How to Generate Big Ideas in the Creative Thought Process

Author: Clay Miller
Posted: Apr 17, 2015

Whether you work at a marketing agency or a law firm or an oil drilling company, creativity is a part of your daily life. And it isn’t a linear process. Sometimes you’ve gotta move sideways to forge ahead.


Just a few weeks ago I was working on a project. The client knew exactly what they wanted. Our strategy team had the plan sewn up. Digital planners generated stacks of specs and deliverables. As lead writer on the project, I’d spent weeks working with the design team trying to create killer work. I wrote reams of campaign rationales. I did a hell of a lot of research. But everything was going wrong.

The work was tolerable. Sufficient. Satisfactory, even. But it wasn’t spellbinding. It wasn’t “portfolio material.” And that had everything to do with the constraints of the job. The road to hell is paved with a thousand constraints.

Formats. File sizes. Dictated creative direction. Most importantly, my own assumptions. This was the baggage that was holding us down. We dismissed several superlative ideas because they “didn’t fit the plan.”

As clock wound agonizingly toward the deadline, our creative director swooped in with THE BIG IDEA. We realized that dimensions were driving the creative. File sizes were crushing our inspiration. And the preconceived idea? We soaked it in gas and lit a match.

Freed from these constraints, THE BIG IDEA had room to live and breath. Gradually, we polished it into a workable campaign, and in the process we violated every pre-conception of how the job “should” be done.

The client absolutely loved it.

Looking back, this was a great example of lateral thinking. The concept has many definitions, but I put it this way: “Lateral thinking is the conscious destruction of assumptions, conventions and constraints.”

It’s forgetting the rules and restrictions that stand between you and conceptual greatness. Because in the end, great ideas transcend strategies, specs, and demographics – the stuff that holds us back.

Here are three essential steps to lateral thinking posed by Shane Snow at 99u:

  1. List the assumptions. What are all the assumptions that are keeping you stuck? Write them down.
  2. Verbalize the convention. Pick the obvious solution, and then ask “What if we couldn’t do that?”
  3. Question the question. Are you asking the right question? Is there another way to ask it?

These questions will help you break the rules that destroy creativity. They’ll make you think laterally so you can get ahead.


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