5 Creative Exercises from the Surrealists

5 Creative Exercises from the Surrealists

Neil Stevenson
Matt Brown
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There is more to surrealism than Salvador Dali's mustache or people wearing lobsters on their heads. The movement, started one hundred years ago, was founded on the idea that creativity could be accessed by lessening the controls of the conscious brain, and giving free rein to the unconscious. Today's neuroscience supports their thinking: There is evidence that imagination and day-dreaming takes place when we are not focusing our conscious attention.

In design and innovation projects, we are always trying to understand constraints, eliminate uncertainty, and ground ourselves in the problem. But in any creative exercise, there is always a moment when the individual or the team needs to take a leap. And when that leap happens, you want it to be as dramatic, confident, and exploratory as possible. Put another way: There is a moment in any creative process when you actually want to maximize uncertainty. The Surrealist methods were aimed at achieving this, by embracing randomness and accessing the unconscious.

Here are five of of our favorite Surrealist methods:

1. Word Spinner

Make a list of 16 words that you find interesting, and number them. Cut out a circular piece of paper, write the numbers 1-16 on the circumference, and stick a pencil through the paper to create a spinner, like you'd use in a board game. Use the spinner to generate three numbers. Now write a poem or short piece of prose that uses the three words that correspond to the numbers.

2. Automatic Writing

This writing habit has been broadly adopted; it was featured, for example in The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. The method originated with the Surrealists, who believed that forcing yourself to write whatever comes into your head without self-editing will lead to surprising creative breakthroughs. The easiest way to practice this is to set a timer, and then write without pausing for that period. Though uncomfortable at first, this practice can quickly become a valuable source of ideas.

3. Surrealist Collage

Artist Max Ernst invented this technique of cutting out imagery from multiple sources and reassembling it to create something surprising and new. He chose images of similar styles (for example, all black and white etchings) so that they all worked together in the final image. With so many images available to us in the form of magazines and junk mail, we all have the chance to become surreal collagers.

4. Frottage

This is a variation on the "found image" technique of collating. Instead of cutting images out of source material, take a blank piece of paper and a crayon or charcoal and look for interestingly textured surfaces from which to take rubbings. Layer several rubbings on top of each other to create an entirely new image.

5. The Exquisite Corpse

The most famous of the Surrealist games, the Exquisite Corpse is an example of a chain game—a game in which a piece of creative work is passed from one player to another. This one began life as a writing exercise, with players taking turns writing nouns and verbs. (The game gets its name from the sentence that came from the first time it was played, "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.")

Over time, the game morphed into its better-known sketching form, in which players fold a piece of paper so that one person can sketch a head, the next a body, and the last one the legs.

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Neil Stevenson
Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.
Matt Brown
Matt is an industrial designer and illustrator at IDEO Cambridge. Outside of work he draws, explores synthesizers, and looks for creative prompts in all sorts of places.

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