Last Updated on April 8, 2016
While learning how to develop a design idea and turn it into something effective is a crucial skill, sometimes we struggle with the most fundamental part of the process: getting the idea in the first place. While there’s some truth to the notion that “ideas just come to us,” research suggests we can do things to boost our creative output, or to get past “blocks” that keep us from moving forward.
Here are just a few of the things that we have learned.
1. Get past your fear of creativity
Believe it or not, if you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas, it could be because you’re afraid of them. Research at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that if you feel uncertain about your future, you actually associate creative ideas with words like “vomit,” and “hell.” Worse still, this fear of creativity is completely invisible to us. Instead, we convince ourselves that truly creative ideas aren’t creative at all.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are rejecting all of your ideas, it may be the result of this type of anxiety about the future. Thankfully, by realizing this, we can foster a sense of security and feel more confident about new ideas.
2. There is more than one solution
The same researchers also discovered that if you tell somebody to write an essay about how “there is only one solution to every problem,” you start to feel anxious, and you hinder your sense of creativity. You have to embrace the mindset that there is more than one solution in order to feel comfortable about new ideas.
3. Explore contradictions
Ella Miron-Spektor has conducted several studies on how paradoxes influence our thinking. One of the most surprising thing’s she’s found is that paradoxical thinking can make us more creative. In one study, she asked volunteers to write at least 3 paradoxical statements. Compared with people who were only asked to write interesting statements, they were much more likely to solve a creative problem.
A paradox is something that seems both true and false at the same time, or that contradicts our expectations. As an example, it could be considered paradoxical that standing can be more tiring than walking. Thinking about these kinds of “contradictory” truths seems to enhance our ability to come up with new ideas.
4. Combine ideas
Loads of research suggest that new ideas form when two ideas are combined together, which may be part of the reason why paradoxical thinking is good for creativity. One theory, advanced by Paul Thagard, suggests that ideas are combined together by a complex process called “convolution,” which creates a new idea that the brain can easily distinguish from the old ones.
In his paper, Thagard points out that revolutionary ideas like “wireless email” are combinations of other ideas, in this case “wireless” and “email,” which are different from each other but compliment each other at the same time.
Exposing yourself to ideas outside of your “comfort zone” and thinking of how they might relate to the problem at hand can help you come up with innovative solutions.
5. Think positive
Yes, we all know Van Gogh cut his ear off, and we’re often told that creativity requires “suffering.” But it turns out most of the research suggests the opposite.
In one example, Alice Isen and her colleagues tested the effect of a funny film on volunteers. The ones who had a good laugh ended up doing more than three times better on a creativity test. Exposing yourself to humor and encouraging other “feel good” emotions seems to improve your ability to solve creative problems.
6. Brainstorming techniques
Research on brainstorming is complicated and full of contradiction. The good news is, if you think you need a task-force of helpers to come up with ideas, most studies suggest otherwise. In fact, when you compare a group of people brainstorming together with the same number of people brainstorming alone, the loners tend to do better.
At the same time, the best ideas seem to come from people who brainstorm alone after getting inspiration from others. Conversations with people outside of your frame of reference seem to enhance your ability to come up with ideas while you are alone.
If you can brainstorm with others online, this may be best of all. A study by Karen Dugosh found that when people shared ideas through a computer they came up with more ideas than people who brainstormed alone or in a group, because the strategy had the best of both worlds.
7. Allow your mind to wander
In a strange turn of events, several studies suggest that focus is bad for creativity. In one example, Mareike Wieth brought in students during either their most focused or least focused time of day. While focused people tend to do better on traditional problems, they seem to be worse at insight problems.
People who are out of focus actually seem to be better at coming up with new and unique solutions.
To really drive this point home, other studies have achieved similar results from people who were drunk, and even people who suffered an injury to their frontal lobe.
All of this suggests that if you are having trouble coming up with a new idea or solving a problem, it’s better to allow your mind to wander than it is to focus all of your attention on the problem. Just be prepared to write the idea down when it comes to you.
What We’ve Learned
When your idea mill screeches to a halt, you don’t have to wait around for something to happen or try to force an answer out. Instead, you can identify your fears, find things to laugh about, think about contradictions, expose yourself to different points of view, stretch your comfort zone, and let your mind wander.
Of course, there’s another method that never seems to fail. Be prolific and just keep moving. You may already have the ideas you need, you’re just afraid of them. Don’t get paralyzed by the sense that your idea isn’t “good enough.” Just get busy.
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