Impetus of imagination

A child astronaut is imaging the future while holding a planet in its hand. Created in Midjourney by Timo Wagner.
A child astronaut imagines its future made in Midjourney by Timo Wagner


What a great and inspiring prelude. An invitation to be creative. An explicit request to think beyond your personal horizons. So simple, yet powerful. This is how every adventure starts at Midjourney and is emblematic of all the current emerging Generative AI tools. The era of imagination has begun. Imagination is now not only reserved for the creative but has found its way into the middle of society.

“Design had become too important to be left to designers”

That’s what Tim Brown wrote in 2009 in his book ‘Change by Design’ (while the original quote came from Raymon Loewy). This quote adorned the idea that Design Thinking should be made accessible to everyone and just not only to designers. It is the method of the masses.
And maybe today we should headline:

“Publishing imagination is too important to be left to creatives”

How can we imagine imagination?

In the general definition of the term, imagination describes the creative ability to generate ideas or an inner world. A primarily visualized inner world. A world made of images. The generation of the inner image to the outside world is called phantasm. And with Generative AI tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, or similar, we now have tools to represent these images. To make them visible. For all, by all. The exciting thing is that imagination is also a precondition for empathy, the ability to empathize with other people. Imagination is widely recognized as an essential aspect of human perception, enabling us to think beyond what is immediately present and to develop new ideas and possibilities. It is considered an essential component of creativity and innovation and is an important aspect of personal growth and development.

Imagination = the ability to create an inner world

Empathy = the ability to understand the inner world of the other person

So what if, through empathy, we can understand the inside of a counterpart and make it visually visible to the outside world through our imagination? Taking an ‘I know how you feel’ literally. Visual literally.

The poles of imagination

In his 1937 world bestseller ‘Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill declared 2 types of imagination: the synthetic imagination and the creative imagination. Not scientifically manifested or explicitly anchored in psychology. Nevertheless, these two categories still form a simple approach to imagination today. Synthetic imagination essentially describes the idea of bringing existing things into a new order or a different context. Thus the axiom arises that almost all ideas have already been thought of once and that we can now only bring them into a new context.

Creative imagination, on the other hand, describes the ability to develop and interpret ideas in a completely new way. The creative imagination, therefore, has a real touch of creative and inventive power. It allows us to develop unprecedented things and formulate ideas that go far beyond the limits of ordinary imagination.

The First Principle method tries to follow a similar path of creative imagination. Instead of simply rearranging existing solutions and ideas, it is more a matter of disassembling the problem into its fundamental principles based on an assumption, but ultimately coming up with a completely different solution.

A thought experiment. We disassemble a NASA rocket into its individual parts, re-sort them and thereby possibly save weight, become faster, or otherwise improve ourselves.

But we could also ask the following question:
What if we find a completely different way to get into the exosphere?

Mental models and imaginary transfer

Imagination is not only required for creators but also for users. We call this: a mental model. Mental models describe inner ideas and expectations of how the world around us works before we interact with it. This is like my expectation of the function of a start button in a car before I operate it.

IDEO and SmartDesign developed the dashboard for the Ford Fusion in 2008. The challenge was to communicate to the driver how efficiently he or she was driving their hybrid vehicle. The solution was relatively trivial: They created a so-called SmartGauge with instant feedback through falling green leaves. Falling leaves suggest whether I am driving well or poorly, and green in general supports the mental model of sustainability.

The SmartGauge displays a typical speedometer and digital falling leaves that show drivers how efficiently they drive
Ford SmartGauge / Image by SmartDesign

The leaves create a mental model and influence the imagination of the person driving. It is a form of synthetic imagination. We give the driver an idea of how he or thinks ahead.

But we also meet mental models in digital applications at every corner. Probably one of the best-known is the desktop. The transfer of a physical image into digital space.

Generative AI tools can do two things here: either visually rethink mental models or even break the chains of today’s mental models and give them a completely new framework through new images and references. Let us create new mental models through imagination. Or let us outsmart existing mental models through imagination.

A surreal symbiotic combination of flowers and a dragonfly. Blurred background in contrasting colors
A surreal symbiotic combination of flowers and a dragonfly made in Midjourney by Timo Wagner

It is surreal how many possibilities we’re facing

Hans Rusinek drew an article around the discussion of Generative AI tools like ChatGPT the comparison between painting and photography. similar to how fears arose back then that photography was the manifested end for painting, it is much the same today. OpenAI founder Sam Altman even assumes, contrary to popular belief, that white-collar and creative jobs will be hit first by the Generative AI wave. The painting was also hit by a similar wave at the time. But out of that developed a ride on the wave we know today as Surrealism. The ability to visualize emotions, the images of our inner world to the outside world. A completely new movement was born. Just like today. Only today this movement is accessible to everyone, not just the creative. Everybody is able to carry his inner world to the outside.

The romance behind imagination

Imagination is not a self-running engine. Not a perpetual motion machine. It needs fuel, an enzyme that starts the process. It needs power to generate imagination. It needs the power of curiosity. Curiosity generates imagination. And the results of imagination, the phantasms, generate impulses. And these impulses trigger curiosity in other people. Through just a small spark of curiosity, we thus create a cycle of fantasies and imaginary images. The imaginary transforms into the imaginable. The intangible becomes real.

The circuit of imagination is an infinity loop which describes how curiosity creates imagination and again imagination creates phantasm
Circuit of imagination by Timo Wagner

Tools like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion help us to build this bridge to the outside world. To make the thoughts of our inner world accessible to the outer world. Generative AI becomes the translator of our ideas. And it becomes the stimulation of our imagination.

So let’s become designers of our inner world.

Categorized as UX

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