Design and Incubation - When Does the Muse Finally Speak?


All may be familiar with the experience of working hard on a challenge, getting stuck and then, while taking a shower, exercising or preparing for bed, the answer suddenly pops up into one's brain. The answer can be more or less complete, however, it is often quite novel.

Of course, without first putting in the long hours of focused work, no ideas will ever materialize. All new ideas are a combination of existing ideas, so, the more interconnected ideas one has accumulated the more likely one is to produce novel and useful ideas. However, an important question is, can one count on incubation as a reliable instrument for creative problem solving?

To answer this question, we studied thirty-four design students in Europe and the US. One student mentioned having a "aha" moment while in the shower, while most participants seemed to have insights while conducting ordinary activities, such as driving, walking, eating, people watching, going to bed or waking up.

Since the muse seems to be unconcerned about where her magic is acquired, we examined the time-lapse between when someone stops working hard on a problem and when the eureka-moment occurred. The following is what we found.


If one hopes for their muse to speak to them with twenty-five percent luck, give her six hours. If one is indifferent to their muse, one has a fifty percent chance, so, allow her two days. If one really needs her voice, with a seventy-five percent likelihood, allow her seven days and if one wants to be absolutely certain, with a ninety-five percent probability, two weeks is ample time. Finally, if one's life depends on it, with a ninety-nine percent probability, make dead sure she has at least three and a half weeks to work her magic.

Essential for one's muse to do her work is to stop thinking vertically/analytically and start thinking laterally/associatively. For this to happen, distance is needed from the creative challenge and then, begin to do something completely different. Relaxation is also very important since stress tends to converge thoughts and what are needed here are divergent thoughts. This may be where the mundane tasks of showering, cooking, walking, etc. work their simple magic.

So, how good is the muse at producing ideas? Well, design experts may be somewhat quicker than students and laypeople at coming up with new ideas and the chances that their ideas are actually new might also be much higher. Experts also may be more likely to come up with breakthrough new ideas, especially, if these experts master multiple domains and understand how to navigate them. With this experience, one will be able to judge the newness of ideas and, therefore, avoid re-inventing the wheel over and over again. On the other hand, those who retain their abilities of wonder and quiet observation within their environment can also occasionally surprise themselves and others with breakthrough innovations.

When designing incremental ideas/innovations, old ideas are readily available from which to extrapolate. However, if one is striving for breakthrough ideas/innovation, one must allow two to three weeks incubation time, on top of the up-front, hard prep work. In other words, when taking on an assignment, do not dilly-dally, since time wasted at the outset will be stolen from the incubation time of one's muse. Respect the muse and her bountiful gifts and she will reward one handsomely!