7 ways to keep your thinking stoked, creative and fresh
An art director I once knew had the U.S. Forest Service as a client for nearly 25 years. One project he worked on was a yearly poster, featuring the Forest Service’s iconic Smokey the Bear character.
The goal of the poster was pretty straightforward: Remind outdoorsy-types to not burn down a forest through sheer stupidity. (Many fires are ignited by the nonchalant flick of a match, or someone not completely extinguishing a campfire.)
There were only two requirements for the poster: The famously stoic bear, and his equally famed line, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Everything else—imagery and text—was open.
The art director told me that the first seven or eight years of the assignment were easy. They had acres of ideas. But after that, the sweet syrup of their creativity was getting harder to tap. By year 15, his team dreaded the assignment.
Still, through sheer perseverance, they managed to keep the posters compelling, and the client happy, for over 22 years. It was quite a feat.
In the advertising, marketing and public relations worlds, creativity like this is a job requirement. And believe me, there are times it isn’t easy. (I’ve been at it for a few decades.) But today, creativity is in demand everywhere—from education, to manufacturing, to corporate America, and beyond.
The Smokey the Bear art director was happy to share his thoughts with me on how to keep your creativity bright eyed and bushy tailed. And over the years, others have been kind enough to share their insights on this trying topic, too. All had slightly different takes, but their advice (mixed with my own) came down to seven basic approaches:
- There’s no such thing as one right answer. From school, most of us are heavily conditioned to think there’s a single, right answer to a problem. In day-to-day life, though, most problems have many answers. Don’t just settle for the first solution that comes to you—look for a second, third and more. Often, your best idea will come if you push yourself just a bit further.
- Ask a different question. When faced with a problem, we usually keep asking ourselves the same questions: How do we fix this? How do we get them to understand? But, if you change those questions even slightly, it can lead you down a totally new and interesting path. In my field, for example, if a client is grappling with heavy competition, most would ask: How can we gain more market share? That question fires up a certain brain circuitry, for sure. Now imagine if you changed the question to: How can more customers find out about us? That’s a whole different direction—one your competitors may not be asking. Change the question, and your ingenuity will follow suit.
- Gather competitive intelligence. What are others in your field doing to solve this problem? Read their blogs and tweets, watch their YouTube channels. Try to look at your industry as a whole. There may very well be an approach you haven’t thought of, or at least one you can adapt, quickly, to solve your issue. Chances are, someone has faced your dilemma.
- Don’t gather competitive intelligence. Want a fresh perspective? Scour the internet for information from a totally different company, industry or country. Talk to friends or relatives who work in otherworldly places than you. I’ve done this, and I’m often amazed how it snaps my thinking out of a rut. Be open to worlds that have nothing to do with yours—and it may open up a whole new universe.
- Lose the crowd. We live in an age of committee approval. The common result is problem solving that claws its way to the middle, is perfectly safe, and forgettable. Be a trailblazer. If you normally work in teams, try going it alone for a while, and forget some of the cultural rules or norms that hold you back and no one questions or even thinks about anymore.
- Ask a colleague who’s a bit removed. Once you have come up with a solution, break out of the regular circle of people you run things by. Find someone who has nothing to do with the problem, but is just as familiar with your industry or organization as you are, and ask him or her for thoughts. You don’t have to follow what he or she says, but familiar yet fresh eyes can sometimes lead to mini miracles.
- Think more like a kid. Youngsters have the amazing ability to take the leash off their minds and let them run wild. That takes some practice, Mr. or Ms. Responsible Adult, but it is doable and hilarious to try. My example was my own kids. When my son was little, he had a report to do on Russia—and his teacher charged the class with “doing something different.” I watched in awe as he came up with a plethora of freshly picked stuff: A glow-in-the-dark poster, a diorama of St. Basil’s constructed from Legos®, a CD of Russian club music, to name a few. Follow his lead! Take your inhibitions, banish them to Siberia, and put the fun back into what you’re doing. All anyone can say is no.
These seven little techniques should provide adequate kindling for any problem you need to solve. They’ll keep your creative thinking well stoked—in a way that even Smokey would be proud of.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group