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How running out of ideas will eventually get you more creative ideas

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer
You’ve heard this one before; We’re all born creative and most of us lose this valuable skill as we grow older. We start taking things for granted and curiosity slowly fades away. Lots of people even start calling themselves uncreative. That’s sad. But luckily we can learn to be creative again.
Studies have shown that creativity -the most desirable skill in the future workplace- is pretty easy to master. So how can we become a creative? How can we be that never-ending source of innovative ideas? Creativity won’t happen by just putting yourself and some people in a room with a whiteboard and some Post-its. That’s when you are not comfortable with being creative. Don’t just sit and wait for creative bursts to help you out. You’ll be waiting for a long time. The good news is that you can train yourself to become creative. The quality of your creative output increases with the number of attempts you perform (Jung et al., 2015). The more output you create, the more creative it will be.  
If you ask a friend to design you a logo, she probably won’t satisfy you with the resulting design if that’s the first logo (s)he has ever made. She could put days into that one design and it would still be -pardon me- crap. Another friend who has been designing logos for years would design you a better logo without any effort. The bottom line? The quality of a design is not determined by the amount of effort one puts in. It’s experience that defines how well something is designed. You need creative experience to be a great illustrator. The same counts for creativity in any other field of expertise. You can come up with more creative ideas through practice. The more ideas you generate, the more innovative they will be and the less effort you’ll need to come up with these creative ideas.

A. Creativity as a habit

Here’s another classic: “Creativity is like a muscle that you can train.” It’s true though. You can train that muscle, but it’s also important to keep it in shape. As kids we all had a strong creativity muscle, and some of us have given up keeping it in shape. But like any bicep, your creative mind can get strong again. It’s just a matter of consistent training. You’ll need to schedule in training time for your mind, just like you would block an hour for your Tuesday morning run. Run creativity sessions on whatever topic or skill works best for you. Creativity comes in all shapes and colors. If you want to become a better logo designer, design logos. If you want to become a better writer, write. Just ideate and create some output. And don’t force yourself. Even 10 minutes on a Sunday morning is already enough. But then do it every week. The important thing here is to build yourself the habit of training your creativity. Do it regularly and you’ll notice how more creative ideas will come to you naturally, leading to better-quality work. Keeping the routine is key here. Here are some tips that help you build this habit.  
Start small
If you want to get creative with 3D software, don’t plan your first session to take up your entire weekend. Just start off by reading about what software would work for your goals. Maybe watch 2-3 tutorials and leave it there. Downloading the trial version and going through some of the beginner’s features is for your next session. Keep those sessions short enough so that they don’t take up your energy. Energy-draining sessions are the reason why many habits fail. Once you get familiar with the software, you’ll need to invest less energy and sessions naturally will become longer.    
Pick a time
Since sessions don’t take up much of your time, you should easily find a fitting spot in your agenda. But make sure your mental state is all set for the training. Maybe you thrive early in the morning? Then that’s your time to get creative. There’s no universal time to be creative. Just feel at what time of the day you typically are focused and at what time your agenda allows for a creative session. Any time is fine, but make sure you find a fixed moment in your week or day to regularly practice.
Pick a place
Creativity often gets a boost with a change of scenery, but to start your habit it’s helpful to pick a dedicated spot in your home that you’ll only use to practice on your creative work. If you don’t have a separate room to reserve for just one dedicated activity, try to move a chair or get a tiny desk that is only yours, for you to get creative. It should be a comfy spot that has everything you need to instantly start your session.
Mess around
Creativity happens if you don’t force it too much. Before you start working on your creative project, just play with the features of your 3D software for a bit, without trying to build a specific model. Or write some lines of random stuff before you take up your novel writing or code session. By allowing yourself for some aimless practice, you provide yourself time to get into the creative state needed for your project.
Tell others
Tell friends and family about your new habit. Once you’ve told them, you feel a slight social pressure to proceed with your habit. This technique will not work well for everyone, but it might give you that extra push you need to get through the first few weeks of habit building.

B. Let the creative juices flow

So you’ve set up your creative work station at home. Now it’s time to get the ideas out. Where do we start? Here are three different ways to get the creative juices flowing. You may see them as individual techniques, but also as a sequence of steps.
1     The relaxed mental library
Feed your brain with new impressions. Take a walk in a neighborhood you seldom visit, go to a museum, explore new movies,.. A mind that is filled with all sorts of different inputs can take memories on very different topics and link them to form highly creative ideas. So if you want to write a creative script for an action movie, don’t just study action movies. Chat with a watch maker, enjoy a ballet, click a playlist on Spotify you’d never click,.. Adopt this lifestyle and let your mind process all impressions you’re feeding it. To get the creative ideas out, you just need to relax. Maybe for you that means taking a walk (then don’t forget to take your notebook with you) or taking a shower.
2     Ideation boundaries
Creativity can come from limiting the area in which you can ideate. If I ask you to design a building, it’s hard to start drawing. If I ask you to design a floor plan for a luxurious restaurant with an open kitchen, you know where to start. If I ask you to design a better bike, it’s hard to start brainstorming. If I ask you to design a better bike for deaf people who want to safely travel in crowded urban areas, you feel it’s easier to come up with ideas.
3     Go wild
Dare to think of ideas that seem nuts and impossible to implement. Those crazy ideas pull you into a whole new ideation field and make you think of how that impossible idea can be turned into a more realistic one. When ideating new bike designs, you could e.g. ask yourself what a bike would look like if a person could only have one bike in his life. Wondering about such questions can lead to radical bike innovations.  

C. Generating many ideas

So far we’ve covered the importance of your creative habit and that this is the starting point for generating many ideas. As you know, more ideas means better ideas. Now let’s focus on how to brainstorm to get many ideas and how to go on with your ideas.
The 8 idea phases
  1. Scope: Set limits to the problem area or challenge you want to work on. You cannot generate ideas before you define your scope.
  2. Research. Get to know your problem or challenge by looking up relevant content.
  3. Ideate. Use ‘the relaxed mind’, ‘ideation boundaries’, ‘go wild’ or a combination of these methods to generate many ideas. Many ideas, because that’s the road to better ideas. With each new idea, you can polish and combine previous ideas to get better ones.
  4. Select and create concepts. Out of the large idea pool, select a handful of ideas that you feel are valuable and turn them into a concept. This can be a fake door landing page for a new service you wish to launch, or a sketch of a new bike you want to design.
  5. Get feedback. Show or explain your selected concepts to others. Ask them for feedback and if possible, also look at facial expressions and body language when they provide you with their feedback.
  6. Polish. That feedback from step 5 is most important. Use it to refine your concepts or to select other ideas (step 4) that may hold more value.
  7. Repeat step 5 and 6. Do it several times, until you feel certain about the value of your concept. If no one gets excited about any of your concepts, return to step 1.
  8. Launch it. Your concepts have no value if you don’t turn them into launched products or services. Go on, add value to the world and make people smile.
Just don’t forget to keep on ideating and to share your ideas with others for feedback. They’ll in return share new insights with you so you can keep on ideating, turning old ideas into better ones. In the beginning you will run out of ideas. That’s normal because your mind holds very few old ideas to start building new ones upon. Running out of ideas is a good thing. It should happen often. Very often. Until it does not happen anymore. When you get to that tipping point, radical ideas will emerge.

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer


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