Part of being creative is figuring out when to demonstrate your creativity. When is it appropriate to exhibit creative ideas? When can you do something that’s different than normal? Should you always try and add your own spin to things? If you’ve asked these questions, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of creativity stemming exercises, but my favourite so far is the 30 Circles Test because it deals with creativity and permission.

Bob McKim, a Stanford professor and creativity researcher, came up with the test where participants are given a paper with 30 blank circles on it. They have three minutes to fill in those circles however the want.

No specific instructions are given on how they should fill in the circles. They aren’t told whether they can use one or more circle in the same idea, or if they can use words, repetitive pictures, etc.

They are simply told to “fill in” the circles.

This tests two main things: the quantity and the quality of ideas. How many circles did you fill in? Are all your thoughts along the same line or do they differ? Are they generic round objects (balls, sun, face, eye) or did you create a different shape using the circle?

To no surprise, when I took the test I started drawing a soccer ball and a basketball. Once I got over that, I started to panic as my timer was counting down. I only managed to fill in 15 circles, and they definitely aren’t anything special. See for yourselves:


Although the results of my test might have been a little disheartening (and by “might” I mean they were), I like this exercise because it makes you think about rules. The lack of direction left room for creativity, but I didn’t use that to my advantage.

In retrospect, I would go back and use more of the circles to my advantage by changing the shape or using more than one per drawing.

Creativity has a lot to do with – excuse my cliche – thinking outside the box. The 30 Circles Test was helpful because it showed me that it’s okay to not follow the “rules” sometimes. Or, more specifically, that you can make up your own rules. Personally I think it’s better to take a risk and produce something that’s creative and different. No one wants to see the same thing they always see (smiley faces, sun, balls, etc). People want to see interesting and novel things, and sometimes I think it’s the fear of being different and “wrong” that prevents creativity.

Obviously there are situations in life where rules must be followed, but I think there is usually a lot of room for you to put your own spin on things. For me, the first step in being creative is giving yourself permission to do so, and the 30 Circles Test illustrates this perfectly.