The Element of Surprise
Updated: Apr 18
SURPRISE DELIGHTS US, PLAYS WITH OUT HEADS, de-rails our train of rational thought, throws our expectations and stories about the way things are out the window.
Studies suggest that incorporating an element of the unexpected (something surprising or novel) into messages helps make them stick in people’s memories. (See Making Your Message Stick.) The element of surprise was also famously called “the secret to humor” by Aristotle. A sudden, unexpected twist (or surprise) underlies much of what makes us laugh. Surprise gets our attention, it’s memorable, often funny or ironic, and it stimulates our creative juices.
In his book Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the first step toward a more creative life is to cultivate more interest and curiosity. He writes, “On this score, children tend to have the advantage over adults; their curiosity is like a constant beam that highlights and invests with interest anything within range.” Experiencing the fresh perspectives and insatiable curiosities of youngsters can reawaken us to the large and small wonders of life on earth.
Csikszentmihalyi proposes that interest and curiosity can also be boosted by 1) trying to be surprised by something every day and 2) trying to surprise at least one person every day.
If we deliberately invite more novelty into our daily lives (in the form of playfulness, exploration, adventure, openness, humor, spontaneity, fun), it’s almost sure to generate more of the connections and associations that seed creative ideas. Similarly, cross-pollinating different disciplines and cultures with fresh influences often generates fresh, innovative breakthroughs.
Number 4 on Csikszentmihalyi’s how-to list for cultivating more interest and curiosity? “When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.”
Of course it’s a luxury to have time to pursue one’s interests. For many, basic survival needs preclude any in-depth commitment to a craft or creative direction. “But often the obstacles are internal,” writes Csikszentmihalyi. “If a person is concerned with protecting his or her self, practically all the attention is invested in monitoring threats to the ego.”
Albert Einstein believed that “the most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” If we believe it’s a friendly universe, we need not bind up our time, attention, resources, and psychic energy in defending against others who we think are out to take us down. We can instead spend that energy focusing on what we want, and create positive change for ourselves and our societies.
A sense of safety allows openness, expansiveness, receptivity, attunement to our intuitions, gut feelings, and glimmers of genius.
Once the big idea is hatched, however, there's a need to flip into a more closed, reductive mindset to implement it. The planning and execution is generally reductive: highly focused, defended against distractions, analytical, judging, and detail-oriented. So the creative person must be skilled in both opening the mental gates to receive the input and generate the vision, then closing them to successfully execute the plan.
“Graphic design allows me to use every part of my brain…As designers, we get to do the analysis and the problem-solving. We get to take a blank piece of paper and transform it into something else. Something magical. We get to work with interesting clients. We use our management skills and math skills. Everything.” – Bonnie Siegler
“Design is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.” – Chris Pullman
As a graphic designer, I love walking such a rewarding path, exploring and expressing both my own and my clients’ creativity. I also love the whole brain workouts I get on an almost daily basis. Thanks to my beloved clients, past and present (and future) who may be reading. I value our collaborations for the creative growth potential in each of them.
Wishing you a year full of delightful surprises and creative breakthroughs.