Billy Joel’s hit song “The River of Dreams (I go walking in the middle of the night)” was inspired by a mid-sleep bathroom break at 3am. But in the web design world we can’t afford to wait for this kind of inspiration. Generally, we need to come up with new innovative and super creative ideas right now. This is when we usually go into some kind of brainstorming mode, but instead of feeling like a happy “River of Dreams” it feels more like a “Storm of Pressure.” However, even these brainstorming sessions can turn into a pressure cooker with their own set of hurdles to jump.
Usually, brainstorming sessions happen within a group so that individuals can feed off each others ideas. However, for the majority of us, brainstorming and creative innovation is a solitary task. The way I see it, there are (besides the lack of group thinking) two main hurdles to jump in your isolated brainstorming sessions:
It’s really easy to put off your brainstorming sessions for another day and it’s not real easy to thinking creatively when it’s just your brain and your ideas being kicked around. That’s the beauty of a group think; you’re forced to participate and you’re not the only brain in the game. It’s harder to think creatively when nobody else is there to push ideas further. In order to avoid being trapped in the vicious procrastination cycle or getting caught with your brain turned off, I’ve come up with some techniques that will help to establish a brainstorming method and break the innovative ice.
Write Down the Problem Over and Over Again
Before, during and after, write the problem down. Write your problem down in big bold letters on your sheet of paper, make it big enough, so that it is the first thing your eye is drawn to. When you get bored during the session and can’t think of anything, write down the problem again. The reason for the brainstorming session is to solve a problem or innovate new ideas, when you write the problem down before and during the session you will be able to focus on the solutions and ideas.
This will keep you focused on the task, keep you focused on what’s ahead, kind of like driving: it’s nice to look around every once in a while, but you need to be looking straight ahead so you don’t drive off the road and roll your car in a ditch.
When shooting out ideas during a session write down even the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas. While brainstorming, ideas build off of each other, ideas lead to other ideas. It’s easier to write off “silly” ideas when they are just yours but writing down even the weirdest concepts can lead your brain down a different road where new, more creative ideas may be conceived. Try to avoid just laughing at crazy ideas and moving on — laugh at yourself and then don’t forget to write them down. True innovation only comes through different thinking, so let yourself think differently because you never know when a really crazy idea will blossom.
Write Ideas in Pen
White boards are great brainstorming tools, but all too often during a session you will be tempted to erase “dumb” ideas before the session is through, or even erase ideas just to simply make room for more things. Write down all your ideas in pen, that way you won’t be tempted to change your mind on an idea or just discredit an idea based upon needing space. Part of what makes brainstorming successful is the fact that even a dumb idea can turn into the most brilliant innovative concept ever conceived. Writing in pen makes sure that those dumb ideas are still floating on the page waiting for you to polish them into true innovation.
Schedule Yourself and Appointment with Yourself
A brain dump session is just as critical to a project as anything else, so schedule a meeting with yourself and make yourself accountable for attending that meeting. Setting aside some time to brainstorm can be a difficult thing so treat yourself like your client and pencil yourself in. Set up a date in your Google calendar and approach that appointment just as important as a meeting with your project manager.
Define a Time Limit
In order to stay on task and not waste your entire day dreaming for inspiration, set a time limit on any brainstorming session. This will help you stay motivated on the problem at hand and also your session won’t become a time drain. Setting a time limit will also help you from day dreaming about other stuff during a brainstorming session.
Set a realistic time limit also, don’t pencil in two to three hours, an effective session doesn’t need to be that long. A half-hour to an hour should do just fine as long as you are able to stay focused on the task. If necessary, set up two or three small sessions during the day instead of one long gigantic session.
When the Session Ends — Evaluate
After you have spent your scheduled one hour brainstorming session writing a bunch of nonsensical random thought bubbles with words and phrases that make no connection; it’s time to evaluate the confusion. Now, you don’t have to do this right after the session, I would actually recommend scheduling another day for the evaluation, but then don’t forget about it — same rules apply for the evaluation as to the brainstorming session.
The main point of looking back on your brainstorming madness is to find those ideas that seem truly plausible, that seem like you could move them to the next level. When evaluating however, don’t cross out ideas or discount anything you have written, simple read back through the ideas and more often then not, a few ideas will jump off the page and you’ll know which concepts to further pursue. Avoid crossing out things, highlighting items or circling ideas, this activity visually takes away the focus from all the ideas and narrows down the scope. Often, you can visually connect two or three ideas together that may not have a good relationship, you might hurt these connections if you highlight or create focus on only a few concepts.
And… when you do get stuck…
There will come a time when you just can’t think of anything, trust me, it will happen. You’ll just be staring at your notepad or computer, hand on mouse just itching to click on the Spotify icon. This brain block only leads to frustration and frustration will kill any creative thinking process completely. So here are a few ideas to try next time you get stuck:
- What would Jesus do? Or any other notable historical or social figure. When you get stuck, ask yourself what somebody else would do to resolve the problem. This will not only allow you to break your train of thought, but it will give you a different angle on the problem.
- Give yourself an unlimited budget. Forget all the restraints on the project and act as if you have unlimited resources. Allow yourself to think up solutions that will break your budget or time constraints, let yourself bask in the glow of no restrictions. Freedom will allow yourself to be more creative, so think freely and worry about your budget concerns after you have found a really innovative solution, who knows, maybe your idea is so brilliant it’s worth the investment.
- Write a top ten list. Start with number ten and work backwards as you write down the top ten great solutions to your problem. Writing down a top ten list when you get stuck gives you a goal to shoot for, but remember, write down even the most ridiculous solutions… those may just surprise you.
- Look around for help. When you have a complete brain fart during a session, stop and look around. Find some random object – a pencil, a cabinet, the TV, the carpet, a garbage can – and think about how that object can solve your problem. This will help you break your current train of thought, but it will also help you look at the problem very differently.
Creative thinking is better harvested with a positive attitude. Refrain from any brainstorming session during periods of high stress, unless a good brainstorming session is a great stress reliever for you — then be my guest. Keep a positive attitude toward brainstorming as well, if you are just sitting there wanting to be somewhere else, then your brain can’t focus on the task at hand. Brainstorming shouldn’t feel like your sitting in your High School algebra class listening to Mr. Johnson drone on about the husbandry ranch he owns. Stay positive, stay focused and make your brain drain a relaxing fun experience. You’ll probably be surprised at what ultra creative concepts will fall out of your head.