Being there and not being there

One of the moist brutal – and therefore most helpful – physical contradictions we can tackle is one of existence and non-existence. We often find (having vigorously waved the magic wand of ideal outcome) that what we really, really want is for some particular object, thing, component or other thingamabob to be there and not be there. TRIZ will lead us to consider the use of separation principles to solve such a contradiction. In this case a useful trick (which is very much linked to inventive principle #6:  Universality) is to consider a system component that delivers different functions at different times, especially when we have identified a pair of there-and-not-there contradictions. Although, strictly speaking, the component still exists at all times, from a functional perspective it has ‘disappeared’ and been replaced by something functionally different – and ideally useful in its new functional guise.

A folding penknife is an example of this:


  • the handle of the knife should be there (when we are cutting things) and not there (when we are not cutting things
  • the blade cover should be there (when we are not cutting things) and not there (when we are cutting things

The two contradictions are resolved by combing the required functions into a single component that only delivers one of the two functions at a time.

But what about situations in which we cannot separate in time? There is a useful line of attack when we are dealing with systems that interact with people. The human sensing system is complex (especially when we include the processing going on in the brain) and has behaviours and characteristics that can be exploited to resolve physical contradictions. Here is one of my favourite examples:

This stamp is one of set that celebrates a number of British aircraft designers. The Supermarine Spitfire, the most famous creation of its designer Ronald Mitchell,  dominates the image. And yet Mitchell himself is also there – and not there. The stamp itself does not change, but our perception of it can. It’s (almost but not quite) enough to turn me into a stamp collector.

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