As a Creative Director whose role is to continually come up with new ideas, it’s a really bad situation if I find myself staring at a blank screen with no idea of where to begin—and it happens. Client deliveries are at risk, teams of people are awaiting direction, neither of which moves a business forward. Whether working on a new brand identity, writing/editing/producing a film, creating the Information Architecture or visual design for a client website, or any other of a number of creative tasks, I am simply not permitted to suffer through any period of ideation drought. Over the years I have developed some tried and true methods that I use to disrupt a period of stagnation and kickstart my creativity. If you’re struggling to find the solution to a business problem, or come up with an idea for a design of any sort, try a few of these techniques yourself.
- Close your eyes. So often we hear people say, “open your eyes and look at the world around you”. Sometimes I find the exact opposite to be effective. When I sit down at the piano to compose a new piece of music, the first thing I do is close my eyes. I extend one finger, and just start randomly playing notes and rhythms, listening carefully for an unexpected motif to catch my ear. By closing my eyes, I am able to focus all of my attention on discovering the purest element of the composition, the melody, without being influenced by all the complex relationships introduced by considering music theory. So rather than watching my fingers form a chord, and “limiting” myself by thinking “minor second SHOULD go to dominant fifth” I just let the melody flow without bounding it by the rules. I’ve always found it amusing that notes outside of the current key signature are called “accidentals” since they are typically the most interesting aspects of the music! Try drawing a picture with your eyes closed, and just let your mind’s eye guide your hand. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover in the shapes you’ve created when you finally do open your eyes.
- Take a drive. In my first career I spent ten years on the road as a professional audio engineer. I’ve probably seen millions of white stripes passing by while gazing out the window of a tour bus. To this day when I need to clear my head and let the creativity flow I take a drive. Whether on the back roads through rural western Loudoun County, Virginia, the winding mountain roads leading high up into the Rockies, or a lonely stretch of highway late at night, the serenity induced by the rhythm of the road can unleash amazing ideas. Grab a coffee (you don’t want to get too relaxed behind the wheel…) and hit the road. BTW this technique doesn’t work so well on the Capital Beltway during rush hour.
- Listen to a random piece of music from an unfamiliar genre. If you’re a devotee of electronic music, build a playlist of Bach organ music. If you’re into heavy metal, download “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. Whatever your musical preference, pick something 180 degrees across the genre spectrum and let it seep into your mind, you never know what it might unlock. Listen to the lyrics, try to understand the perspectives of the songwriter and their socioeconomic condition. Listen to the harmonies, what kinds of emotions do they evoke?
- Go to the library. When I was working on my memoir, “Dream. Build. Believe.” there were a lot of days where I just didn’t feel like writing. I wanted to relax around the house, play with the kids, spend time with Shannon. However, when you have a goal to complete something, or are just trying to break out of a creative lull, there are few places as inspiring as the local public library. When you are surrounded by thousands and thousands of books, you find yourself thinking, “well, all these other people figured out how to get something written” and it becomes incredibly hard to feel sorry for yourself. Walk the rows, touch the books, look at the cover art, enjoy the creative titles, and you’ll find that whatever problem you’re working on might be well-served by some random spark of inspiration.
- Cook a new recipe. Cooking is creating, it is art that you eat, enjoyed by you (the chef) as well as those you are serving. Most importantly it is tangible, and people truly connect at the dinner table. Never cooked before? All the more reason to give it a try. Already and amazing cook? I guarantee there are a million recipes you haven’t tried. Take a drive in the country (see tip #2) and find a farmer’s market. Buy some fresh produce, head home and whip up something delicious for your loved ones. Make a fun dessert for the kids. Ditch the kids at the grandparents and make a romantic dinner for your spouse. Do both.
- Alter your environment. Light some candles, burn some incense, rearrange the furniture, and hang some new art—all at the same time. Disrupt your spatial conformity, learn about harmony, qi and polarity, try sitting in a different chair—do anything to break the routine and awaken your other senses. Just ask the team in our Leesburg office about incense wafting through the entire building when I’m “in the zone” working on a brand identity. Drive a different route to work, at a different time of day. Take a walk in the woods just before dawn, and listen carefully to the sounds of the forest. Break away.
- Talk to a stranger. This is a great one for tearing you out of your comfort zones. I’ve been working in cafés before and showed a logo design to the waitress asking, “you’re the target market for this company I’m working with, what do you think about this…?” The best thing that can happen is to have a that person comment, “that’s awful, but maybe you should try this…” It grounds you and sets you free all in the same awkward moment. Most importantly, break your preconceived notions apart. If you’re trying to tackle a business problem, ask an artist what they think. If you’re trying to create something visual, talk to someone who can’t draw a stick figure about what aspects of design delight them. Ask the barista where she is from, or ask the garbage man where he went to school. Random conversations with total strangers can be incredibly chaotic. If you’re really feeling adventurous, ask a child’s opinion, whether about the problem you’re trying to solve or about anything. Their view of the world is both untarnished and unafraid, and their ability to see the universe through the eyes of innocence and creativity can often inspire we close-minded adults to generate new ideas and fresh perspectives, skills we all once had but sadly many of us have lost along the journey because we “grew up”. Most importantly, put down your device and make it a real face-to-face conversation, with all the nuance of body language and rapport. Ancient human skills can solve a lot of modern day problems.