Supercharge your thinking


In my previous article I discussed Part 1 of my Creative Process - The Research Phase, so this week we move on to Phase 2 of my own Creative Process, Brainstorming. In the article I will discussing:

  • How to collect your thoughts
  • Specific Brainstorming Techniques
  • Time Controlled Strategies
  • How to get accept running out of ideas
  • What stimulus to use to get the creative juices flowing again.

Over the years I have learned that everyone likes to brainstorm in a different way. Some prefer doing it in groups, others would rather get away from all distractions and sit in a blank room with a blank pad (which my friend calls ‘the White Bull'). So all I can offer here is my opinion on what works for me.

Personally, I find that it varies, so I try to adopt different strategies based on how I feel or how the project is going. The main thing to remember is to be objective and analytical so that you are actively trying to stumble on a routine to technique that works best for you.

Collecting your thoughts

So now that you have done your research and you mind is overflowing with ideas and concepts, now is the time to start getting them from the inside your head and out on to the paper.

Mind Mapping.

These are great as they allow you to visually record and organise a whole range of thoughts and ideas. I have to be honest and say that I don’t use them as often because I have a system that works for me, but like I said everyone is different, but I know several people who love them. Give them a go and let m know how you get on.


This isn’t strictly a ‘brainstorming’ tool, but it is invaluable for helping capture information when I’m out and about. I am a big advocate of allowing your subconscious to play it’s part and so often I have been out doing something else (driving, walking, showering etc) and an idea will pop into my head.

Having Evernote on my phone is fantastic as I am able to quickly capture it, save it and access it later on my Mac. You can write it down, record a voice memo/video or take and annotate a picture.

Action Method Journal

The other ’tool’ I often use it my sketchbook. But it isn’t a normal sketchbook. The pages have been designed to allow for sketching and drawing as well as organising and prioritising ideas.

The main page has feint grey dots lined up in a grid like fashion to help keep my writing and drawing organised and the side sections are fantastic to writing down things to do or other thoughts that come into your head. (whiteboard technique)

Brainstorming Techniques


Having done your research, your mind will be full of thoughts and ideas, so I always find that a good brain dump or splurge works well. It is like a stream of consciousness that pours out of you.

Write down everything that comes into your mind. Don’t filter or organise, just splurge. Nothing is wrong here and a nice phrase that I have heard mentioned by @seanwes is to ‘write as if you don’t have a backspace key’. 

When I have finished, then I will go back through my thoughts and scribbles to begin picking out a few thoughts or concepts that resonated.

Lateral Thinking

Thanks to my background in advertising, I really value lateral thinking to produce interesting concepts as well as stylish designs. Having an idea attached to what you do makes it far more interesting and compelling, I’m not a fan of something looking good for the sake of it (style over substance).

Where Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the true value of statements and seeking errors, Lateral thinking is more concerned with the “movement value" of statements and ideas. A person uses lateral thinking to move from one known idea to creating new ideas. Edward de Bono defines four types of thinking tools:

  • Idea-Generating Tools intended to break current thinking patterns—routine patterns, the status quo:
  • Focus Tools intended to broaden where to search for new ideas
  • Harvest Tools intended to ensure more value is received from idea generating output
  • Treatment Tools that promote consideration of real-world constraints, resources, and support

As well as those main for, he goes on to list several other types of tools that are designed to shake up your thinking to produce more interesting ideas.

  • Random Entry Idea Generating Tool: The thinker chooses an object at random, or a noun from a dictionary, and associates it with the area they are thinking about.
  • Provocation Idea Generating Tool: The use of any of the provocation techniques - wishful thinking, exaggeration, reversal, escape, distortion, or arising. The thinker creates a list of provocations and then uses the most outlandish ones to move their thinking forward to new ideas.
  • Movement Techniques: Extract a principle, focus on the difference, moment to moment, positive aspects, special circumstances.
  • Challenge Idea Generating Tool: A tool which is designed to ask the question "Why?" in a non-threatening way: why something exists, why it is done the way it is. The result is a very clear understanding of "Why?" which naturally leads to fresh new ideas. The goal is to be able to challenge anything at all, not just items which are problems. For example, one could challenge the handles on coffee cups: The reason for the handle seems to be that the cup is often too hot to hold directly; perhaps coffee cups could be made with insulated finger grips, or there could be separate coffee-cup holders similar to beer holders.
  • Concept Fan Idea Generating Tool: Ideas carry out concepts. This tool systematically expands the range and number of concepts in order to end up with a very broad range of ideas to consider.
  • Disproving: Based on the idea that the majority is always wrong, take anything that is obvious and generally accepted as "goes without saying", question it, take an opposite view, and try to convincingly disprove it. This technique is similar to the "Black Hat" of Six Thinking Hats, which looks at the ways in which something will not work.

Six Thinking Hats

A system designed by Edward de Bono which describes a tool for group discussion and individual thinking involving six coloured hats. The premise of the method is that the human brain thinks in a number of distinct ways which can be deliberately challenged. By using this method de Bono identifies six distinct directions in which the brain can be challenged with each direction assigned a colour.

The six directions are:

  • Managing Blue - what is the subject? what are we thinking about? what is the goal? Can look at the big picture.
  • Information White - considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
  • Emotions Red - intuitive or instinctive gut reactions or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
  • Discernment Black - logic applied to identifying reasons to be cautious and conservative. Practical, realistic.
  • Optimistic response Yellow - logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony. Sees the brighter, sunny side of situations.
  • Creativity Green - statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes. Thinks creatively, out of the box.

Cross pollination lists:

Another approach that has worked well for me in the past is to use a cross pollination list. I will write down 3 lists and then will compare different components from each and see if I can create anything from a combination of 2 or more. This works well for the more visual side of logo execution, such as use of negative space, but you often see it in clever minimalist advertising.

  • Industry themes, tools, equipment
  • Client name or Initials
  • Client USP

Controlled thinking techniques

Once you have starting playing with these techniques and are beginning to discover what works for you, it’s important to not allow them to eat up your time. My one big frustration with brainstorming, particularly in groups, is that it can drag on and wast time. The temptation to come up with ‘just one more’ great idea is a time killing illusion.

In my Design Masterclass I will go on to explain and teach you how to properly time manage your projects so that you not only finish on time, but are able to build in time buffers to allow for unexpected disasters and more importantly, time to spend winning over future clients who will approach you for work.

I have mentioned dealing with finding focus and overcoming creative block in previous articles, but something I haven’t touched upon is how I use more controlled techniques to get the best out of my mind within a strict time-frame.

I remember sitting and brainstorm for hours. Looking back, it was fun and I let myself believe I was getting work done, but it was too self indulgent and ultimately unproductive.

For a start I now know that the brain can take up to 20 mins to get into a state of focus and then can no longer keep that up for more than 45 mins before needing a break. I also know that the progress is slower with longer deadlines as there is no immediate urgency. An example of this is leaving your holiday school work to the night before, despite being given 10 weeks to finish something that would take 3 hours of concentrated effort.

So in order to overcome this and be more productive I will use techniques that deliberately impose false deadlines on myself. Here are my main two:

Parkinson’s law

Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. So baring this in mind I will deliberately give myself shorter deadlines than necessary to get something done.

These can be small individual tasks such as ‘1 hour to finish writing an article’ or longer ‘7 days to create a website’. This forces me to get more done in less time and gives me an invaluable buffer of time.

You will have to be realistic in the deadlines you set for each project as setting a deadline that is too short will lead to either rushed, poor work or failure to finish a job and disillusionment.

As a rule I would make the deadline fall somewhere that is 50%-80% of the project time. So if you have 4 weeks to design a website, try to get something finished in 2-3 weeks. This leaves a 1-2 week buffer for improvements, client meetings or anything else.

This isn’t about freeing up time to be lazy. It is a way of forcing you to work at a higher intensity to get more done in less time.

Within the longer overall project timelines of weeks, I recommend breaking the project down into sections and working with smaller time-frames that deal with each section. This keeps up the intensity, momentum and quality without allowing time to drag. One method I use for this is the Pomodero Technique.

Pomodero Techinque

This is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.

These intervals are called pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro, which means tomato. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility. 

It is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

There are six stages in the technique:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally n = 25).
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down, but immediately get back on task.
  4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1.
  6. Else (i.e. after four pomodoros) take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

By working in short bursts I get a huge amount done, especially if I vary the type of work done for each burst or Pomodero.

What to do when you dry up?

What happens if after applying all of these strategies you hit a brick wall? Don’t worry, this is very common as the brain can only take so much. Like using your muscles in the gym, rest is as important as work if you are to remain fresh.

The whole point of showcasing these techniques is so that I can help you work more effectively and be more efficient. Then you can take time off and give your brain a rest without feeling guilty.

You will have already got a huge amount of stuff done and you have the peace of mind knowing that you can get back into the zone quicker then most because you have techniques and strategies to do that.

So here are a few techniques to try that I mentioned in my ‘Overcoming Creative Block’ article.

Give your mind stimulus

Listen to music, watch films, read interviews. I have written about the importance of artificially stimulating your mind to get your fired up. Read the whole thing here:

To sum up

  • How to collect your thoughts
  • Brainstorming Techniques
  • Time Controlled Strategies
  • How to get accept running dry
  • Use stimulus to get fired up again.

Try out different brainstorming techniques and see what is most productive for you. Be objective about the process, keep a sketchbook handy and use time controlled strategies to squeeze even more out of productive brainstorming.

If you found this useful or have anything to add, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Thad Cox2 Comments