I often emphasize to my classes the importance of changing up your routine, particularly when you’re in a concepting rut. Take a walk. Work somewhere else. Change the music you’re listening to. If you’ve been writing for a while, try solving your problem by drawing.

Today, I came across this TED video that confirms the importance of doodles. Sunni Brown is speaking specifically about doodling in meetings as a way to enhance your focus, but her point about it engaging your brain in a different way is true not just when you’re trying to file stuff away, but when you’re digging around trying to get stuff out too.

So the next time you’re turning an idea every which way, remember to turn your brain every which way as well. And don’t forget, if you’re a writer and your doodling produces something interesting, please submit it to Illustrated by Copywriters.


Leave Your Creative Rut

Don’t use the same method for coming up with ideas over and over and over again. Even a good rut is still a rut.

In the habit of approaching problems visually? Try writing headlines instead. Even if the idea doesn’t require them.

Like to work directly with your partner? Try spending an hour or two on your own before coming back together to share ideas.

Do you normally write your ideas on a laptop or a notebook? Try using a stack of index cards and a Sharpie.

There are a bunch of ways you can approach a problem. And you should use all of them. Even if it means sitting in a different chair than you’re used to.

When you find a method that works really well, you should use it as a tool, not a crutch. Don’t let yourself think, “This is the way to come up with ads,” because it won’t be.

Product Benefit Exercise

In the event you’re not working off a brief (i.e., you’re a student, you’re doing pro bono work, or you’re trying to beef up your book on your own), here’s an exercise worth trying.

Take whatever it is you’re working on, and brainstorm 20 product benefits. Say you’re working on Legos. Here are 20…

  1. Fun
  2. Make you smart
  3. imaginative
  4. indestructable
  5. timeless
  6. appeal to all ages
  7. no language barrier
  8. teach kids about connections
  9. you can lose track of time
  10. they keep your kids quiet
  11. interactive
  12. so much better than watching TV or playing video games
  13. MIT has a Lego Lab
  14. colorful
  15. They’re a step-up from Duplo
  16. Variety of sets (space/medieval/town/Star Wars)
  17. Not hard to find
  18. Play that doesn’t make you dirty
  19. Always enough to share
  20. You can build with as much or as little as you like.

Once you have your list of 20 product benefits, start doing ads for each area. For this, do some ads about how Legos appeal to all ages. See how far you can go with that. Then do some ads about how you can add to the sets. Or how, unlike other toys, they’re still fun when you lose a couple pieces. Obviously, some benefits will be better than others. I’m not sure how many people ever bought Legos because they’re “colorful.” Still, do three ads per benefit, and suddenly you’ve got 60 ideas. Keep doing ads off every benefit until you realize which area is the most fertile. Then go do more ads in that direction.

You may not always have a brief. But you should always be working off a strategy. This is just one simple way of finding out what that might be.

By the way, don’t do ads for Legos. Too studenty.
(Much love to Coz Cotzias who showed me how to do this a decade ago.)

SXSW I: Convergence & Divergence

A couple months ago, I was fortunate enough to be sent by my agency to the South By Southwest Music/Film/Interactive Festival in Austin. There were a lot of really cool ideas floating around, and I’m going to do a series of posts on some of the relevant ideas I encountered.

My first post on SXSW is from a talk called “11 Tips to Managing a Creative Environment.” The speakers compiled the list after interviewing people who a) work in a creative environment, b) had to work as part of a team and c) had hard deadlines to meet. Some of these groups included entertainers (comedy troupes, theater groups, symphonies), media (print and online magazines), writers groups, restaurants, and a few others. Much of it applied to simply working in a creative environment, regardless of whether or not you had any authority.

One of the points they made was about the steps of the creative process and making sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of what step you’re at. This is critical in a creative department, but also important with a CW-AD team.

There are two phases in any creative process: divergence and convergence. Divergence is the brainstorming part. Churning out as many ideas as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter if they’re good yet. This phase is all about quantity. And the key here is to not judge. Don’t kill ANYTHING. Don’t say why you can’t do it, why the client won’t buy it, how it won’t fit the budget. We all know this is the golden rule of brainstorming, even though we sometimes forget.

An important step to making sure everyone’s on the same page is that, when you’re done with phase 1, make sure everyone knows you are. End the meeting, or say “Okay, now let’s look at everything we’ve got.” One of the comedy troupes marked the turning point with a smoke break. When they came back from the smoke break, everyone knew they were in phase 2.

Phase 2 is the convergence phase. This is when the ideas are culled down, refined, combined and, yes, killed. You have to edit here. Be ruthless. Only keep the great ideas.

Now, the point I want to emphasize is that in this second phase, the golden rule is you’re not coming up with completely new directions. This is about getting to a single solution, not creating more potential solutions–if you did your job in phase 1, you should have plenty. We’ve all been in meetings where we’re trying to brainstorm and someone is shooting ideas down. It’s frustrating, and it’s harmful to the process. But just as harmful is to be throwing out new ideas when you’re in the convergence phase. This is the time to improve the ideas that you have. A constant stream of new ideas in this phase can lead to chaos and frustration.

In an agency, young teams often fall into the trap of spending all their time in the divergence phase, then try to converge an hour before they’re supposed to present their work. I’d say it should be closer to 60/40, depending on your creative director. Most will like to see a few ideas. None want to see ALL of your ideas. Make sure you spend time fleshing your ideas out. Give them the time and refinement they deserve.