Brain Pickings

The Universal Traveler: A Vintage Guide to Creative Problem-Solving

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Navigating the “tourist traps” of creativity, or how to finally reconcile ideation and evaluation.

In a recent comment on Stefan G. Bucher’s fantastic 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment, which has quickly become the most popular book on Brain Pickings this year, a reader named Terry tipped me off to The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals — a curious metaphorical travel guide to creative problem-solving, originally published in 1971 by researchers Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, offering what’s essentially a blueprint to design thinking nearly four decades before design thinking was a buzzword.

The tome uses the analogy of travel, “an activity already known to all readers,” and the concept of The Travel Agency to explore various elements of and boosts for creative problem-solving — overcoming the blocks to creativity (something we’ve previously examined), avoiding “tourist traps” in the creative process, taking “side trips” that foster serendipity, mastering the art of idea selection, and learning to take criticism. Also included are a handful of hands-on, actionable tools and diagrams, including a beautifully designed “Traveler’s Map” and a procedure for “self-hypnosis.”

The travel vocabulary reinforces the concept that design is more meaningful when it can be visualized and pursued as a logical and planned journey through a series of stopovers called Design Stages. Although chance and random process are not excluded, their application depends on how appropriate they may be in specific situations.”

From the book’s introduction:

The Universal Traveler is more than a guide to creative problem-solving and clear thinking; it is your passport to success. The process described is universally relevant; based on the premise that any problem, dream, or aspiration, no matter its size or degree of complexity, can benefit from the same logical and orderly ‘systematic’ process employed to solve world-level problems.”

This “systematic process” they refer to is based on Cybernetics, an early study of human control systems, forming the foundation of most social, industrial and economic problem modeling. Koberg and Bagnall take the technical terminology of Cybernetics and translate it into everyday language, applied in simplified techniques. They call the resulting “user-friendly” approach to problem-solving “Soft Systems.”

Once learned and internalized with practice, the Universal Traveler ‘soft systematic’ approach will allow anyone to deal more logically and orderly with all manner of problem situations or goals.”

But my favorite part is easily this typographic inscription from the book’s original back cover:

More than a mere vintage gem, The Universal Traveler both presaged and laid the foundation for much of modern thinking on design and creativity, and is bound to become one of the most important books you ever read — had I come across it earlier, I would have certainly included it in my semi-serious omnibus on (almost) everything you need to know about culture in 10 books.

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