Thinking outside the box: talking about creativity.

photograph of a young woman thinking, with a colourful illustrated background of gears and a cartoon brain
ismagilov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

by Liz Walter

Today’s post is about the language we use to talk about being creative. Creativity – being able to think of new and unusual ideas – is central to human life, and there are lots of great words to describe it.

Someone who creates something that has never been made before invents it. That person is an inventor and the thing they make is their invention. There is a nice phrase in English: Necessity is the mother of invention. This means that things often get invented when there is a real need for them:

Who invented antibiotics?

Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press.

We made some great seats out of old sacks – after all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Ideas, designs, or inventions that are original or innovative have never been thought of before or have features that have never been thought of before:

She has some really original ideas for furniture designs.

Some of these video games are really innovative.

If something inspires you, it gives you a good idea. We often talk about someone having a flash of inspiration. Slightly more informally, we could say they have a brainwave (UK), a brainstorm (US) or a bright idea:

Her designs are inspired by nature.

He had a flash of inspiration – why not use plastic instead of steel?

Adding a handle for carrying the chair was a brainwave (UK)/brainstorm (US).

How can we attach the pole? Does anyone have any bright ideas?

Someone who uses pioneering methods does things in a way they have never been done before. Something groundbreaking shows a big change from other things of the same type. This is a positive word, implying progress and improvement:

She used pioneering techniques in her operations.

Their research into nutrition was truly groundbreaking.

Blue-sky research/thinking is when people develop new ideas without worrying about how practical they are. To think outside the box is a nice idiom meaning to have ideas that are very unusual and not what people would expect:

We need some blue-sky thinking in the area of carbon capture.

The company likes to employ people who can think outside the box.

The first example of something that has been invented is known as a prototype, while if something is the newest and most modern version of something, we say it is at the cutting edge or use the adjective cutting-edge:

After two failed prototypes, they produced a working model of the machine.

These schools are at the cutting edge of educational techniques.

I hope you find these words useful. Use the comments to tell us about creative people and inventions from your country!

21 thoughts on “Thinking outside the box: talking about creativity.

  1. Dieter Walz

    Again, another wonderful post that will help improving student’s English (mine in particular).
    Thanks a lot, Liz.


  2. mapyziakhotmailcom

    Dear Liz Walter,
    Many thanks for another inspiring article.
    You do have a way with words,
    Grateful reader,

  3. Parmeshwar Birajdar

    Dear Liz

    I love the way you introduce theme based vocabulary in such a lucid manner. Thank you for yet another engaging post. Big fan!

    If I may, an idiom, ‘Get the creative juices flowing – to inspire one to think in a creative manner’ can be added to the excellent list of words and phrases you’ve shared to be used while talking about creativity.


    Parmeshwar Birajdar

  4. Denis

    Excellently written! I’ll give it, as usual, the thumbs up.
    At the same time, I’d also add the phrase ‘break the mould’ which means to be new and different. Indeed, avant-garde ideas, styles, and methods are very original or modern in comparison to the period in which they happen.
    Speaking of inventions from my country, not only has Russia been the world’s largest country that boasts natural and architectural beauty, but it is also a proud mother of many famous scientific discoverers, inventors, and brightest minds. For instance, everybody knows the Periodic table that logically classifies chemical elements. This genius table, which is so often used in chemistry, is the result of the hard work of a distinguished figure in the world of science – Russian chemist and scientist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev.

    1. Mendeleev was a great inventor!

      Thank you for sharing BREAK THE MOULD with us.

      And being avant-garde [ADVANCED GUARD in French/en francais].

      They’re classified by shells; protons; electrons; weight and mass – aren’t they?

      Yes, Dimitri Ivanovich was a giant of physical science.

      1. Denis

        You’re absolutely right about Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. In terms of the classification, you’re also probably correct. Honestly, I’m not a chemist.
        By the way, Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, the founding father of chemistry, is a highly respected Russian scientist and poet who lived in the 18th century and has contributed to many spheres of human knowledge. Although he was born in a poor family, his desire to learn has led him to a series of discoveries, including the founding of chemistry as a science. It was he who established the corpuscular-kinetic theory that states that all substances consist of molecules, which in their turn are made up of atoms. He is regarded as the first to discover the law of mass conservation (1760) and to establish mechanistic caloric theory and the chemistry of minerals and glass. Moreover, Lomonosov has made an immense input in Russian grammar, philology, astronomy, geology, and even suggested the wave theory. He is the founder of Russia’s first classical university – Moscow State University (1755).

  5. Hadice

    Thank you for this useful article. The thing has cought my attention in this article was ”to think outside of the box”. I once came across with this idiom while listening a podcast and it stuck in my mind somehow. Now I’ve learned a few other handy idioms thanks to this idiom. I assume that the main thing in learning a language is to use as much various resources as we can. It’s kind of struggling process but at the end of the day we will all reap the benefits.

  6. Yeri Ekomunajat

    Wow! It’s really inspiring. I love the way you illustrate your points Liz such as word definition in contexts and sample sentences. They are really effective to drive the nail home.

  7. Australian inventions:

    polymer currency


    Hills hoist

    trugo [a sport on the trams – senior citizens and elders love it]

    a form of women’s cricket.

    These are five inventions that will tempt your appetite.

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