How to generate ideas

-By Luke Davidson

It’s a question that most advertising creatives have probably asked on days when the ideas aren’t flowing: What’s the best way to come up with ideas?

Over the years I’ve done a little reading up on the subject and discovered this fantastic talk on creativity by John Cleese.

It’s brilliant and well worth watching, but if you don’t have a spare 40 minutes, I’ll attempt to summarise. Basically it’s based around research done by a psychologist from Berkeley University called Donnald Mackinnon whose work showed that creativity is not a talent – it’s a way of operating.

MacKinnon believed that the most creative people simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood – “a way of operating” – that allowed their natural creativity to function. He described this state as being childlike and playful.

Cleese goes on to detail five conditions that he finds conducive to getting into this creative state. They are:

1. Space: You need to hide yourself away somewhere you won’t be disturbed by your usual pressures. (You can’t become playful and therefore creative if you’re stressed).

2. Time: Once you have created an “oasis of quiet” you need time for your brain to quieten down and relax. Cleese suggests working in blocks of 90 minutes is around the ideal amount of time (as after that you’ll need a rest).

3. Time (yes, again): You need time so that you can have as many of these 90-minute sessions as you need to come up with something original.

4. Confidence: Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. You can’t be spontaneous within reason. So you’ve got to be free to risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong.

5. Humour: Laughter brings relaxation. Humour makes us playful, which helps get us into a creative state.

Finally Cleese recommends that you then just keep bringing your mind gently back to the subject when you start to daydream. Sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious, when out-of-the-blue a new idea mysteriously appears.

I found it interesting to note the similarities between Cleese’s process and the process found in the classic advertising book ‘A technique for producing ideas’ by James Young Webb.

In his book, Webb outlined five steps to generating ideas:

1. Gather raw material: This involves knowing both product/consumer information and general knowledge.

2.Think over these materials: Give yourself time to put down ideas no matter how stupid – be exhausted by it.

3. Zero effort: Leave it to your unconscious mind – let it do its work. Relax and have fun doing something.

4. Eureka: The idea will appear out of nowhere (often in the shower or in bed at night). You can’t strain for ideas or they’ll never come.

5. The morning after stage: Seeing if it still looks good the next day – The over night test.

It’s interesting how Webb and Cleese both identify the need for time to think about the task, the idea appearing to come out of nowhere (but only after doing the initial work) and the importance of relaxation/fun as part of the process.

In fact, more and more research supports some of these key points, such as:

The importance of being relaxed: Many studies have found that stress or worry can make creative thinking more difficult and that we work most creatively when happy.

The importance of not straining too hard for ideas: Studies have also shown that focused attention to a task can reduce your creativity, while a certain amount of mental wandering can actually boost your creative process.

When you consider these points, it perhaps explains the traditional set-up of many advertising agencies where the creative department is often located in a different physical area from the rest of the business – and that sometimes these areas feature fun distractions like table tennis or billiard tables. It may seem self-indulgent, but giving creatives space and time to be more relaxed and playful seems to facilitate idea generation.

So back to the question at hand – what’s the best way to generate ideas? Going by the articles I’ve read, my best guess would be:

(Thinking + Time) + Time out = Ideas.

What’s your theory?


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