Ideas On Demand // How To Be Creative When You’re Stuck In A Rut

By Alice McKenzie

For those in the creative industries, it’s a familiar feeling—you can almost hear the clock ticking down to to your deadline, but there’s just nothing going on upstairs. I’ve dabbled in writing in all of its glorious forms, with a background as a copywriter for the advertising industry.

While musicians have songs, and authors have books, my ‘creative currency’ was ideas. If I didn’t come up with a strong idea, then I wasn’t bringing the goods. Talk about pressure. But this wasn’t a problem that I was alone in facing. The more advertising folk I got chatting to, the more I realised that everyone had their little secrets to trick their brains into coming up with something surprising.

You see, the first thing to understand is what an idea really is. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every campaign. You don’t have to come up with an entire app that’s going to change the way that people see/use/buy x.

Ideas are just new ways of looking at the world, or specifically, new connections between known things. It’s the ‘known things’ part that few people appreciate. In order to really click, to get people to get it, ideas need to be partly familiar. They need to share a common thread with an audience, a requisite base from which to introduce something new.

So, what do these insights mean?

a) You can draw inspiration from the world around you.
b) Fresh stimulation is going to help you find new connections.
c) Those connections could already be lurking in your untapped subconscious.

It should be noted that while these tips lend themselves to creative copywriting, there’s wiggle room to adapt these ways of thinking to solve just about any business or branding problem. After all, advertising is just solving businesses’ problems, right? Before you can implement any of these methods, you need to be armed with a robust creative brief.

Knowing about the product/service/company is great and all, but at the heart of it should be a unique selling proposition (USP). You know the ones:
X car brings families together.
Y cologne makes you irresistible.
Z paint lasts a lifetime.

One ad or piece of writing should equal one selling point.

1. Just get it down
If you’re not afraid to feel like a total idiot, and can accept that seemingly silly steps are all part of the sacred ‘creative process’, then this one is for you. I’m a fan of the good old Sharpie and A3 sheets of paper, but use whatever brainstorming materials that work for you. Draw 10 blank boxes on your page. Don’t worry about a ruler; these are for your purposes only. Write your USP at the top of the page. This should always be displayed prominently so that you never veer too far off-brief.

Now you want to fill your boxes with the first things that come to mind for this brief, no matter how obvious or stupid. If your mind is racing, fill out 50, or 100. They could be words, drawings, whatever. Your boxes don’t need to resemble print ads; this is just to segment your trains of thought. This method has a number of benefits. Most obviously, it flushes out the cliched first thoughts. It’s a well known truth that you can’t get rid of these niggling thoughts by just ignoring them; after a few hours they’ll return and start to seem like good ideas. Just get them out and put them in the pile.

Secondly, by drawing or writing your ideas, you’re helping your mind to see them as physical things. Shape, colour, texture, spelling, placement—these things can all be the springboard for new connections, which would otherwise have been lost in the depths of your mind. By forcing yourself to fill all the boxes available, you are encouraging yourself to look at things differently. Time restrictions can be a useful (albeit stressful) tool in coming up with new connections.

2. The dictionary method
Flip open the dictionary to a random page. Close your eyes and drop your finger somewhere on that page. This word, no matter how bizarre, is now your central focus: one of your known things. Within thirty seconds of finding your word, start writing. Anything. First person, third person. Fiction, non fiction. Don’t let your pen leave the page for 5 minutes. It will feel dumb. Your writing will most likely be completely senseless, but sometimes that’s all it takes to find something new.

Wade through that shocking excuse for writing, and just see where your brain goes. A slight twist on this method is a personal favourite of mine. If you’ve been given an impossible brief, vent it out through a pen rather than bashing that precious brain against the wall. Using the same non-stop writing approach, write about why you hate your client, what they want you to do, why it’s difficult with that product etc. There’s no greater motivation to write quickly than pure rage, and you might just find that letting emotion in could be the new perspective you needed.

3. Stimulate the senses
It’s quite remarkable how much of a role our senses play in our thinking. If you’re trying to market a particular product, it is a worthwhile idea to see it, touch it, smell it. Use it how it is intended to be used. Try to understand why the USP was chosen. Reading a brief can only give you so much information. It takes a little on-the-ground research to make up your own mind, and come up with genuine ideas. If you want to help the process along, introduce new things into your routine. Walk home via a different route.

Go to a different shopping centre to do your grocery shopping. We tend to filter out the everyday parts of our lives, so stimulating your mind and body with new places can help to spark creative thinking.

4. Give up (briefly)
Only recommended after a few days of solid brainstorming, this is less of a method and more of a necessary step. You’ve been furiously scribbling, and you have piles of paper to show for it. You may have hallucinated once or twice. You’re no longer sure of the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, and oh God you need sleep.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the point where you’re officially allowed to give up. It might be a few hours, it might be a day, depending on your deadline. You’ve tuckered out your little brain with product overload, so now you need to trust it to do its thing. Do something totally unrelated to your brief. Take a shower. Read a book. Draw. Work on a menial task.

The theory here is that while your brain takes a much needed break on the surface, the cogs are still turning in your subconscious, ready to burst forth with your idea.

Alice loves ideas and hates incorrect apostrophes. She’s the one woman army behind Beetroot Creative, a copywriting service for little brands with big stories to tell. Stalking is encouraged on Facebook and Instagram, or make yourself comfortable at beetrootcreative.com.au.