Two Creative Tools for Questioning Reality

Use Analogs & Mashups to Solve Design Problems

Tackling a new design brief for a big project can seem daunting. Where do you start? What can you do to make a brainstorm session worth everyone’s time? How do you get the brain juice flowing? Well, sometimes, when we’re stuck, I find the best way to move forward is to look at what we already have: the present reality. We ask ourselves how can our present reality be reshaped to create something more effective, engaging, or useful?

When looking at our present reality, there are two great mental tricks that we like to use: analogs and mash-ups. They’re a quick solve that can help frame the problem differently—which helps us better pinpoint the problems and come up with really fresh ideas.

Before we dive in though, one disclaimer. These ideas are rarely the final solutions themselves. Rather, they’re the starting points we can use to find solid and achievable answers to various problems or projects we are working on. They’re not the “aha” moment, but they do the heavy lifting in helping get us there.

You may have to select attributes of the originals to discard or modify in order to find the right harmony and balance in the final mashup.

Let’s take a look at some examples and how to best leverage these two creative methods.

So, a mashup is a fusion, or combination, of two different things—anything. A person, place, situation, object, word, whatever. The most familiar mashups are found in music or food. Think Folk Rock, or Korean BBQ Tacos.

Pretend like you’re smashing two things to make a single thing. The trick is to make sure the two things are enough similar that they can combine in a tangible, useful way. You may have to select attributes of the originals to discard or modify in order to find the right harmony and balance in the final mashup. Chefs do this all the time. Combining Korean and Mexican maybe seemed odd at first—but hey, they both share rice, cilantro, and lime.

When it comes to art and design, however, the applications are often more intangible—but mash-ups can still get ideas flowing. The goal would be to find two subjects that are different enough that their combination creates a dynamic tension. For example, the street artist Banksy combines the “low art” of graffiti with the “high message” of social commentary. The tension created by the meaningfulness of his message in an ephemeral media that can be covered over at any time gives greater meaning and attention to his work that otherwise wouldn’t exist. This tension reached a peak in October 2018 when a framed version of The Girl and Balloon was shredded after being auctioned off. Beautifully, this stunt elevates his message to fine art while retaining the authenticity of its original values as unpretentious and temporary street art intended for the common person.

So, just jump in and start making connections between two things that don’t normally belong together. When you’re with a group, it can kind of become like a game. Who can come up with the most surprising or funny combination? In this way, mashups also help us overcome the fear of modifying or changing designs that we might otherwise think of as finished or sacred.

Pro-tip: If you throw out a potential mashup idea and the rest of your group responds with laughter, you might seriously be on to a good idea. People often laugh when they notice a sudden collision of two unexpected themes. This can be in the form a comedian’s punchline, or in the realization that some otherwise ridiculous idea has a hint of potential. So when the whole team laughs like it’s a joke, explore that idea further.

Where a mashup is combining two related things, an analog is drawing a relationship between two unrelated things.

Here’s why analogs work. They cut out the excess explanations, and go right to the meat using common knowledge. Everyone understands, without a long-winded explanation.

So, let’s start from scratch. Let’s saying buying a lego set is like buying groceries. And since, according to recent surveys, buying lego sets is a more pleasurable experience than buying groceries, let’s see how we can think about how buying groceries could be more like buying a lego set.

On the trip home from the store a young child’s imagination is lit up with possibility and when they get home they are eager and to play and build. If we made preparing and eating healthy food that easy and exciting, then maybe people would cook from scratch more often. I hear you screaming “Meal kits! Blue Apron and HelloFresh already found the grocery analog for Lego sets!” But have they?

I would argue the real genius of a Lego set is the flexibility. Part of the excitement of a Lego set is a child knowing she can build something bigger and cooler by not following the directions exactly and altering the set using the blocks she already has at home. Blue Apron and HelloFresh aren’t that flexible (yet). And thus, an idea! The result of this analog.

De Mestral took a solution that existed in nature and applied it to create the first hook-and-loop fastener.

Finally, when you’re really trying to brainstorm ideas, sometimes the most useful analogs are in nature. For example, by leveraging biomimicry, we can take problems nature has already solved, and then use those solutions to help solve our own problems.

As Karen Sullivan, Architect & LEED AP at VIA Design, Ltd. explains, velcro was actually inspired by nature. “Nature is already locally attuned and adapted with really eloquent solutions all around us,” she points out. For example, George de Mestral noticed how burrs stuck to his dog when the two of them went hiking and wondered how he could develop a useful technology that mimicked the burr. De Mestral took a solution that existed in nature and applied it to create the first hook-and-loop fastener—finding a problem for an existing solution. As designers we can also work the other way, defining our problems and asking ourselves how might nature solve this problem?

Analogs perhaps require a bit more attention than mash-ups, but they allow you to really sink your teeth into a problem, and consider the issues with helpful, and maybe, unlikely comparisons.

Sometimes the problems can seem like trying to cut through a giant slab of granite. You’re unsure where to start—and you might be concerned about making a mess of everything. Using tools like mashups and analogs can help you get a blueprint started, and help you map out the areas where you can have the most impact with design thinking.

How can you question reality today?

Jason Walley
Senior Designer
Published: 03.11.19