The Calm Before the Storm: How to Brainstorm
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Maybe your boss is demanding a fresh idea by Monday morning. Maybe your blog is in need of a new twist. Maybe you have a personal project in mind, but have no idea where to start. Whatever your plight, the main problem here is a lack of ideas. Brainstorming can be a fun and rewarding activity, but for even the most creative people, it can also be difficult to do effectively. Having been in that position, I want to share what I and others do when we need to brainstorm for work or pleasure.
What I Do
Brainstorming is often present in my life, whether it’s for a SparkIt social media post or an idea for a story. After taking classes at UF for advertising, writing, and media, I’ve realized that free association is an effective way to come up with new ideas. To me, free association is when you make quick connections to words or phrases, which will help you link two or more concepts that did not seem connected before.
So how does free association for me work? First, I either stand next to a whiteboard or sit down at a desk with a notebook. I prefer to have a writing utensil that lets me freely draw arrows and circles to make visual links between concepts. Then, I write the topic at the top of my workspace. Next, I’ll write any word or phrase that comes to mind, in a list. I might group them if I think they’re similar. I might even draw pictures or diagrams. Being disorganized in the beginning might actually spark new thought processes.
Usually, after my paper or whiteboard looks like a crime investigation, I've already settled on an idea I find to be intriguing. Then I latch onto that idea and build from there. While sometimes idea generation takes a little more work, this is generally the most successful route for me.
What These Accomplished Folks Do
Don’t be afraid to build off other ideas. Ideas are like any living species on the planet: They evolved from something else, but that doesn’t make them any less original. Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, says in his book that it’s okay to “riff on the creative language of others.” When you brainstorm, try to sculpt preexisting ideas into new ones.
It’s like actor and rapper Jaden Smith said, “Think of life as stairs, and they’re all dark. Once you take a step in the dark and you find a (step), it lights up.” If someone finds a step, it’ll light up for you, too, and then you can go higher and find your own step to light up, inspiring others, and so on.
Let your good and bad ideas roam free, make connections, and mate. There are few rules to brainstorming. It’s not called “braindrizzling” after all.
What Winona Does
My friend Winona Nasser, founder of the design company Winona Media, says she has a “step-by-step guide” to brainstorming. Let’s take a look at her incredibly thorough process.
Step 1 involves taking the time to figure out what you want to achieve in your project and what limitations you’re faced with. What will your project focus on? What will it not focus on?
Step 2 is to “go hunting for inspiration, saving things you like along the way.” Magazine and newspaper articles, quotes from people, brands and ads you admire, designs that inspire you.
Step 3 is to give yourself time away from your project and let the ideas “marinate in your mind.” Winona says that most of her ideas come to her when she’s doing something other than work, like “cooking or taking a walk.”
Step 4 is where the brainstorming starts to happen. Now is when you’ve had enough time away from the project and you’re prepared to “sit down, turn on some music, and write/draw EVERYTHING that comes to mind.” That includes the ideas you’ve labeled in your mental caste system as “bad.” She says that “quantity over quality is the goal in this step.”
If you’re having difficulty producing a good amount of content, though, Winona suggests looking back at the inspiration you’ve collected in Step 3. She says you can create physical or digital mood boards or look at ones already made on Pinterest, Behance, or Dribbble.
Step 5, the final step, is for reviewing the project goals along with what you’ve written or drawn for your brainstorm. Narrow down the ideas you’ve created by excluding the ones that don’t fit the goals of the project and circling the ones that “resonate the best.” Winona says to then “look for patterns in the (ideas) you’ve circled.”
Now, with your fresh, original ideas, you’re ready to put the muscles and skin onto your project’s skeleton!
What Richard Does
Richard, the Junior Copywriter at SparkIt, is also a master idea generator. Here is his
simple but effective approach to brainstorming.
To set the mood for brainstorming and to calm his busy mind, Richard starts by finding a quiet room. Then he plays soft music for gentle background noise. Next, he eats snacks that he likes: carrots and Oreos.
After he has made a comfortable environment, Richard sits down with his laptop and fills a Microsoft Word document with his ideas. Next, he’ll leave his document alone for a day or two (similar to Winona’s marination of ideas). When he comes back, he narrows his ideas down until he has a witty, quirky, or clever one he is satisfied with.
I will say it again: Brainstorming is fun! It is satisfying to see the associations you can make with only the force of your own determination. Don't be afraid of what your mind is hiding. As a final note, allow yourself to have dull and unoriginal ideas. It will be much better to extract all of those ideas onto a visual medium than to forget about them and run into them every once in a while. Happy storm chasing!
If you have any tips or questions about brainstorming, or anything else related to social media and advertising, get in touch with us on Twitter @sparkitagency, Instagram @sparkitcreative, or Facebook SparkIt Creative.