What Is ION Creative Thinking?



This is creativity in a nutshell. It’s not a mysterious force only available to a selected few. It’s a teachable and learnable skill. It’s there to serve you if you embrace it.

If I ask you to imagine an act of creativity, you might picture Steve Jobs’ invention of the iPhone. You might also think of a third grader’s highly detailed (but scientifically inaccurate) blueprint for a teleportation machine. You think of both because the third grader and Steve Jobs share two important traits: Insatiable curiosities and imaginative daydreams. These traits make up a thinking process called outbox thinking, a critical part of creativity. But there is something just as important as outbox thinking that separates the child and Steve Jobs: know-how or expertise. The thinking skills involved in know-how and expertise are called inbox thinking. It is an often overlooked, but foundational, part of creativity. Although inbox thinking doesn’t resemble creative thinking as it’s commonly envisioned, its lack is one of the most common reasons you fail to reach your creative potential.

Inbox Thinking

Children are potential innovators with insatiably curious minds and imaginative dreams. Ask them to describe or draw their dream home, and they’ll enthusiastically share those dreams with you. Ask them to actually construct it, however, and you’ll find they don’t have the building supplies or know-how, much less the trained and critical eye necessary to separate the feasible parts of their dreams from the unfeasible ones. They are driven by curiosities and dreams, but they must develop the whole set of creative thinking skills if they hope to transform their unique ideas into unique and useful realities. This begins with inbox thinking (Figure 1).

Memorization and Comprehension

Inbox thinking is the long and unglamorous process of mastering the useful knowledge and skills that already exist in a field. It does not resemble creativity as most people think of it because it doesn’t involve the creation of anything new. However, if you hope to actually innovate some day and not simply reinvent the wheel, you must learn (memorize and comprehend) what is already known on your chosen topic by studying the available literature and watching and listening to mentors. Think of it as the dreaming child gathering the supplies and learning to use the tools necessary for construction, so she can build her imagined home in the future. Furthermore, just as the builder with an access to many supplies and tools can build more refined dream homes than a builder with a limited tool kit, you must learn a lot about your chosen topic because the mind with deep and thorough knowledge and skills is better prepared to innovate than one with only a cursory understanding.


Once you have acquired knowledge and skills, you must practice applying them. Under the guidance of a mentor, you must use the supplies and tools you gathered to build the homes other people designed and built before you. By following in their footsteps, you learn how past experts combined and grouped the pieces of their knowledge and skills. Once you have mastered using your supplies and tools (knowledge and skills) to create traditional, useful outcomes on your own, you possess expertise. Now that you know what has already been accomplished, your thoughts turn to how you might contribute.

Figure 1. ION: Inbox Thinking

Outbox Thinking

An innovator takes at least ten years to grow from a novice dreamer into an expert. During that time, the open-ended and broad process of imagination, called outbox thinking (Figure 2) expands, changing the inspirations and big ideas behind the innovator’s work. While everyone is capable of outbox thinking, experts can produce a different kind of outbox thinking than non-experts can. For example, novice children might only know gable roofs, so their dream home will probably have a gable roof. Experts who learned about gable roofs to build their dream home might have also learned about mansard roofs and lean-to roofs. The cultivation of expertise allows you to reframe your imagination, ask questions, and generate answers novice children wouldn’t even know are possible. The more extensive your expertise becomes, the more fluid, flexible, and original your imaginative outbox thinking will be, as long as you keep your childlike curiosities and imaginations alive.

Fluid Thinking

Fluid thinking is imagining "many" ideas spontaneously without judgment. After spending so long using inbox thinking to zoom in on useful knowledge and skills, you take pleasure in zooming out and surveying all that you have learned. Fluidity is supported by the depth of your expertise (experts who know roofs in detail can generate a lot of ideas about roofs for their dream home in a hurry). Although your outbox thinking is bolstered by expertise gained from rigorous and (sometimes) unpleasant work, it is not a rigorous and unpleasant process. You must engage your imaginations with your topic in the same playful way you did as a childhood dreamer. Your extensive expertise gives you the feeling that the possibilities for your dream home are limitless. 

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is imagining "different kinds or categories" of ideas. It rests atop your fluid thinking; the more ideas you generate, the more likely some of the ideas will be from completely different sub-categories. It is also supported by a breadth of knowledge and skills (e.g., knowing different techniques and styles of roof building from history and various cultures provides an access to a more varied set of possible roofs than knowledge solely based on contemporary, local roofing).

Original Thinking

Original thinking is "imagining new and unusual" ideas beyond the current knowledge and skills. When you can call upon a very large amount of varied (fluid and flexible) ideas, new ideas suggest themselves. It’s similar to viewing a half drawn blueprint. If you have deep and broad expertise, you can use the existing parts of the design to anticipate what is missing. If you are unafraid, you successfully add your own structural ideas to the plans, thus engaging in original thinking. When you reach this point, you are adding to knowledge rather than drawing from it. The most original outbox thinkers imagine what could be learned in the future, not just what has already been learned. Their ideas are unique and become more unique as time goes on.

Figure 2. ION: Outbox Thinking

Deeper-level Inbox Thinking: Critical Thinking

Although you might think outbox thinking is the apex of innovation, it’s not. At this point, you have engaged in the most broad level, outbox original thinking, and come up with unique ideas, but you aren’t making any choices. You think, “why build this house when that one over there looks so interesting, too? What about the dream park idea? That sounds fascinating!” The list of possibilities is seemingly limitless, and the non-judgmental outbox thinking process cannot identify which unique ideas will be useful or which will be unhelpful and impossible. It is now that you must get back to work. Deeper-level inbox thinking is critical analysis and evaluation (Figure 1). While developing your expertise, you learned about the ideas that have been tried in the past. You’ve seen that certain building materials work in houses but others are better suited for high rises. You know how newer building styles were successfully combined with older ones to make exciting new buildings and how other hybrid constructions buckled under the weight of over complication. In short, you’ve learned the patterns of your field and can make sound predictions about which solutions are best suited for which problems; you know how to analyze and evaluate. When you engage in critical analysis and evaluation, you assume there is one most effective answer for every question. You must possess the expertise to accurately select the criteria that describe the most effective answer. You logically scrutinize the possible solutions against these criteria, speedily zeroing in on which one is best, leaving no room for ambiguity.

When you turn this focused lens on the overwhelming stack of ideas you generated during outbox thinking, you identify which unique ideas hold the promise of being unique and useful and which do not. The outbox question of, “why build this dream home when the one over there looks so interesting too?” becomes the deeper-level inbox thinking question, “which possible dream home will be the best fit for the land I have available to me and the qualities I value most?” The stack of ideas becomes less overwhelming, as certain unique ideas are discarded, and the path toward making that innovation a reality starts to become clear.

Newbox Thinking

As you edge closer to transforming your newly selected, unique and potentially useful ideas into reality, you must use newbox thinking to finish your work (Figure 3). Newbox thinking is the combination of, and continuous movement between, deeper-level inbox critical thinking and outbox thinking skills. It supports the synthesis and transformation of the ideas selected during the inbox critical thinking process.


Synthesis and evaluation take place side by side. While you hold each possible outbox idea up to inbox thinking’s criteria, you notice that some promising answers share certain traits, even though they seemed completely unrelated at first glance. For example, if you want your dream home to offer “peaceful seclusion,” you might begin by selecting possible choices that are distant from any neighbors, like a cabin in a forested area or a farm. As you eliminate choices that do not seem to fit this criterion, like apartments in the city and townhouses, you notice something surprising: some city residences are very near a train station with trains making frequent, cheap, and fast trips; or very near to a beautiful national park. You realize you like the seclusion and beauty of the park, which is very far from the cabin and farm, even more than the woods and farmland. Recognizing the similarity between city townhouses and wooded cabins (even though there are differences between them) helps you to reframe your work. You replace the old criterion of “peaceful seclusion” with “relatively quiet and easy access to a national park.” Now you see that neither the apartment nor farm quite fits your need, but some combination of the two would. So, you use newbox thinking to create a synthesis of two or more old ideas. You find a space in a suburban area, near the train line, where a cabin style home could be built. This synthesis retains the unique and useful elements of the old ideas.

Part of what makes synthesis like this possible is that it occurs after you have selected a few ideas and begun to work. Experiencing the reality of an idea through the five senses reveals traits that were not apparent when it remained theoretical. For example, it might have been while traveling to visit the lot where a townhouse could be built that you noticed the train station that leads to the national park. It was only then that you began to explore the suburbs and found the space to build the cabin you had also dreamed of.


Newbox thinking continually inspires new interpretations and improvements even after work on the final product has begun. While you expand and improve upon your newly combined ideas by working on the details, inbox critical thinking must work to eliminate the unnecessary traits left over from the old, original ideas. If you continuously elaborate as you build, the home will become more and more unique, but it will be too complicated to be useful, or it will never reach completion. Newbox thinking works to not only elaborate and refine but also simplify like critical thinking does, so unique ideas don’t become too unwieldy. You must realize that the miles long path from the original cabin cannot fit on the suburban lot, so that trait must be eliminated and replaced with a more sensible, yet still serene, yard filled with plants. Perhaps the garage should be expanded, and the bike racks removed because two cars will be necessary (as bicycling to work in the suburbs is not as feasible as it would be in the city). It is in this way, elaborating and trimming over and over, that you will finally finish building the home you dream of building.

Figure 3. ION: Newbox Thinking

ION Thinking

Innovation is inspiring, and potential innovators of all ages rarely need to be convinced that it is worth pursuing. But they often need help finding the path to success. That’s what ION (inbox, outbox, and newbox) thinking skills are designed to do. They’re not easy to develop and take a lot of time to learn, but they can work for everyone. Childlike wonder about a topic while developing the extensive and long lasting expertise (i.e., well-developed expertise) enables more fluid, flexible, and original imagination about the topic. Innovators use expert critical analysis to evaluate the unique ideas generated by their imagination and select the most promising useful ones. Finally, they use newbox thinking to combine, elaborate, and simplify those promising ideas into one, unique and useful reality. This is creativity in a nutshell. It’s not a mysterious force only available to a selected few. It’s a teachable and learnable skill. It’s there to serve you if you embrace it.

Find more research findings about how to innovate in The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation (Kim, 2016), and follow Dr. Kim @Kreativity_Kim.

 The content is also from a manuscript submitted to The Journal of Mechanical Engineering Science.

Tags: alex riccio, creativity research, creativity studies, creativity thinking, dr. kh kim, inbox thinking, newbox thinking, outbox thinking

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