Making connections is a creative process

Where do you start when there are too many things to say, organize, write, explain? Which starting point ensures the best route through all the stages? Any point is ok if we consider those things significant, as they are implicitly connected by our own network of meanings. So there will be no risk of losing any on the way, we can interchangeably switch between them. And if we forget one, it probably was not so important.

The possible connections between things are potentially endless. Let’s look at this image (copied by an illustrious master I will soon reveal) as a visual metaphor. In how many ways, with how many shapes can we connect the red dots?

Of course, if there were more points, the number of possible connections would increase. But the real question is: could a larger number of points help us to create connections? In other words: is the quantity of points (or initial data) a relevant variable for our ability to create relations between them?

The French matematician Henri Poincaré defined creativity as the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations. Thus, the question could also be as follows: does the quantity of starting elements influence the quality of the creative process? As educators interested in the development of creativity, do we wonder about the quantity of stimuli we present to children?

We could also use this graphical tool to visualize the underlying relational patterns of a group. An image can often help us to focus on some aspects of which we were not fully aware: for example, the existence of subgroups, an isolated element, the closure or opening of the structure towards the outside… The representations of the group made by its members will probably be different from each other: common denominators may emerge, as well as individual specificities.

Since these are images, we should not forget the importance of their visual characteristics, of the tools we use for design them. The color, the shapes, the type of line, the disposition and proportions in space: all these features evoke some qualities of the connective structure. Do you see thin, flickering threads traced with a pencil or the strong, massive sign of a permanent marker? A thick and intricate network of angular lines or fluid overlapping areas of watercolor?

Each person will find a different way to connect the same points: in other words, considering the same set of things (or the same items of a problem as well), everyone will “see” different connective shapes. What better metaphor for reminding us that our vision is not the only possible one but one among many possibilities? How does our representation relate to the other ones?

Now it’s time to reveal the author that inspired me these thoughts with his work: “Flight of fancy” is a small, light, precious book by Bruno Munari, published by Corraini Edizioni. The cover of the book has got some pierced points so that readers can continue the game over and over.

In his book “Fantasia”, Bruno Munari develops a similar exploration with a leaf, trying to make its hidden relationships visible, as you can see in his drawing below.

Starting from the tracing of an oak leaf, Munari drew its outline and got out of it a pattern made up of dots. Then he has connected these points in many different ways, creating different relationships between them.

Everyone will find their own shapes but always in relation to the leaf.

We could play the same connection-game with many shapes. For example, the graphic designer Serena Moundrouvalis created a template of starting points for inventing stars. The possible variations are infinite!

Could we apply the same awarness and research of connections in different fields than the visual one? Through some illustrated cards, called Metafore della conoscenza, Donata Fabbri and Alberto Munari (the son of Bruno Munari) invite us to discover the visual metaphors through which we organize and connect our thoughts: is it a labyrinth? Or a tree? A palace full of rooms? How is the visual representation connected to our way of thinking?

Another suitable field for playing with this “connections-game” is the story-telling and the narrative thinking, as connections between characters, things, places form the essence of every story.

This reminds me something I loved to do when I was a child. I cut out figures from magazines and put them in a bag. When I wanted to play, I randomly took out one at a time, put it on the table and gradually invent a story. I think I was designing ever-changing connections between those figures.

It works not only with cutout figures but also with every kind of objects and stuff, like fabrics, leaves, tickets, material fragments, memories, or even words. For example, how could you give value to some pieces of paper as they were precious remains and then combine them for inventing a story?

What other ways of creating connections do you know and use? You are welcome to share for enriching this list… The more connections we can create the more we can choose. Even when the elements we have seem to be few or not interesting, it is the quality of the relationship that can make a difference.

Pencil-flowers and creative thinking

When can a process be defined “creative”? What does it mean “to be creative”? It is a very complex subject and there are several definitions. I have chosen one I like. The French mathematician Henry Poincaré defined creativity as “the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations”. This means that a creative result establishes a useful link between elements that were already known before but apparently unrelated.
It often happens that we can not choose the starting elements, we just have them; but – according to Poincaré – this does not limit our creativity, as it comes from the quality of the relations: from the way to put together the elements rather than from the elements themselves.
Let’s see how this theory can be applied to a concrete example from my work. Many years ago, I was asked to project a workshop in a public library. Of course, there were some established conditions I had to consider: the workshop was supposed to last about one hour, for children from 6 to 10 years old, celebrating the library’s birthday and using simple stationery or recycled materials (paper, fabric, plastic bottles, pensils, markers, scissors, glue). Moreover, we had a large amount of pencils available (thanks to a sponsor).


Starting from these initial elements, the workshop idea I found was a “writing-flower”, built with a pencil and paper or fabric petals. It was also possible to cut and paste words from photocopied papers with poems, that were placed in some carboard trees (you can see these trees in the post “Technique or imagination?” clicking here). At the end of the workhop, children could give some of the flowers to the library users as an unexpected gift.

The writing-flower holds together all the initial conditions in a useful and pleasant way: it exploites the materials’ potential, it is appropriate to the age of the children and to the duration of the workshop, connected to the specific place of the library (as it concerns writing) and to its birthday, as flowers are typical gift-objects.
How did this idea originate? It was not a sudden inspiration but formed through the observation of the initial elements, that suggested which solutions were possible and which not, which one fitted better to all the conditions.
For example, we had a lot of pencils: what does a pencil suggest by its shape? Or thinking about the library’s birthday: what kind of object could be preferably used as a gift for a birthday’s celebration?
If an idea does not meet all the conditions, it has to be discarded, even if sometimes it is not easy to leave it.

The choice of how to present materials is an important part of the project. In this case, I chose to make available pre-cut shapes because we had a short time, so I preferred to simplify the construction and focus on composition, formal or chromatic choices, combinations of different flowers.

The worshop went well and they asked me another one, with the same theme but a bit different. I designed other pencil-flowers using another recycled material: plastic bottles. If you are interested in, have a look to the post “The grammar of plastic bottles” clicking here.
Finally, I think that the design process of this workshop can be defined “creative”. Nevertheless, was the workshop a creative experience itself for the children (according to the initial definition)? I think that in the flowers’ construction creativity had a relatively small component, as well as there was a small margin of choice (concerning colours, shapes and sequences of petals). After all, the aim of the laboratory was not the development of creativity and children enjoyed the experience very much.

writing flowers workshop

So I think that an handmade or artistic activity is not necessarily “creative” (it is a common stereotyped idea). Of course, it is important to share the same definition of creativity as well.

Some years later, it happened that I proposed a workshop about pencil-flowers in a very different context, where the partecipants were asked to develop a more creative process. In that case, we had a longer available time and the theme of “words” was not connected to the context. I invited the partecipants to explore different kind of paper in order to create different shapes of flowers. We used colored pencils, so that the color itself could inspire a certain kind of flower.

Coming back to the initial definition of creativity (as the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations), there is something Poincaré discovered about it that surprised me very much: the intuitive criterion to recognize the usefulness of the elements’ combination is its beauty. In other words: the most useful idea is also the most beautiful.

Isn’t it amazing?

Enjoy it and have good creative processes!

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