A List Apart


Saving the Spark: Developing Creative Ideas

Saving the Spark: Developing Creative Ideas

Ideas. They’re at the heart of every creative process. However, almost no really good ideas are flashes of inspiration. They may start that way—a single glimmer of something special—but in order to work, they need to be honed. Like a really good cheese, they need to mature. Indeed, the “flash of inspiration” idea—the Eureka moment—is only part of a longer process that, if ignored, will see most ideas simply fizzle out.

Article Continues Below

So, how do you “have” ideas? Sit about and wait for them to pop into your head? If only most of us had the luxury to do so. No, for most of us, ideas have to be squeezed out of us every day. To stand up to this challenge, you need to arm yourself with some good tools.

As if by magic

There is great prestige attached to the word “creative.” Creative people apparently magic up ideas—wonderful solutions to the most complex problems—with the ease of a skilled magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The gathered crowd goes wild. What skill. How do they do it?

Well, I’m afraid I’m here to shatter that illusion. It’s not magic. These people are no different from you and I. They just have a different way of looking at problems and solving them. The good news is, they use tools that anyone can use.

A brief brief

At the beginning of most web development projects, there is a brief. In general, it’s not the best starting point for any project. Most briefs are not brief—they tend to run into several pages and are more akin to functional specifications or requirements documents. They are not the stuff of inspiration.

When I receive a brief, I try to get to the very heart of the problem, and rewrite it as an idea brief.

An idea brief is a sentence, or two, that sums up the project and frames it as a problem statement. A question that needs an answer. Something like:

We need to redesign our news service to appeal to a more global audience.


How do we engage an older audience for our social networking product?

This simple sentence is the question you are trying to answer and should be used as a springboard throughout idea generation. Once you’ve got one, and are happy with it, print it out and stick it on the wall. Constantly refer to it throughout the development of the idea or product. Does your solution answer that question? It’s so easy to get bogged down in the mire of documentation—it’s your job to pull yourself out of that, and the idea brief is the perfect tool to do it.

Structured ideas

So now you have your idea brief, where do you go from here?

We can’t rely on sparks of inspiration for ideas. How many times have you sat down in front of a blank piece of paper, or a blank computer screen and thought “I can’t do it today—nothing is happening. Right, I’ll play on the Wii instead.”

Most of the time, ideas need to be worked at. They need to be crafted: cajoled into shape by a dedicated, passionate team. We have one good tool to help us with that: ideas sessions.

Ideas sessions

We’ve probably all done these. They were called brainstorms until recently.

I used to loathe the idea of ideas sessions. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster? Get a bunch of people in a room to solve a problem. Everyone will have a difference of opinion, but you need to come to a common solution at the end of it that everyone agrees to. It hardly ever worked.

There are several things that need to be in place for a successful, productive ideas session.

The project team

Ideas sessions are a group activity that takes place with key members of the project team. This is important. In order for the ideas to be taken seriously, they need buy-in from the people who matter: the CEO or marketing director. Without that internal buy-in on the client side, an idea, no-matter how great, will almost always fail.

A good facilitator

Another important member of an ideas session is the facilitator. They should be trained in creative facilitation and are there to coax and squeeze the best ideas the team has to offer. They should remain impartial though—they’re not there to judge the ideas, but to apply the grease to the creative cogs.

Running order

I know it can be restrictive, but these sessions need a running order. People like structure—even “creative” people—no matter what they tell you! A typical running order for an ideas session might be:

  1. Attendees introductions / ice-breaker
  2. Reveal the brief—the aim of the day (the idea brief)
  3. The rules of brainstorming
  4. First burst
  5. Stimulus—the Four Rs
  6. Passionometer


Following attendee introductions and revealing the idea brief, the facilitator lays down the law. The rules of brainstorming are important for keeping everything running smoothly during the session. They are:

  1. All ideas are equal
  2. We’re here to have lots of ideas
  3. No judging
  4. Analyze the ideas later
  5. Everyone’s equal (no pulling rank)
  6. Have fun
  7. Keep to time
  8. One idea at a time

First burst

Next up is the first burst. A first burst aims to get those really obvious, preconceived ideas out and on paper before moving on. Everyone will come to an ideas session with some preconceived ideas of how the project should look. Generally, they are the most obvious ideas and they will have been worked out to some detail. More often than not, they are the safest, least risky ideas.

The facilitator should record ideas and encourage attendees to speak up, but the important thing is to not get hung up on one direction or another. The aim is to have a lot of ideas. It really is about quantity, and not quality. At least, not yet.


Once the first burst out of the way, and all the preconceived and obvious ideas have been recorded, it’s the facilitator’s job to begin coaxing the ideas out of the attendees by using stimulus. The Four Rs are very useful tools for steering idea generation without a session becoming stuck down a certain line of thinking.

The Four Rs

I mentioned the Four Rs as tools for generating ideas. They are used by a facilitator in an ideas session to move the attendees from one idea to the next so they don’t begin to analyze or judge previous ideas, or become stale. The Four Rs are:


Revolution is turning an idea on its head. Taking assumptions and reversing or removing them. E.g., a pub has four walls and a roof. What if it didn’t have walls, but still had a roof? Or to frame it in web development—and this is a great example of what 37signals did with Basecamp—what if our desktop software could live on the web?


Re-express the idea in a different way or from a different point of view. This is a fantastic vehicle for putting yourself in your user’s shoes. E.g., what if you were six years old and your parents were buying a booster seat for the car for you. What makes a cool booster seat in your eyes?

Related worlds

Think of a related world and use ideas from that world. E.g., cooking and gardening. What elements of gardening could be used to sell more recipe books?

Random links

Forcing a connection with a random object. This can lead to some of the greatest ideas. Random links often generate ideas which are off-brief, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the most truly innovative ideas can come with random links. I’m sure Citroën designers were using random links when they decided to make the 2CV car look like a snail.

Loads of great ideas, what now?

The facilitator will record all the ideas on a single sheet of paper. After the session is finished, the facilitator will go through all of the ideas one by one and the group will rate them by the Passionometer (a fancy name for some stickers). One sticker for “not feeling it,” and three for “wow, this is great.”

The most highly rated ideas are shortlisted and then enter the next phase of development. That next stage could involve other ideas sessions, but more focused around one idea. The aim is to focus the idea down to specific, actionable problems or statements that allow a development team to take that idea and follow it through.

A flash of inspiration

Billy Connelly once said, of the House of Lords in the UK, “It’s a place where good ideas go to die.”

I think he was referring to the notion that ideas (in his example, legislation) can be watered down far too much in a forum of debate. To discuss, or hone, an idea at length is to destroy it. True, this can, and does, happen all too regularly. But, armed with the right tools, and developed in a structured environment, ideas can be realized to their full potential.

The flash of inspiration is important, and so is the final product, but pay attention to the bit in between.

About the Author

19 Reader Comments

Load Comments