How to Get A Good Idea: 196 Idea Generation Techniques, 33 Expert Exercises, and 25 Resources
A Compendium of Creative Exercises
Creativity is one of the highest valued skills in the job market today. As automation takes over more complex activities, coming up with big ideas becomes increasingly important. Moreover, since the creative revolution in advertising, from 1960 onward, the ability to make ads that surprise, impress, and resonate on an emotional level with customers has been the most sought after talent. In fact, creative makes nearly 50% of the performance results of an ad.
Fortunately, creativity is learnable. By using deliberate practice and actively exercising your idea muscle, you can make creative that outperforms anything you’ve ever made before, over and over again. The trick is to practice every day. Even when you don’t think you need a good idea for anything, just practice. James Altucher suggests writing 10 ideas a day, but even one is fine. You just need to maintain the practice.
To make your practice easier, we asked over 30 experts for their creative processes and added quite a few ourselves. There are two recommended ways to use this guide:
- Choose a technique at random when you hit a creative block.
- Systematically try each technique until you’ve gone through them all, then refine your usage of the ones that were most fruitful for you.
Table of Contents
- The General Method to Generate Ideas
- Expert Exercises for Idea Generation
- Themes Across Expert Exercises
- Academic and Classical Idea Generation Techniques
- Recommended Resources for Idea Generation
Much like content in general, creative exercises vary in their effectiveness by the idiosyncrasies of their user. One technique might make you a dozen brilliant ideas while that same technique fails to make one good one for someone else.
The General Method to Generate Ideas
That being said, there is a general process to ideation that is supported by the majority of masters and academics alike. The system was formalized in 1940 in a book aptly named A Technique for Producing Ideas by the first chairman of the Advertising Council, James Webb Young.
The method is relatively simple, yet difficult to implement:
- Gather raw material for your mind: Collect general knowledge across all industries, disciplines, and occupations, and specific knowledge about your company, customer, product, or problem all in one place. Young suggests index cards, but today, a digital notebook works just as well.
- Mental Digestion: Really think about your source materials and connect pieces of information together however you can. Write down all your ideas no matter how small, getting as many ideas down as you can until you’re mentally burned out.
- Sleep and Be Merry: Stop thinking about the subject entirely, spend time leisurely, doing what you enjoy most, then get a good nights’ sleep. It’s crucial to turn your brain off.
- The idea cometh from out of the blue: After a long enough period of rest, the idea will strike you in that notorious moment of lightning brilliance
- Judgment: Bring your idea to the most critical, judicious people who might break it down, expand it, refine it, and make it worthy of execution
The hardest part for most people is step five. You have a great idea, you tell everyone about it, then it’s slowly eaten away by their suggestions until you realize it’s impossible to execute or no longer worth doing. On the other hand, today you no longer need people to judge your ideas directly- you can quickly validate them on a live audience using ads.
Expert Exercises for Idea Generation
That’s part of the reason it’s best to generate as many ideas as you can before burning out. You can rapidly evaluate their effectiveness. On top of that, it typically takes tens or hundreds of bad ideas to get to a good one. To help you facilitate the general process, here are 31 expert procedures for becoming an idea machine.
1. Bill Grundfest’s, legendary founder of NYC’s Comedy Cellar, Golden Globe winning writer, and 3x Emmy Award Nominee, 10 Creative Approaches:
- Always ask yourself: who’s my audience?
- Always ask yourself: what’s my goal in creating this content?
- Always tell a Story. Even if it’s a painting, a dance, a joke. Especially if it’s a joke.
- Be audience-centric. The story, even if its about you, is really about the person watching…you are just a proxy.
- Work from the inside out. If something bothers you, it probably bothers a lot of other people too. Tell that story. You’ll be viewed as a magically insightful (when it’s really just complaining.)
- Minimum viable product. i.e.: before you write a script, just write 5 log lines (or quick sketches, or whatever your MVP version is) and pitch them to 10 people. Then write a short story version. Then outline. Then script.
- Iterate at each step of #6.
- Take a shower. Many great ideas are found there.
- Keep a note pad by your bed. Ideas not found in the shower are sometimes in your bed.
- Whenever you get that urge to create — ALWAYS create. Pull over to the side of the road if you must, stop eating, etc. That urge is the muse whispering it has a package for you. If you deny it, it will stop bringing you gifts. (If you never gave that urge, you are in the wrong business.)”
When leading teams of other creatives:
A) KINDNESS. ALWAYS. It produces innovation. And productivity. And
creativity. You MUST make it safe, even desirable- for people to suggest
the worst, dumbest, most radical ideas they have.
B) Give credit, don’t take credit. Its amazing what a team can produce if you
don’t care about who gets the credit.
C) Acknowledge people’s work. Thank them in at least a paragraph of words,
not just hey, thanks.
D) Overpay your team. It’s the BEST investment in your company.
E) Retain your team. Money isn’t what makes people stay. Their relationships with their boss and colleagues, so…
In sum: Do the above? You’ll get the best team and they will stay with you forever.
And your creative output will be best.
And you’ll be happier too.
2. Sam Harrison, Founder of Zingzone and author of several books on creativity, shares “a few quick and random responses”:
Put aside the first idea and keep going. ‘The first is the worst’ is often true, since it’s probably the same idea others would have if faced with the same problem or challenge. And if it turn out to be the best, you can always go back to it.
Explore more. Exploration, especially exploration outside of expected places, provides insights that lead to smart, fresh ideas. Keep a beginner’s mind. Pay attention. Browse. (Search to find what you were looking for; browse to find what you weren’t looking for.)
Ask more questions. Questions loosen the ligaments of cramped minds and lead to creative solutions. Play dumb and ask questions. Ask clients. Friends. Suppliers. Strangers. And when you’ve asked every question you can ask, force yourself to ask one more, for that’s often where the gold is found.
If your creative team has idea-generating sessions, don’t try to walk out with one great idea. As I talk about in my new book Creative Zing! generating ideas is about releasing while editing ideas is restraining. Telling participants to focus on generating one great idea puts a choke-hold on every creative mind in the room. Instead, before beginning an idea generation session, schedule a followup session to cull, edit and select the best idea(s). Idea generation should be about quantity, not quality.”
3. Noreen Lace, Professor of English Composition and Literature at California State University, Northridge suggests getting into deeply focused state:
“I’m a writer. I feel like when I’m in the flow — working/writing constantly, everything that happens around me strikes me as inspiration. Little snippets of conversation (eavesdropping) — this is a great way to get story ideas. People say some of the craziest things. Taking things out of context — again what people say. An antique in a modern space. A cat on a roof/bird on the ground. I saw a cat in the hardware store today!
Learning something new — always something new to add to a story if you’re constantly open to learning. Painting, baking, etc — engaging in other creative acts helps me shake something loose for writing.”
“I have a more structured approach to creativity a la Twyla Tharp. When I approach a project I get granular on the detail, making sure I understand the task, the product and the company better.
Next I look broader than the customer: do competitors have something similar? Is there any online feedback from customers? What do I need to be better?
Thereafter I start brainstorming, throwing around the wildest things on a blank sheet of paper until I get to an approach which ticks all the client needs — and
Information is important for me because it allows me to benchmark myself and my work. It also ensures that I am helping my clients remain competitive — I may not be in their industry but I need to know what’s going on.”
5. Willie Greer, Founder of The Product Analyst, offers his “fool-proof practices [when he] gets stuck:”
- I daydream. I let ideas come to me instead of me chasing after them. Being so focused on thinking of something new might actually give you zero
ideas. Forcing your brain to have an idea pronto is overwhelming. Whenever I need a new idea, I let my mind wander. If nothing comes up, I try to read a book, watch an inspirational video, or just sit there and do nothing.
- I ask questions. I ask myself ‘What is the one thing I can do to make things easier for my customers?’ or ‘If I was a customer of my company, what would I like to change or see more of?’ I also ask my staff too, many of them have ideas that they may be too shy to share in a meeting. Input from other people always helps.
- I write. As leaders, we often have a lot on our plates and on our minds. And a brain brimming with stuff won’t be able to take in any more. So, an effective solution I’ve found over the years is writing out whatever’s on my mind. A brain dump is a great way to release all those ideas so my head is ready for new ones.”
6. David Marquardt, Founder of Komyk.org supports down time:
“First I use my phone as a notebook. Every time I have an idea in any situation I immediately note it in my phone.
If I need to get new ideas I just take a day off. Maybe saturday or friday before work. Usually I wake up in the morning at 7 and start working out and listening to music. Then I breakfast and watch videos on YouTube to stay informed. Then I listen to a audio book in my car while driving to my workplace. Sometimes and really rare an idea pops up out of these videos and audiobooks. But the best ideas pop up on the day off. Fridays I just wake up on the same time, but don’t work out, don’t play music and even don’t look at my phone to answer emails. I just take my breakfast and will sit down on the couch and think. Or take a walk without thinking about taking a walk. After some time ideas just pop up one after another. It feels like the brain now has time to think about all the events which happened in the recent time.
“A book written about 10 years ago, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, advises people to do everything upside-down and backwards to inspire creativity. Since the world is feeling upside-down, my creativity is no longer blocked.
My creativity comes when I get out of my normal routine, take walks in nature, listen to inspiring podcasts, (My fave is Don’t Keep Your Day Job by Cathy Heller.), and formerly when I traveled. With everything turned upside down, and without normal social distractions, creativity has taken center stage in my life. I’m also a dog agility enthusiast and competitor. When you’re in the arena, life doesn’t exist outside of it. And, I’d often get very inspired, seemingly “out of the blue” ideas when I was away for the day competing.”
8. Rebecca Graham, Content Manager at Best Company says her “most effective tool is conversation with colleagues.
Back in the days when we were working in the office, my teammates and I took a walk around the block once a day and used that time to bounce ideas off of each other. Now, we message over Slack.
I find that explaining my ideas to someone else forces me to face gaps I had overlooked during my own brainstorming session. And they almost always introduce a new angle or insight for me to consider.
My second most effective method is letting an idea rest. It’s so frustrating to identify an amazing content idea only to hit a wall when it comes to pinpointing the execution details. To combat writer’s block, I keep a record of all of my ideas, then revisit them a day or two later. It’s amazing what our brains can do when given the time and space to rest.
9. Marissa Ryan, Founder & Managing Partner of VisualFizz says:
“I look for inspiration from creative work that others have done. Behance, dribbble, and pinterest (there are many others) are great places to look for inspiration. I keep several inspiration accounts that only serve to provide inspiration when I’m not sure what to create.
When searching for inspiration, I recommend that you don’t pinhole yourself when starting your search. Just because you need creative inspiration for a social media ad doesn’t mean you should only look at other social ads. Start with a wide range of creative genres, media types, and styles, and just scroll through for a few minutes at a time. It can be fun to follow the rabbit hole of related to this items. I recommend setting a 10–15 minute timeframe so that you don’t get lost in the scroll.
Better yet! Like, follow, and interact with the designs, layouts, and creative work that you do find inspiring. Just a few minutes of curating each day will result in a go-to source for inspiration in the future that’s custom tailored to you.”
10. Max Kimmel, Owner of One Shot Finance adds to Marissa’s methods:
“Creating a new idea from scratch is very difficult. A much easier goal is to take an existing idea, and use your unique thoughts and experience to modify it and make something truly unique. Whenever I’m struggling to think of ideas, I look around at what others are doing. I see what problems they’re solving, what they’re doing well, and what could be done better. I then see what my specific expertise would be able to do to help make their idea even better.
Occasionally I’ll also combine ideas from multiple sources. In that case, what I’m bringing to the table is the vision necessary to realize that 2 existing ideas go better together than they do apart. It’s also important to come up with completely original ideas- obviously that’s the preferred course of action — but when I struggle to do this, it helps to build on the ideas of others.”
11. Meghan Gardner, Director, Guard Up offers one good “creative tip”:
“Play. That’s how you come up with creative ideas for content and marketing. Because in this time of stress, play is the antidote.
So our team plays together every week. We play games, we make silly videos, we weave funny stories, and we laugh. Then we work. And the work is SO MUCH better for it.”
12. Rhea Henry, Digital Content & Communications Specialist at Energyrates.ca, builds on Meghan’s group emphasis:
“I find that having someone else to bounce ideas and comments off, works best. I know society as a whole is in love with the self-reliant artistic genius. But working on creative projects alone can prevent you from having a critical perspective of your work. Your mind knows how to make sense of the elements that you choose to incorporate into a project, but it may come off as esoteric when someone else looks at it.
Speaking to someone else about what you plan to pursue in terms of work, lets you find out any surprise elements you can enhance, that don’t work, or that you may have missed.
In terms of technique, artificial restraints are the best tools for discovering something new, and this goes for all art-forms. For a slogan, or something quick that will go on an image post — where people don’t intend to read — I try put new restrictions on the words that end up in the final project. For example, I’ll say all the words have to be X syllables long, or they must only start with one letter. Often, what results is something that can stick in the mind of the audience because you simplified it so much.”
13. Lydia McConnell, Founder & Creative Director of Le Chic Miami, shares her full creative process:
“I create expressive, hand-painted wooden earrings.When brainstorming for new collections I normally follow these steps:
- State the problem
- Gather data
- Redefine the problem
For example, when I was looking to design my new Spring Collection, I stated the problem, Spring Collection, I then went and researched trends to gather data. I searched for what was trending in fashion, jewelry, earrings, and home decor. I saw insects were trending so I then redefined the problem, Spring Insect Collection. From there I was able to brainstorm earring ideas having more direction. Finally, after brainstorming, I narrowed my choices down and began to create my new collection. This process helps me to break a large task, such as a new collection, into smaller steps which helps to streamline the process and make it not seem so daunting.”
“We have always used a “work-together/work-apart” brainstorming process that we’ve developed over the years. We meet as a team, discuss the parameters, goals and objectives of the assignment, then go off to our own corners and sketch and think about the project for a few days, then we regroup and share ideas and have an old-fashioned critique. You can do this in a conference room when you are not “sheltering in place”… but otherwise, you can do it via conference call. The important thing is that ideas are built upon, discarded, and at times combined and rearranged in a conceptual food processor. The best ones emerge from hybrid of inspiration that bounces back and forth among us.
As far as where do ideas come from? Everywhere, but usually not at your desk or dining room table or wherever you are now working. Ideas do come in the shower, they come on long walks with the dog and in the spaces in between your real life. They sit in the background and sneak out when you’re thinking or doing something else. But it’s like Louis Pasteur said, Chance favors the prepared mind.” You do need to do your prep and understand the problem you are trying to solve in order to get those wisps of good ideas.”
15. Lauren Mendoza, VP of marketing at Swipecast.com advocates business-driven best practices:
“It’s not hard to come up with a great idea, what’s really hard is to develop the habits that enable you to come up with it. As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things”.
The more things you have to connect, the better ideas will become. The quality and quantity of things you consume is a crucial factor in your ability to come up with good ideas. The more aware you are about what’s surrounding you, initiatives that are working in the market, and books you read to cultivate your knowledge, the more creativity is going to develop immediately once you put it to work.
Expose your ideas to a group of people, because the process of communicating an idea you’ve consumed in different formats by speaking, and writing, forces you to absorb the idea in a deeper way. You internalize it, you learn from it, and you will be able to adjust what needs to be adjusted. Be patient, ideas come to you when you least expect them, the more you force yourself to think and be creative, the more stuck you will get in the process of generating.
Learn to sense when an idea pops into your head, and have your imagination flow. Lastly, the most valuable ideas are the ones that solve people’s problems. Think about if the solution you are going to come up with is going to benefit the target you want to reach. It all comes from knowing that your idea has a purpose.”
- Clarify the question: Make sure you’re answering the right question
- Ideate: Brainstorming and divergent thinking with no judgement
- Develop: Selecting a good idea, digging into it, polishing and refining it
- Implement: Making steps to turn idea into reality, then executing those steps’
17. Lori Bloom, Founder, Blooming Colors Art:
“My process for ideas changes constantly. Sometimes something I see or hear will inspire me to begin a new piece of art. It could be as simple as someone commenting on a bee, flower,etc. or a piece of music I was listening to. I may choose one word to base my images off of and look up the definition in a dictionary or for what the meaning of the word is spiritually. Other times I will ask around for inspiration- asking friends for words or an animal. I find that some of my work is bright and light and the more recent pieces have been a bit darker, and I imagine that is part of how I reflect on the world around me.”
While the first 17 techniques above are somewhat broad and can be used across many use cases, the next 16 are more specific for marketing. That being said, these techniques can extrapolate and cross-pollinate into other fields, because at the end of the day, all ideas need marketing.
18. Ashton Newell, Media Relations and Marketing Manager at Directive Consulting says:
“For me, I aim to add value to our target audience and also provide something that they haven’t seen over-and-over again.
I follow the following strategy for social media marketing:
- What are graphic designers doing on social media? I typically research top designers with neat social media graphics and photos that tell a story to get inspiration. I don’t go to other marketing agencies pages; I want to provide our audience something different than what our competitors are doing.
- After I get inspired, I ask myself, What is relevant to our audience? What’s going on in the world? Is there an angle I can take with our social copy that will build a relationship with our audience?
- From here, I strategize what the point of the post is. Are we building brand awareness here? Are we trying to make a conversion or encourage followers to request a proposal? This helps me layout exactly how I want to polish off the design and use the copy to lead the reader correctly.
19. Josephine Ison, Director and Vocalist of Event Entertainers recommends copying the leader:
“Follow the leader. I know many creative people like to be first to reinvent the wheel when it comes to ideating marketing collateral. I prefer to see what’s working, analyze why they’re effective, and replicate them for my own business. For example, Facebook provides an ad library for all existing ads on rotation. On top of this, when I’m scrolling on my own feed, when I come across an ad, I like to see why the ad is being shown to me. This gives me insight into the targeting applied.
Similarly, being a booking agency for live performers, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our business and those of our artists. We began seeing artists performing live on Facebook or uploading more musical performances onto their social media profiles. Upon seeing the engagement that this type of content received from
their fan base and the positive messaging that the content provided, I just knew this was something we had to implement ourselves.”
20. Daniel Cheung, Director and Lead Press Liaison at HARO Liaison gives practical advice:
“Create content that answers a question (or questions). I have a background in SEO, so my answer is less creative and more pragmatic. Content in my opinion should always serve a purpose. It can entertain, it can educate, it can provide an opinion (to push and pull an audience), and it can sell something (an idea, a product, a service). For example, we offer a very niche service within the marketing mix. A recent piece of content was based on going deep onto a particular topic. Most blog posts and resources on this topic tend to be broad and high-level. So I spent 15+ hours writing an all-in guide so that every reader could find something actionable from our content. Therefore, providing value is what drives my decision making process when it comes to content creation. Then, and only then, we’ll explore what other creatives we can add to help amplify the original content.”
21. Stuart Kam, Founder, ATH Organics has a quick and easy solution:
“One of our favorite ways to come up with new ideas is to look to other brands in different verticals for inspiration. Once we find an angle we like, we then start to brainstorm. Only AFTER we brainstorm, do we start to filter out ideas and grade them. Often I see brands filtering ideas before completing the brainstorming step.”
22. Julia ‘Wonder Woman’ Adler, Head of Marketing for Wayne Technologies has two tricks to produce new ideas:
“ I find the way that I am most successful in generating new ideas for Wayne Technology’s marketing is to spend some time on social media (i.e. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — the media we use) and see what content captures my attention best.
We also like to use personalized memes in our candidate messaging relating to the type of candidate that we are targeting or the job we are working on.”
23. Andres Tovar, Managing Partner of Noetic Marketer told us his special technique:
“There is an easy but powerful way that we always use at our agency to generate visually appealing creatives that catch the eye, and most importantly, that convert.
The simple technique is called the Before & After, and the similar variation is called the With or Without, and this is how it works:
How is your customer better off with your product/service? A simple creative that demonstrates the before they started using the product/service, and the after of when they began using their product/service is very powerful.
What is the Status Quo vs. using your product/service? is another question you may consider.
The similar variation With or Without is basically the same thing, but in your creative, you show one side WITH your product/service and WITHOUT your product/service.
Both variations work exceptionally well and go to the point — they emphasize the problem and how there is a solution to that problem. These creatives have huge CTR, and then you can let your landing page do the selling.”
24. Rebecca White, Founder of Prana Brush has “proven advice on how to find new business ideas.
In particular, we recommend a two-step process.
First, step back and give some thought to your ideal marketplace, whether that be local, national or global. Have there been any developments in the marketplace which leave a gap for a new entrant? Do your ideal customers have a problem or pain-point that is not being addressed?
Once you have spent some time reflecting on these matters and have some ideas, we recommend using Google Trends to assess the extent to which your idea could address a need as reflected by what people are searching for on Google. If your concept is reflected in upward trend lines over the last 1–3 months, you may have caught onto something early which may continue to rise in popularity and demand. However, do not be discouraged if Google Trends does not support your concept, especially if your concept satisfies a new want or need.”
25. Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder of Mavens and Moguls has a couple core strategies:
“To generate ideas I look at the calendar to see if there are any natural opportunities based on the season or activities, keep a running list of topics I get asked about by my clients and other business owners and note when I read or hear about something new I want to explore further, a trend, theme or idea that catches my attention. If it is an issue that affects me or my business then it is likely to be a topic that impacts others too. I also consume a lot of media both online and offline so my antenna is always up for new ideas and trends. I have several hobbies and am part of various groups that do not overlap so get exposed to different people regularly. I love asking questions and just learning from others to spark my creativity. I find keeping white space on my schedule is great to get the creative juices flowing too.”
26. Nazim Ragimov CEO of Kukarella draws from his 30 years of journalism:
“When I started working as a journalist 30 years ago, we were taught that the task of a journalist is to find the scoop. If you write about something ordinary, then there is little chance to engage the audience. The goal was not to make the reader’s life better, but to intrigue and stun him.
When, after 10 years, I moved from journalism to business, I saw that you can succeed only if you set your task to make the life of your audience better. If you see their pain and offer an effective cure. This was a new approach for the journalistic mind. And I think many copywriters find it difficult to rebuild precisely because of such a contradiction. They were taught one, and life requires another.
Today, when I need to turn to my audience, I try to find out where their pain is. If I see how our service can help make their life better, then I just try to do it. And if you act this way, then generating creative ideas becomes quite an easy and fascinating task.”
27. Kenny Trinh, CEO of Netbooknews has multiple highly effective tactics:
“There are a few strategies on how to do this better but the one that I always tell people should be the most important is lead with value!
That being said here are a few tips:
- Ask. Your audience follows you for a reason. So why not ask them what they would like to see more of from you?
- Follow #. Another good idea is to follow # in your niche or that relate to your business to see what is trending. Often there are elements that will stand out and possibly inspire you.
- Commit. Commit 5 minutes a day to just brainstorm. You’d be surprised at how 5 minutes of deep, dedicated work can result in a boatload of ideas.
- Test. Don’t be afraid to test. If a post doesn’t do too hot, learn why not and get on to the next one!”
28. Nabila Hassan at Axis Architecture defines a different kind of design process:
“As an architect, when designing, a concept has to be well developed and should be given a lot of time. That concept is the result of your own personal approach and preferences, which is what I call the touch of your soul. The concept should be then measured against what is trending or common, which requires a lot of search and observance. Then a different kind of struggle comes along on how should this design be presented, and which mean or technique can craft it best.”
29. Tony Bergida, Director of Communications at Frosty Tech has a short and sweet trick:
“We track google trends and what’s trending on a specific platform on a daily basis. Very simple and doesn’t address evergreen content but it does allow us to consistently engage with national and international conversations.”
30. Alana Lindenfeld, professional photographer builds on previous perspectives:
“As a photographer, I’m constantly coming up with new ideas for content. In order to maintain followers after their weddings or other sessions, I want to make sure they stay following me and engaging in content, so I must provide them with value. This consists of looking at what is trending, how I can partake in that, and even take it up a level by adding my own twist to it.
For example, when taking photos, I can mix up the location, how the photo looks (editing style, use of photoshop to create reflections or change colors or do a double exposure), and even something as simple as a new location or angle can keep people interested. As far as captions or ad copy, coming up with something that really speaks to the target audience is key. I speak to their pain points, keep it relatively simple, and make it sound like me.
Joining Facebook groups and following others on social media for inspiration is another great way to see what new techniques people are coming up with. The newest trend that I can think of is Facetime photoshoots, where instead of going outside to shoot, a photographer and client will Facetime and take screen shot or take actual photos of the phone with their camera. A lot of the time, it’s just a matter of adapting to a situation or using your surrounding to add something a little bit extra to your photos and copy.
31. Vincent Lee, Founder of B.R.A.N.D Me has a one-two punch combo:
“Firstly, it’s not about creating original content as much as it’s about creating content that resonates with the brand’s target audience. Secondly, take the focus off the product/service that’s being advertised and shed more light on the problem it is solving.”
32. Jason Lawes, Founder of Red Sentence:
“Depending on the scope of the brief there are lots of ways we generate ideas.. We find group brainstorm sessions are great, we explore ideas no matter how far outside the box they seem!
Rather than trying to nail ideas in a single session, we find it also helps to explore ideas individually in between sessions, which then through collaboration we refine ideas until we have an outcome we all agree on.
I find these sessions can lay the seeds for an idea — good ideas come to you when you least expect them, when queuing up for a coffee or grabbing some lunch. When you put pressure on yourself to come up with ideas that’s when you can struggle, the best ideas often need a little time to grow.”
33. Pierce Porterfield, Chief Creative Engineer, Marpipe:
“Never be afraid to scrap, remix, or edit when you’re coming up with your ideas. Follow your instincts, not your first train of thought.”
Themes Across Expert Exercises
Though there are 30 unique ways to invent novelty above, there are broad themes that stand out when taking an aerial view of the content. Moreover, the themes all fit neatly into James Webb Young’s general structure of ‘Input -> rest -> output’.
- Content that grabs your attention, pain points that you have, ads that convert you, your values, experiences, and preferences
- Your audiences’ unfulfilled needs, problems, values, experiences, and preferences
- Leader and competitor outputs in your industry and outside of your industry
- Trends in your industry and outside your industry
- Other ideas you’ve had in the past
- Talking to others about your idea
- Playing games with coworkers
- Taking a day off from work completely
- Going for a walk, showering, sleeping
- Sitting and thinking
- Great ideas!
Academic and Classical Idea Generation Techniques
The above exercises provide a healthy source of inspiration, but there are also scientifically backed systems proven to generate innovation. While hundreds of workflows have been studied and dozens of ‘unified models’ and categorization approaches documented, we’ll note a few to describe the myriad step-by-step structures possible to help you get new ideas in a coherent way.
MODEL ONE: CLASSICAL IDEA GENERATION TECHNIQUES
If you systematically peruse the academic literature on creativity, you’ll find nine techniques studies more than any others.
In order of citation frequency, they are:
- Force Field Analysis
- Six Thinking Hats
- Lateral Thinking
- Morphological Analysis
Brainwriting a.k.a. the 6–3–5 Method: Developed by Bernd Rohrbach in 1968 for a sales magazine, this technique involves six participants and a moderator. Six people each write down three ideas on a sheet of paper, then pass it to the participant next to them for five minutes. The moderator keeps time and ensures the sheet goes around six times for a total of 108 ideas created in 30 minutes.
For more clarification:
- First participant writes three ideas
- First participant passes paper to second participant who reviews first three ideas, then adds three more ideas
- Cycle continues until all six participants have passed the paper around six times
Brainstorming: Originally popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in 1967, brainstorming is a general process of group problem analysis that focuses on reducing creative inhibitions: any idea goes. Brainstormers identify a problem they need to solve, propose as many ideas as possible, then combine and refine ideas at the end, holding off any criticism until a few ‘good ideas’ are selected.
Synectics: Around 1961, George M. Prince and William J.J. Gordon developed a highly systematic approach to creativity that mirrors two core themes amongst our expert opinions above: drawing from seemingly irrelevant sources of inspiration and combining as many parts of possible. Synectics methodology aims to take irrational pieces and force them together to create, specifically making the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. Through unconventional analogies and extended metaphor, new ideas are born. It’s a simple, but effective process:
- Analyze information unrelated to your problem
- Force information onto your problem through analogy or metaphor
Force Field Analysis: Kurt Lewin, a prominent sociologist designed this technique to understand causality in social interactions, however it’s well applied to the field of creativity. To conduct a force field analysis, take your core problem or idea and consider forces that facilitate its existence and that push against its existence. Plot the opposing forces on a diagram and consider how you can tip the balance in your preferred direction or how you can combine forces to create something new.
Six Thinking Hats: As early as 1973, Dr. Edward de Bono, renowned creativity researcher famously compiled six angles of thinking about a subject using the metaphor of hats to illustrate the strategy. Imagine wearing a different hat when approaching a problem that makes you view it in a different light:
- Blue Hat: The big picture, a holistic view of the problem
- White Hat: Factual lens
- Red Hat: Emotional perspective
- Black Hat: Critique, criticism, and judgement
- Yellow Hat: Optimistic, positive view
- Green Hat: New ideas through challenging the concept
de bono also lists several sequences of hats to wear to meet different goals, recommending Blue -> White -> Green -> Blue for generating new ideas. For more modes of thought to apply to your problem, consider applying Charlie Munger’s mental models.
TRIZ a.k.a. Theory of Inventive Problem Solving: 1946, Soviet Russia, Genrich Altshuller studies patterns in patents to find a general approach for creativity:
- Define your problem
- Analyze other problems in unrelated domains
- Analyze solutions to step 2 problems
- Fit solutions to your specific problem
In addition, Altshuller and colleageus uncovered ’40 principles of invention’ that primarily take the form of transformations, similar to de bono’s Six Thinking Hats and Munger’s Mental Models. Wikipedia provides an excellent visual summary of options.
Lateral Thinking: There are four tools to foster lateral thinking:
- Pattern Breaking: Disrupt the status quo
- Focus: Spotlight unique areas to search for new ideas
- Harvest: Maximize value by focusing on the quality of inputs
- Treatment: Using realistic constraints
- Break your problem or concept into as many pieces as possible (called parameters)
- Categorize pieces into as few groups as possible (called values)
- Build a grid of group interactions
- Switch out pieces in each category to create new combinations
Morphological analysis is a method of applying modular design to non-linear concepts. That being said, it’s easier to visualize than discuss:
Combining parameters across different levels of the grid creates new ideas
Storyboarding: Storyboards were systematized in the 1930s by Walt Disney after analyzing the processes of other animation studios. Storyboarding is primarily a process for storytelling in which you break sequential events into scenes in chronological order, then determine the specific details of the event. While this technique is specific to storytelling, it’s a good method of decomposing your problem into manageable parts.
MODEL TWO: A TAXONOMY OF IDEA GENERATION TECHNIQUES
In modern times, idea generation research has taken a turn towards consolidation. Dozens have attempted to categorize techniques into a simpler framework in order to easily match a problem to an ideation solution. In 2019, Kai Wang of Kean University made the most comprehensive guide to date based on a few core differentiating factors:
- Individual vs. Group Application: Generation happens alone vs. with other people
- External vs. Internal Stimuli: Input from sources outside your mind vs. Existing knowledge brought to the problem
- External vs. Internal Processing of Knowledge: For Individuals: Information transformation vs. Perspective transformation; For Groups: Verbal idea discussion vs. Silent idea discussion
Kai Wang’s Taxonomy of Idea Generation Techniques
To find explanations and step-by-step walkthroughs of these technique groups, you can find the full article available for open access on Sciendo.
MODEL THREE: COMPONENTS OF IDEA GENERATION TECHNIQUES
Above are the primary classical techniques for idea generation and a taxonomy that organizes techniques into groups. The final model is a mechanical approach breaking techniques into their atomic units by Gerald Smith, Associate Professor of Marketing at Boston College compiled in 1998.
50 Ingredients across 15 Categories
For further analysis, Idea-Generation Techniques: A Formulary of Active Ingredients is publicly available on Research Gate.
Recommended Resources for Idea Generation
With literally hundreds of options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you’re someone who works better with fewer, more in-depth options (as most people are), we’ve curated some of the best resources for idea generation and creative thinking.
- Mycoted.com: Categorized creativity techniques with in-depth explanations of how to use each
- Creatingminds.com: 50 ‘tools’ for creative thinking with quick summaries, full, graphical examples and unique rating system: Duration x Rationality x Participants
- Mind Tools: 30 ‘creativity tools’ specific to business problems and 26 additional resources from books and experts
- Oblique Strategies: 100+ creative dilemmas written by musician Brian Eno
- Wikipedia: A short, but solid overview of high-level techniques and links to specific explanations
- Content Idea Generators: Ideas for blog posts from internet search data
- Content Curators: Customizable sources of inspiration
- Mind Mapping: A technique pioneered by Tony Buzan and developed through software; provides a method of connecting concepts and their associations
- Storyboarding: A technique mentioned above; software allows for quick organization of events and ideas for your story
- Idea Management Platforms: platform for larger organizations that lets employees store and spread idea suggestions
- Applied Imagination, Alex Faickney Osborn, 1953: The first systematic approach to creativity that popularized Brainstorming
- A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young, 1965: The process outlined in the very beginning of this article
- A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech, 1973: A deep exploration of creative block breaking devices
- Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko, 1991: A short cyclopedia of creative techniques
- Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono, 1991: A discussion of de Bono’s Lateral Thinking concept mentioned above and how to use it
- Creative Advertising, Mario Pricken, 2002: An analysis of 200+ of the most creative ads of all time and what makes them so good
- The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp, 2006: A Guide to making creativity into a daily habit; modified above by one of our experts
- The Art of Creative Thinking, John Adair, 2007: Descriptions, examples, and key points of several creative thinking concepts
- How to Get Ideas, Jack Foster, 2007: A quick modern classic that expands on James Webb Young’s framework
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, 2009: Defines flow states and how to use them for creative work
- The Creative Process Illustrated, Glenn Griffin & Deborah Morrison, 2010: A visual look at ad agency creative processes
- The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry, 2011: An original process for ideation on your feet
- The Art of Creative Thinking, Rod Judkins, 2015: An investigation of some of the greatest creative minds by a world famous creativity lecturer
- The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick, 2015: An examination of the ad creative process and a unique new view on how to properly apply creativity in ads
- 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques, James M. Higgins, 2019: A compendium of idea generation techniques primarily based in frame of mind
Creativity is, as evidenced above, an extensively researched, documented, and valued ability. While coming up with new ideas is only part one of the creative method, it’s at the core of all great businesses. Fortunately, you now have hundreds of tactics to try out on your next creative challenge.
Better still, part two is easy: share your ideas. Tell your friends, your family, your coworkers, internet strangers, and your truly most aggressive critic: yourself. And if you really want to know how good it is, test it live: use ads. For a brief method on testing your ideas through ads, read more here.
If you have any techniques not listed above, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your process.