Look to the future, look to the past, look up to a higher system level, and look down to a lower system level – these are all part of the Nine Screens approach. Nine Screens can trigger our creativity by forcing us to consider creativity challenges from different vantage points. It’s a matrix-based concept that considers creativity challenges from both system level and time perspectives. 

Suppose you wish to design a ladder that prevents people from slipping and falling. Using the Nine Screens approach, we start by placing the design challenge in the center of the matrix. If we consider the problem from a past, present, and future perspective, and from subsystem, system, and supersystem perspectives, we recognize the following:

  • From a subsystem perspective, we start with the rungs and look to the past, the present, and the future. Earlier ladders were made of wood, a naturally slip-resistant material. Current designs use metal steps with serrated surfaces.  Future designs might use adhesives on the surface or “click-into” cleats.
  • From a system perspective, earlier wooden ladders offered superior slip resistance due to wood’s higher coefficient of friction. Current ladders are mostly made of aluminum or fiberglass. Future ladders might use a single rung that is raised or lowered electrically or hydraulically.
  • From a higher system level perspective (we call this the supersystem), we can redesign or modify the material retrieval environment. Early warehouses had all materials stacked on the first floor (ladders were unnecessary). Present warehouses use forklifts or automated storage systems that retrieve items from shelves without the need for ladders. Future warehouses might incorporate underground storage facilities that raise goods to floor level, or even flying forklifts. These future approaches suggest completely new products, and they stimulate our thinking to perhaps create new products replacing the ladder altogether.


Warehouse with all items on lower levels not requiring ladders.

Forklifts that eliminate need for climbing ladder.

Underground storage systems.

Flying forklifts.


Wooden ladders offering improved step friction and improved hand grip friction surface.

Design a slip-proof ladder.

Single rung that elevates person using electrical or hydraulic power.


Wooden step offering improved step coefficient of friction.

Metal surface with serrations on step.

Different step surface configuration.

Application of adhesive to step surface.

Click–into cleats on ladder steps.





Nine Screens Applied To Slip-Proof Ladder Design.  The concept looks to lower and higher system levels, and to the past, present, and future to create a matrix with nine “screens.”  The Nine Screens force new creativity perspectives.

Each of the above “screens” allows us to consider the design challenge from different perspectives. Some will be useful as tools for triggering new creative inspiration; others may not be. The concept is to boost our creativity by looking beyond the creative challenge as we currently see it.

Looking to the future is easy to understand; looking to the past for creative inspiration may not be. Consider the Gatling Gun, a great example of how engineers solved a complex problem by turning to the past. The end of World War II saw the advent of jet aircraft. Much faster than propeller-driven aircraft, the new jets required gun systems with much higher firing rates than those used by World War II fighters.

To meet this new requirement engineers developed and evaluated several concepts, but none were successful. Ultimately they looked to the past, and in particular, the Civil War era Gatling Gun. Way back in 1898, an electrically-driven Gatling Gun fired at an unprecedented 3,000 shot per minute rate. There was no need in the 1800s for such a high firing rate, but that all changed with jet aircraft.

The US Air Force incorporated the Gatling Gun concept for its new aircraft gun systems, and today nearly all modern combat aircraft use this 150-year-old design as the basis for their high-rate-of-fire guns. It’s a clear case of looking to the past for a solution to a modern creativity challenge.

A Civil War Era Gatling Gun.   Dr. Gatling’s genius was to use six rotating guns, with their bolts actuated by an elliptical cam path in a common housing.  It was an idea that was clearly ahead of its time.

A Modern Aircraft Gun System.   These modern gun systems use the same principle pioneered by Dr. Gatling in 1861.   Engineers turned to this older concept to provide the high firing rates required by high performance aircraft.

Nine Screens can be a very powerful tool to stimulate our creativity. By considering creativity challenges from both system level and time perspectives, we greatly increase our range of inspiration. It’s a great tool for taking our thinking into areas we might not have otherwise considered. Nine Screens and over a dozen other creativity stimulation techniques are detailed in the Eogogics Unleashing Engineering Creativity workshop, which includes the Unleashing Engineering Creativity book (also available separately). 

If you’d like to learn more about creativity stimulation techniques, you can take a free, live web-based course I will be teaching at noon Eastern on April 25. It’s a real class, not a sales webinar. You’ll go away with a good, practical perspective on how to apply TRIZ, one of the techniques discussed in the book and the workshop, to solve a real-world engineering challenge. If you like, you can also take part in our engineering design contest, with prizes up to $1,000 in value, which will be announced at the web class. For more information or (free) registration, visit  Just one hour long, the class will be both exciting and fun. Hope you can make it.

Joe Berk, Principal Eogogics Faculty, teaches Process FMEA, Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA), engineering statistics, design of experiments, statistical process control, quality management, cost reduction, engineering creativity, technical management/leadership, and technical communications. Before starting his training/consulting practice, he held senior management positions in engineering, quality assurance, and manufacturing. He’s the author of ten books on engineering, including Unleashing Engineering Creativity. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University and an MBA from Pepperdine University.