It is possible to develop inventive design solutions by looking for analogies in other contexts.
An analogy is defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as:
Two important points are that:
One may say too that analogies “…constitute an uncommon juxtaposition of the familiar and the unusual.” [Cas07]
Here are some examples of famous discoveries/inventions that resulted from analogical reasoning.
Research has also found a strong correlation between analogy and metaphor on the one hand, and design creativity on the other [Cas07]. Metaphors can:
Successfully reasoning by analogy requires two kinds of knowledge: a deep knowledge of the design problem, and a deep knowledge of many other kinds of natural and artificial objects from/to which one may analogize.
This implies that it is very important to take the time to study and reason about a design problem before starting to think about solutions. Also, it's very important to have as broad an experience base as possible.
The best designers will constantly revisit the problem as they attempt to solve it, not only for verification purposes, but to reinforce their understanding of the problem to promote analogical thinking. The best designers also tend to be well-travelled and well-read, having worked in many different areas; this broadens their experience base and facilitates analogical reasoning.
The general principle of reasoning by analogy is to study a problem with the goal of looking for similarities between it and other problems you already know how to solve. Don't limit yourself to thinking only about structure, but think also about function (especially), shape, manufacturability, materials, etc.
As you start to think of analogies to the problem, list the solutions to the problems that you've identified. Once you have a few of these, revisit each solution and try to borrow concepts that may apply to the problem you have to solve.
There is a branch of philosophy concerned with this kind of reasoning, called synectics; a fair amount of information on this topic is available through the Web (try Google to find out more).