Solo Creativity

By Andrew Eklund

The following outlines ten ways that I boost my creativity when I have to work alone. Each follows a standard principle. To jump-start your creative thinking, you need to stimulate your brain with some type of mental or visual imagery. You then combine your problem or need with the concepts that arise from the imagery to create a wholly new idea.

Use a noun that has nothing to do with your problem, need, or particular industry, category, or service.

You first must properly articulate your goal, need, or problem. Once you’ve defined that, start with any of the following tips. You don’t have to go in order. Don’t limit yourself to a few minutes of time. It’s often more successful if you brainstorm for ten to 15 minutes, put it aside and go work on another project, then return for another stretch of ten to 15 minutes of brainstorming.

Select a descriptive word, such as a noun. A good descriptive noun is ideal because it conjures up many different associations that you can use to brainstorm ideas. Use a noun that has nothing to do with either your problem or need, or with the particular industry, category, or service. Simply pick up a dictionary, open it to any page, and select a noun. When you combine this word with your problem or need, what idea does the merger of the two suggest? Move beyond the first few ideas—stretch your imagination. If one word doesn’t work, pick another.

Or, try a verb. Verbs work differently in creative thinking because—by their very nature—they suggest action, specifically a change, more so than a noun. Pick any specific attribute of the service or product that you believe is central to the problem. Then, select any action verb and apply it to the problem. Combining the problem with an action verb will create a new idea or concept. Your first “merge” might be odd, but keep trying. I typically go through 40 to 45 verbs in one sitting before I look back at no more than eight to ten good ideas.

Get a magazine filled with pictures. For many people, a visual image is far more conducive to stimulating an idea than is a word. Illustrated magazines unrelated to either your subject or your category will work best. You’re likely to be more creative if you pass over your regular reading pile. Broadband types can adapt this tip by using the online image banks at Google or Yahoo, or by going to some of the better online photography sites. Type any noun or verb you selected into the site’s search line and off you go.

Get away from your problem by getting away from your desk. One of the very best ways to invigorate your creativity is simply to get up from your desk and move. In fact, do yourself a bigger favor and go for a walk. Now you have visual stimulation everywhere you look. If you have the inclination, walk somewhere that you’ll have even more stimulation, like a museum or shopping center.

Talk to someone unrelated to the problem. Did you know that the more knowledgeable and involved you are in any situation or topic, the less likely you’ll be able to be creative? You learn so much that it begins to restrict your thinking. It’s often helpful to describe your problem or need to someone with an open mind. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s helpful to explain your problem to a child. Kids don’t bring cynicism or negativity to a problem.

Talk to someone who will use the idea. Here’s an example. One of my favorite creative fiascoes was the time we brainstormed ideas to launch a new diabetes drug. I came up with these “terrific” ideas, and when I presented them to my client, she asked: “Did you discuss any of the ideas with someone who suffers from diabetes?” It never dawned on me. When I casually asked my friends if they had diabetes, one woman said she’d be delighted to help me brainstorm. I realized that my “great” ideas were actually horrible ones. My friend helped me improve each idea into a better one. I also found that it was easier to sell the ideas to my client because now I was able to say I was 100 percent confident that the target audience would actually participate and engage in these ideas.

Turn to a celebrity for help. Part of the fun of brainstorming is to imagine the target audience or end-user as a real, historical, or fictional celebrity. When I was brainstorming ideas to position a midpriced car, I thought of Homer Simpson as our target audience. What would I do to get Homer to buy our car? For premium liquor, James Bond. For sore throat lozenges, Whitney Houston.

Find a metaphor for the problem. Metaphors are very helpful in creativity because they suggest how one problem may be like another existing problem. Think of four or five different metaphors or analogies that mirror or mimic the original problem or need. Write them on a page. Using one metaphor at a time, think how the “new” solution might be applicable to your current problem. Another way to use this tip is to transfer the problem you have in your specific industry or category to an entirely different situation or an entirely different occupation.

Borrow and steal. Through the years, whenever I saw an idea that I thought was creative, unusual, or interesting for some unknown reason, I ripped it out of the newspaper or magazine, printed it from the Internet, or simply jotted it down on a piece of paper. Each and every one of those ideas went into an idea folder that I keep at my desk. Whenever I need a bit of creative stimulation, I pull out the file and shuffle through it to see if I could borrow or steal one for my current project. Of course, you don’t want to simply transfer one idea wholesale to another project. But applying an idea from an unrelated industry or situation to your current environment often creates a wholly new concept . . . or at the very least, a new twist on an old — and successful — idea.

Put it aside or, even better, sleep on it. Sometimes we simply need to let our brains rest by putting the idea away for the night or simply moving on to another project for a good amount of time. The good news is that you may stop and work on another project, but your brain continues to work on the problem well after you’ve moved on to another task. Research has often suggested that this type of unconscious brainstorming is more productive because our brain is thinking well beyond the scope that you allow yourself when sitting at your desk.

is regional creative director of Burson-Marsteller Asia Pacific in Sydney, Australia.

Copyright 2007

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This article is an abridged and edited version of one that appeared on page 38 of Law Practice, December 2006 (32:8). It was adapted with permission from an article that originally appeared in September 2006 in the author’s Creative@Work series on the Burson-Marsteller website, For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

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