Boost Your Creative Brainpower: Idea Generation Advice from the Pros

Idea generation

Searching for inspiration? Here’s how four accomplished creative professionals come up with all-star ideas.

Generating ideas for new projects can seem daunting, and getting started is frequently a huge part of the battle. Feeling stuck? We talked to Gail Anderson (cofounder of Anderson Newton Design), Will Miller (partner and creative director at Firebelly Design), Andrea Pippins (founder of Fly and adjunct faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art) and Ron Thompson (cofounder of Italic Studio) about how they tackle the idea generation process. Based on a wealth of experience, here are their tips:

When it comes to idea generation, beginning is often the hardest part. How do you kick-start yourself?

Anderson: I collaborate with my partner, Joe Newton. It’s great to have someone to commiserate with. He is probably more polite than he needs to be, but it’s good to know that there’s someone there to shoot down my bad ideas as needed. We do a lot of pencil sketches and have copious notes scrawled everywhere, so we typically don’t rush to the computer right away. Both Joe and I really enjoy dissecting a project together, so it’s fun to just sit at our desks and talk about all the possibilities. 

Miller: Many times, we push ahead by looking back. Past projects provide many opportunities for good ideas that began to take shape but might not have come to fruition. We also ask ourselves what we’ve seen out in the world that’s exciting — a special print process, a certain type of binding or an interaction we weren’t expecting. If it’s something of interest to the studio and makes good sense for a project, we’ll try and find a way to explore it and make it unique. 

Pippins: I typically start writing down words that come to mind when thinking of the topic at hand. It’s usually in a list form or a mind map. I use those words to refine my research for inspirational imagery. I love going to the library to do research, but I also use online resources. I build private mood boards on Pinterest for projects, and collect images that I can use as inspiration and reference throughout the process. Then I start sketching. Most times, those thumbnails are scanned in and used as a base where I build the final design or illustration.

Thompson: Luckily, we don’t begin any project in a vacuum. We have a starting point that is spelled out in the client brief. After listening to our clients talk about the problem they’re trying to solve, we’ll do a deep dive with them to learn all about their industry and their product. This initial research gets us in the right frame of mind for developing our concepts, from which all other ideas and visuals will flow.

Do you have idea generation sessions with clients to get their input? 

Anderson: Some clients really appreciate engaging, and others are too overwhelmed with their own day-to-day chaos to have time for more than a quick email. But it’s always preferable to draw clients out to get any tidbits of information, even if it’s simply telling us what they don’t want. We’ve been working with one client who’s been really great about including us in their internal process, and who welcomes our input and guidance. That’s been really energizing, and keeps us on our toes. When a client truly respects your point of view, you want to give them 110 percent. Everyone wins.

Miller: When we talk about ideas and inspiration with the client, it’s typically early in the project. We present real-world examples of design, art, and architecture, and we talk about each example in a way that highlights the client’s need or captures a key characteristic of the project. A 10- to 15-page deck of inspiration, organized by concept and design direction, really helps our client understand how what we do will directly tie to their goals and objectives. An added benefit of this step is it allows clients to voice their subjective distastes, helping us focus on what will be most well-received.

Thompson: Each client is a bit different. Some want working brainstorming sessions while others are fine being hands-off and letting us do our thing. With that said, we always start every project with a kickoff meeting in which we discuss the creative brief with our client, listen to their goals and then ask a ton of questions. Then, we like to break out on our own to really dig into our ideas rather than sit in a room and have a big brainstorming session where ideas are jotted on whiteboards. Those meetings can work against you when it comes to being efficient and letting your mind flow unedited.

What do you do when you hit the proverbial wall? Do you have any advice on how to overcome creative blocks? 

Anderson: Over time, I’ve learned that the best thing to do when you hit a wall is to step back from the project. Close the file and walk away — temporarily, of course. Even when things are time-sensitive, you need to take a stroll around the block, get a cup of coffee, or whatever it takes to shift your mind and focus on something else, preferably not work-related. It’s really important to figure out what to do when the needle gets stuck. It’s a lesson that took me about 20 years to learn.

Miller: There’s a huge amount of collaboration in the office, so when one person is hitting a wall and feeling stuck, we’ll share files and discuss. There’s no ownership of work and no one is protective of a project. We try to work together to move projects forward in the best and most appropriate way. Being willing to ask for advice and critique is a solid way to move forward.

Pippins: Having a person you can go to for feedback on a project is a great way to get unstuck. He or she can ask you questions and provide insight you haven’t thought of, or tell you what you’re doing is great (you’re overthinking it) or terrible (you need to go back to the drawing board). It always helps.

Thompson: I wish we had a secret serum (whiskey, perhaps!) that would always allow us to be at our peak, but we all get blocked. For us, just stepping away tends to be the best cure. Go run, walk, surf, bike, read a book or whatever it is that you like to do outside of work. It can help to take your mind off things and open you back up to new ideas or ways to approach the project.

Do you have any tips for recent grads just starting out their creative careers on how to generate ideas and stay fresh? 

Anderson: When you’re walking down the street, put your smartphone down and remove your earbuds. Constantly observe your surroundings, noting even the most mundane daily occurrences or patterns. There are stories everywhere, and those stories are the basis of ideas. Not being afraid to fail is important, too. An idea might seem corny or bad in the moment, but you never know if there’s a kernel underneath that can be built on. I find that even now, I’m sometimes too self-conscious to take a chance on throwing an idea out there that might be a clunker, only to hear someone else say it. And then everyone thinks that person is a genius! Ugh.

Miller: Stay aware of what’s happening in the design world. Dig into projects that have a lot of writing accompanying the final piece. Reading how other visual communicators have turned colors, symbols and ideas into something fresh is exciting and empowering. Not only does it help you understand how to talk about successful projects, it promotes the vocabulary needed in your own work to articulate challenging concepts.

Pippins: I show my students at MICA different techniques to generate multiple ideas like visual brain dumping (quick doodles) or giving them a random word to think about in relation to the topic. My advice is to get off the Internet when doing research and go to the library. Looking for historical references and the original sources for an idea you saw online can trigger another direction. When we learn as much as we possibly can about a topic, within a given timeframe, it gives us more information to be inspired by.

Thompson: Get out of your comfort zone and live. Meet new people, try new restaurants, visit a country you’ve never been to, take a class and so on. Also, write down your thoughts or keep a journal. And I mean write, not type. It’s amazing how the mind works differently when using a good old-fashioned pencil or pen on paper. Just get your ideas out and get them out fast.

Idea generation can be tough when you’re a creative freelancer who typically works alone. For more tips, check out our post, How to Brainstorm When You’re Working Solo.

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Tags: Creativity