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Ask a Creativity Expert: How do you come up with great ideas?

Here are some tips on every day eurekas from a leading creative.
by Caitlin Schiller | Jul 18 2016

Anyone who’s ever spent an age agonizing over the perfect witty comment in a greeting card will know that being creative is not easy. But what about those whose job it is to be creative all the time? How do you prime yourself for Eureka moments day after day after day? To help find an answer we asked Danny Schuman, someone in this exact predicament. Danny, who founded Twist, a Chicago-based brand marketing consultancy which has helped brands like PepsiCo, Allstate, and MillerCoors, has spent his life generating great ideas that meet difficult challenges. Here’s a glimpse into how he primes himself to stay creative.

Can you take us through the steps you take when looking for a creative solution?

Actively listen to the challenge I’m being presented. Ask any and all clarifying questions, no matter how stupid they may seem. This is crucial to creating the box that I can then think out of. Immediately jot down all thoughts that come to me, good or bad. Don’t edit. Then go take a long walk with my dog and bring my phone, which has a recording app that helps me capture my thoughts. Come back and start writing, again, with no editing. Then walk away. Sleep on it if possible. Review the next day, on and off, giving myself breaks away from the work. Organize and edit. And when it’s somewhere around 60-80% there, show it to someone I trust to give me good constructive feedback. Then organize, edit, finesse, parse words and fall on swords over important details, because that’s where the craft lives. Then put the finishing touches on it and take a nap.

What is the most important characteristic one has to develop in order to achieve a creative mindset?

The ability to make yourself uncomfortable and/or look foolish. It may mean asking a question that doesn’t make sense or seems obvious to other people, it may mean getting up in front of a bunch of people and presenting something to them that gets them to smile and laugh and fall in love with you and your work and even putting on a chicken suit if necessary, it may mean being totally brutally honest with yourself or someone else to push an idea past good to “Holy shit that’s awesome I have goosebumps and can’t stop smiling!”

In which environment have you had your best idea? Why do you think this environment helped facilitate it?

Anywhere I’m not staring at my computer and have some kind of device to capture my thoughts, be it a phone or sketchpad. There’s too much pressure in staring at a blank screen; nothing good can come of that. My best ideas usually come when I’m walking my dog, on the treadmill, shopping, or staring into the lovely floral design of a perfect cortado.

What do people get wrong about creative ideas/generating creative solutions?

I don’t understand people who say, “I’m not creative.” They think they don’t know how to “do it.” Do what? Have fun? If they could take a deep breath and be open to possibility they could let the little idea demons who are kicking at their cranial doors burst through every once in a while and get crazy. Don’t tell yourself a story that your subconscious doesn’t believe. I understand that some people see themselves as more pragmatic, processed, even scientific thinkers. But everyone has something they enjoy doing, and that’s a great place to start to come up with ideas. Albert Einstein swore that his best ideas came while he was playing the piano. Here’s a thought if you still struggle: Don’t edit yourself. Don’t tell yourself you only have bad ideas. Come up with a million bad ideas, let it all pour out. Somewhere in there will be a doozy of a good one.

Was there any creative problem you weren’t able to solve? Why do you think this was the case?

Hmmm…is this like the interview question where they ask you, “What are your faults?” and you say, “Sometimes I work too hard…!” There are ALWAYS creative problems that I can’t solve and it’s usually due to one of two reasons. One, I’m stuck staring at a blank page and trying too hard to break through, in which case, the best thing to do is step away and clear your head instead of banging it against the wall. The other is, I’m pridefully trying to solve something on my own instead of getting other people involved. As soon as I’m able to engage with another brain, especially someone who doesn’t think like me, and that cool cognitive dissonance kicks in, ideas start flowing. So if this is a trick question, I have a trick answer: Every problem is unsolvable until you figure out how to solve it.

Danny Schuman has a book coming out soon! We can’t wait to blink it, and if you can’t wait to read it, you can investigate Danny’s site and his blog here.

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