Improvising Everyday Uses:

Creative Mindsets and Design Heuristics on Idea Generation


Idea generation is the essence of design as everyday problem solving. Generating ideas can be a matter of life and death or simply a distraction from our normal existence. The eureka moment also means that sometimes people improvise and repurpose whatever is at hand to solve their own problems. As a consequence, a chair becomes a bookshelf; a shoelace can be used to stop bleeding. Generating alternative uses for common household objects should be facilitated by generating alternative situations in which improvisational design might be needed. One way to encourage as many alternative ideas as possible is to think through heuristics of discovery. A number of directions have emerged concerning what can be used as good design heuristics to trigger creative mindsets. Does “walking away from the problem” or “letting the mind wander” really help generate a greater number of alternative ideas? How might shifting a perspective activate proper associative processing and enhance creative performance? Prior studies in generating novel uses often directed people to focus on objects, situations, and events, or to switch between a different time or space. One plausible method yet to be studied systematically, however, is for participants to think of different roles people can take in a society, such as chef, physician, mechanic, athlete, and so on.


This dissertation research sets out to uncover certain creative mindsets and potential design heuristics that promote alternative solutions to problems ordinary people encounter in daily life. The studies conducted for this dissertation particularly focus on two mindset conditions: the mind-wandering group was manipulated to “let things come to your mind” and the human-centric group was manipulated to “think of different roles,” both conditions representing widespread beliefs among professional designers about generating ideas. In two online experiments, participants were asked to generate as many alternative uses of common household objects as they could using either the mind- wandering or the human-centric mindsets triggered by different search heuristics. Study 1 had a control group and names of objects. Study 2 presented pictures of objects to half the participants and names of objects to the other half. The dependent variables were the fluency of ideas, the originality of ideas, the diversity of assignable roles and the response time between ideas.


Results in both studies support the effectiveness of thinking of different roles in the human-centric mindset condition in increasing the fluency of alternative uses and the originality of ideas. Participants given no particular search strategy frequently reported that they tended to have things come to their minds, but they didn’t differ from the mind- wandering mindset group and were outperformed by those using the human-centric mindset strategy. Furthermore, seeing pictures didn’t necessarily give either mindset group the edge in generating more uses and more original ideas. Presenting the names of objects and providing specific roles with the search heuristics seemed enough to help induce a diversity of roles and hence more alternative uses and more original ideas.


Those who let their minds wander did take longer to generate ideas than those using the focused associations of roles. The general findings in the dissertation are consistent with previous research showing that those who generated more ideas were more likely to generate more original ideas and those who persisted in ideation more frequently produced more original uses. On the whole, this dissertation research provides significant evidence for the heuristics of roles as a powerful perspective shifter to enhance everyday design concepts for human scale.


Chou, Y.J. (2016). Improvising Everyday Uses: Creative Mindsets and Design Heuristics on Idea Generation (Doctoral dissertation).