Creative ideas come when you consider parts of the whole

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas. And arguably the best way to have many ideas is to expand your perspective of the thing or space you’re working with.

You can expand your perspective in a number of ways: by talking with others to hear their ideas and thoughts, by reading perspectives of history, or by adjusting your perspective of any particular thing or circumstance.

Of all the inspirational options available to a creative thinker, it's the last one—of taking the time to expand perspective through attention and imagination—that is easiest for uncovering ideas. All it takes is the willingness to observe and question what’s already in front of you, that’s it.

You can expand your perspective by breaking apart the thing you’re looking at or the space around it, by asking questions or zooming in/out either literally or figuratively. In doing so you open up the possibility of nearly endless ideas because the complexity of any single thing is the sum of its parts and history.

Looking at a wall is straight-forward enough, but changing your perspective to see what the wall is made of, who made it, or its history, means you have a vast library of information to consider when drumming up ideas.

You can look at any thing and consider each of the attributes of it, then go further to consider the attributes of those attributes and so on. A shoe is a shoe until you really look at it and it’s parts. The sole, the shoelaces, the tongue and toe tip. Further into any of those parts continues expanding your perspective of what makes a shoe into a shoe: the fabrics, plastics, and other materials.

Or consider the patterns used for stitching the materials of a shoe together: how do the patterns strengthen or weaken the shoe as a whole? How do the materials interact with each other: is a single, long thread stitched through two parts stronger than many shorter threads? Where might glue have been used? What other materials or patterns could be used for each component? How does changing any of those influence the larger whole?

Such questions are how companies like Nike were able to invent the Flyknit shoe.

Nike looked at the concept of a shoe and began thinking about using high-strength threads sewn using long stitches rather than short ones to shape the bulk of the body. Focusing on threads and long stitches was a novel move in the shoe industry, one that propelled innovation in the company and industry as a whole. An added benefit of relying heavily on the threads and stitches was a decrease in manufacturing costs, less use of materials overall, and the bonus of having the shoe designed around key points of support (something overly rubber or plastic shoes cannot do).

These types of ideas are possible even if you don’t work in the shoe industry, because all you need to do is observe, question, and imagine.

Often a novice will enter an industry and revolutionize it by observing and questioning. It’s how Elon Musk has sparked innovation in electric cars, space transport, and more. It’s the same approach Steve Jobs took to personal computing and Jeff Bezos has taken to online shopping. Even artists such as Olivo Barbieri used this approach to push “tilt-shift” photography into the mainstream.

The way each of these individuals were able to come up with such novel and useful ideas wasn’t through some otherworldly intellect or creative genius. Each merely worked diligently to adjust their perspective of what a thing could be or how it might work, then imagined alternatives. They were able to imagine many different ideas then narrow down to the most useful ones.

In your own life and work you can generate many new ideas by looking at the attributes—the texture, function, parts and components, even history—of any thing, then imagining what would happen if any of them changed. If you replaced something, removed it entirely, or used more of the attribute (like Nike did with their thread-designed shoes).

If you want to have many ideas: don't merely look at a thing or problem in its entirety, instead consider the sums of the whole and how changing any one of them will change the larger parts.