if the sheet is intricately folded….

dots, solved width=


This solution shatters the perceived context of the puzzle. A bit cheeky, but still:

dots, solved width=


And finally, this ten-year-old girl’s solution defies the perception that the solution lies in manipulating the paper.

dots, solved width=


The next time you face a challenging problem, it might be helpful to remember these examples. Consider how you might creatively defy context and category not only to generate solutions, but also to view the very problem as something different from what you first believed it to be.

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