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There’s a common misconception among in-house marketing departments and it goes a little something like this: The internal creative people can handle a lot of the day to day design and communications needs, but for really great work, we have to bring in the big guns…

…the agency.

While agencies largely have turned generating, presenting and producing great ideas into a reliable, fine-tuned machine complete with splashy visuals and compelling backstories, they certainly don’t own the rights to the methods of creativity. 

In fact, much of the time they are just really, really, really good at selling their ideas…great or mediocre. It’s often easier (and more cost-effective) to sell a “just ok” idea than it is to come up with a truly good one.

But people who need to be creative every day know that it’s not a matter of having good ideas or being hit like a bolt of lightning with a spark. No, it’s about having a process–the right set of tools to turn to in any situation–to get you over the hump.

There are many, many ways to approach creative problems, but here we’ll discuss just a few of the most tried and true: Group brainstorming, sketching, appropriation, brief writing, and research…in no particular order. 

Who was it that said if you don’t know where to start, start anywhere?

Do Brainstorming the Right Way

If one person can sit down for an hour and come up with two decent solutions to a problem, then ten people should be able to come up with 20 decent solutions, right? Or two ideas that are 10 times better? It’s simple math, yes?

Well not quite. If the session is not managed properly, or the wrong mix of people is in the room, you can actually get fewer good ideas. Like one…or even zero!

The latter consideration is a little easier, so let’s tackle that first. Who should be invited? The main goal of group brainstorming is not to get to a good solution, it’s to get many good solutions, and that depends on everyone in the room feeling comfortable and able to speak freely. So that means no executives or directors (unless it’s a brainstorming session among these groups).

Also, no toxic or negative personality types, you know who they are. And no one who isn’t able to follow the rules of the session. People who think of themselves as rebels sometimes can meet these criteria. They often don’t like being given constraints. You might be tempted because they’re outspoken or have strong opinions, but they can shut the rest of the group down in the blink of an eye. Beware!

Capturing ideas in a non-hierarchical, or radial format presents ideas in relation to each other rather than in arbitrarily assigning importance using lists.

Other than that, you should seek to make the group as diverse as possible. Don’t just include people who are obviously creative…look to other departments. Think about the problem and who might be able to bring some valuable perspective. Maybe it’s someone from accounting, or IT, or even the mailroom.

After you have your list of invitees, it’s on to picking a moderator. Often this will be you, or the person organizing the session. But if there is some reason why you think another person might be better at keeping things moving, asking prompting questions, recording the ideas, and enforcing the rules, then be honest and pass the mic to someone more suited. It comes down to who has the right personality.

Next are the rules. These should be communicated in advance, reiterated at the start of the session, posted in the room, and agreed to by everyone present. Anyone who scoffs should be invited to leave. You may have missed a rebel or “Negative Nelson” in your recruiting efforts! Cancel and reschedule if you have to.

Here is the almighty list of rules.

  1. The moderator is in charge. It’s not a free-for-all. When tension arises, it’s the moderator who is empowered to diffuse and redirect.
  2. Be polite. One at a time. When someone is describing their idea, allow them to finish before someone else starts.
  3. No judging, editing or criticizing ideas. There are no bad ones at this stage. Editing down to the most successful will come later.
  4. No lists of ideas. Ideas should be captured on large sheets of paper, a whiteboard, or using post-it notes on a wall in a radial or non-hierarchical manner. Lists assign importance to items higher in the list which is counterproductive.
  5. No crossing out or erasing ideas. Now is not the time to edit, and who knows what idea an erroneous comment could spur in another person.
  6. Prompt with questions. Statements shut down the conversation, while questions open it up. Write down an initial question and let the group start interpreting or answering in their own way. Go until the ideas run dry and then ask the question in a different way, or ask a different question.
  7. Confirm or restate the unclear. Don’t just write something down to appease. Make sure you as the moderator and the group understand the comment if it seems confusing.
  8. No personal technology. Silence or ban all laptops, phones or tablets. We’re all too dependent at this point. They will only distract and derail.

Other than some colored traditional or dry-erase markers, a few packs of post-its in an array of colors, some small notepads for the attendees and several large (24” x 36”) notepads if needed, you should be ready to go.

Group creative activities can get more involved than this depending on the need, but for a basic brainstorming session, this is the general format used at all levels in the industry. It’s not complicated, but applying a little bit of structure goes a long way in opening up the doors of creativity.

Think on Paper, Not in Your Head

We touched on this a little bit above as far as recording a group brainstorming session. But what about if you need to do some creative thinking on your own? Or, better yet, you can have a group brainstorming session and then follow it up with some personal ideation on your own.

Generating ideas solo is something that is not discussed much and is often discounted in corporate settings. Brainstorming just looks so much more productive. But everything has its place in creative thinking, and many times there is just no substitute for letting one brain go really, really deep on a problem. Just ask the likes of Edison or Einstein.

So, how do you do it? How do you start? What’s the secret? 

In short, you have to use your hands. It sounds counterintuitive, right? You should be able to come up with ideas in your head. After all, it’s your brain that does all of the thinking!

Free-form sketching is a useful method for cataloging good and bad ideas, and visualizing associations between ideas.

Career creatives know that that only gets you so far. Often your brain will mull the same old stodgy idea over and over in your head until you get it out into the “real world”. It gets stuck in there, and all of the good, original, novel ideas are hidden behind it. Among a sea of other stinkers mind you, but there nonetheless. Just think of it like mining for gold. Good ideas are gold, but there’s a lot to sift through to find it.

Whether it’s writing on paper, sketching, collaging using magazines or playing with your kids’ Play-Doh, just get the hands involved. This is one of the best ways to open the floodgates to your inner creative self. 

By contrast, one of the worst ways is to sit in a chair and try to will an idea into your head. It probably won’t happen, and you’ll just get frustrated as your deadline looms closer and closer. Get your brains out onto the page and let the ideas: good, bad, ridiculous and ground-breaking flow.

Steal…I Mean Appropriate From Other

“Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso

This is a pretty tricky one if you don’t understand it. Stealing can be interpreted to mean a few different things.

You can steal by committing copyright infringement by directly copying another’s work. Or by hiring a designer to produce a piece of work for you, and then not paying for it and using it (also copyright infringement). Or by incorporating someone else’s intellectual property directly into your work. All of these are bad…and illegal.

No, we’re talking about “stealing” someone else’s thinking, building on it or reinterpreting it, and then producing something original yourself. Standing on the shoulders of others. Remixing. Mashing up. Appropriating.

There really is no method for this one. It’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open while you have a problem in your head and noticing something that seems relevant. It’s typically combined with sketching or writing as a way of dissecting the solution and interpreting it for your unique situation.

Just be careful. If done sloppily or half-heartedly, this can produce really stale, derivative ideas. Definitely don’t use this as the sole means of idea generation. A little dab’ll do ya.

Have a Purpose, or Make One with a Creative Brief

Sometimes you just have a really clear direction. A guiding light that serves as a beacon through the fog of uncertainty that clouds the creative process.

But not often.

Most of the time, you don’t understand the context of the problem you’re trying to solve enough to have a clear picture of the end state. In this case, the temptation may arise to just dive right in and start spewing out ideas. Resist this urge!

Firstly, and most obviously, just write down the problem. Run it by the team, or by those to whom you’re responsible. It’s often taken for granted that everyone is on the same page, but you’d be amazed at how many different views there can be. Getting a sense of agreement (and sign off) about what you’re actually trying to do can set the course for the remainder of the project.

Also, clarify the primary goal of the undertaking, and any secondary considerations. This is usually deeper than the problem but is also necessary to know. The success of the solution will ultimately be measured against this goal…rather than the stated problem. So it’s important to understand the business motivations behind it.

Take some time to think about who the solution is for, what motivates them, and what would appeal to them. What action do you want them to take? What one key message do you want them to leave with? How should they feel? Write this all down as well.

Summarize all of this on no more than one page for a super-simple creative brief. Include anything else that’s a key consideration or “must-have”. You can even do this as a half-page outline with bullet points. The most important thing is that it’s available to everyone involved and agreed upon…and that you don’t start without it.


Research in the context of a design or creative project is really a broad topic and is not limited to one stage of the process. For a more robust brief and resulting creative strategy, extensive research is conducted by the design team into the competition, audience profiles or user behaviors, internal objectives, etc.

Research is conducted later in the process through gaining audience feedback, conducting usability testing and so on.

For the sake of stoking creativity however, we’ll focus on research as it relates to idea generation and finding inspiration. We’ll focus on three of the most relevant kinds below. They can sound kind of more complicated than they actually are, so don’t be intimidated.

Primary research

This is in its simplest form, talking to or observing the customer or end-user. It needn’t be anything fancy like a focus group either. Just figure out who your constituents are, and then find a few to talk to.

If it’s an internal project, HR may be able to help identify a few willing participants. Or maybe someone in sales or customer service can put you in touch with some brand loyalists who would be interested in having a say in the direction of the brand or product they love.

There are many different ways you can structure the time with your subjects which I plan to get into at a later time, but a casual interview or conversation can be easy to set up and really help to expand the horizons at the outset.

Secondary research

Almost every good designer I know is constantly doing secondary research as part of their design process. With the availability of information on the internet and easy access to books and magazines, this method has the lowest friction of all as it’s basically at your fingertips any time of day or night.

The trick with secondary research is to go a level or two deeper than the most obvious sources and to go as broad as possible. It’s far too easy to rely on Google and Wikipedia alone, although this can be a great place to start.

It’s really difficult to describe a one-stop-shop for secondary research since sources are so unique to each situation, but don’t forget about libraries and bookstores, competitor websites and reports, internal marketing materials and databases, museums, cultural institutions, universities and trade associations.

Literature review is an important and accessible form of research that makes use of the published work of others who are often experts in their field.

After you analyze your findings and look for common themes and opportunities to approach things differently, compile a simple report using a presentation program. Include relevant visuals that were captured via screen or mobile phone and some bullet points that explain your observations.

In addition to helping with your own creative exploration, this research can serve double duty in selling your ideas within your company or to external clients.

Generative research

At first glance, generative research can seem similar to brainstorming as it typically involves a conference room and a group of people…and copious amounts of sticky notes and dry-erase markers.

In actuality, it’s quite different in terms of structure and the end goals of the activity. Indeed, generative research methods such as design thinking workshops, design charrettes, and prototyping sessions can be much more in-depth and targeted than traditional brainstorming, and for good reason.

The focus isn’t “blue-sky” thinking in nature with the end goal of generating a high volume of ideas. With generative research methods, you’re trying to leverage the collaborative effects associated with a group of minds to work through a specific problem or set of problems.

A moderator should still be appointed to ensure the group remains on-task. But the activities can range from group sketching to working with low-fi prototyping techniques (such as paper prototyping), to diagramming customer or user journeys on a large wall with Post-It notes.

Design Thinking is a method of generative research that utilizes a human-centered approach to problem solving in a collaborative group setting.

Participants can include a similar range of people to what’s described above in the context of brainstorming or can fold in actual users or customers in the case co-design activities.

The sessions should be structured in a way that allows for not only the creative portions but also group discussions and presentations along the way. 

It’s a good idea to appoint a designated note-taker and photographer to document the process for later reference.

In the End, Focus on the “How” Rather Than the “What”

This list of tactics is by no means exhaustive or official in any way. There are dozens of methods that are designed to get people thinking more creatively that may suit your particular situation better, so I encourage you to explore and find what works best in your environment.

The key is to look at the problems you’re trying to solve objectively and come up with a plan that will uncover the desired results. Often, creativity is about how you design your approach, rather than trying to will better ideas into your head or hiring a rockstar agency. We all can be creative under the right circumstances.

It’s a cultural shift for sure. But embracing the spirit of experimentation and not being afraid of failure can have big payoffs in the long run, as your team becomes more efficient and productive. So give brainstorming, sketching, appropriation, brief writing and/or design research a try the next time your team could use a little creative mojo. 

If you have any thoughts or experiences about methods you’ve found particularly useful, please share.