T-shirt graphic 3x3 blue stars with one green

The T-Shirt
That Makes
More Creative


Update (2019-03-08): This is a classic post when I ran my blog like a magazine, so it has an individual full-page layout. I was younger and much less wiser at the time, so more susceptible to believing a single psychology paper. Still, I like the graphics I made!

If psychology has taught me one thing, it is that large changes in human behaviour can be induced with seemingly tiny, irrelevant changes. The effect described here is a superb demonstration of how to organize your work environment to be more creative.

I also followed this one through and made it into a T-shirt that (as we will prove) makes you more creative.


I came upon this experiment in a snappy psychology book1, and then looked up the paper. Four German psychologists, Förster, Friedman, Butterbach, and Sassenberg (hereafter FFB&S), investigated several ways to make people more creative2. They employed some unwitting test subjects (they should always be unwitting) and presented them with a couple of scenarios that they believed would change their ability to be creative.

In one experiment, FFB&S placed 34 non-psychology students through a simple test in a simple room — they gave them 2 minutes to answer:

“How many uses can you invent for a brick?”
e.g. Building a house Juggling Cooking an egg in the desert

Whilst a bit obscure, this is actually a standard test of creativity in the world of psychology. It's useful because something subjective like ‘creativity’ is hard to measure directly, but checking the solutions someone comes up with is a very good metric.


The students were randomly split between two different test environments — here’s an A/B illustration, see if you can spot the only difference:

White room with grey carpet, desk, chair, windowsill with plant, and painting with 12 green Xs in a grid
White room with grey carpet, desk, chair, windowsill with plant, and painting with 11 green Xs and one yellow X in a grid

Yes, that's right — the only difference was that one X in the painting was yellow in B. They were simply lead into the room, sat down at the desk, and asked to work on the brick task for two minutes. It’s unlikely they consciously focused on the painting for any amount of time, and were even “probed for suspicions” afterwards to check they didn't have any expectations.

And yet that one yellow X had a very noticeable effect.

The Results

The creativity of each solution that each participant found was rated on a scale from 1 to 9 by FFB&S, and associates — where, for example, ‘building a house’ is 1 and ‘cooking an egg’ is 9. Here's what they found between the two groups:

Average Creativity Rating

What's more impressive is the (unexpected) difference in the number of solutions produced:

Average Number of Solutions

So that’s more ideas at a higher quality — a total win for such a tiny change in the environment. If this effect extends into more natural creativity then there are huge implications, not just for the artists in the world, but all of us.

If anything, it proves that uniformity destroys creativity — perhaps something we instinctively know, judging by the universal dread of office cubicles.

The real world is of course a lot more complex and confusing than the plain white office with a single booklet on the desk, but we can take inspiration from this study and rearrange our environments nonetheless. Hence, the T-shirt.


I drew an image in the style of the Xs and printed it on to a t-shirt with spreadshirt.co.uk. However, unless you like looking at your chest a lot, it'll work more effectively on people looking at you:

The effect of the t-shirt on observers

So my ‘T-shirt that makes you more creative’ works — when I'm wearing it. But you can add the graphic to wherever you want, from wall poster to desktop background to sticker. Here's the graphic:

Hopefully though I've inspired you to be creative and draw your own!

— Adam


59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman (2010)

A fast-paced ‘scientific self-help book’, very much worth the (little) time to read it. Offers a ton of similar ‘easy’ techniques, rapidly summarized. (link: my amazon affiliates)"

Automatic effects of deviancy cues on creative cognition by Förster, Friedman, Butterbach, and Sassenberg (2005)

The referred paper, it is Experiment 3 that features the brick creativity task and the paintings of Xs. Unfortunately you will probably need an academic login to access it.