Imperial College London

How to think creatively: Top Imperial design expert unveils new online course


Head of the School of Design Engineering, Professor Childs, discusses how a new online course encourages invaluable creative thinking skills.

From today learners are able to access the College’s newest MOOC (massive open online course) developed alongside EdX, one of its non-profit online learning partners.

Learners can directly sign up for enrolment on 'Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success' on the EdX platform.

The course will equip participants with a ‘tool-box’ of behaviours and techniques that will foster their innate creativity. The course has been specifically designed to provide a practical approach that will help learners acquire an essential skill-set for generating new and creative ideas.

Why do you think that creative thinking is an important skill/technique?

The mind is a wonderful facet – I have had the privilege of working in highly generative fields for the whole of my career, from selling records, doing an apprenticeship to study engineering, setting up a clothing business, to research on jet engines, creativity and design. It seems that whatever you do, be it social work, music or running a business, every day brings a range of challenges. You can choose to tackle these in the same way, but sometimes there is benefit from exploring a wider landscape of possibilities.

Professor Peter Childs
Professor Peter Childs

Some years ago a student told me in response to one of my questions that ‘creativity is imagination with responsibility’. I continue to treasure and use this definition. The world is full of challenges and opportunities – creativity offers potential to tackle these with bright new ideas.

Do you have any tips as to how we all can introduce more creative thinking into our daily lives?

Top tips on creativity abound. They range from making sure you are healthy and organise your time so that you have a good balance of concentration to get things done, but also time when you are relaxed. So take time to walk in a park – I work at Imperial, South Kensington and Hyde Park is just 3 minutes away. I saw a heron land on a wall a few meters away from me there, recently, and this serendipitous experience inspired me for days with ideas around apparel and colour. Another suggestion is to write ideas down when you get them – be this in a physical notebook, an email to yourself, or a long e-list. But ensure that you review these periodically, so that you can decide whether any warrant further follow-up. I personally make great use of the email to myself, lists of ideas that emerge in the day that I write down, and use of a series of creativity tools that help to explore an idea systematically. If I already have an idea, then a creativity tool can help prompt tens or hundreds more and when evaluating those ideas I can see the relative strength of them more easily.

MOOC logo

The Creative Thinking MOOC seeks to encourage higher level creative thinking skills. What kind of skills are these?

My personal view is that we are all creative. Tools can help enhance and augment our creativity. Such approaches can help give you more ideas from which to make a selection. One of the original principles of brainstorming is that quantity breads quality. If you have more ideas then you will have choice. If you have developed a comprehensive mapping of an idea space, then you will be able to also see how a competitive company or team may respond.

We all have many ideas, but limited resources, so it is important to select the right idea before we commit to one. Skills considered in this course include a series of general principles of creativity as well as specific tools, such as various types of brainstorming etc.

Do you think research-intensive institutions are a good place to promote creative thinking skills, and how many students and colleagues do you encounter with an aptitude for these techniques?

"The world is full of challenges and opportunities – creativity offers potential to tackle these with bright new ideas." Professor Peter Childs

I can’t actually think of a place that isn’t a good place for creativity. However there are environments that encourage creativity. Perhaps the ideal is a workplace or study-place that enables communication, collaboration, creativity and contemplation. Research institutions that have great meeting places, places which enable contemplation, resources to facilitate collaboration, and expertise to make implementation possible sound really great. Perhaps I’ll stay at Imperial a while longer!

In terms of students, colleagues and collaborators that I encounter with natural aptitude in creativity – well all of them. It’s something we all have – but there can be even more and better ideas – let’s face it, our societies have some challenges, and need creative solutions to move us forward. For my own domain, I do not claim that design engineering can save the world, but it can make it a better place.

What would you say to someone if they were keen to sign up to the course but needed convincing?

We all need ideas, preferably good ideas that we can build on, formulate and elaborate on in order to develop plans, interventions and activities that help move our lives, businesses and circumstances on. Creativity is a resource – we are all creative and have scope to be more generative and effective in our activities. Our understanding of creativity has increased in leaps and bounds, with wonderful insights from psychology, neuro-science, computing science etc. Creative thinking can benefit from these insights and there are a wide range of creativity tools that can aid in both systematic and serendipitous generation and consideration of ideas.


Murray MacKay

Murray MacKay
Communications and Public Affairs


Year-of-Engineering, Education
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