Saving the Spark: Developing Creative Ideas
Issue № 260

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.

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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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section10

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#section12

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#section15

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#section16

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?#section17

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#section18

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

Mark Boulton

Mark Boulton is a graphic designer, writer and novice bonsai grower from the UK. He runs his own tiny design studio, Mark Boulton Design, and can be found regularly harping on about traditional graphic design theory on his blog.

19 Reader Comments

  1. Interesting article. Most people advocate against brainstorming and especially group brainstorming.

    I’ll give this a shot. Sounds like something that’s structured enough to be able to follow easily.

  2. First, I loved the brief brief idea, and will start using it in my work.
    I found it interesting that you include the client in such a fundamental meeting. So much writing on the web focuses on excluding the client from being involved in actual idea-generation. It takes some confidence in yourself to skillfully handle a meeting like this. I have three questions:
    1) Have you had any resistance from clients to the set of “rules” you set down at the beginning of the meeting?
    2) Have you found that many clients have generated great ideas in these sessions, or is the usefulness of these meetings geared more to giving them a sense of buying into the final ideas?
    3) Does a facilitator always need special training (would these be university classes?) or are there simply special characteristics to look for when hiring someone to fill this position? Do you bring this person in just for these sessions, or is this person also a designer or project manager on your team?

  3. Thanks for your comment, Carolyn.

    To answer your questions:

    1. Yes, I’ve had resistance. In fact, I’ve had senior management walk out of sessions like this because they’re not getting their own way. Let’s remember, potentially, there will be a lot of egos in the room, so they need to be delicately handled. A good way of doing this is laying down the law right at the beginning of a session. Specifically, I make a strong point of mentioning the ‘No Pulling Rank’ rule. This seems to put many people, particularly management, at ease.

    2. It does a few things. Firstly, they feel they are involved right from the start. It shows them you value their opinion, and also that they have valued ideas to contribute.

    I have found that a lot of clients have really good ideas once pushed and squeezed a little — which is what these sessions are all about.

    3. A trained facilitator, at least for your first couple of sessions, would be very valuable. If you don’t have access to them, or indeed if you don’t have the budget, then this is something you can do yourself. Getting people started with ideas generation isn’t the difficult bit. The difficulty comes in capturing those little sparks of ideas, knowing when to move on, and of course, having the energy to keep reinforcing those rules.

    Hope that goes some way to answer your questions.

  4. @Srdjan Pejic: “Most people advocate against brainstorming and especially group brainstorming.”

    I would hazard a guess that those people have never experienced brainstorming done right.

  5. I have seen to many ‘creative brainstorming’ sessions without facilitators. It basically turns into a normal meeting and exchanging ideas. But there has to be made a difference; brainstorming to think about a problem and find a common approach or brainstorming to come up with creative solutions. For the latter you definitely need a facilitator and in most cases not only the brainstorming technique but a combination of different techniques such as brainwriting, lateral thinking etc.

  6. ‘creative’ people are not a league apart from normal, people as mentioned above a meeting turns in to a arena for idea throwing.
    The main strength i feel that ‘creative’ people have is the ability to efficiently critique and improve ideas.

  7. bq. 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.

    This is my favorite part of creativity. There are always the obvious routes to take, the ones that will always work, but you’ve gotta get past that to get to the real gold.

    I’m designing some packaging for my band’s next CD, and the album title brings to mind very literal imagery. However, once we listed the obvious ideas and got them out of the way, we finally started to get more conceptual and really communicate the feel rather than stuff the message down people’s throats in an apparent and uninspired way.

    Great article, Mark! Even though we might subconsciously already know some of this stuff, it’s great to hear/see it verbalized by someone who can write intelligently about it. That’s what makes it stick.

  8. A good read, Mark. I especially liked your examples of The Four R’s. So many articles are written with only the theory, and no real examples.

    Kinda off topic, but how’s the developemnt and design for Flow coming along?

  9. Thanks Mark.

    I like the example. There are also many other ways to go about squeezing inspiration.

    More often then not i do get sparks of inspiration from nowhere but i don’t wait for them to happen.

    Thanks again.

  10. I call it "creativity on demand".

    I find, too, that there are obvious presentational scenarios, and then there are the more creative approaches that may or may not satisfy the needs of the project. It all depends on what you’re trying to "say" and what might be best ways to present that.

  11. I think it’s time to sign-up for ALA, after snooping around for years, If someone questioned me why did I signed up, all credits goes to Mark 🙂

    Great article!

  12. I like your article, but in my opinion the real creative ideas you can’t enforce. Sometimes they come into your mind when you even think about totally different things. They just appear in front of your eyes, you only have to see them.

  13. I would never have guessed that the blog I started a little over two years ago would still be going strong today. I’m not a writer, and I thought I’d run out of ideas. But I always seem to be able to come up with three or four new articles each month, keeping the content fresh. I guess when you’re passionate about what you’re doing, the creative jucies keep flowing. I care about quality, and I find myself looking for ways to improve, which is what brought me to your website. Thank you for doing what you do. Solar John

  14. Thanks for the design inspiration. I read a great article today that was similar from a site called creative something. It talks about the fallacy of designers to always need perfection. While the creative geniuses of the world (Einstein, Edison, etc) have created garbage after garbage over and over before creating magic. It’s more about execution, and details.

  15. Thank you for this post. In our branche (Fair and Event Design) all participants are working every day at striking ideas to catch the attention of visitors. One likes to take a look at the ideas of others. The pressure is very large and most of all you can not really expecte on the feedback of your audience

  16. Thanks for the great article.

    I’ve always enjoyed brainstorming sessions the most when the problem to be solved has been clearly defined. This is something that you touched on in the section ‘A brief brief’. I find it helps to keep the group focused, tangent but related ideas to be explored, and ultimately allows something of value to be created that solves the problem.

    As a creative ‘idea generator’ I’m not afraid of a little process when it comes to idea generation – going back to the old adage of being ‘creative within constrains’.

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