Think outside the box, they said. You’ll be more creative, they said. We’re not really sure who “they” is per se, but we do know “they” may have been holding out on us. According to new research published in Design Studies, inside the box holds a source of creativity, too.

While researchers revealed focusing on unrelated concepts and ideas to “get the creative juices flowing,” is beneficial, it’s not always conducive to the problem at hand. "For people needing fresh inspiration for a problem, these findings imply that you shouldn't just go off and talk to random people or read things totally unrelated to your problem," Dr. Joel Chan, lead study author and postdoctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, said in a press release. "These might yield novel ideas, but not necessarily … useful and novel ideas."

Chan arrived at this conclusion after analyzing hundreds of design concepts from OpenIDEO, a web-based innovation platform that tracks connections to sources of inspiration. He found that citing sources generated greater creativity, but the closer the source of creativity, the better. Put another way: building upon an existing idea more closely related to the problem was beneficial. Not only that, but these ideas were selected more often.

When the data had been collected, Chan and his team entered it into an algorithm in order to determine if the creativity was sourced near (“inside the box”) or far (“outside the box”). And this algorithm can be used in other instances to determine how “near” a person’s idea is. “This inverse relationship between conceptual distance and design creativity is robust across different design problems on the platform,” Chan explained. “In light of these findings, we revisit theories of design inspiration and creative cognition.”

What’s particularly interesting about Chan’s research is that it applies to a variety of problems. Those participating in OpenIDEO were trying to come up with creative solutions for problems, like preventing human rights violations and improving employment prospects for young people. Chan purposefully took this into account in order to see if there is a consistent pattern; there is. All this to say there’s no right way to come up with great ideas.

There are also box-free ways to get creative. Science has proven exercise, art therapy, a clean desk environment, and daydreaming all help to foster great ideas. 

Source: Chan J, Dow SP, Schunn CD. Do the best design ideas (really) come from conceptually distant sources of inspiration? Design Studies. 2014.