How To Think Like A Category Designer And Unlock Breakthrough Ideas

Category Designers think differently than everyone else. And they are successful when they move a person's thinking from the old way to the new and different way.

Read the following words (slowly) and just notice what happens in your brain.

  • Guns
  • Abortion
  • Flat earth
  • Billionaires
  • Democrats
  • Republicans
  • Free-speech
  • Climate change

What did you notice?

Did you have any immediate reactions? Do you already have an opinion?

Category Design Is A Game Of Thinking

Thinking about thinking is the most important kind of thinking for Category Designers.

You are responsible for changing the way a reader, customer, consumer, or user “thinks.” And you are successful when you’ve moved their thinking from the old way to the new and different way you are educating them about.

But what is “thinking?”

According to Roger Martin, arguably the world’s #1 management thinker, “thinking” is when you look at the world through an existing model. It’s how you use learnings from the past to make sense of the present. So when another driver cuts you off on the highway, you instantly apply your past experiences to the present and swerve to avoid an accident.

Your reflex saves your life.

But almost all thinking is “reflexive” rather than “reflective.”

Consider the difference we laid out in our mini-book The Art Of Fresh Thinking:

  • “Reflexive” thinking: Having an unconscious “reflex” in response to ideas or opinions.
  • “Reflective” thinking: Taking a moment to consciously reflect on how the past may have created a preexisting mental model keeping you from considering a new and different future.

Reflexive thinking causes a scarcity of fresh thinking in the world because it relies on mental scaffolding built in the past.

Some of the smartest people stopped reflective thinking a long time ago. I would even go so far as to say that being declared a smart person is almost certain to make you stupid. Because when you get called “smart,” you become entrenched in your comfortable past. When you’re smart, you know things. And most people who know things are called “experts.” Which means they already know. And when you already know, by definition you are using old mental scaffolding to consider new and different futures.

Which makes you stupid.

So, don’t strive to become an expert (ever!) — it’s the enemy of fresh thinking.

Here’s How Category Designers Think

You are presented with information.

You become conscious of which model you are using to evaluate the information (which “lens” you are looking through).

And then before you react, respond, or give in to your reflexive nature, you pause and first consider which mental model you’re using to examine the information being presented. You train yourself to be curious, to ask why, to suspend your past opinions, beliefs, and mental models, and to open the aperture of your mind and consider something different.

That’s “thinking.”

Our friend, Mike Maples Jr., calls this “Backcasting.”

“Legendary builders must stand in the future and pull the present from the current reality to the future of their design. So an important additional job of the builder is to persuade early like-minded people to join a new movement.”

But how do you give people context that excites them enough to meet you in the future and join a new movement?

You give them a new Point Of View they can grab onto — and repeat to their friends, who will tell their friends, and so on, and so on.

Here are a few powerful examples:

  • “Reproductive justice”
  • “Equal pay for equal work”
  • “Undocumented citizens”

As we explained in our mini-book The Power Of A Point Of View, the most effective POVs aim conventional thinking and conversation in a wildly different direction. Oftentimes, it’s hard for the masses to understand (or accept) what this new POV might mean for the world.

Here’s an easy exercise to start thinking reflectively.

You have to understand which direction you are facing:

  • Forecasting = Standing in the past, looking forward, thinking about the future.
  • Backcasting = Standing in a different future, and living “as if” that different future already exists today.

This might seem like an inconsequential nuance, BUT, it is the starting point that defines the entire trajectory of your company and/or creative act. If you start with the way the world “is,” and then try to make the way it “is,” different, you are making an unconscious decision to improve within the context of a game someone else invented.

You are competing.

But if you start with the way it “could be,” if you assume the possible and stand in the future, you give yourself the opportunity to write new rules for the new game you are inventing.

You are unencumbered by the past and present.

You are creating.

To create fresh ideas, you have to know the difference between Obvious & Non-Obvious Content.

And here’s why:

  • Obvious Content: The art of speaking to what people already think and believe (catering to the reader’s reflexive nature).
  • Non-Obvious Content: The art of educating people on what they haven’t thought about or decided they believe yet (requesting their reflective nature).

It’s crucial to understand which of these two consumption states you are creating for, and where you are “meeting the reader” — long before you write even a single word.

Because if you try feeding Non-Obvious content (that requires reflection and challenging one’s own mental models) to someone in an Obvious (reflexive) state, you will fail to get their attention and/or they’ll likely become frustrated at your inability to cater to their preconceived notions. And conversely, if you try feeding Obvious content to someone starving for Non-Obvious insights, you will burden them with boredom and/or they’ll likely become frustrated with your wasting their time, even insulting them (“This is so Obvious! Make me think!”).

  • Reflexive thinkers want Obvious content.
  • Reflective thinkers want Non-Obvious content.

Becoming a reflective thinker who knows who you are creating for, and what their expectations are (and why), is half the battle to becoming a legendary Category Designer.