The mind is a muscle. So the more you train it, the stronger it’ll get.
This is a list of exercises you can do flex your creativity. Think of them as starter prompts or frameworks that’ll give you proper direction to think in an out-of-the-box way.
You’ll find them useful if you’re into fictional writing, marketing, designing, or any other artistic profession.
Alongside each exercise, I’ve given examples of the successful books, movies, or other works that came out as a result of such thinking.
This is a simple method that involves taking a dry fact we take for granted in our everyday lives, and then turning it over its head.
Alternatively, you can also take a norm, a common belief, a stereotype, or an established genre or format … and then betray it deliberately, creating a parody of sorts.
In both cases, the formula used here is, “Everyone thinks XYZ happens. What if XYZ didn’t happen?”
The goal is to take things we take at face value, and say, “What if it isn’t so simple?”
You deliberately do the opposite of what’s expected, like a fish swimming against a river’s flow.
|Women make babies||What if women could no longer reproduce?||Children of Men (2006)|
|Superheroes are noble||What if superheroes were evil & greedy?||The Boys (2019)|
|Superhero movies = Kids||What if we create a vulgar, lazy, PG-13 anti-hero?||Deadpool (2016)|
|Ghosts are scary/evil||What if we make the friendliest, most lovable ghost?||Casper (1939)|
|Toys are lifeless objects||What if our toys had real lives & emotions of their own?||Toy Story (1995)|
|Humans grow old & die||What if we were born old & died as tiny babies?||Benjamin Button (2008)|
By definition, coming up with something original means cheating & defying the ordinary.
And all this starts with asking silly questions, then rejecting the obvious answers.
So don’t be afraid to get curious about everything you think you know & can do.
This is my personal favorite.
You pick a word that’s central to your brand, subject, or campaign. Then you scatter closely related words around it. For example, milk would branch out into cheese, butter, and cows.
You continue with this for at least 5-6 degrees of separation for each of the newly branched out words, until you reach a point that you can use to form the base of your new idea.
The reason this technique works is because creativity is all about forming a connection between the two most unrelated things.
The wittiest marketing posters/campaigns often use analogies that pair or blend different elements to communicate a feature or benefit of the product.
For example, in this ad, the Spirulina pill takes the shape of a protective helmet to convey that popping one pill saves you from headache.
Let’s take one more example to see how you can implement the technique.
The Premiere Inn Hotel network in the UK was going to recycle their old pillows, and stock their hotels with new ones. They wanted to creatively announce this fresh change to their guests.
This probably didn’t happen IRL but for the sake of our discussion, their marketing team pulled out a paper & started with the word “pillow” for obvious reasons.
It branched out into sleep, rest, bed, pillow covers, and pillow fights – all of which are closely related to their central idea.
Now this is where it gets interesting.
The word “fights” in pillow fights branched out into “fighter” & Fight Club, the iconic thriller from 1999. And that was the Eureka moment.
“What if we launch a ‘Pillow Fight Club’ campaign with its own set of quirky rules?”
The result was a funny advert featuring a kid who acted out Tyler Durden’s iconic monologue beat by beat, tweaking the lines to suit the pillow fight community.
The adorable video was well received by kids & families alike.
Usually, you’d never make a connection between Pillows & the Fight Club movie.
But through word mapping, the brand connected two seemingly unrelated concepts, making brilliant use of a pop culture phenomenon & encouraging their audience to have some fun with their pillows (before they went into recycling).
Note that you’ll have to map out & try hundreds of words, concepts, and terms when you actually sit down to do this activity.
The example I shared was just one branch growing bigger, but in reality, your piece of paper will look more like a bush, with dozens of smaller & more distant pathways stemming out from the core idea.
Some of them will be dead ends, others won’t make much sense. But with some digging & patience, you’ll hit upon a cool idea.
And make a connection no one in history has made before – now how cool is that?
This is a visual exercise that can train you in forming connections that ordinary thinkers would normally never make.
It involves taking random words, and then designing them in such a way that someone without any vocabulary or reading skills can also understand what they mean.
For example, consider the word “MOON.” The verbicon of this word would involve reducing the length of the second “O” and placing it slightly on top of the first “O,” essentially communicating that it’s a satellite body revolving around a larger planet.
Subtle, but gets the point across. Check out some of the coolest verbicons I found on Pinterest (all credits go to the original creators).
Another term for this is “semantic vocabulary” or “typographic logos.”
Whatever you want to call it, the activity tends to enhance your visualization powers, which is fantastic practice, especially for graphic designers or video editors.
You can make creative use of negative space, letter forms, and kerning, making subtle tweaks to give the words their meanings.
Use a Random Word Generator to get started right away.
I talked about this technique at length in a previous article.
Essentially, the wisdom is that if you give yourself all the freedom to think in whichever direction you like, chances are you’ll never move past the blank piece of paper because you won’t know where to start.
It helps to deliberately set certain limitations & constraints when you’re embarking on a creative project, because they set the direction for you to work in.
There are many types of constraints you can set.
|1||Time||Write a short film script in 30 mins.|
|2||Words||Tell a story about your parents using just 2 pages/1000 words|
|3||Target||Create new menu items specifically aimed at college students|
|4||Design||Design the logo using basic shapes only (square, triangle)|
|5||Character/Space||Use only 2 characters/1 location to write your play|
Prompts & daily challenges are also a type of constraint. If you’re a creative, use websites like Fake Clients & GoodBrief.io to automatically generate instant briefs.
Writers can search the hashtag #WritingPrompts on Tumblr or Instagram.
In the beginning, you might feel like you’re restricting or caging yourself based on tasks given by other people. But there’s no rule that says you must get everything right in one go.
But working with specific goals in mind will get more productive work done, as opposed to blankly staring into the void.
Getting specific is the best way to beat procrastination!
Many creative ideas are born out of specific yet underappreciated insights.
Someone probably noticed something no one else did. And that’s how they got to that “Aha!” Eureka moment.
A few examples from the world of epic marketing campaigns will help you understand this perfectly.
|1||Women don’t like readymade food as it makes them look lazy||Pillsbury learned this the hard way in the 1950s when their instant cake flour failed. So they deliberately left eggs out of the mix, making housewives think they’re putting efforts into baking the cake.|
|2||Women feel attacked by fake & unrelatable beauty standards||This was the foundation of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign which called out its own industry for lying to women, and set a new example by featuring all kinds of real women in their ads.|
|3||People are more likely to continue a rewards program if they have headstart||A student-run kitchen in my university had a loyalty card program with 8 unpunched holes. After 8 visits, you could redeem the card to get a free sandwich. |
Then, they switched to a card with 10 holes, but 2 were already punched for you, as sort of a headstart.
Even though students still had to make 8 visits, the business saw a sharp increase in redemption rate, as many thought they were closer to their goals!
For obvious reasons, the only way to gain insights lies is to keep your eyes & ears open at all times.
It requires you to be active in the field, and get your hands dirty. Talk to real people. Become a sneaky eavesdropper.
Go see the world IRL, and dare to take unexplored roads rather than sitting in your bedroom – that’s how you’ll be able to capture something no one has understood or appreciated before.
But intuitive powers can also come from accessing your “Mental Data Bank,” an unconscious depository containing thousands of random facts, stories, statistics, trivia, and tidbits of knowledge.
Your bank doesn’t have to be only about dry facts. It can also be a list of observations you’ve made on human behavior.
A close fictional example of this would be the “Mind Palace” Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) accesses when he needs to solve a mystery.
Of course, you don’t have to go to the extremes & start mugging up GK books – that defeats the whole purpose of doing this exercise, which isn’t about memorizing things at all.
The goal is to keep feeding your subconscious mind a tidbit of cool information every day, and wait for it to spark something brilliant when the time comes.
Your subconscious is much more powerful than the waking mind you’re using to read this line.
It absorbs information exponentially faster, and spits out new interpretations without a command – that’s how we get our dreams!
So if you want to use it manually like any other muscle of your body, you must feed it more & often.
Visit these sites to learn cool facts about everything around us.
- TED Ed
- Practical Psychology (YouTube channel)
- Mental Floss
- GK Today – Current Affairs
- Yoda App (curates useful Instagram posts)
- Caspian Report (YouTube channel on geopolitics)
To get more specific, I have two interesting suggestions. Firstly, taking a keen interest in psychology is a hack that will benefit every marketer.
Because whether you like it or not, a lot of marketing involves using human biases, behavioral patterns, and perceptions to your advantage. Watch Rory Sutherland’s eye-opening talk on this subject.
Secondly, watching video essays from Nerdwriter, Lessons from the Screenplay, and Tyler Mowery … can also help you sharpen your observation skills because these guys dissect movie scripts in exhaustive detail, pointing out why certain things worked or didn’t.
If you want case studies specifically for marketers, however, you can visit these sites for daily inspiration.
If you want to study applied psychology (specifically meant for marketers), read this post.
So those were some of the exercises you can do to improve your creative thinking.
What do you usually do to get inspired? Any activity or method that gets you scribbling wild ideas on your desk?
Let me know in the comments below!