Inspired Lessons from Da Vinci’s Creative Thinking Methods

Leonardo Da Vinci was not only a master of art and science, but also known as a great thinker with an extraordinary ability to look at the world from a creative perspective. His creative thinking methods enabled him to achieve inventions in different fields including art, architecture, music, mathematics, and engineering. What are the lessons that we can learn from Da Vinci in order to fuel innovation inside companies working in the creative sector?

Creativity and innovation are considered essential factors to push business to success. Many business leaders consider innovation one of the key factors to improve a company’s competitive position in the market. As discussed in Creative Diversity: Doblin’s 10 Types of Innovation, the broader definition of innovation includes applying creativity in every project process. Therefore employees in different positions inside the company should be able to have the ability to innovate. This ability can be acquired by practicing these lessons inspired from Leonardo Da Vinci life.

In his book, How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Michael Gelb studied Da Vinci’s inscriptions and tried to analyze how he used to think and how we can learn from his creative thinking methods. The lessons below are inspired from his book and modified to target companies and individuals working in the creative sector.

da vinci creative thinking
Spring catapult designed by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Lesson 1: Change the Thinking Pattern

When faced with a problem, the human mind tends to follow certain thinking patterns. These patterns are chosen based on the experience and previous knowledge of the problem. The common patterns limit the human brain to reach creative solutions or ideas. Therefore, on should think in different patterns to solve the problem. A number of tips can be used to explore and create ideas behind common thinking patterns, such as the following:

  • Break away from existing assumptions – Thinking about a problem is usually aligned with a number of assumptions, these assumptions usually limit the ability to find creative solutions. Thinking beyond these assumptions can contribute to finding other perspectives that can help in solving the problem.
  • Rephrasing the problem’s definition – Usually, we think about the problem from one perspective or definition. Asking questions and trying to explore the problem with different perspectives can help in finding creative solutions. Many tools can be used to explore the different sides of the problem such as TRIZ MethodSCAMPER Technique, and The Six Thinking Hats.
  • Reverse brainstorming – In some cases, the problem seems to be unsolvable and the team fails to find creative ideas to solve it. At this point, the reversing brainstorming technique can help solving the problem or be able to reach creative ideas in solving it.
  • Use different Media to express ideas – Part of the creative thinking methods employed could include using materials to visualize ideas and reach solutions through different mediums such as clay and games. Lego Serious Play is one of the tools that can help the team to visualize ideas by building Lego models and use them to solve the targeted problem.

In real life, one of the examples of changing the thinking pattern is the Tefal Thermo-Spot used in its kitchen pans. Solving the problem of identifying the temperature of the pan bed is related to specific patterns such as temperature devices. However, linking this problem with another pattern such as the color change helped to reach a simple yet innovative solution for the heat detection in Tefal products.

Tefal Thermo-Spot
Tefal Thermo-Spot changes based on the pan temperature.

Lesson 2: Connect the Unconnected

Changing the patterns is related to another method, which is to connect the unconnected. One of the methods to find solutions and creative ideas is to connect prior ideas with other incidents or elements in nature that do not have direct linkage with the main problem. For example, Newton was able to find a solution for the law of gravity law connecting his thought with fall of the apple from the tree. While Da Vinci was thinking of a new transportation method, he threw a paint filled sponge against the wall and tried to imagine the stain as a horse with four wheels. So, he thought that people can transport using a method that has two wheels instead of four.

In the early 1990s, NASA’s space telescope, Hubble, was launched with a flawed vision problem that prevented the instrument to bring starlight to a crisp focus. The solution for this problem came to James Crocker, a senior engineer at Ball Aerospace Corp. While he was standing in the shower during a trip to Germany. Crocker noticed that showers are designed with handles that flip down and move to fit with the user comfort. So, he connected this design with Hubble’s problem and reached a solution by adding little mirrors that reply and refocus the light from the telescope mirror into the spectrographs and the FOC. This solution turned Hubble from a disaster to one of the greatest NASA inventions.

One of the tools that can be used to connect the unconnected are mind maps. Visualizing the situation in relation to both related and unrelated elements can draw connections between different elements while building new connections.

Hubble mirrors
Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install Hubble’s corrective optics.

Lesson 3: Independent Creative Thinking

As we mature, we tends to believe that everyone around is observing us and expected to agree with us. Thinking in other’s perspectives such as team members or managers adds stress to our ability to innovate. The creative or the innovative process should not be limited by other’s opinions, otherwise it will fail to achieve its target o find new ideas or solve problems.

Controlling the ideation process and forcing the team to think in specific directions is one of the common reasons that may result in a failed brainstorming sessions. Facilitators and stakeholders should give the space to open up avenues for different ideas –especially unexpected ones to develop in the meeting in order to open pathways to achieve innovation.

Lesson 4: Observation

Observation is a key element in Da Vinci’s creative thinking methods. In order to explore new patterns and find solutions in unrelated elements in nature which are around, the team should be able to observe other designs and problems in order to inspire creative solutions for the exiting problem. The examples above started with observing specific actions or objects and use inherent, as well as external ideas surrounding this object to solve the existing problem.

One of the examples of using observation in reaching new ideas is Archimedes in the bath tub. He noticed that once he got into the tub, the level of the water had risen. This observation enabled him to calculate the density of the gold used in the King Hiero II crown, the golden wreath.

Lesson 5: Uncertainty

The innovation process finds new creative ideas or improves existing products or services. This process can also be achieved by asking questions and doubting the existing solution in order to evaluate it and reach a better one. This would be innovation through negation. Many creative problem-solving methods tend to ask questions in order to explore the problem from different perspective rather than one point of view such as the SCAMPER method.

Lesson 6: Creative Imagination vs Logic Thinking

While many companies are able to find creative design and product ideas, they fail to reach a final product that can be delivered to the consumer. The reason is that there is no balance between imaginative and logical thinking. Many creative ideas start with dreams or imaginary thoughts and turn into reality through logical and effective analysis to all the factors related into turning it into a final product.

One of the methods that contributed to achieving this balance is Disney’s Creative Strategy. Walt Disney was known as a great idea explorer and his method depends on thinking of the creative idea with three perspectives; the dreamer, the realistic, and the critic. Each perspective tends to analyze the idea from one side to ensure it will achieve success in the market.

disney creative strategy
Disney’s Creative Strategy: The Dreamer, The Realist and The Critic.

In addition to the above, other lessons can be learned from Da Vinci’s life such as maintaining curiosity and having a mind that is eager to learn and observe. In addition, he was an exceptional athlete and was known as the strongest man in Florence. So a proper balance of a creative and inquiring mind as well as a healthy body may certainly be a necessity. The creative process consumes large amounts of energy, a factor which should be considered in companies working in the creative sector. Companies should consider a healthy environment for its employees to work in order to improve their ability to innovate.


Leonardo Da Vinci’s life as a creative thinker provides inspiration and lessons to learn for individuals and companies working in the creative sector. The lessons above have a direct relation with the design and innovation process inside companies. Also, they are linked with different creative thinking and problem-solving tools and methods which can be implemented to connect between different patterns in order to reach creative ideas and solutions.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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