How did a Fairy Tale become Design Thinking?

The Beanstalk Tools

Fairy tales are good illustrations of the effects of memes. Coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a meme refers to a cultural concept, an idea, a style or behaviour that survives the transmisson from person to person within a culture. Many of the fairy tales we know today came to us after decades and even centuries of telling and re-telling, having survived those periods in the past when oral transmission was the only means stories were told and spread. When stories are retold, the story tellers would naturally re-tell them in the way they like best, with contents edited in accordance to their own preferences, likely based on the reactions they most enjoy from their audiences. In this way, story tellers and audiences shape these tales and how they evolve. These fairy tales therefore came to us with contents that have survived generations of editing and selection. Their perseverance surely means something more than just mere childlike entertainment?

Like you probably, I have heard or read the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” some time in my childhood. Back then, like you probably, I did not give it much thought. It was just another interesting, entertaining story. But in 2007, I attended James Bonnet’s story-writing masterclass seminar and then read his book “Stealing Fire From the Gods” (Bonnet, 2006). I never look at fairy tales in quite the same way again and definitely, “Jack and the Beanstalk” became something very meaningful in my life.

In Bonnet’s interpretation of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, the bags of gold, the hen that lays the golden eggs as well as the magic harp represents the resolution of a problem through the released of the potentials of the individual’s inner creative forces. The problem in the story was of course the fact that Jack and his mother were penniless. It was a simple, easy to understand “stand-in” for any problem that a person may need to solve. The magic beans represented the creative inspiration that was obtained at the expense of a practical cow. While the impractical act leads to dire consequences for Jack in the form of the punishment he got from his mother, “the isolation and hunger led to the awakening of the creative imagination, the beanstalk. The creative imagination, which can bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious worlds, put [an individual] in touch with his creative unconscious self and the chance to recover some of that lost, unrealised potential”. However, the path to the creative potentials was met with difficulties and obstacles that were represented by the ugly giant. Bonnet saw the real life obstacles in the internal negative energies and forces such as fears or inertia that prevented the release of the potential treasures. Jack’s adventures that resulted in the return of the treasures was in Bonnet’s interpretation therefore, a story about the inner struggle of an individual in overcoming his internal devils that resulted in the release of the hidden potentials of his creativity.

As with many creative resolution, the idea or the initial inspiration, would often seemed silly and highly impractical, like the exchange of a practical cow that could have been exchanged for monies which would have solved the immediate needs of the mother and the child. But Jack, the dreamy Jack, instead of doing the practical, rational and “proper and right” thing, followed his inspiration and, what Bonnet did not actually mentioned, followed his “judgement” to pursue an illogical and highly impractical path that ultimately led to a better and longer term resolution of the problem.

This judgement and personal choice involved the sacrifice of some immediate comforts, as represented by the punishment from the mother: the hunger and the isolation suggesting that the endeavour to connect with our creative subconscious is often a difficult and lonely one. What Bonnet also did not mention, was that in the process, the problem had been redefined. From the “we are running out of cash and need immediate monies to allow us to obtain our basic necessities and needs”, the problem that was ultimately resolved was the family’s broader and in fact, more basic problem of poverty. We will revisit this point later.

Having been a designer all my working life, Bonnet’s interpretation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” became an inspiration for me to cristalise many of my own personal values, believes and concepts about design thinking into a set of ten tools which I called “The Beanstalk Creative Actions”.