How do we get ideas? Do they just come to us? Or can we go out and get them? Creativity is an unnatural act, a difficult skill that requires courage, insight, imagination, and perseverance. Yet even after you’ve acquired these traits, it helps to know a few tricks of the trade. At Liquid Agency, we’ve learned techniques for improving both the quality and frequency of our ideas. These techniques are part of what we call Silicon Valley Thinking (SVT)—a radical approach to designing innovative programs, brand experiences, and business solutions. Here are ten techniques from our SVT toolbox that will help you blast through the barriers that limit imagination. Have fun!
1. Think in metaphors.
Thinking about problems metaphorically moves your thinking from the literal to the abstract, so you can move freely on a different plane. Shakespeare famously wrote that “All the world is a stage”. Actually, the world is not a stage. Shakespeare could have used a simile instead of a metaphor—“The world is like a stage”—and it would have had the same meaning, just not the same impact. By saying the world is a stage, a fresh idea is forced to emerge—suggesting that every person is an actor, merely playing a part.
2. Think in pictures.
Visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach. Visual thinking isn’t just for graphic designers, artists, and illustrators. It’s for anyone who can draw a stick figure, an arrow, and a talk balloon. Pick up a copy of The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam to learn a few of the most useful tricks. You’ll wonder why more people don’t think like Einstein.
3. Start from a different place.
Your brain builds up patterns of experience that act as attractor states, making it hard to think in new ways. Think of the worst place you could possibly start, and start there. Let’s say, for example, your task is to negotiate a peace treaty between warring states. So far no amount of reasoning has been able to bring the two sides together. You could try more reasoning, or better reasoning, or perhaps the threat of draconian intervention, but these are likely to cause further entrenchment. So you start from a different place. What if you suggest it anyway, just to make a point about the absurdity of war? Then, when the two parties reject the idea, you can propose a less dramatic solution: Arm wrestling to the death, winner take all. No? How about this? Arm wrestling, and whoever loses buys the other a beer.
4. Poach from other domains.
While stealing is not the same as pure imagination, it still takes a mental leap to see how an idea from one industry or discipline might be used in another industry or discipline. One fine summer day in 1948, amateur inventor George de Mestral took his dog for a walk in the woods. Upon returning, he found his dog and his pant legs covered in pesky burrs. When he put them under a microscope he saw tiny hooks, perfectly suited for attaching themselves to fur and fabric. The result? Velcro.
5. Arrange blind dates.
A prepared mind can make novel connections under the right circumstances. But it’s also possible to force connections by introducing two unrelated ideas. Don’t fall in love with your first idea. Novelty and innovation are two different things. What do you get when you cross a bank with an Internet café? A shoe store with a charity? A Broadway show with a circus performance? Adhesive tape with a bookmark? You get successful business models like ING Direct, Tom’s Shoes, Cirque du Soleil, and Post-it Notes.
6. Reverse the polarity.
Reversing the polarity in an assumption can release conceptual energy. You can start by listing some assumptions about the problem. Now, reverse the assumptions to see what happens. What would it take to make these true? Everyone is familiar with the problem of the office kitchen. Let’s make some assumptions: 1. Employees don’t like doing dishes. 2. It’s hard to tell whose dishes are in the sink. 3. The dishes are company property. Now, reverse the assumptions to see what happens. 1. Employees love doing dishes. 2. It’s easy to tell whose dishes are in the sink. 3. The dishes are employee property. What would it take to make these true? Well, employees might do their dishes if they had a great music system at the sink. What if each item were personalized with the employees’ names. Of course, you could just lay down the law, then enforce it. But that seems a bit draconian.
7. Find the paradox.
If you can describe the central contradiction within a given problem, you’re well on the way to solving it. When designer Mitchell Mauk noticed a problem with the storm drains in San Francisco, he took the initiative to propose a solution. The city had been concerned about people dumping motor oils and chemicals into the sewers, where they would flow into the bay and pollute the fish habitats. The usual warnings posted near the drains weren’t working. So Mauk asked the question another way. Can the sewer grates and the signs be one and the same? His elegant Gratefish sends an unambiguous message: Whatever you put down the drain goes right into the fish.
8. Give it the third degree.
The questions are endless, but they don’t take much time to ask. Who says? So what? What else? Who for? How much? Why now? What else is like this, from which you could get an idea? Is there something similar that you could partially copy? What if this were somewhat changed? What can you eliminate? What can you substitute? Is this the cause or the effect? What if you changed the timing? In whose shoes should you put yourself?
9. Be alert for accidents.
The great thing about creative play is that mistakes don’t have consequences. While most of the time you won’t find what you’re looking for, sometimes you’ll find what you weren’t looking for, and that can be even better. If you only found what you expected to find, your idea probably isn’t new. When Percy Spencer was working on radar for the military, he found a melted candy bar in his pocket, thus discovering the working principle for microwave ovens.
10. Write things down.
“To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them.” says Kevin Kelly. The value of ideas often lies in their ability to trigger better ideas. If you don’t capture them, you can’t build on them. When I was a wannabe songwriter in my teens (who wasn’t?), I never worried that I might forget a line of melody or snippet of lyric. I told myself if it were that good it would probably come back to me. Conversely, I believed if it didn’t come back to me, it probably wasn’t that good. There were two flaws in this logic. First, I did forget good musical ideas, and, second, the value of ideas often lies in their ability to trigger better ideas. If you don’t capture them, you can’t build on them.
About Marty Neumeier.
Marty is a renowned thought leader in the areas of strategy, innovation, and design. His job at Liquid is to develop ideas, tools, and programs that bring clarity to the challenge of building brands. His bestselling books Zag, The Brand Gap, and Metaskills have been published in 20 languages, and Zag was named one of “The Top 100 Business Books of All Time.” His new book, The 46 Rules of Genius is an innovator’s guide to creativity.