Over the years, technology has transformed how we execute ideas. When I started as a musician in the late 80s, I worked in recording studios with racks of effects, expensive reel-to-reel recorders and massive mixing desks. These days I’ve got more power and flexibility in my laptop. Adobe’s products opened up massive creative opportunities for me as an art director. And FiftyThree’s Paper app on my iPad is my go-to illustration tool. But these applications are all about creative execution rather than helping you with the creative idea itself. That’s where Seenapse comes in. It’s an inspiration engine. And I caught up with its founder Rafael Jimenez – a top Mexican ad man – to find out more about it.

What led to you being interested in creativity?

For some reason, since my teenage years, I’ve always liked to try my hand at the things that I enjoy consuming, or experiencing, like literature, music, cinema. I lacked the talent and discipline to do something serious, though. But then I discovered certain technologies that could compensate for my shortcomings, like drum machines, sequencers and synthesizers, and later design software. And then I was able to share what I had in my head with other people, which made me very happy (not sure if the people I shared it with were as happy, though.)

For me technology has been a great enabler

So for me technology has been a great enabler; and later, when I started working on advertising, I became very interested in the role technology has not only in producing or crafting the ideas, but in the ideation process itself. So I started paying attention at what people were doing when brainstorming, for example. Where their cultural references came from. And it seemed obvious that most of them came from advertising itself, and this inbreeding, of course, leads to weaker ideas. Just like genetic diversity is vital for healthy organisms, memetic diversity is vital for healthy ideas.

Naturally, I started to think how could I use technology, and particularly the internet, to improve on this process. In theory, everything is already in place to expose everybody to the most varied stuff, and benefit immensely from that. But I found two big roadblocks to ideation: one, the vastness of the web and the inherent low signal-to-noise ratio. The other, which emerged as a response to the first one, is that algorithms are constantly trying to select the stuff/people you’re exposed to, in order to make it/them more relevant to you. It seems like a good idea, but it encloses you in your own personal cultural bubble, and as we discussed, that doesn’t lead to healthy ideas (or a healthy worldview, for that matter). 

It was really frustrating, knowing that surely somewhere on the web was something that would click with my half-formed ideas and turn them into something more interesting, but with the current organizational paradigms there seemed to be no easy way to find them. 

[clickToTweet tweet=”Mental associations are the raw materials of ideas” quote=”Mental associations are the raw materials of ideas”]

You launched an idea tool – Seenapse – that maps the connections between things. What’s the thinking behind it?

The insight behind Seenapse is that mental associations are the raw materials of ideas. The pieces of knowledge are very important, of course, but the sudden flash in your mind when two apparently unrelated things come together to create an interesting, third thing, is provided by the association. It’s just like what Max Ernst said about collage, that it’s not about the materials but about the spark of poetry that it’s produced with the chance meeting of two unrelated things on an unfamiliar plane.


Interestingly, the nature of the web kind of precludes this chance meeting: we are either exposed to things that are closely related to one another, or to completely random things. In the first case, the creative potential is close to zero. And random stuff can be fantastic, but the chance that it will be helpful for your current task is also close to zero.

We decided to create a platform using mental associations as its organizing principle

We decided to create a platform using mental associations as its organizing principle, the connections between things as you mentioned. These connections are of course subjective— someone might connect William Tell and Louis Vuitton, for example, because they saw a particular Vuitton window display that reminded them of William Tell. The beauty of this is that this association might trigger an idea in another person. It can lead them to a completely new avenue of thought, because they don’t have the same cultural background or experiences as the person who created the association. It’s a bit like what happens during a brainstorm session: someone says something that makes you think of another thing, and an idea pops in your head. But with two big differences: what gets recorded is the association, not the idea itself; and the diversity of a community of users from all over the world surely beats what you or your team can bring to the table.

Also, associations, as opposed to actual ideas, are infinitely reusable, and are capable of triggering completely different ideas in different persons. So this ever-growing collection of human mental associations is becoming a fantastic resource for creativity. We like to say that you won’t find the solution to your problem in Seenapse, but will definitely find something that will trigger novel ideas to solve it. The ideas you come up with by using Seenapse are neither in the platform or in your head, but somewhere in between.


How are people currently using it to help them come up with ideas?

We have anecdotes from writers, ad people, film critics, and many other creative professionals. In ad agencies, for example, it’s being used both by planners to provide the creative team with divergent inspiration, and by the creative guys themselves. They just go in and search for terms closely related to the task at hand, e.g. “car” or “automobile” if they’re working on a campaign for a car (which, by the way, is a query you wouldn’t do in Google, because you already know the results will be obvious and generic). Seenapse returns mental associations (contributed by users) that have to do with cars, but not in a direct way. Clicking on the different associations leads them to non-obvious, divergent paths, and somewhere along the way ideas start to pop in their heads, and they just write them down. This is what we call the passive use of Seenapse. 

Other users like to add their own mental associations to this big rhizome, and then see what other people connect to them, taking their thinking to unexpected directions. This is a more active way of using Seenapse, and you can actually invite people to connect stuff to yours, without any briefing, so that you benefit from their free, unbiased associations.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Our mission is to help to significantly increase the quantity and quality of ideas ” quote=”Our mission is to help to significantly increase the quantity and quality of ideas “]

What’s your ultimate aim for Seenapse?

Our mission is to help to significantly increase the quantity and quality of the ideas that are needed in the world. When you want information, you know you can go to Google. When you want inspiration, on the spot, it’s hard to know what to use. We want to be the go-to platform for on-demand inspiration.

Will we be seeing it live beyond the website?

We see Seenapse’s current incarnation as the main hub of activity, with many different things connected to it. For example, we are developing a paid version, which will be team-oriented, and that will be connected to other platforms such as Slack, Hipchat, or Trello. We are already testing it and clients tell us it saves them three to five days of brainstorming. That’s a lot. There’s also a mobile game in the works that uses the mental associations already in Seenapse and reconnects them randomly. If the player can come up with a valid association for the new pair, they score points and this new associations gets fed back to Seenapse. And many other things are on the pipeline.


Do you ever think technology can replace humans in beings in conceptual thinking?

Eventually AIs will be able to conceptualize, no doubt. How relevant those concepts will be to humans, at the beginning, should be interesting to see. But in any case they will help us solve problems creatively. Now, how far off is that? It’s hard to tell. My guess is that several years, but if you had asked me a year ago how far were computers from beating a Go champion, I’d have answered 5 to ten years. It turned out to be one.

Eventually AIs will be able to conceptualize

I think it’s still a very hard problem to solve. Here’s a simple example from the recent US presidential debates. Minutes after Trump uttered “bad hombre”, there were memes showing a picture of the movie “The Three Amigos”, with the caption “Bad Hombres”. If you try to extract the rule or the formula for this, it’d be “it’s an adjective in Spanish coupled with a noun in English”. The search space for a meaningful joke is so vast that it’s useless. And yet a human could come up with that in seconds, and even more interestingly, millions of other humans could recognize the joke immediately. So, I think we are still way better at this game than machines.

How can readers get involved? 

Using it. It’s free! And if you add your own mental associations, you will be giving back to the community of Seenapsers. Invite people from different cultural backgrounds. Tell us what you think, and if it helped you. We love to hear stories of people who have learned to extract a lot of value from Seenapse. That’s what keeps us up into the wee hours working, with big smiles on our faces.

Go and have a play with Seenapse and let us know how you get on BirssPersonal Creativityai,associations,ideas,inspiration,search,seenapse,technology
Over the years, technology has transformed how we execute ideas. When I started as a musician in the late 80s, I worked in recording studios with racks of effects, expensive reel-to-reel recorders and massive mixing desks. These days I’ve got more power and flexibility in my laptop. Adobe's products opened...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.