Build Your Creative Confidence: 30 Circles Exercise

Aug 28, 2018 WORDS BY Tom Kelley

Everyone is creative. This belief runs through everything we do at IDEO, and in 2013, it led my brother David and me to write a book that would help others—even those who don’t think of themselves as “creative types”—to unleash their creative potential. Creative Confidence has inspired thousands of people to adopt a creative mindset and apply it to the diverse real-world challenges they face. In this series, we’ll share some exercises from the book that can help you approach your challenges from a new perspective.

Creativity Challenge #3: Jumpstart an ideation session

Here’s one quick, simple exercise to get creative muscles warmed up. We learned it from David’s mentor, Bob McKim, back when David was a product design student. It’s called Thirty Circles, and you can do it on your own or in a group. The goal is to push people to test their creativity by turning circles into recognizable objects in a very short period of time.

Tool: Thirty Circles Exercise
Participants: Solo or groups of any size
Time: 3 minutes, plus discussion
Supplies: Pen and a piece of paper (per person) with 30 blank circles on it of approximately the same size. (Template here. We recommend printing it on an oversized sheet of paper. You can also just ask everyone to draw their own 30 circles on a blank piece of paper.)


Step 1: Give each participant one 30 Circles sheet of paper and something to draw with.

Step 2: Turn as many of the blank circles as possible into recognizable objects in three minutes (think clock faces, billiard balls, etc.)

Step 3: Compare results. Look for the quantity or fluency of ideas. How many people filled in ten, fifteen, twenty or more circles? (Typically most people don’t finish.) Next, look for diversity or flexibility in ideas. See if the ideas are derivative (a basketball, a baseball, a volleyball) or distinct (a planet, a cookie, a happy face). Did anyone “break the rules” and combine circles (a snowman or a traffic light)? Were the rules explicit, or just assumed?

Tips from the field

Besides being a great warm-up exercise, Thirty Circles offers a quick lesson about ideation. When you generate ideas, you are balancing two goals: fluency (the speed and quantity of ideas) and flexibility (ideas that are truly different and distinct). We know from experience that it’s easier to have a great idea if you have many to choose from. But if you have a lot of ideas that are just variations on a theme, you might really only have one idea with twenty-nine other versions. When you combine fluency and flexibility, you can generate a rich array of concepts to choose from.

This post was taken from Chapter 7 of Creative Confidence. Purchase the book for more on how to use creativity to solve problems.

  • IDEO Partner

    Tom Kelley is the best-selling author of Creative Confidence, The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation as well as a partner at IDEO. As a leading innovation speaker, Tom addresses scores of business audiences on how to foster a culture of innovation and tap into the creative potential of their organizations.

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