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What Is Synectics?

Figure 1: The Synectics process (Tassoul, 2006)

The synectics procedure (see figure 1) was set up by Gordon and Prince (1976). It is a comprehensive creative procedure, containing techniques for problem analysis, idea generation and the selection stage. Synectics concentrates on the idea generation steps with the use of analogies. Analogies allow for moving away from the original problem statement and making a forced fit to develop solutions on the basis of these analogies. The synectics procedure is also based on the process of (1) preparation, (2) incubation, (3) illumination and (4) verification (Wallas, 1926). The incubation and illumination stages are now brought about through the use of analogies: ‘To make the strange familiar and the familiar strange’.

In the preparatory stages, there is a problem briefing by the problem owner, an extensive problem analysis phase through questioning by the participants, and definition of a problem statement into ‘one single concrete target’. After this, a purging phase takes place in which known and immediate ideas are collected and recorded. This phase is also called ‘Shredding the Known’. From this point on, analogies are used to estrange yourself from the original problem statement and come up with inspirations for new solutions and approaches. These analogies take a number of forms that are presented in table 1.

For the assessment of the new solution possibilities, the synectics approach introduces yet another special technique: ‘itemised response’. To every idea there are both good sides (the pluses) and poor or bad sides (the minuses). By breaking down the idea into pluses and minuses and then trying to turn the minuses into pluses (for example, through a creativity method), the original idea may be - systematically - transformed into a better one.

Table 1: Type of analogies that can be used in Synectics (Tassoul, 2006)
Direct Analogy Starting from some aspect in the problem, one looks for comparable or analogous situations For a time pressure problem, take for ex­ample ‘ships in a busy harbour’. How do they manouvre without incidents?
Personal Analogy What if you were an element in the problem, e.g. a planning problem? Imagine you are the time. How would you feel? Maybe pressed. How would you in­fluence the situation from such a perspec­tive?
Nature Analogy What kind of situations in nature does this remind me of? E.g. an anthill, or the jungle with all the animals closely together, lungs and blood stream and all the gaseous matter that need to be transported through the body.
Fantastic Analogy Can you place the problem in a fai­rytale or other mythical situation and develop it from there? How does the Nautilus withstand the pressure at 2000 miles under the sea, and what did the people aboard the Nautilus do? (thinking of Jules Verne’s “20.000 miles under the seas”)
Paradoxical Analogy Characterise the issue in two words which are each other’s opposites. For example: blind open-mindedness, or overwhelming silence.

Visual Synectics

A variation is that of visual synectics: quiet images and music are introduced to induce an incubation phase. Music and images let people quietly simmer away, daydream on the images and on the music. This is done for some length of time after which there comes a switch to much more active music and images on the basis of which the participants now have to generate ideas, similar to the brainstorming or brainwriting presented earlier .

When Can You Use Synectics?

Synectics is best applied for more complex and intricate problems. Synectics can be used in groups as well as individually. With an untrained group, the facilitator will have to work in small steps at a time; he or she must have enough experience to inspire the group through such a process.

How to Use Synectics?


Starting Point

The starting point of synectics is an initial problem statement. In the design process it continues with the design goal, problem definition and design specification generated in the problem analysis phase.

Expected Outcome

The outcome of synectics is a limited number of preliminary yet surprising ideas.

Possible Procedure

  1. Start with the original problem statement. Invite the problem owner to present and discuss the problem briefly.
  2. Analyse the problem. Restate the problem. Formulate the problem as one single concrete target.
  3. Generate, collect and record the first ideas that come to mind (shredding the known).
  4. Find a relevant analogy in one of the listed categories of analogies (personal, nature, fantastic, etc.).
  • Ask yourself questions in order to explore the analogy. What type of problems occur in the analogous situation? What type of solutions are there to be found?
  • Force-fit various solutions to the reformulated problem statement.
  • Generate, collect and record the ideas.
  • Test, and evaluate the ideas. Use the itemised response method to select from among the ideas.
  • Develop the selected ideas into concepts.
  • Present your concepts in a manner that is to the point.

Tips and Concerns

References and Further Reading

  • Roozenburg, N.F.M. and Eekels, J. (1995) Product Design: Fundamentals and Methods, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Roozenburg, N. and Eekels, J. (1998, 2nd ed.) Product Ontwerpen: Structuur en Methoden, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Tassoul, M. (2006) Creative Facilitation: a Delft Approach, Delft: VSSD.
  • Wallas, G. (1926, 1970) ‘The art of thought’, In: Vernon P.E. (ed.) Creativity, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Gordon, W. (1976) Synectics, The Development of Creative Capacity, New York: Collier.
  • Buijs, J. and Valkenburg, R. (2005, 3rd ed.) Integrale Product Ontwikkeling, Utrecht: Lemma

Figure 2: Example of an analogy; King Fisher and ...
Shinkansen Bullet Train


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