The Art of Invention: The Creative Process of Discovery and Design

The Art of Invention: The Creative Process of Discovery and Design

by Steven J. Paley

ISBN: 9781616142230

Publisher Prometheus Books

Published in Arts & Photography/Design & Decorative Arts

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Sample Chapter


What does it take to invent? How do you invent something—create something that didn't exist before you brought it into the world? How do people come up with great ideas?

What Makes a Great Idea Great?

Let's start by looking at an example of a great idea—the paper clip. What makes the paper clip such a great invention? First, it solves a significant and obvious problem: temporarily holding sheets of paper together without deforming them in any way. Before the advent of computers and electronic communication, paper was, and arguably still is, the primary means of written communication. A simple way to hold together sheaves of paper was a significant need for anyone who dealt in written documents. The fact that this method—unlike stapling, pinning, or binding—was temporary provided another valuable feature in that papers could be easily reordered, added, or removed from the bound stack. While all this is nice, it still doesn't explain what is so intriguing about the simple paper clip.

Let's look at the paper clip in terms of what it can do. My first assignment in engineering school was to find fifty uses for a paper clip outside its intended use. This was not very difficult. Some of the more creative uses I have seen include a device to pick locks, a linkage to fix a broken automobile transmission, and a heated knife to sculpt foam. This simple invention provides the germ of many more inventions. That we can do so many things with something so simple begins to show why the paper clip is such a great invention.

Is it hard to make? Is it costly? The paper clip is simple in design, materials, and manufacture. It is merely a piece of extruded metal wire with three bends. And yet it can be used to do so many things.

Let's look at some of the characteristics of the paper clip as an invention.

1. Simplicity. The paper clip is an extremely simple solution to the problem of temporarily holding sheaves of papers together.

2. Adaptability. The paper clip's simplicity gives it flexibility in use that can be adapted to variation. Whether you want to bind two sheets of paper or twenty, the paper clip can be bent to accommodate the need.

3. Ease of use. The paper clip is easy and intuitive to use. No instruction manual is needed. It is obvious what to do with it. Its obviousness comes from its multisensory appeal. One can figure out how to use it by sight or by feel.

4. Robustness. The paper clip always works. Its simplicity ensures that failure will be rare. A user can determine immediately by sight whether a particular clip is likely to fail.

5. Unintended functionality. The fifty other things to do with a paper clip are an added bonus. Simplicity often leads to universality. The paper clip is merely a bent piece of wire, and there are many things that can be done with a piece of wire. Perhaps this is the genius of the design: that we can do so much with so little is what makes this an exceptional invention.

6. Elegance. Elegance is a combination of the above characteristics. Elegance means achieving a task by doing a lot with just a little. Elegance in design or invention means solving a problem in a very simple yet comprehensive manner.

The attributes above can be encapsulated in my personal design mantra. The goal of any design is to be simple, elegant, and robust. This applies to complex inventions and designs as well. No matter if I am designing a shoelace nib or a nuclear power plant, the simple, elegant, and robust guidelines apply. Addressing the seeming paradox of making complex things simple, Albert Einstein, a man who more than dabbled in complex things, is reputed to have famously said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Even in developing complex theories of the workings of the universe, Einstein strove to be as simple as possible. As he also said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction."

The ideas of simplicity, elegance, and robustness apply both to invention and to its close cousin, design. As we will see in the following chapters, inventions that fit these criteria are often considered the most profound and successful.

The History of the Paper Clip

Who invented the paper clip, and how did he come up with this great idea? There was not one individual who had an "aha!" moment and invented the paper clip as we know it today. The original embodiment is thought to go back to Byzantine times, when a form of the paper clip was fashioned from brass to hold together very important documents. Unlike today's paper clips, these were not inexpensive, mass-produced throwaways. The wire paper clip was first patented in 1867 by Samuel B. Fay, whose intention was to create a device that would hold tickets to fabric. However, he noted in his patent application that his clip could also be used to hold papers together. The popularity of such clips for holding papers together soon overtook Fay's original interest in clipping price tags or laundry tickets to clothing. A patent for another paper clip design was issued in 1877, and patent applications for several more designs were filed in 1896 and for several years thereafter. By the 1890s, paper clips were commonly used in business offices. The March 1900 issue of Business commented that "[t}he wire clip for holding office papers together has entirely superseded the use of the pin in all up-to-date offices."'

Several interesting things emerge from looking at the question of how Fay came up with this invention. First, the original invention was designed to solve a much narrower problem than the one it actually solved. The inventor did not recognize the potential of his invention. This is commonly the case. An inventor looks to solve one problem and inadvertently solves a much larger one. There are many examples of this in the history of invention. The inventor of chewing gum, for instance, was originally trying to develop synthetic rubber from chicle sap. Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, was trying to develop an alternative to shellac for insulating electrical wires.

Second, we can see that inventions evolve. Inventors are still searching for means to improve the paper clip. They identify problems with what seems to be a mature design and try to find novel improvements. The initial idea is repeatedly modified and refined until the change reaches a point of diminishing improvement. Even after that point was supposedly reached and paper clip design seemed to have reached an ideal, multicolored plastic-coated paper clips were introduced as a new variation on a theme. This is an example of looking at an invention from a different perspective and seeing how it can be refined.

Finally, and very importantly, invention depends on technology. The paper clip could not have been invented and popularized fifty years earlier. Its design and mass production required inexpensive steel wire and machines that could cheaply, rapidly, and efficiently cut and bend it into useful shapes.

Without the technology to inexpensively mass-produce paper clips, they would have remained a novelty item. Technology not only makes invention possible, it makes it relevant. In our time, the technology of the personal computer created an entire industry of application software. Had computers never progressed beyond large expensive mainframes, this industry would not have been born.

What's the Problem?

The more specific and well defined the problem, the clearer the solution. If my problem statement is "I want to create an end to war," it will be very difficult to generate a clear and realistic solution. If my problem is "I want to develop a means of attaching a ticket to fabric," then solutions are easier to visualize. Constraints help to produce creative solutions. Boundaries provide clarity to the thought process. To invent, we need to think about the very specific problem we are solving. Paradoxically, the more sharply our problem is defined, the more room we have to dream up wild ideas.

As with any rule, there is a caveat to this one. Not every great invention was inspired by a problem. Sometimes, incredible inventions were created by luck or by chance or by "just fooling around." The problem solved was only discovered afterward. Chewing gum, mentioned previously, is an example of this. What prompted the inventor, Thomas Adams, to put a piece of his synthetic rubber product in his mouth? Boredom? Frustration? An instinctive desire to chew something soft and gooey? The genius here comes not in the invention, per se, but in realizing the nature of the "problem" that could be solved.

For most of us, as we proceed along the path to invent, the problem we want to solve will come first. Our challenge is to define the problem in a way that gives us a very specific and clear target to aim for but does not exclude possible solutions by its specificity. Let's look at some examples.

I sometimes give my students the following scenario and ask them to come up with solutions:

There is a serious problem at the county zoo. It seems that the elephants are getting too many cavities in their teeth. Your team is hired by the zoo to develop a way to prevent the elephants from developing so many cavities.

The teams go to work and, inevitably, they all come up with some kind of mechanical device to brush teeth. Of course, this is a solution to the problem. But the problem statement is broad enough to allow for many other—perhaps better—solutions as well, such as fluoridating the water or changing the elephants' diet.

Had the problem been defined as "Design a toothbrush for elephants," it would be a different problem.

Here's the rub: "Design a toothbrush for elephants" is a very clear and specific problem statement. I know exactly how to proceed; the rest is engineering. Within the constraint of making a toothbrush for elephants, I can do some very inventive engineering, but in the end, it will still be a toothbrush. The problem of preventing elephants from getting cavities gives way to a much greater variety of solutions. Imagine for a moment a team of biologists, chemists, and engineers attacking this problem at the beginning of the twentieth century. Let's say they were broad-minded and looked for nonobvious solutions. Perhaps they stumbled on the relationship between diet and tooth decay. Clearly, this discovery would have had a huge impact that went well beyond elephants.

We need to define our problem with great detail and specificity in order to create a clear picture in our minds of what needs to be solved. However, we do not want to limit possible solutions in the problem statement, nor do we want to suggest the solution in the problem statement. "Design a metal clip to attach a ticket to a piece of fabric" is an engineering problem. "Design a way to attach a ticket to a piece of fabric" opens up a whole new range of possibilities. However, this could be improved by adding constraints. "Design a low-cost ($0.10 or less) method to securely but nonpermanently attach a ticket to a piece of fabric" provides a clearer picture of the problem to be solved. By using the words method or way instead of clip, we don't solve the problem in the problem statement, thereby limiting possibilities. By using the constraints of low-cost and securely but nonpermanently, we set up clear boundaries for our solution.

Michelangelo's masterpiece statue David is a prime example of using constraints to enhance a creative solution. The story goes that a statue of the biblical hero David was originally commissioned and begun twenty-five years before Michelangelo was approached. The giant block of marble was already chiseled in many areas by the original artist, who discontinued his work partway through. The partially cut block then sat exposed to the elements for a quarter of a century during which it suffered additional erosion. When Michelangelo accepted the commission to finish the statue, he used all these constraints to his advantage, fashioning his powerful image of David out of this partially hewn and damaged block. He created tension in stone—a David on the verge of confronting Goliath. Had Michelangelo started from a pristine block of marble without these constraints, would this masterpiece have come into existence?

Is It the Right Problem?

It is worth spending time to truly understand the problem that needs to be solved before trying to generate solutions. As with a military engagement, it is essential to get "the lay of the land" before coming up with a strategy. Many times the problem you think you have turns out to be something else entirely. Sometimes, the problem you are trying to solve doesn't even exist.

In his book Conceptual Blockbusting, James Adams describes an attempt to design a device to retard or damp the opening of solar panels on the Mars Mariner IV spacecraft. The solar panels were designed to open in space, where there is no air. Engineers were concerned that the force of opening—with no opposing force to damp or slow the panels—would damage the fragile solar cells. Therefore, the problem was understood to be "Develop a mechanism to retard the opening force of solar panels so they are not damaged during deployment." The engineering team created several solutions to this problem, but none proved satisfactory. Finally, with time running out and the launch imminent, the engineering team went into full panic mode. Working twenty-four hours a day at great expense, the engineers struggled to make the damper more reliable, while measuring the effects on the delicate solar panels of all the various ways the damper might fail. One of the tests assumed that the damper would fail completely and that there would be nothing to slow the opening of the solar panels. To their amazement, the engineers found that even a complete failure of the damper did not lead to an unacceptable risk of damage to the solar panels. It was only necessary to provide a shock absorber that would cushion the panels as they snapped into position. Adams concluded, "The retarders were not, in fact, necessary at all."

The assumption that the solar panels would be damaged upon opening generated a faulty problem statement. Once the problem was initially stated, the engineers proceeded to seek a solution. Only the fact that a satisfactory solution eluded them led the team to discover that the problem they were solving didn't really exist.

Often, due to time or monetary pressures, problems are presented and not questioned. Whether you come up with an initial problem statement or the problem is given to you with the instruction to solve it, your job as the inventor is to pause and ask the important question: Is this the right problem? Other questions follow: Yes, I see that there is a problem here, but is it the true problem? Is the problem statement too broad or too narrow? Is the problem statement too suggestive of a solution? Are the constraints well defined? Is the context understood?

Reframing the Problem

The process of examining and restating a problem is often a greater creative act than determining the solution. As Jeff Bezos, founder of remarked, "The significance of an invention isn't how hard it is to copy, but how it reframes the problem in a new way." Reframing a problem can lead to an entirely different perspective on how to solve it. The idea of reframing a problem is analogous to reframing a picture. When you change the frame on a picture, you view it in a different way—even though it is the same picture. When you reframe a problem, you look at it differently. For example, the difference between the problem statement "Design a bridge" and "Design a method for crossing the river" is immense. The inventor needs to spend time understanding all the dimensions of the problem he seeks to solve before beginning to contemplate solutions. Invention is the right solution to the right problem.


Excerpted from "The Art of Invention: The Creative Process of Discovery and Design" by Steven J. Paley. Copyright © 0 by Steven J. Paley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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