50 Tips to Be a Better Brainstormer

Author Avatar
Written by James Dowd,
• 17 min read

Good ideas transform businesses. But, getting there is rarely easy. That’s why the Digital Surgeons team came together to share their favorite tips & tricks for coming up with big, innovative ideas. Build your better brainstorm and let us know what works @digitalsurgeons

1. Be Prepared: Good brainstorming starts well before the group session. Take responsibility, be proactive, and ideate on your own so you have ideas before you enter the room. Ideation is about you — the individual, a creative person — and it’s where great ideas begin. As a creative, you can utilize inspiration from the world around you and inside yourself and then funnel it, transform it, into something entirely new — something that will inspire emotion, change, and action. The process of getting there directly, as opposed to waiting for it, is ideation.

2. Do Your Research: Know your goals. Know your boundaries. Know your brand. Know your competition. Know what they’re doing. Know what’s cool. Know what’s winning awards. Know what’s emerging. Know what success looks like. All of this means fully digesting the brief, asking questions, and then spending a good amount of time online studying awards sites, blogs, and competitors’ social pages. The more you uncover, the more you have to work with.

3. Go Down the Rabbit Hole: Music, art, anime, whatever; let anything and everything inspire you — not just marketing. Cherish Google search, look at similar categories, look at entirely different categories, look at language and imagery, look at anything and everything. Good ideas come from good ideas, so let others inspire you, no matter where you find it.

4. Give Yourself Time: Good ideas come after they’ve had a chance to bounce around in your subconscious for a while. Take small moments whenever possible. Think about it while you drive, or play a mindless video game on mute while recording yourself talking. Take a walk, take a shower. Look for opportunities to go into flow while ideating. Look to disconnect and look at things differently. This usually happens outside of 9 to 5. Sorry.

5. Question Everything: If you don’t know what to ask, start with journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, and why? Write yourself a series of questions and answers like you’re interviewing yourself, and actually answer the questions as if someone else asked them. It allows you to break away from feeling normal and access different parts of your brain. It makes the problems and challenges clear, so you can start solving for them in creative ways.

6. Make Connections: Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it — they just saw an obvious opportunity to make something. Creativity is really just pattern recognition. It’s combining disparate things to reveal something new. You goal is simply to make connections that can inspire new thinking.

7. Make Buckets: As part of filtering your thinking, as well as managing the stored-up information you’ve uncovered, try thinking in buckets. Different buckets should represent different things, so your ideas exist in diverse categories. Brand pillars, content pillars, values — these can all be associated with buckets. Try coming up with a few ideas and then matching them up into common threads. Those threads are your buckets, so just start dropping ideas in. If ideas overlap buckets, they might be too complex or unclear. If the buckets are empty, you’re probably not done ideating. When they are full, simplify, even as far as single words. “This is my emotional idea, this is my inspirational idea, and this is my aspirational idea”

8. Map It: Balance your ideas on a grid, Complexity vs Impactful. How easy or hard will it be to pull off versus how much will it cost. Easy and cheap are clear winners, but make sure you have ideas spread out to ensure you have diversity of thinking and execution. If the cheap and fast ideas were really the best, we’d be unemployed.

9. Flip It On Its Head: Challenge everything. If it’s a holiday ideation, reconsider what you know. If everyone thinks the holidays are happy, what if they are actually stressful? What if people don’t want to cook for family, but instead escape and not think of recipes at all? Flip things on their head, look at them differently, and accept nothing as fact or gospel.

10. Talk It Out: Take someone for a walk and explain your thinking. Say it all out loud or even to yourself. In fact, explain it to yourself like you’re an idiot. Don’t try to solve it all in your head. There’s too much to filter. Braindump by writing stream of consciousness. Take tiny steps and write things down. If you try to craft it all in your head, you'll lose it. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. When you do so, you will naturally arrive at interesting places.

11. First Idea, Worst Idea: If it was your first idea, it was everyone’s first idea. This can mean it’s basic and needs to die, or it can be so good and right that everyone got there for a reason. If the room loves it, consider it. Or, use ‘First Idea, Worst Idea’ to win the pitch. If you know what others will get to, make sure your pitch buries their idea.

12. Believe in Your Brain: Believe you have big, breakthrough ideas in your brain box. Creativity takes courage. When you ideate, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is suppressed, which is linked to conscious self monitoring. One turns on, and the other turns off. What that means is if you allow yourself to self-edit while being creative, the creative part of your brain is turning off. Actively trying to prevent yourself from making a mistake or coming up with “dumb” ideas means no longer creating something new.

13. Give It a Name: Give the idea a name before you even think of the idea. Think in concept titles, slogans, handles, tags, calls to action, and then build on it. For CamelBak you might think “Hydration Nation,” so then ask yourself what it could be. Nation = country = map = GPS = travel = trip = promotion to win an outdoor adventure with CamelBak hydrating the way.

14. Get Weird: The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity. Weird inspires. It brings energy to the room, it makes the process fun. Put the weirdest thing you can think of on paper. Step out of yourself and your comforts to spark creative thinking. Don’t stick to routines or you’ll come up with routine ideas.

15. Just Think: Think of the worst ideas you can think of. Think about what you want to see or want to engage with that’s never been done before. Think of tactics and back-track to why it makes sense for the brand. Think about the user experience — what do they like, what do they hate, what would they say, what do they want? Simply, don’t wait for ideas. Go after them.

16. Let Ideas Suck: Don’t be cocky or over confident about your ideas. Just because you’ve seen it a thousand times doesn’t mean your audience has. And certainly, just because you’ve pitched it before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share. Use your worst ideas to get away from your own experience and to keep exploring.

17. Jump Ahead: Talk about the results, what it could do in a perfect world. CP+B famously presented ideas internally as press releases. Ideas are nothing without execution and results, so imagine what they may be and paint that as part of the picture.

18. Think in 3 Rooms: A popular method of Walt Disney, you ideate in the 1st room, edit in the 2nd, and give a thoughtful eye in the 3rd. The 1st is pixie dust, anything can be, anything can happen. The 2nd is molding your creations, bringing them closer to earth. The 3rd is a major gut-check where questions should be asked and some beautiful things should probably die. Never overlap these rooms. Do one, and then the next, and then the next. Clear, mindful steps in your process.

19. Build on Others: It’s a team effort and you’re there to help each other to build up to a big idea. The expectation should never be to come up with the big idea yourself. If you go in with that mindset, you’ll scare yourself out of a free thinking mindset.

20. Make It Visual: Get artistic with your brainstorm by drawing out your ideas, whether it’s on whiteboards, cards, paper, or whatever format you need to bring it to life. Visualizing it on paper helps you visualize it in your brain so you can better understand what an idea is and what it may be. Want to take it further? Time yourself with your drawings. 1-minute, 5-minute, 15-minutes. Watch how the thinking and detail evolves when you are short for time, or when you have time to fill.

21. Get Real: Go experience the product or service in the wild, first hand. Go see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, use it. What’s the experience? How can it be improved? Who is interested in it? Who isn’t? You can learn a lot by getting out into the world — don’t neglect this step.

22. Take 5 Steps: 1) Start with finding the problem and finding an insight. 2) Saturate yourself in it. 3) Incubation. Walk away from it and let it marinate. Some call it thinking aside and your unconscious will step in and help you. 4) Illumination. When that a-ha moment hits you like a ton of bricks. 5) Verify the idea by testing the concept on someone who would actually be your audience.

23. Mash-Up Half-Baked Ideas: Like a concept but it just doesn’t quite work? Try bringing similar ideas together under a shared umbrella to make the small ideas big ideas. Just because it’s only a piece of an idea doesn’t mean it can’t become something bigger when merged with another idea.

24. Play the Battle of Endor: It’s not Return of the Jedi. It’s more of a positive improv-style game that adds or changes ideas to keep them moving. Play by yourself, or go around the room. With each thought, say ‘“yes, AND” or “yes, OR” (Get it? And, or = Endor. Ugh, whatever. No, you’re a nerd!). If it’s strong, add to it. If it inspires a new idea, add an ‘or.’

25. Keep Moving: If no one likes your idea, it probably sucks. Don’t over-sell it when you can be thinking of more, better ideas. Don’t let obstacles, opinions, ego, or anything else get in your way. Just keep driving forward. This is what you do, so do it.

26. Keep Your Ideas Simple: As ad legend Luke Sullivan says, “Your idea should fit on a Post-It.” Great ideas are complex but seem simple. Bad ideas are often simple but seem complex. If it’s hard to explain now, it will be impossible to explain to a client or consumer. Keep it simple.

27. Work From the Heart and the Head: Use your emotions and your logic, not just one or the other. Ask what they want, and then what they need, or vice versa. Ask what would be amazing, and then what is practical. If one way of thinking isn’t working, try using the other. But, never forget to infuse both ways of thinking and feeling.

28. Drink, Don’t Think: A beer can help stimulate your creativity and it helps you relax. The more relaxed you are, the less self conscious you are, and the fun will flow. Fun brainstorming is good brainstorming. When you’re done, swap the beer for coffee so you can focus and edit.

29. Pretend You’re High: By pretending to be high, you abandon yourself and let your weird come through. How would this look & sound if you were high? Would it be funny? How would your body respond? Why am I walking weird? By pretending, your brain is altered and so will your way of thinking. At the very least, it will be fun, and the creative juices will take over.

30. Be a Kid: Act like a curious child and view the world with wonder and amazement. A simple RTB can be astonishing if viewed the right way. This shift in perspective allows you to abandon your adult experiences in which you may have become cynical of marketing and advertising.

31. Take Off Your Headphones: Surround yourself with people, like at a bar or cafe, and listen to not just what they say, but how they say it. Listen for emotion, conflict, strife, slang, personality. Discover new ways of viewing the world. This will help your escape your point of view, and will diversify your way of thinking to match with people you passively encounter.

32. Get Outdoors: Get the blood pumping and get away from the usual distractions. If you’re at your desk, you’re probably going to screw around online. Trap yourself in your own mind by getting away from tech. New sounds, new places, new faces, and a bit of fresh air will liven up your thinking. Just remember to record your ideas or they may get lost out there.

33. Start in Unexpected Places: If you’re doing research before your brainstorm, don’t start in the same place as others. For instance, if you’re looking to innovate on a design convention, don’t go to dribbble.com  — go to the library and check the children’s section. Their books are wildly creative and interactive. If you’re working on a luxury car, don’t look at cars, look at luxury watches. Same consumer, new ideas.

34. Explore Opposites: Coming up with ideas can sometimes be inspired by coming up with the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be thinking about. “How can we come up with the world’s most comfortable mattress?” Instead, describe everything you hate about mattresses. This alternative thinking often leads you to new thinking by taking an unexpected path to the idea.

35. Make It Awkward: Use ice breakers. Dress up in weird costumes. Play games. Perform improv. These are always successful for the people who are usually the quiet ones in the room. Sharing embarrassing moments, or making a fool of yourself, helps everyone get on the same level, so that they can truly value each other’s strange ideas. When you look like an idiot, no idea is off-limits.

36. Hit Ludicrous Speed: 100 ideas through 100 mph thinking. That’s where the magic happens. Aim for quantity over quality by creating small challenges for everyone to quickly and easily solve. They should be broken up into 2-3 minute exercises where everyone has a brain-dump on Post-Its. Then, hand your collection to someone else, and let them build on them.

37. Go Intergalactic: Take the mind somewhere other than the obvious. Example: “We need to come up with world's most comfortable mattress.” Suggest something crazy like… naming everything that comes to mind with regard to a circus. (Clowns, big shoes, balancing acts, trapeze, balancing animals etc.) Use these things to help spark ideas. Example: balancing acts take me to gyroscoping or some sort of self stabilizing bed. Boom. OUT-THERE THINKING.

38. Use Your Hands: Our minds work best when our hands, eyes, and  senses are not only active, but at times distracted, doing something completely different. Have items for people in the room to fidget with. Try tossing around a football. Pass around a drawing that everyone takes turns adding to.

39. Get Over Yourself: Let the ideas flow. Do not self censor or filter your thinking, ever. Just put it out there. Your thinking has greater value than you may think. It may inspire someone else's ideas. Holding it in or worrying if it sucks is a waste of your unique POV.

40. Team Up: Understand ideas can come from anywhere. Now is not the time to think about the logistics of how it would work. Trust in the fact that everyone has something to bring to the table. The more the merrier. Meetings can get expensive, however the more minds, the more powerful the thinking. A 30-minute brainstorm with twice as many people has a better outcome than a 1-hour brainstorm with half as many people.

41. I/O ->O: Process information like a computer. Start with the inputs you have (data/people/place/thing/goal) and figure out what outputs need, and should, happen and then frame them back into outcomes. Or, start with the outcomes and reverse-engineer your way back to the first principles of the idea.

42. Make Match-Ups: Think like a DJ by taking people, places, things, objects, and platforms, then remix them in new and novel ways.“It’s like Uber…but for dog walking.” “It’s a tattoo parlor….for kids!” “It’s an Amazon Echo….attached to a drone.”

43. Act It Out: Put yourself in the shoes of your consumer by actually acting out a day in their life — the moment they may discover the product or service you’re working on. Talk like them, move like them, think like them. You’ll loosen up, find some empathy/understanding, and maybe even discover something new about them and the brand.

44. Keep Quiet: Some people struggle to speak up or think quickly in brainstorms, so the ideas tend to be created by those who are fast and loud. But, their ideas are not necessarily the best. That’s why you should embrace the different styles by including brainstorming time for silent ideation. Let people work by themselves, writing down everything they can think of, without being run over by others.

45. Find an Amateur: We like to leverage the pros — those who know the most about certain topics. However, try utilizing people from various backgrounds and skillsets. Just because someone knows nothing about a topic doesn’t mean their ideas are useless. In fact, when we work in an area for too long, we become blind to possibilities. Working on tech ideas, get someone who still has a Hotmail account.

46. Sleep On It: Do your research and then get away from the challenge for a full day. While you’re sleeping and are distracted, your subconscious mind will work to solve the problem. Let dreams inspire you, but keep a pen and paper nearby, or else you might lose what you thought of through the night.

47. Time Yourself: Without a deadline, you’re more likely to get distracted or attempt to craft the perfect idea in your head. Don’t waste your time looking for more inspiration or trying to build on something when you should be coming up with more. Instead, work in short bursts of time where you aim to deliver a specific number of ideas. Change up your time periods and number of ideas.

48. Get Strategic: Analyze your situation and potential challenges to help structure your coming ideas. Use a SWOT analysis to determine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Breaking down the business model also helps find white space in their market where unmet or unarticulated needs can inspire innovation.

49. Set Goals: Help yourself and your team stay focused and on track by setting clear goals for the brainstorm. Utilize S.M.A.R.T goals — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely — to avoid wasting time and determine if your good ideas are actually all that good.

50. Get Someone to Do It For You