Curiosity is Jet Fuel for Your Creativity

Why would product designers at a chewing-gum company want to spend their valuable weekends tagging along on camping trips with teenagers? Because teens accounts for one-third of all gum chewed in the U.S. And when gum sales slipped a few years ago, the folks at Wrigley became intensely curious about what was happening in the lives, hearts and minds of people in that age group.

Curiosity is jet fuel for your creativity

The Brooklyn Bridge when the “waterfall” installation was there a few years ago. Curious brain! Photograph by Sam Harrison.

They satisfied their curiosity by simply hanging out with teens in weekend activities, paying attention and asking questions. They soon discovered that today’s teenagers use gum brands as a means of self-expression. The result was 5 Gum, a game-changing product with sleek black packaging created by Mike Langer Design. This innovative new gum was an instant hit – over $200 million in sales for the first year and over $500 million in year two.

Curiosity is jet fuel for creativity. For my books and talks, I’ve interviewed hundreds of highly creative people in design and dozens of other fields – and one trait they all share is tenacious curiosity. Here are five ways curiosity can help expand your creativity:

1. Curiosity inspires creative living

Stick to the same routines for too long, and you become stale and boring. Curiosity helps move you into uncharted territory, making life and work more creative and rewarding.

“I don’t mean to give you a Zen koan,” musical composer Philip Glass told The New York Times, “but the work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”

Best-selling novelist Ann Patchett agrees. “I’ve never subscribed to the notion of ‘writing what you know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know enough interesting things. Conducting research has turned out to be the greatest perk of the job. I’ve read Darwin and Mayr and Gosse to get a toehold on evolutionary biology. I’ve floated down the Amazon in an open boat just to see the leaves and listen to birds.”

Don’t let what you know stop you from looking into what you don’t know. Keep being curious about topics and interests outside the world of design.

2. Curiosity examines life’s mysteries

When you are truly curious about other people – what they think, how they live, what makes them tick – you creatively touch their wants and needs with your designs and other pursuits.

“I am curious to the point of being nosy,” actor Meryl Streep told an interviewer. “What that means is you want to devour lives. You’re eager to put on their shoes and wear their clothes and have them become a part of you. All people contain mystery, and you want to plumb that mystery until everything is known to you.”

Be nosy. Get inside the lives and heads of your customers and end users, clients and bosses, friends and family, acquaintances and strangers. Find out what makes them laugh, cry and scream.

3. Curiosity uncovers creative solutions

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A wall at MoMA take a few months ago — those energetic words capture the essence of this article. Photograph by Sam Harrison.

If you’re curious about the efforts and solutions of other professions, products and people, you can learn and borrow from their experiences.

A product designer at Mattson, a food development firm, was looking for ways to pack more sweetness and citrus flavor in a low-fat, low-calorie strawberry cookie.

Curiosity carried her to a bag of low-fat cheese tortilla chips. She soon recognized that a topical seasoning – cheese powder and other ingredients on the outside of the chips – provided the intense flavor So she dusted her test cookies with sugar crystals, citric acid and strawberry flavors, and, eureka — a tangy, sweeter low-fat cookie.

Stay curious about the practices of other industries, brands and designers. See if their solutions might help solve your problems.

4. Curiosity propels creative careers

Curious people tend to get ahead because they ask smart questions and seek meaningful answers. They’re energized and passionate, standing out to clients and employers.

“The things I really value when interviewing and hiring starts with curiosity,” said Mark Templeton, CEO of the Internet software company Citrix. “Curiosity is a measure of self-motivation. People who are curious will develop themselves, they’ll discover things, they’ll invent things.”

Bored with the project in front of you? Rouse your curiosity. Ask yourself, “If I wanted to make this project interesting and fun for a friend (or partner or child), what would I do differently? Also ask: “Who can I visit with and talk with to help make this project inspiring, creative and successful?”

5. Curiosity kindles creative conversations

“There are two types of people,” said Frederick Collins. “Those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are!’”

Curious people are the second type. And they’re typically the most creative type, because they’re the ones asking questions – eager to find out what others are doing, thinking and feeling.
They have stimulating conversations, because it’s not all about them. They realize that true conversation is a two-way street.

In your next conversation, be curious. Ask more questions. You’ll spark a more lively, creative discussion – and you’ll likely gain insights to apply with your next project.


Do you love this advice and crave even more practical tips on how to harness your creativity?

Then don’t miss Sam Harrison’s sessions,  “Zooming into your Creative Zing Zone” and “Selling Ideas, at HOW Design LiveRegister by April 2nd for Early Bird prices.

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