Become an Idea Machine

How to come up with better ideas

By Rich Tseng

 Lights in the Sky | Photo by  Adam Birkett

Lights in the Sky | Photo by Adam Birkett

The thought that companies have creative departments filled with people who are paid to ‘be creative’ may not make sense at first. Ideas are everywhere. They’re like germs. So why isn’t the ‘creative’ department starving with the rest of the artists? Because we don’t just make things look or sound pretty. When it comes to ideas, creatives know their probiotics from their influenza. In short:

We’re paid to create surprisingly effective solutions.

A true creative knows which ideas will kill a brand or pass people by like ships in the night*, and which will exceed everyone’s expectations. Every creative approaches their work a little differently, but here’s a quick method which, with a little practice, can get you thinking creatively:

1. Define the problem.

 Where are you going? | Photo by

Where are you going? | Photo by

Nobody knows how many hours have been wasted on undertakings that lack clear objectives. Without a goal in mind, you’ll never know when you’re finished. So try to describe things as clearly and simply as you can, ideally in one sentence. I like phrasing it in question format because it immediately gets the mind thinking of answers. Like, “How do we show the average reader that creatives deserve their salary?” Really think about the outcome you want, because sometimes solving a different problem might get you even better results, more on that later. 

2. Come up with a solution.

 The beginning | Photo by  Jeremy Bishop

The beginning | Photo by Jeremy Bishop

It doesn’t have to be a good one, or even original. It just has to work. Having an answer sets the bar. It relieves the stress of not knowing what to do. Lay down a potential solution, then do everything you can to not use it. In rare instances, this will be your best answer but you’re more likely to come up with something better after the next step.

3. Explore

 Exploring } Photo by  Joshua Earle

Exploring } Photo by Joshua Earle

This is where we sweat. An expected answer will do just fine, but creativity isn’t about ‘good enough’. Instead, question everything including the problem itself. If you can interpret the question in a different way, you’ll get different outcomes, some of which can blow your initial solution out of the water. The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy author and legendary creative director, Tom Monahan, likes to look for completely random topics, and then relate it to the problem. Some prefer Edward DeBono’s lateral thinking books. Others consult Suzanne Pope’s invaluable free ebook, How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called. And a lot of people like to see what the competitors did. I say try all of the above. 
This might seem like the hardest part, but it’s important to keep your mindset playful. It’s hard to be creative when you’re stressed out. Many get stuck that way and then beat a retreat to the expected solution. So a little while ago my girlfriend and I made a site full of creative hacks to get unstuck. A caveat: you need a strong stomach for profanity (although if you’re truly stuck you’re probably already thinking of a few choice words yourself):

4. Trial by combat.

 Battle | Photo by  Cloudvisual

Battle | Photo by Cloudvisual

Once you have a bunch of potential solutions lined up, it’s time to really think them through. Test your ideas against how well they deliver on the outcome you first outlined. Try them out on other people, pick favorites, fix flaws, and eliminate what just plain doesn't work. Usually, it’s a bloodbath. But the good thing about ideas is they never really die. Instead you’ve put some new grooves and creases in your brain that might prove useful in solving completely different problems. Most creatives I know never throw out their sketchbooks. They’re good to flip through in the future when you’ve tried every other method or technique. So don’t be shy about killing your darlings.

5. Repeat steps 1-4 as many times as necessary.

  Writer’s Block | Photo by  Drew Coffman

Writer’s Block | Photo by Drew Coffman

In James Webb Young’s essential book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young advocates thinking really hard about the problem and then not thinking about it at all. Relaxation lets your subconscious work on things so that you’ll have better ideas when you get back to it. This also explains why people have been coming up with breakthroughs in the bathtub since before Archimedes could pronounce “Eureka”.

 Eureka | Photo by  Lubomirkin

Eureka | Photo by Lubomirkin

Of course, a creative’s job doesn’t end once some great ideas are found. They have to convince everyone around them to make it, keep the idea from being watered down, and other considerations that can fill libraries. But this is my basic structure. The walls of the sandbox. Once you have restrictions, you’ll find it much easier to create against them. 
While the method I outlined helps you find better ideas, you still need to generate a lot to improve your odds of getting something truly great. I called out a few tricks in step 3, but I’m always collecting more, so please share your favorites below. And remember, creativity is hard work, but it’s best done with a playful mindset. So roll up your sleeves, and have fun.

*From David Ogilvy, propagandist, pollster, founder of one of the world’s most successful advertising agencies, and coiner of pithy quotes
**A brief is a paper that contains the problem the creative team is tasked with solving