Sometimes bosses and clients treat creative types as if they were McDonald’s locations that sold supersized ideas. The marketing VP drives by the door, sticks her head in and places an order. “I want a big idea that will highlight our partnership with “Save the Goats” AND move some designer tote bags.”*
You want fries with that?
The need for on-demand creative is one of the most challenging things in the retail marketing business. And it’s also one of the most energizing. Think about it. The bar has been set high. The clock is ticking. Butterflies fill the stomach. Plus other clichés.
And what if you, the person tending the idea drive-thru window, are on your own? Suppose there are no colleagues around and there is no time for a brainstorm (which can actually be a good thing).
You can do it. Here are nine ways to drive your own creativity:
Lose the distractions.
There are certain things that are sure to distract you. Your computer, for one, is a constant invitation to check your email, browse the web and otherwise do focus-killing things.
But there are many other environmental factors that can prove distracting, like a messy room where the clutter interrupts your workflow or constantly nags you with the thought of the chores you need to do. Find somewhere clean and serene.
Or just go somewhere else.
Sometimes the best thing to boost creativity is to just leave and work somewhere fresh—especially somewhere like a coffee shop, where you are likely to have unexpected encounters or experiences that may prove inspiring.
Look beyond your project category for inspiration.
If your project is, say, designing a landing page for a new travel site, the worst thing you could do would be to just look at other travel sites. You’ll wind up anchoring your mind to things that have already been done, which is a surefire way to stop creativity in its tracks.
Indeed, in this case you ought to look beyond travel altogether. Instead, surround yourself with painting, sculpture, book covers, logos, graphic novels and children’s games to get your gears turning, then return to travel site once you have a concept in mind.
Play with words.
If there is one thing that Sigmund Freud taught creatives, it is that you can tap into the roots of your creativity through forms of word play like free association – letting your mind come up with all the words that it associates with a given core term. The results can be unexpected and inspiring.
The more structured version of this is called a mind map: begin by writing down your key term in the middle of a piece of paper, then start writing down every other word that jumps to your mind in association with the ones before it, linking them with lines.
The Dada alternative is a version of Exquisite Corpse: write down a bunch of words vaguely associated with your topic, each on its own piece of paper. Put them all in a hat and then pick out pairs at random. The unexpected combinations are sure to drive creativity.
When you’re in the brainstorming stage, the last thing you want to be is critical. The point is to get as many thoughts and ideas out there as possible, including the foolish ones (which may end up morphing into the best ones, anyway).
Give in to the creative flow and resist the urge to edit and refine – an important step, to be sure, but one that should wait until later.
Your mind is extended and stretched by the tools you use. So choose beyond the computer screen and keyboard.
Computers prompt the “edit and refine” part of your brain, since the “delete” and “undo” buttons are always within easy reach. Using an actual pencil, pen or paintbrush, on the other hand, encourages you to go with the flow.
It is important to get out of your own head. Of course, this can be difficult when brainstorming solo, but certainly not impossible. There are many techniques for shifting perspectives to, for instance, the consumer of the product or brand image you’re designing.
The renowned design firm IDEO even created a set of cards with exercises to help you in this process, like “create a character-rich story line describing the context of use for a product or service.”
Get some Zzzzzzzzzs.
The mechanics of sleep and dreaming largely remain a mystery to us. What we do know is that, when in dream mode, the brain not only recharges but also makes connections between ideas at several degrees of logical remove from one another.
This results in dreams being weird, but also accounts for the fact that some of mankind’s great epiphanies have occurred during slumber. If you return to your ideas after a night’s rest, you may find yourself seeing them from a whole new perspective.
Solo brainstorming is now an industry in itself. There are probably a dozen apps on the market, claiming to help you think creatively and organize your thoughts (sometimes for a substantial fee). I generally approach these tools with a healthy degree of skepticism, as I think that everybody has the potential to brainstorm effectively simply by using the above techniques.
However, there are a few undeniably handy apps worth mentioning. MindNode helps you come up with very clean, very productive mind maps.
Moodboard is a great tool for assembling inspiring images relating to your project.
And for those times when you are working as part of a team, Candor is a nifty app. It allows team members to write down their ideas secretly before sharing them aloud, thus preventing the tendency for groupthink and other forms of thought conformism to occur.
*Allow me to introduce Goat Bags. Boom! How hard was that?