Object Decomposition: A Powerful Creative Technique

Creativity isn't only enhanced by building and assembling objects like the classic Lego. In fact, going the other way and breaking objects down to discover each part and how they're made can be as interesting a strategy.
Object Decomposition: A Powerful Creative Technique
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

When you give a child a toy, the last thing you expect is for them to break it. However, there’s always a 90 percent chance of that happening. Nevertheless, the smartest and brightest little ones will actually dismantle the toy in order to find out what’s inside and understand how it’s made.

As a matter of fact, the simple act of going backward, taking apart, dismantling, or deconstructing often acts as an extraordinary tool for creativity. Nevertheless, we don’t always take this into account. For example, when you think of the classic LEGO building blocks, you’d probably assume that there are few games that encourage creative thinking so much.

However, in recent years, experts have started to believe that this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, an article published in the Journal of Marketing Research suggested that having to build a LEGO kit following specific and fixed instructions actually reduces the capacity for innovation.

Therefore, it’s time to view things differently. Because it appears that creativity doesn’t work if you have to follow specific guidelines. Furthermore, building isn’t exactly the height of originality and lateral thinking. On the other hand, by breaking things down, you can discover some amazing processes and possibilities.

Colored brain representing the process of breaking down objects

The benefits of object decomposition

When you think about the process of creativity, you tend to do it in one direction only: forward. This movement translates into processes such as relating, linking, building, and gradually giving shape to something new and innovative. Nevertheless, sometimes, the fact of going back also allows you to make discoveries and take on valuable learning.

No doubt you know someone you’d call a ‘handyman’. These are the kinds of people who fix things. Men and women who restore the functioning of those devices, machines, and gadgets we see as irreparable. To achieve their ‘special powers’ they first had to learn to break down objects. They had to understand the function of each piece and how they all fit together to form a whole that works in harmony.

This is a tremendously powerful mental process.

The problem of fixed mindsets

You might take it for granted that you’re pretty creative. There’s little doubt that this is true, as you came into the world with some amazing abilities. You were able to innovate, imagine, challenge reality, and see things from multiple points of view.

As a matter of fact, these faculties are typical of childhood when lateral thinking is at 100 percent capacity.

  • However, formal education and classical teaching methods have a defect: they encourage everyone to think in the same way.
  • Almost without realizing it, you develop a fixed mindset, the kind that filters everything via a process known in psychology as functional fixedness.
  • Functional fixedness defines those times when you limit yourself to thinking in pre-established schemas.
  • For example, when you’re asked what a wooden clothespin is for, the first thing you’ll answer is that its obvious use is to hang clothes on to dry.

A fixed mindset has learned to see things as they are and is unable to glimpse other possibilities or other worlds. One way to make those approaches more flexible is by teaching object decomposition.

The Little Prince's Hat, an image you can try object decomposition with.

Object decomposition: clamps transformed into jewelry and an elephant eaten by a snake

Tony McCaffrey is a renowned researcher on innovation and creativity. Aware of the great problem of functional fixedness in the human mind, he developed a new technique to deactivate it and allow us to gain originality, flexibility and, above all, lateral thinking.

His research is highly decisive for several reasons:

  • To overcome functional fixedness there’s nothing better than object decomposition.
  • Think of a clamp. To assess all the roles that this everyday object can play, the best thing is to break it down. This means you’ll learn how it’s made and what parts it consists of.
  • You’ll discover three pieces. Two pieces of wood and a central piece of iron.
  • Now, you no longer have one object, you have three. By doing this, you’ve not only discovered how a clamp works, but you can also work out what other uses it could have.
  • For example, the central hook could be used to make a piece of homemade jewelry with a little imagination. On the other hand, the wood could be used for any number of crafts.

Now imagine the classic image of The Little Prince’s hat. Object decomposition can be useful here. You can go beyond the apparent image and imagine what other objects or realities could make it up. It could be, for instance, an elephant that’s been eaten by a snake. The possibilities are endless.

To conclude, when it comes to optimizing your creative spark and lateral thinking skills, don’t forget the process of object decomposition. Because breaking down and separating the parts of the whole can be a tool with immense possibilities. It’s well worth thinking about.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • McCaffrey (2012) Innovation Relies on the Obscure. A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness. Psychological Science; 23(8).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.