As creatives, the goal in any piece you create is to tell a story—a story that is either useful, entertaining, or beautiful. Perhaps all three, if you’re lucky. And while that’s a lovely objective, sometimes the creative well runs dry, and ideas don’t come so easily. When this is the case, it’s time to go back to the very beginning of ideation, and explore some of the methods and techniques of producing ideas. Because, at its most simplified state, any good marketing campaign comes down to a problem that needs solving and a basic idea that was fleshed out into a brilliant marketing piece. The Idea must always come first.
But how does an extraordinary idea come about? According to James Webb Young, author of A Technique for Producing Ideas, “What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.”
Methods and principles may not be a creative’s idea of a good time, but according to Jung, et. al, in their study The structure of creative cognition in the human brain, “The complex construct of creativity requires diverse cognitive abilities, such as working memory, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility and fluency in the generation of ideas,” all of which are found to peak in different networks across the entire brain.
It is in exercising these many different brain networks, from memory, to analytical thinking, to stream-of-consciousness brainstorming, that provides the ideal environment for idea formation.
At their most basic, ideas are simply a new combination of old elements and the ability to see relationships in these combinations, says Young. But this regeneration of old elements must first come from somewhere. Enter: research. Perhaps not the most glamorous step in idea-production, but research is truly the cornerstone of ideation, the field from which ideas are harvested. You must have the raw materials before you can build.
Young outlines this to include both specific research that relates to the “product and people to whom you propose to sell it,” as well as a collection of general knowledge on life and events. “The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in [the mind], the more the chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas,” he says.
It is then key to actively and passively ruminate over the facts gathered. Actively, this looks like thinking about possible new combinations, seeking relationships in the information, turning things over in your mind and writing down every silly thing that pops into it. Put pen to paper and let your mind roam.
And then walk away. Drop the subject and allow your subconscious take over. Turn to what stimulates your imagination. As you’re busy with other things, the subconscious turns over this information and you will find that the Idea will appear, just like that, seemingly out of nowhere. “This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from search,” Young says.
Of course, the Idea does not pop into one’s mind in a state of perfection. After its inception, it is crucial to tweak and prod, collaborate with a team for feedback and fine-tuning, crafting it from good to great.
When put into practice, this creative method results in bigger, better ideas that can be executed over a variety of platforms to tell the story of the product or company with which you are working. And the longer you practice this method, the easier and faster it becomes—no more creative ruts. It is simply a re-training of your brain in how you approach ideation, going through a process to actively pursue fresh ideas rather than waiting around for inspiration to strike.
And if you’re still feeling a bit stuck, here are 36 easy ways to boost your creativity throughout the ideation process. What do you do when you feel creatively dry? What re-sparks your passion for the job?
UPDATE: Because this topic is so close to our hearts, here’s another great article for maintaining your creativity (courtesy of Loree Toups):