Tackling the daunting prospect of a blank page

In the first of a series of extracts from In Your Creative Element, a new book about creativity in business, creativity expert and Chief Spark at Now Go Create, Claire Bridges gives her advice for tackling the daunting prospect of a blank page. She advises how to identify the problem at hand and suggests tools that can be applied to a diverse range of problems – from ‘I need an idea right now’ to more complex challenges

Being faced with the blank page can be daunting. Despite working in PR for nearly 20 years, for the first 15 of those, learning creative techniques was not on the agenda even though ideas are the lifeblood of the business. When I became Creative Director I needed more ammunition, so I taught myself myriad techniques in order to have a more structured approach to problem solving.

There are thousands of techniques out there and there is both an art and craft to choosing creativity tools, particularly if you are facilitating others. What follows is my go-to selection based on years of personal trial and error, including those from formal processes including Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Design Thinking and my own adaptations.

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Getting prepared

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question” – EE Cummings (1938)

Great questions are at the heart of great ideas. The art of questioning is often a game of mental Ping-Pong between divergent and convergent thinking.

You’re trying to open up and explore options, and to get the question(s) or problem statement right well before you start to try and generate ideas. You might want to generate lots of problem statements before you focus on those that look the most promising.

Asking the wrong questions can lead you down blind alleys, waste time and further confuse the issue. Often business briefings are filled with marketing jargon, that, to quote WPP stalwart Jeremy Bullmore, “kills thought, strangles speculation, anaesthetises the imagination.”

One idea that is gaining in popularity is ‘question storming’ instead of ‘brainstorming’ – a useful process to try and generate many possible starting points before looking to generate solutions.

Here are a couple of my go-to tools when tackling a brief:

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Problem finding tool 1: 

Generating an effective problem statement (Isaksen et al, 2011)

What is it? A tool from the Creative Problem Solving process to generate useful problem statements and open up ideas. Often a challenge is not written as a question, but as a statement or an objective. For example: stunt ideas to support our World Cup sponsorship or get more ‘likes’ on Facebook. You need to bridge between the client brief and an enticing creative brief. This tool helps to do that and can add specificity, constraints and ambition to your statement.

How to do it: Follow this format to create potential problem statements, informed by data and insight.

Write down your initial problem as you see it, or as per the client brief. Here’s a working example of a challenge that I see every time I take a commuter train. People often fall asleep on the train without having their ticket on display for the guard. How can we make people leave their ticket out?

1. Start with an invitational stem – a way of asking questions that ‘opens up, or invites, many possible responses’. There are three suggested stems:

How to…

How might…

In what ways might…

2. Identify an owner. This might be a specific person responsible for the problem or a company eg How might Loco Trains’ corporate communications team….In what ways might Loco Trains’ staff…. In what ways might Loco Trains’ guards…. How to encourage commuters to….

By playing with the ownership you give yourself options. You can change the gender, the demographic, the age, to give you different (divergent) avenues.

3. Have an action verb. “Identify a specific and positive course envisioned by the statement” (Isaksen et al, 2011); eg “In what ways might Loco Trains’ guards force/ encourage/ cajole/ provoke/ avoid/ reward/ persuade….
4. An objective. “Identify the target or desired outcome and direction for your problem-solving activity” (Isaksen et al, 2011).

So:


In what ways might the Loco Trains’ guard reward customers for showing their tickets?


How to avoid awkward customer interactions on the train?


How might the Loco Trains design team create a ticket holder that people actually want to show off?


How to engage with Claire on the 6:05am London Waterloo train and encourage her to display her ticket without being prompted?

Again, changing the owner, the verb and the outcome (being specific and general) gives you different creative options and opens up different routes.

You can ask yourself whether, from all the options you generate, is there a ‘central question’? One that takes priority over all the others and that gives you a clear way into your problem?

Who is this technique for? Anyone involved at the start of the  creative process.

Good for: Ensuring that you’re asking the right question. Checking that you have a well-formed problem if you’re having difficulty generating ideas (often due to a poor question).

Not so good for: There’s really no occasion when having a well-formed question will hinder your creative efforts!

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Problem finding tool 2: 

User empathy map

What is it? A widely used tool from design thinking and the world of UX. A structured way to plot your target audience’s behaviour in relation to your problem or challenge on one page in order to highlight where you might be able to affect change.

How to do it: Do this before or in an ideas session to get a better idea of the consumer or customer. Simply split a piece of paper into four with a cross that runs from corner to corner.

In each of the four segments write one of the following: say, do, think, feel. The idea is to spend a little time thinking about the consumer’s world and writing things down in each segment.

For ‘say’, that could be some quotes and defining words about him/her (ie ‘confident’).

‘Do’ is all about what actions you want them to do as a result of your activity or what they currently do.

‘Think’ is what your consumer might be thinking. What are their underlying beliefs?

‘Feel’ – what emotions they might feel now in relation to your problem. What is it that you want them to feel?

The next part is to think about what the target audience’s ‘pain points’ might be – what is annoying, irritating or upsetting for them about the subject, product or area you’re working in? You consider these pain points in order to generate ‘gains’ – where can your product or service or idea help?

Why it works: It’s based on real needs and empathy, a deep understanding of the person for whom you are designing your product or service for. Get into the customer’s head before trying to think up an idea intended to target a real need.

Who it’s for: Groups or individuals trying to find a place to start from in order to generate creative ideas, or a way to hone/test ideas you already have.

Good for: Plotting a lot of disparate customer data, using insights, getting into your target audience’s head. Finding an emotional trigger or genuine need. Making the problem visual.

Not so good for: Speedy idea generation (unless done before a workshop). Crunching massive amounts of data.

Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of creativity. No doubt you have your own favourite go-to ways to get in the groove. Tools can help you get a fresh perspective on a problem, provide brainfood and stimulus and give a consistent, structured approach to tackling the blank page.

In the next issue we’ll explore idea generation tools.


This extract is from In Your Creative Element by Claire Bridges ©2017 and reproduced with permission from its publishers, Kogan Page. Now Go Create offers creative training for business including workshop facilitation, brainstorming and leadership training. 

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