Where Good Ideas Come From (And How to Capture Them)

filed under: Creative Inspiration
How to discover new good ideas:

Step One: Obtain a golden unicorn (yes, color matters)
Step Two: Wait for purple rain and when it’s over take said unicorn out into strawberry fields
Step Three: Let unicorn feast on rainbows
Step Four: Put unicorn to sleep in your bed with fire burning at its feet (NEVER its back)
Step Five: Collect delivery of early-morning magical-unicorn bowel movement and generously spread all over your work area. (Hope you’re not a makeup artist…)

Ta-Da! New ideas everywhere!

Joking aside…

Where do good ideas come from?

How do the top performers in any field create their magic? And how can you start generating more creative (and more successful) ideas around your work day after day?

The One Thing Successfully Creative People NEVER Do

…is read those vomit-lists of the 7 (5, 10, 15, 1784, insert-your-lucky-number) things that successful people do every day.

Seriously.

Do you really think anyone ever read a list like that, was really and truly taken by the *profound* (cough… cough…) advice to wake up early/plan the day ahead/see failures as lessons/believe in your work (which pretty much encapsulates all such lists), and then *bam! Magic!* became successful?

We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again, and say till our tongues fall out of our mouths:

There’s no formula to success.

Honestly, you’d have more luck in finding success through new ideas by implementing our opening 5-step process!

Where Good Ideas Really Come From And How Creativity Strikes

Unsexy and unmagical as it may initially sound, the secret key to unlocking new ideas and creativity is…

(drum roll please…)

PROCESS.

P-R-O-C-E-S-S. Pro-cess:
“a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.”

Yup. That’s right folks.
Even the most creative out-there and original works come from a process.

Now, don’t confuse process with routine.

Because we aren’t actually saying that if you go to work every day at the same time, sit at the same desk, and do the same things over and over again, you’ll somehow stumble upon an original idea that’s been hiding inside your brain forever.

Nop. Doesn’t work that way.

As Albert Einstein supposedly said (but maybe never did):

The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

And since creativity — and NOT insanity — is what we’re going after here, repetition is not our answer.

The key to creativity actually lies in PROCESS:

And this 3-minute video with star voice coach Joyce DiDonato illustrates the point in a powerful way:

Here’s the brilliant gem DiDonato professes in case you’re somewhere where you can’t hit play:

This is really, really important… Don’t recreate what just worked. Analyze the process you went through to get that result. If you go for the result, it ain’t gonna work. It might, but that’s just luck… We go for the process.

Repeat after us: Process is everything.

It kinda goes like this:

You’re scrolling through your Instagram feed one morning during breakfast and see a woman hitting an amazing yoga pose. You think to yourself:

“Wow, that’s amazing. I want to do that!”

You push your spoon and cereal aside and start “practicing” the pose right away, trying to will your stiff body into an unhumanly bend.

Ouch! You’ll be in the ER before you can say “muscle strain!”

Why? Because you’re only trying to replicate a result without understanding the process (the practice, the easier poses, the progressive stretching) that it took to reach that result.

And trying to copy the end result (that you or (gasp!) someone else achieved before) rather than replicating the process can only get you one of two things:

1. Hurt.
2. An unoriginal copy.

Exhibits 1 through 1 million: Nearly every movie sequel ever made.
(Talk about trying to recreate a (box-office) result and failing miserably!)

How Process Unlocks Good Ideas

Good ideas don’t come out of thin air or unicorn behinds. (Good news, bad news, take it as you will.)

As the legendary Steve Jobs said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

Synthesize is the magical word here. (Bold AND italics!!!)

A word with Greek roots meaning “to put together.”

Creativity is the ability to draw distinct ideas together to create something new of value.

Meaning (again)…

Creativity and good ideas don’t come out of thin air, but out of other ideas. Out of toying around with ideas. Out of putting together old things in new ways. Or new things in old ways.

Our Idea-Generating Processes

Each creative or creatively-minded professional will develop her or his own process for unlocking that gold nectar of new ideas. Here are some of the processes that help us:

1: get to WORK when we need to, even if we feel we have NO creative ideas flowing
2: eventually get to those creative ideas and a-ha! moments that translate into original work

When I’m (Julia here!) working on the messaging of a new client, I don’t just take out a blank piece of paper and stare at it until a brilliant idea strikes me from above like lightning.

That’d never work, and we’d be out of commission by now!

Instead, I take that beautiful and terrifying blank piece of paper and write down every cliché, expected, and over-used slogan, phrase, and advertising message I can think of relating to the client’s product and market.

Shock. Horror. What? Clichés?!?

Yup, I start out with the bad ones. A means of cleansing and expiation, I guess.

This process helps me do two things:

  1. get rid of all the usual messages that flood all of our brains when we first hear of a product or a service
  2. open a new path to creativity by selecting possible candidates for synthesis!

I’d never, of course, use any ol’ cliché “as is” but the combination of the expected with an unexpected, humorous, or innovative idea coming out of left field might result in something new and delightful!

(Also, an unexpected idea that’s not mitigated by something already familiar might actually be too novel to speak to the reader’s heart. Not everything new is good.)

Once I have all my “bad” ideas in place, I start playing with them and listing also the totally-out-there, would-never-say-that phrases to see if some new combination might jump at me from the page.

Then I’ll pore over customer testimonials, relevant book reviews, and other messages with clues for customer language and highlight the most powerful sentences and phrases!

Some of these often become headlines (with little or even no editing) that combine with the product info for powerful sales results.

(See! Synthesis!)

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One of the best advice I (Stella!) ever got from my teachers early on was to look at other people’s work.

This advice was repeated to me myriads of times and with increasing frequency as I went through my university training.

In the beginning, it felt wrong and weird…
until I realized that I was supposed to look for inspiration in other people’s work, not for ideas to copy or steal!

And that’s when it clicked:
Everything I produce contributes to a larger discussion that happens in the world around us.

Through my work, I have two choices:

  1. I can choose to add something of value to the world or
  2. I can choose to be unoriginal by repeating what’s already out there.

What’s funny, it that I also learned to work with clichés, and learned to do so by top-notch expert advice from one of my professors at SVA.

His class assignments were always really simple:

Design 100 renditions of ____________ [fill in topic of the week: clouds, teapots, perfume bottles]

His word to the wise?

Real work starts when you have difficulty putting another line on the paper.

The first 50 or so renditions always came easily to me. All the clichés your eyes consume on a daily basis without you even knowing, there they were! Popping in my mind and going onto paper!

But how many times can you draw a cloud over and over again before you start crying, right? That’s when real creativity kicked in. ‘Cause we had to look at that old familiar shape from new angles and unusual perspectives.

And those two steps are still the first steps I take in every single project I take on today.

  • First, I take a look around to see what others are doing in the area, collect some inspiration, find the “empty spaces” where I can offer a new perspective.
  • Then, I start sketching without filters, barriers, or high aspirations until I hit a wall. And I love hitting that wall because it lets me know I’m on the brink of creativity. That’s when my real work starts!

Beating the Good-Idea Block

You’ve heard of writer’s block before.
Actually, all creatives and creatively-minded professionals get the block sometimes.

The creative block.

Or the good-idea block. And like a teenage fashionista before her overspilling wardrobe, we have a meltdown over our laptops yelling dramatically:

“I have no good ideas to work with!”

Oh, you know the days. Those days where ideas don’t flow. When creativity goes hiding in a deep cave. When our creative juices sit sulking in a corner refusing to play.

If you’re expecting to do your creative work by magic, you’re doomed. The magic shall never come.

But if you have a process?

You can start working and wait for good ideas to flow in at their own sweet time.

Staring at the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank marketing proposal will never lead anywhere.

But when you have a process in place you can go play even in the most cliché of strawberry fields for an entire day without fearing that you’re wasting your time.

You know that good ideas will come to you. And that knowledge protects your sanity…

All you have to do is expose your brain to enough distinct ideas for the process of synthesis to start taking place. (Kinda like plants and photosynthesis: give ’em light and they’ll synthesize!)

What’s your creative process?

What do you do on days that you feel stuck to get unstuck?
Do you have any weird endearing rituals that you perform to get the creative juices flowing?
Share with us!