Where Do Ideas Come From?

Where do ideas come from?
Obviously there is no one answer, nor one true method for generating successful results. There are, however, some simple techniques that can be helpful as a starting place. This list is by no means exhaustive, and you will likely have your own methods which are equally valid. For those of you who find yourselves periodically stuck for ideas, one or more of these techniques may be useful. If you’re really experiencing creative block you might also explore these techniques, contributed by some of the most creative people around.

1. The Reporter’s Formula
Begin by asking the famed five Ws: Who? What? Where? When? Why? (and How?).

2. Lists
Lists are not just aids for remembering or prioritizing; they can also be tools for discovery. List making can be a valuable first step in many situations, particularly in those instances that require you to recall or realize something you already now. For example, you might list the steps in a process or list images that come to mind related to the subject you wish to visualize. Perhaps you might list arguments for or against something. As you begin your creative process a list can a) help you focus on your objective, b) promote associations you might not have thought of otherwise and, c) provide you with a framework for your thinking.

Suggestions for list-making

  • Start with a title at the top of the list so you will stay focused and always know why you are making the list
  • Write as fast as possible and use short words or phrases
  • Don’t be critical of any item on the list at this point—the time for editing comes later
  • Write down your “dumb” or obvious ideas—it’s important to get them out of your head so they don’t bock the way for the more interesting ideas bouncing around in there

3. Stream of Consciousness
This is a common writing exercise in which you start with a subject and, without planning or consciously thinking, write anything that comes into your mind. This technique helps you explore your thoughts on the subject without making any judgements as to merit of the ideas. Follow these guidelines:

  • Begin with a specific topic
  • Write nonstop for ten minutes
  • Don’t make changes or corrections

4. Rapid Fire
Perform each of the following steps in no more than 3 minutes.

  • Describe it.
  • Compare it. What is it similar to? What is it different from?
  • Associate it. What does it make you think of? What comes into your mind? It can be similar things, or you can think of different things, times, places, people. Just let your mind go and see what happens
  • Analyze it. Describe how it is made.
  • Apply it. Tell what you can do with it, how it can be used.
  • Argue for or against it. Your argument doesn’t have to be rational.

5. Classical Invention
Aristotle suggested that the best way to find new ideas was to picture your mind as a landscape comprised of several regions. These places (called topoi in Greek—”topics” is a loose translation) represent different ways to view or think about a subject. Just as each region of the landscape has a terrain and climate of its own, each area of the mind has its characteristic way of thinking. Viewing a problem from each region yields a unique perspective.

Aristotle’s Common Topics:

  1. Definition
    a. Genus
    b. Division
  2. Comparison
    a. Similarity
    b. Difference
    c. Degree
  3. Relationship
    a. Antecedent and consequence
    b. Compliments
    c. Contradictions
  4. Circumstance
    a. Possible and impossible
    b. Past fact and future fact
  5. Testimony
    a. Testimonial
    b. Statistics
    c. Maxims
    d. Law
    e. Precedents

6. Definition
Products, people, organizations and ideas can be defined in many ways. Defining your subject can help establish the parameters of the problem, and can often lead to surprisingly obvious but effective solutions. Answer the following:

  • How does the dictionary define x?
  • What is the etymology of x?
  • What do people usually mean when they talk about x?
  • What group of things does x seem to belong to?
  • How is x different from other things in this group?
  • What parts can x be divided into?
  • What other words mean approximately the same as x?
  • What are some specific examples of x ?
  • How/when is the meaning of x commonly misunderstood?

7. Comparison

  • What is x similar to ? Why?
  • What is x different from? In what ways?
  • X is superior to what? In what ways?
  • X is inferior to what? In what ways?
  • X is most unlike what? In what ways?
  • X is most like what? In what ways?

8. Thinking wrong
This is John Bielenberg’s term for what Edward de Bono describes as lateral thinking — the ability to break free of the deeply-imbedded biases that govern much of our thought and decision-making processes. One way to do this is to consciously insert elements of randomness into your process. For example: pick up the first red book you can see on your bookshelf. Turn to page 16. Find the ninth word on the page. What of that word had to be a part of your solution? Here’s another example: ask yourself an impossible question, “What if this logo was a gas? What would that look like?”

9. Design thinking
We already talked about this one.

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  • dlao_cca

    I’m a textbook overthinker so sometimes going to the other extreme of “thinking wrong” provides inspiration. My flowchart that pokes fun at flowcharts came out of me stepping over the line into Mad Hatter territory. I still don’t know how I feel about how successful my piece was but I did take comfort in knowing that no one else would have the same idea/approach. It’s important to note that “thinking wrong” is not for the faint of heart. I felt vulnerable and a little out there but decided to risk it because it was the only concept that excited me.

    • kenneth


      I, for one, thought your flowchart was awesome. One of my favorites out of the class. There were a couple things I could’ve critiqued, I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Just sayin’.

    • kenneth

      Btw, speaking of flowcharts: this is way cool:


      I have the print, and it looks gorgeous in foil-on-black.

  • Nathan

    Out of all of these techniques, the eighth one, “Thinking wrong”, is definitely the one that stands out to me.
    Previously I had been exposed to most of the other techniques (with the exception of Classical Invention).

    There’s something appealing about intentionally trying to do what is wrong. However, I wonder if anything we ever do can really be a complete abandonment of what we consider as “right” due to our subconscious. Perhaps it’s really only possible to achieve technique 8 through collaboration, whether intentional or not, with others.

    • David Thorn

      Nathan’s comment about the subconscious reminded me of Madlibs.

  • Nathan

    And Deb (Deborah? Debra? sorry…), I really enjoyed your flowchart as well and agree with Ken’s first comment. The humor you conveyed felt so relevant, such as the Lady Gaga reference (and Mad Men always reminds me of art school).

    I think it’d be interesting to see it on a much larger scale, in terms of size. Flowcharts always appear so consolidated in terms of composition. Perhaps a flowchart that expanded throughout the entire building.

  • dlao_cca

    Thanks for your feedback Ken and Nathan – my week has been made! Now onto this “turn” assignment…Deb/Deborah