Where do you turn when the creative muse is nowhere to be found?
In 1926, psychologist Graham Wallas outlined the basic creative process in four general stages:
1. Preparation: loading up your mind to be creative
2. Inspiration/insight: the process of generating ideas
3. Incubation: the process of refining and iterating ideas
4. Verification: the process of validating ideas
Inspiration/insight is the stage at which new ideas are created. Ideas, however, rarely occur in a vacuum—even with extensive preparation. As in the formation of crystals, ideas must be anchored to something to flourish.
Let’s look at four idea generating techniques that can spark fresh concepts and make your creativity flourish:
1. Lateral thinking
Lateral thinking is making a mental leap to a related concept, action or goal.
To spur this technique, look at objects or objectives with similar patterns of activity or growth. Is there anything that resembles what you’re trying to accomplish? What’s conceptually close to your goal?
Consider social media and writing headlines. What happens one step before or after the core headline? What impact will the tweet or post have on the reader? What will they miss out on if they don’t read it?
What can you describe about the structure of the idea without giving it away in the headline?
Suppose we want to promote our company’s product launch. What does our product do? Take one step back from our solution: What’s the core problem our product solves? How do we then transform that problem into a compelling headline?
That’s an example of lateral thinking.
2. Perspective shift
Imagine, for example, that you’re brainstorming for store layouts and you hit a mental wall. Don your secret shopper disguise and visit your own stores, your competitor’s stores and unrelated industry stores to see how they do things. Experience the perspective of a customer.
Seeking out different cultural perspectives can be helpful, too. If possible, travel to stores that label their goods in languages you don’t speak. Use that shift in perspective to spark new ideas.
What cues are universal in website design, for example, that help you navigate popular websites in other languages? Look at Asahi Shimbun or Al-Arabiya. Can you figure out how to navigate those sites without English clues?
A more sophisticated way to approach perspective shift is to use media monitoring tools to scan articles written by journalists who cover your industry. What do they write about? What language do they use? How can you incorporate their language?
For example, industry insiders might talk about SKUs, whereas consumers and journalists simply say products. By shifting perspective, you can create ideas and content that reflects how your audience thinks.
3. Concept porting
Porting involves translating a computer program from one language, such as PHP, to another language, such as Ruby. Concept porting is about taking great ideas from one area of expertise and translating it effectively into another.
For example, I write frequently on my personal blog about how World of Warcraft’s concepts apply to marketing. I wrote recently about how marketing has cooldowns just as player abilities have cooldowns. There’s a tremendous amount of crossover if you can see how the syntax changes but the core idea remains the same.
Take concepts from things you’re already expert in—things you love beyond work—and see whether they apply in a different realm.
4. Intentional conflict
Social media platforms enable us to see, hear and read only the things we agree with. Staying within a bubble limits creativity. Subscribe to content that contains strong opposing points of view, personally and professionally. See what “the other side” is saying, and use your reactions as starting points for new ideas.
For example, there’s a person in the digital marketing industry whose opinions and methods I vehemently oppose. I dislike nearly everything about this person’s work, but I stay subscribed to their content because my reactions generate energy and passion. That creates momentum, which I often redirect into creating content about what I believe to be the “right” way, or at least a better way, of accomplishing certain digital marketing tasks.
Who in your industry writes the most inflammatory articles? Which journalist is always the skeptic? Subscribe to them, listen to them, read them, and use their ideas as fuel. Find your own “hot button” people to read and follow, and you’ll never lack ideas.
Christopher S. Penn is Shift Communications’ vice president of marketing technology. A version of this post first appeared on the Shift Communications blog.