List making is a creative tool we can all use.

There is an important creative tool that anyone can use. It is called list making.

Lists help get thoughts out of our head and onto paper or a screen where we can see them. They help us organize information so we can see patterns and relationships between things. They make abstract concepts tangible by pushing us to name things. They can be visual, like the beautiful maps David Byrne has created in his book, Arboretum.

Lists are also useful because they’re open ended. Start a list and you can add to it as new things come to mind. You never know where it might lead you. Paola Antonelli’s list of “Garments that Changed the World” lead to a current fashion exhibit at the MoMA.

So, next time you need to think creatively or solve a challenge, make a list.

Here is a list of six types of lists that will help you think differently:

CREDIT: Ayse Birsel

1. 4 Quadrants

This is a simple tool to help you think holistically. It uses the visual structure of the four quadrants of a Cartesian coordinate system.

How: Draw a cross dividing your page in to 4 areas. Label each quadrant using these 4 concepts:

  • Emotion: how you feel about something (heart).
  • Intellect: how you think about something (mind).
  • Physical: what do you know about something that is tangible (body).
  • Spirit: what do you know about something that is intangible (soul)

Note that you can change the quadrants, like Bryne’s in the link above–just scroll down his Gustatory Rainbow which is organized as Dark, Light, Cool, Warm.

Creative use: Gives you the big picture. It’s a quick but highly effective way to look at your subject matter holistically. And it reminds you to think about the emotion and the spirit of things, which we often forget to consider.

2. Mind maps

This is a visual tool that helps you break big things into smaller pieces.

How: Put whatever you want to break apart in the middle of your page. List its basic building blocks around it. Break the building blocks into their components until you run out of parts.

Creative use: Helps you understand what something is made up of and that even the most complex things are made up of smaller and more manageable pieces. Once you see the smaller parts you can decide what to keep, what to remove, what is missing.

“It is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.” Mind map definition from Wikipedia

3. Linear

This is the typical, long-running list of things to do or things to remember. It’s a repository of thoughts, ideas, things.

How: Make a heading and list everything that comes to your mind. When you’re stuck, stop and go back to it as you think of new things.

Creative use: Helps you get started on an idea and collect data, inspiration over time. Model Antonelli’s running list of garments mentioned above, which led to a museum show.

4. Venn Diagram  

This tool helps visualize the relationship of two or three concepts to each other and what happens when they overlap.

How: Draw two circles. Write one concept in each circle and then write what happens at their intersection. You can do the same with three concepts. When it is more than three I prefer a quadrant representation.

Creative use: Helps you think the relationship between two or three concepts. Two is useful for noting dichotomies and their resolutions. Three is useful for convergence of key ideas. For some fun look Mental Floss‘ Venn diagrams.

5. Visual List

This tool list classifies things in terms of symbols and shapes.

How: You create a visual list when you make a list using drawing and text. You can create a taxonomy of things by drawing them but you can also do it electronically, on Pinterest.

Creative use: A drawing is worth a thousand words. Visual lists provide you with what words can’t–form, size, color information of objects and spaces. Take a look at Umberto Eco’s beautiful book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, which captures visual lists in the world of painting.

6. Time-Based List

This tool shows you the before and after of a concept so that you can identify insights about what has changed over time.

How: Make two columns, one column for before, one for after. Or you can make multiple columns for a concept that has changed overtime, like the kinds of food people ate in the 1950 vs. 1990 vs. 2020.

Creative use: this is an easy way to capture change overtime to understand past patterns and reflect on future potential outcomes.