7 Ways to Detonate Your Creativity
After 25 years of creating everything from songs to branding campaign assets and strategies (and everything in between), I’ve come to accept that dry spells are inevitable. At some point you’re going to find yourself staring at a blank page, terrified at the prospect that there’s no way you’re going to be able to fill it with something meaningful-something with the potential to produce powerful results for you, your company, or your client.
Here are seven ways to create breakthrough ideas. I’ve used every single one of them multiple times, and have lived to write this story.
1. Scare yourself
One of the best ways to loosen up creativity is to read The Brief, The Research, The Mandatories, the whatever the ” You’re Supposed to Do This” document is. Absorb it, own it, then throw it away.
Now the fun begins. Explore ideas that are appropriate to the goal, but which you believe the decision maker will never go for. What ideas are so absurd that after you’ve presented them, they’ll think you’ve been hitting the bottle, or the bong, or the bottle and the bong? Now you’re in unfamiliar territory, and that’s where fresh ideas live. Your uncertainty, your fear, is a good sign that you’re stretching into new space, and that’s what creativity is all about. This approach is also good for giving your ego a smack down.
Too often great ideas are abandoned because we’re worried about what people will think of us. Listen, our work shouldn’t be about keeping our egos in their happy place, it’s about results, about positive outcomes for others-focus on that, and tell your ego to go play in the street.
Now that you’ve scared yourself, proceed to scare the decision maker. I honestly believe if we don’t make our clients at least slightly uncomfortable when seeing concepts for the first time, we’ve failed. Familiarity breeds comfort, and if our clients are too comfortable, their target audience will be too. Comfortable ideas rarely have breakthrough potential, and that’s unacceptable.
2. Wet your pants
If an idea can’t make you laugh or cry, or whatever your target emotion is, it probably won’t make others either. When you’re working on an idea, don’t try to sell yourself with, “People will think this is ______ (fill in the blank with whatever emotion.)”
If, after reading/hearing/seeing your concept, you haven’t wet your pants laughing, or don’t have tears rolling down your cheeks or, aren’t feeling inspired to go and climb the nearest mountain, your audience won’t either. You simply must require of yourself that your work produce an emotional effect on you. You are your own Guinea Pig, and you must trust that if your idea truly resonates with you, it will with others.
So, pick an emotion, focus on it, truly feel it, then begin assembling an idea that reproduces the authentic experience of that emotion.
3. Lock the doors and board the windows
This is one of our very favorite techniques for achieving breakthrough ideas: cut off your usual routes of escape. As creative thinkers we return too often to familiar paths. Instead, get off that familiar and safe path-take a machete and start hacking a new one in the jungle.
Here’s the way we frame it when we begin ideating: our competitors are reaching our target by walking through their front door. Let’s assume the front door is locked, and so is the back door, and all the windows have been boarded. Now what are we going to do?
Here’s a concrete example: We had a client who wanted to introduce a new large capacity washing machine, and asked us to create a print campaign to accomplish this. Well, for a myriad of reasons we felt this wasn’t the best approach, so to develop alternate approaches we imagined, “Traditional advertising media simply don’t exist-they haven’t been invented yet. Now how do we roll out this product introduction?”
The “front door” is always available, and your competition is in queue at the doorbell. Instead, go down the chimney, tunnel into the basement, cut a hole in the roof: create the element of surprise.
4. Cut off your thumb
Hold up your hand. Go ahead. Hold it up. See all those fingers? That’s what your typical brandscape looks like. Regardless of the product or industry, nearly everyone is saying the same thing-they’re clustered together like a pack of sheep. That’s why most automotive spots look and sound the same, why every ad for sunglasses has the same pouty profile of a model . . . cover the logo on most creative assets and then try to identify the brand. . . . see what I mean?
Now do this. Hold up your right hand and fold in your thumb. Now hold up your left hand, thumb only. That’s the brandcape you want to create-one with space between your brand and the competition. Don’t be a sheep. Be a goat. Create works with the goal of them being so unique a logo isn’t even required.
A healthy dose of terror can be a good motivator. Occasionally I like to sit on ideas like they’re eggs, and only let them hatch just before the deadline. It’s surprising how much thinking goes on while we’re “doing nothing”. This approach is definitely not for amateurs though. You need to have mad skills that can take a idea and make it look great quickly. Proceed with caution-late and bad is not a good combination.
Well, not really “stealing”. Let’s call it “paying homage.” I had a long career in music-one of the most expansive opportunities for creative expression humans can have, and, trust me, there’s little new under the sun. I feel confident you can apply this maxim to all other spheres of human activity as well . In the blues (the foundation for most popular music) musicians basically use three-chord progressions to produce millions of songs. To create lateral ideas, we’d take this basic structure, then begin “riffing” on it, playing with it, twisting it until we’d created our personal interpretation.
So, find an idea someone else has done, then begin riffing on it. But don’t just pick any old idea, pick the very best ones while remembering this: “Good writers emulate, great writers steal.” (I stole this quote from Hemingway-he stole it from TS Elliot, who stole it from Picasso.)
7. Peanut Butter and Sardines
Mashing up ideas is a great way to break through inertia. Unusual combinations of unlikely elements can often produce creative sparks. We once wrote a song that combined a hip-hop beat with a banjo, and a countrified rap. It was an object lesson in most of the suggestions from above: we were afraid to present it, it made us howl with laughter every time we played it, we refused to do something routine, and we waited until the 12th hour to record it. It ended up winning more awards than we could shake a stick at, and was a commercial people actually called into radio stations and requested.
So, throw a bunch of unlikely elements onto the table and begin making your own mash-up. Most often, the ugly freak you produce initially won’t be the final idea, but it can loosen you up to to get to the real idea in a novel way.