The Rules of Genius
Rule #1: Break the rules.

You’ve probably heard that it’s unwise to break the rules until you know how to use them. You’ve probably also heard the opposite—there are no rules—it’s the job of innovators to disregard convention. Which of these is true?

 
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Rule #2: Wish for what you want

Wishing is a warm-up sketch for problem solving. When you let your mind wander across the blank page of possibilities, all constraints and preconceptions disappear, leaving only the trace of a barely glimpsed dream, the merest hint of a sketch of an idea.

 
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Rule #3: Feel before you think

Don’t jump into planning as soon as you’ve sighted a goal. Learn to be still and listen. Pay attention to the nagging voice. The uneasy stomach. The barely felt longing. Your subject may have something to tell you.

 
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Rule #4: See what’s not there

One of the skills that separates a leader from a follower is the ability to see what might be, but so far isn’t. Most people can see what’s already there. You don’t need magic glasses to see that the Eiffel Tower is a popular tourist destination, or that the area of a rectangle is the…

 
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Rule #5: Ask a bigger question

Figure out what type of problem you’re solving. Is it a simple problem? A complex problem? A structural problem? A communication problem? A technology problem? A political problem? A design problem? A budgetary problem? A leadership problem? Unless you know what type of problem you’re solving, your solution will be wrong, no matter how well…

 
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Rule #6: Frame problems tightly

There’s a widespread myth that genius needs a large canvas. Yet every creative person knows this to be untrue. Too much freedom can lead to mediocrity. Why? Because without boundaries there’s no incentive to break through them. A real genius has no difficulty redefining a brief or defying convention. It’s second nature. But give a…

 
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Rule #7: Think whole thoughts

The human mind loves either/or choices. We prefer a choice of A or B. Yes or no. Chicken or beef. Simple choices give us a feeling of control, while open-ended choices give us a feeling of unease. Therefore we’d rather choose between than among.

 
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Rule #8: Stay in the dragon pit

The “dragon pit” is the gap between what is and what could be. It’s a space filled with discomfort, darkness, and doubt. Most people would rather grab the first rope thrown to them—what is—rather than stay and fight the dragons guarding what could be. But what could be is where the ideas are. A genius…

 
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Rule #9: Approach answers obliquely

The hallmark of innovation is surprise. No surprise, nothing new. Nothing new, no interest. No interest, no value. Therefore, creating surprise is a crucial step in creating value through innovation.

 
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Rule #10: Wait for the jolt

When the right idea comes along, your emotional brain sends a signal to the rest of your body. It’s a tingle, a flash, or a jolt that tells you something remarkable has happened. Suddenly the world reels, a thousand gears snap into place, and the long-hidden answer appears, shimmering, before your disbelieving eyes. Developing a…

 
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Rule #11: Use beauty as a yardstick

The world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and artists agree: If an idea isn’t beautiful, it’s probably not innovative. They’re putting a special spin on the word beautiful by defining beauty as a quality of wholeness, or harmony, that generates pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction. A beautiful idea is often a great idea.

 
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Rule #12: Design quickly, decide slowly

The first eleven rules were concerned with getting the right idea. The next fourteen are concerned with getting the idea right. This is the work of bending, shaping, and polishing your idea so it aligns with its purpose. This is the point at which you go from thinker to maker.

 
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Rule #13: Use a linear process for static elements

The starting point for choosing a process is understanding what kind of system you’re dealing with. Is it simple or complex? Are the elements static and unchanging or dynamic and unpredictable?

 
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Rule #14: Use a dynamic process for reactive elements

Complex problems are dynamic. They don’t hold still while you work on them. The traditional approach is to address a complex problem as if it were a simple problem, breaking it into discrete steps that can be executed one at a time. Too often the result was 1) a solution that didn’t address the real…

 
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Rule #15: Work to an appropriate structure

Every design has its own order. The job of the genius is to discover it. The best approach is to start with a logical structure, then deviate from it according to your needs, your skills, and the particular demands of your project.

 
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Rule #16: Express related elements in a similar manner

The principle of grouping brings clarity to any design by signaling the purpose of each element. Related elements should look alike, and unrelated elements should look different.

 
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Rule #17: Match form to function, function to form

Form doesn’t always follow function. Sometimes it works the other way around. The rule is simply this: form and function should be inseparable. When the shape of something matches its intended purpose, the marriage seems inevitable, as if no other combination could exist. This is the rightness component of beauty, the quality that sends clear…

 
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Rule #18: Don’t be boring

The most common killer of a great idea is dull execution. Boredom interferes with understanding. It lets the mind wander as it searches for something to care about. It fails to engage the emotions of the audience, turning their experience into a tedious intellectual exercise.

 
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Rule #19: Put the surprise where you want the attention

The rule for surprise is this: Direct the most attention to the most important part of your idea. Don’t sprinkle surprise around randomly, or the result will be scattered attention and a loss of focus.

 
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Rule #20: Apply aesthetics deliberately

Aesthetics is a collection of tools used to create and appreciate beauty, such as shape, rhythm, contrast, scale, color, and texture. Most creative people have a natural affinity for aesthetics, learning through experience the various tricks and techniques that produce the effects they’re looking for. They often apply these techniques unconsciously, without ever using the…

 
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Rule #21: Visualize with sketches, models, or prototypes

Our intuitive responses to new problems don’t always work. When you move directly from knowing to doing something, you can easily find that your response is inadequate, off-target, or wrong. This is because what worked for one problem doesn’t always work for another.

 
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Rule #22: Embrace messiness

It’s almost impossible to reconcile creativity with cleanliness. The sculptor gets metal dust all over his studio. The writer must wade through a clutter of notes, books, and crumpled drafts to get to her desk. The rock musician must weave through a tangle of cables, black boxes, guitar stands, and song notes to sit down…

 
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Rule #23: Test your ideas in realistic situations

Question: How can you predict whether an idea will survive in the real world? Answer: Test it in the real world. Many entrepreneurs believe you can’t test new ideas. The reason they give is that people can’t predict what they’ll buy or endorse. While this is mostly true, what the entrepreneurs forget is that new…

 
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Rule #24: Simplify

People tend to view simplicity and complexity as opposites. But this isn’t strictly true. The enemy of simplicity isn’t complexity, but disorder. And the enemy of complexity is also disorder. While complexity seeks order through addition, simplicity seeks it through subtraction.

 
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Rule #25: Learn how to learn

Learning to learn is a metaskill—a skill applied to itself. It multiplies your knowledge and accelerates your progress. When you learn to be your own teacher, you can acquire any skill you put your mind to. You can quickly build a new skill on the roof of the last one. You can move laterally from…

 
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Rule #26: Start with curiosity, not belief

Ideology is toxic to learning. As soon as you begin to believe something, the spirit of inquiry dies. If you believe that climate change is unrelated to human activity, there’s no reason to change your behavior. If you believe that new technology is always beneficial, there’s no reason to question it. If you believe your…

 
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Rule #27: Do your own projects

Something happens when you work on challenges of your own choosing. Your mind becomes magnetized. It starts to attract little bits of information that can help you solve your problem or complete your project. While a magnetized mind can occur with any kind of challenge, the effect is strongest when the challenge rises from your…

 
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Rule #28: Keep a hero file

Students in creative disciplines sometimes worry that they might lose their personal style if they allow themselves to be influenced by teachers, practitioners, or other students. They reason that imitation is the enemy of innovation. They believe that if the unique talent they need isn’t there already, it never will be.

 
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Rule #29: Invest in your originality

The ability to produce original work is a rare and valuable asset. It lies at the heart of innovation, strategic differentiation, and societal progress. It imparts a quality of “never-before-ness” that can command attention, fill voids, and create wealth. By definition, you can’t be original by copying an original. You have to start from a…

 
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Rule #30: Learn strategically

You can learn anything, but you can’t learn everything. Be careful what you take into your brain-attic, since there’s only so much room up there. Pick your subjects with a sense of purpose.

 
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Rule #31: Shore up your weaknesses

There are two contradictory schools of thought on developing skills. The first is to build on your strengths and forget about your weaknesses. The second is to strengthen your weaknesses until your report card is all As. Unfortunately, both schools of thought fail to nurture your inner genius.

 
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Rule #32: Spend long hours in the joy zone

When your work contains an element of joy, you learn faster. This is called ludic learning, or learning by playing. What makes it so effective is the space it allows for positive emotions. Emotions drive attention, and attention drives learning. Physiologically, creative play releases endorphins, tiny molecules that put you in a good mood. When…

 
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Rule #33: Make educational mistakes

In the realm of creativity, mistakes aren’t mistakes. They’re clues. Each one reveals a part of the mystery you’re trying to solve.

 
The Rules of Genius
Rule #34: Seek instructive criticism

When you’re working in creative mode, you’re more likely to be imaginative and intuitive. But you’re also more likely to make logic errors. Switching back and forth between creative mode and critical mode is difficult, since it requires considerable mental and emotional effort. The best cure for logic blindness is to seek regular feedback from…

 
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Rule #35: Fuel your passion

Creativity doesn’t respond to time management so much as passion management. Passion—the deep excitement you feel about your subject, your project, your profession—is the engine of creative genius. While you only get a certain amount of time in each day, you can expand your passion nearly without limit. You can pump it up, stretch it…

 
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Rule #36: Develop an authentic style

Everyone has a personal style of working, but not everyone has a “good style.” Good style grows out of good taste—an appreciation of the way aesthetic principles determine beauty. Think of your taste as an ability to recognize what’s beautiful, and your style as the way you apply your taste. Personal style is unique by…

 
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Now out! THE handbook for design thinking.

Our Director of Transformation, Marty Neumeier, has done it again: He’s taken an extremely complex subject—creativity—and compressed it into a very simple book marked by Marty’s trademark simplicity and wit. The project started as a weekly blog series, but drew so much attention that the publishers at Peachpit turned it into a book. “The 46…