How do you Activate Your Creativity?

My college essay way back when was originally about how I overcome the blank page, but then I realized I knew so little about the topic, I could never fill the page, so I never wrote about that topic. Go figure. Now, after having written about being done, I am inspired to write about the other end of the process! 

Anyway, before I get into it, please let me exclude what I'm not writing about. I'm not talking here about a specific idea-generating system like those from Storyscaping, Storybranding or Mario Pricken's wonderful section in Creative Advertising, which stresses creative teamwork. Nor am I talking about books about being creative like Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist or Luke Sullivan's Hey Whipple, Squeeze This! , wonderful through they are. 

So how do you begin after the creative brief lands in your lap? I am writing here to draw out techniques that have consistently brought me into the creative zone. My aim here is explain my thought process rather than set commands in stone. 

1.    Filter the brief through your learning style

So how do you begin once the creative brief hits your desk? Let's reach back to our school days for a second. I know the learning styles have gotten their fair share of slings and arrows , especially with respect to the school setting. However, in creative settings, they can be highly useful, and studies have identified important links between the senses and comprehension. In other words, the senses literally shorten the pathways to our understanding. With that said, were you: An auditory learner (who absorbs lectures well)? A visual learner (who needs to visualize the lecture) or a verbal learner, the type who needs to chant the lecture to him or herself before he or she internalizes it (as was I). The way we learned things in school can be a valuable tool for internalizing the creative brief before we begin. If you were a visual learner, why not draw a picture of the brief? If the client were an archetypical hero and their competitors arch villains, what would they look like? If you were a verbal learner, did you chant your study guide to yourself in hushed or (in my case) melodic tones under your showerhead?

2.    Hypothesize

What's another way to bring the problem to be solved into sharp focus? Elementary, Watson! Hypothesize! I have found that behind many creative problems lies an underlying sequence with a chink in the chain. So hypothesizing or abducing the cause becomes crucial. (Abductive thinking is not to be confused with thinking done by people who have literally been abducted, whose main thought is HELP, I'VE BEEN ABDUCTED!" Sorry, couldn't resist.) Abductive thinking means you are solving problems using information from the context of the problem. For example, a child's parents return home to find their mischievous son crawling away from their prized antique vase. They may abduce that their tampering toddler may be responsible. 

However, the child is not necessarily the cause. However, it is important not only to hypothesize alone, but to compare notes afterwards. Tom Wujec gave an excellent TED talk about the power of the creative hive mind. He tasked people with drawing diagrams on how toast is made. As he collected hundreds of drawings of the toast making process, he realized that each diagram offered a different spin on toast making. 

Some drawings were about the chemical transformation of bread . Some drawings stressed the toast makers behind the toast, others traced the entire supply chain behind toast back to the grinding of wheat. These diagrams teach us that mapping out a process, creating a hypothesis for how something works creates clarity but they also get our brains firing in unexpected ways, especially when members of a group visualize a creative problem individually and then share them, the interplay of interpretations will often be greater than the sum of its parts. I remember when my group in my creative strategies class struggled to envision the interface of LEGO Paint. Would it begin on-screen? Would physical LEGOs trigger a digital experience? In one of our meetings, put all hands on deck to walk through the interface as a group, but only when we split up and imagined the workflow individually were we able to assemble the best ideas into the model you see today.

3.    Kick your problem around in the sandbox

Another way to get the creative juices flowing is developing a state of play. Research studies have shown that playtime plays a crucial role in socializing us through group play. Play teaches us how to navigate space and helps us achieve the magical state of flow (in which our brains access the highest creative inspirational purposes.

I want to single out physical play for a second, walking for example, is often singled out as a way to clear the airwaves, and set your mind straight for creativity. I have found it constructive in group situations to take whatever problem we were struggling with on a 20-minute walk. Very often by the end of the walk some new angle had not previously explored would emerge. Inserting physical play into meetings need not be forced, in fact, play can be the meeting itself. IDEO, several years back designed a wearable meeting. Plastic outfits that meeting attendees could draw on whiteboards and hang up for later use. 

Another form of play I want to discuss is exploratory play. This, like the learning styles, reaches back to our childhood aptitudes. Think back to the days where many of us would take apart our parents' old cameras or electric kettles and model airplanes and put them back together. These activities open the mind to new uses of old things, because the piece that was designed to fit in one place may work better somewhere else. Steven Johnson makes an excellent argument about how important inventions in history were all about remix. The punch cards that were eventually used to program the automated loom inspired Charles Babbage to invent an early programmable computer. Who could have known? 

Spinning an idea on a roulette of free associations can land you on an exciting new synthesis that brought about inventions like the Apple Watch, as an article from HubSpot points out. T fact of the matter is, unlikely combinations generate unlikely inspiration. It was only through free association that we managed to equate Land Rover Evoque with the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, which inspired my copywriting school group to brand Evoque as an autonomous car. 

It is important to remember that creativity is not a chore. It works like a finger trap puzzle. The harder you pull in either direction, the tighter the trap becomes. If you loosen up, you're free in an instant. Great ideas only come alive in a loose and friendly environment, a crossroads of the unexpected. What each of us does to create these conditions is less important than doing it. Let us all remind each other to remember to leave the whip at the door and hop in the sandbox!