Ways of working

Redesigning the paperclip


The Alternative Uses Test was developed by J.P. Guilford in 1967. It’s an exercise that expands your creativity by giving you two minutes to think of as many other possible uses for an everyday objects like a chair, coffee mug, or brick. I love it.

My first experience of it was with a paperclip while at university. I found myself fighting my desire to categorise, place things in boxes and to think for efficiency’s sake. But once I could see past the name of object and the purpose it had been assigned, a whole world of possibility opened up.

Initially my brain wanted to find other similar uses – what else could a paper clip hold?

But letting go allowed me to explore the object more objectively and freed me up to think more fluidly.

What helped was to strip the paperclip back to the bare essentials – material, format, shape, malleability. A paperclip after all is just a flexible piece of metallic wire, shaped by someone into a form which then can be used to hold paper.

My memory is fuzzy 6 years on but I can recall creating a mini trombone, a ring and a simcard remover

I still find the exercise profoundly useful when tackling design briefs, coming back to only what’s there and working from that. It’s challenging but starting from scratch, and creatively analysing the bare essentials, gives you a much better understanding of a brief and its potential outcomes.

A recent project for the British Science Association required us to bring a series of essays exploring science’s role in culture and society to life using only a circle. And a black or white circle at that.

There were complex issues to communicate but the overarching aim was to make the content accessible, relevant and engaging. Each essay communicated a different idea that needed to be visualised using circles. The challenge was to use the circle on its own and with others to create something new and relevant every time. And ultimately create an animation to support the overarching theme.

One circle, no colours, no fancy type and a whole heap of stories to tell. I really enjoyed it, it was a really rewarding project and for me, creativity at its purest.

Pick up an everyday object and get thinking. There is a world of possibility.