This blog post was contributed by Alison Hass, an instructional designer and wizard with words.
Alison photo“Think outside the box” has become wearisome, and worse – misleading. Intended as an exhortation to be creative, its overuse indicates people are being anything but. Of more concern than the phrase’s ubiquity is that the poor box has been maligned. The box has come to be perceived as anathema. This is unfortunate because without the box, there would be nothing outside of which to think. The entire phrase is predicated on the box! So why are people so eager to cast it aside?

Whoever originated the phrase had a worthwhile notion – life would be pretty boring if no one ever broke the rules or tried something different. History is full of examples of people who thought outside the box and the world is a richer place for it. Christopher Columbus, the Wright Brothers, and Thomas Edison are often trotted out as examples of non-box thinkers, but in the spirit of this article, let me think outside the box to point out some less well-known but equally important (to my lifestyle, anyway) box rebels: H.B. Reese who had the brilliant idea to put peanut butter and chocolate together, Benjamin Thompson Rumford who invented the percolating coffee pot with a sieve to remove grounds, and Walter Hunt who added a clasp to a cleverly bent piece of brass and came up with the safety pin (which I always carry thanks to my grandma, “A lady should always have a safety pin. You’ll never know when you’ll need one.”)

It is important to note that all of these innovations had their origins in a box. Reese was a foreman at the Hershey plant, so he had some knowledge of the candy industry. Rumford had always been interested in the properties of heat and improved the diet of the army during his time in Bavaria, so coffee was a logical combination of those knowledge bases. Hunt was a car mechanic and accustomed to tinkering with metal to solve problems.

Why should I care about the box, you might ask? What are the applications for me? On a basic level, it serves as a reminder that nothing is created in a vacuum. Groundbreaking inspiration often comes from the innovator’s experiences and interests, and fostering those interests (boxes) is more likely to lead to connections among the boxes (the thinking outside, or more aptly, “linking outside”) which is at the heart of great ideas. A more potent lesson is that the box – the established rules, routines, policies, prescriptions – has merit in its very existence. Without boundaries, there is no creativity. An intentional rational breaking of a rule is only effective because the other rules are being observed.

For example, there are classic principles governing design (scale, color, contrast, etc.). For the right reason, one might ignore one of these principles. Aesthetically, one probably wouldn’t slap a bright red banner across a lovely series of still photographs. Capitalistically, however, it sure does catch the eye and make one consider buying a new sofa at the 50% off sale profiled in the flyer. Only because design rules exist could the eye be caught by the rule-breaking banner.

So, as you commit yourself to making changes in 2012, consider returning to the box. Whether you’re designing a page or building a curriculum or designing an elearning interface, a refresher of the basics might lead to a more creative final product. After all, you can’t move outside until you’ve been inside.