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Making time and space for creative thinking

25 February 2020

For Woody Allen, it often requires a very long shower. Maya Angelou needed a hotel room with all the decorations removed. Dolly Parton can get them anywhere, apparently.

When it comes to creative ideas, everyone is different. While most of us would agree you can’t learn creativity from a book, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your most inventive ideas see the light of day.

We asked some of our sector’s creative minds for their tops tips.

Dulcie Ireland, senior innovation manager, Cancer Research UK

Where do you have your best ideas?

It’s more of a case of when than where. I find my brain is really active first thing in the morning, especially when there’s no other distractions, like on a run or in the shower. It would be great to have a whiteboard in there so I can write things down! If you don’t capture your ideas quickly you can miss the chance to build on that initial spark.

Have you had a creative idea you’re particularly proud of?

Creating an immersive sound installation for an arts charity to help people understand the transformative power of music. For me, it’s about really understanding a problem and then taking a structured approach to capturing the embryonic ideas that come to your mind, and giving yourself time to build on them.

Top tips for generating ideas

  1. Try drawing your ideas instead of writing them. It can bring out elements you might not have thought about and can get you thinking more creatively.
  2. Get some objective feedback at an early stage. It’s very easy to fall in love with your own idea before you’ve heard what other people think. Test it as soon as possible. It doesn’t need to be polished before you share it.
  3. Turn the problem on its head. Think about the worst possible solution. For example, imagine what a terrible customer experience looks like and then flip it. Interestingly, people often find it easier to think of the worst-case scenario.

David Hibberd, freelance senior designer

Where do you have your best ideas?

I’m a night owl. I often have my best ideas when my brain is unwinding, in that dreamlike state as I’m falling asleep. A few good ideas may have slipped through my fingers though, especially when I’ve forgotten to put a pen and paper by my bed.

Have you had a creative idea you’re particularly proud of?

One of the most fun ones was when I was working at Scope and one of our printers held a Christmas competition. They sent their clients a pack of Plasticine and challenged us to create a festive scene. It was the day of the deadline and a few of us piled into a meeting room and had a quick brainstorm. We had a loose plan to create a dining room with reindeer, Father Christmas and a load of food. Initially we weren’t sure if playing with Plasticine was the best use of our time that day, but it paid off as we won the prize – £5,000 for our charity.

Top tips for generating ideas

  1. Use a facilitator. For creative brainstorms, it’s useful to have someone to make sure things run smoothly but isn’t under pressure to contribute. It can be difficult to be creative when you have to keep your eye on the time.
  2. Give brainstorms their own mini deadlines. These help people to focus on the task at hand and keep moving things along. They also curtail long-windedness. Snacks help too!
  3. Bring in outsiders. People who aren’t working directly on your project can be great for coming up with creative solutions to a problem. It’s important to get a mix of personalities and perspectives. It can also be a good bonding experience with other teams, and gives them an appreciation of what you do and how you work.

Kelly Smith, lead strategist and writer, Neo

That 'light bulb moment' of creativity can come in various formsWhere do you have your best ideas?

I find water creatively stimulating. When I’m in the shower, or doing something physical like swimming or running, it takes my mind away from deliberately pursuing the answer to a problem. There’s no incoming information, so no distractions. It’s like a lovely little bubble of isolation where an idea can form.

Have you had a creative idea you’re particularly proud of?

During a recent brand project, we’d been working really hard on all the research, workshops and testing out themes and ideas. A day or two later, I had a moment of clarity in the shower and came up with the strapline we’d been looking for. As a result, we’ve helped the organisation express who they are and why they exist clearly and with impact. Being able to simplify complex ideas, that’s an important part of creativity.

Top tips for generating ideas

  1. Let yourself procrastinate. Stop working for a while and let ideas emerge. Change your environment too. You probably haven’t got a shower in the office… so go out for a walk. Going to the pub can be good too.
  2. Encourage people to be themselves. Make sure people aren’t fearful of putting forward an idea in case it sounds too leftfield. Allow instinct to play a part. Something might not rationally fit but if it feels right, explore it.
  3. Take risks. The charity sector can be risk averse. But it’s those really different, creative ideas that will allow a charity to be distinct, to capture people’s imaginations and make that emotional connection they need to reach wider audiences and make fundraising more sustainable.

Lucy Gower, director at Lucidity and founder of the Lucidity Network

Where do you have your best ideas?

When I’m walking my dog, Gary. I’m outdoors, I’m relaxed and often having random conversations with strangers. I’m away from my desk and the pressure to make quick and good decisions. I’m an introvert, so rather than in big meetings, I tend to get my best ideas when I’m talking one to one with ‘sparky’ people who add energy to an idea.

Have you had a creative idea you’re particularly proud of?

I first had the idea for my Lucidity Network when I was out about walking. Another recent walk helped me to reframe a problem. A workshop facilitator had dropped out. I was worrying about the fact I’d already booked the workshop space and how I’d find a new facilitator. When I stepped back from the ‘problem’, I realised I missed the blindingly obvious: I run workshops all the time, I could do it myself.

Top tips for generating ideas

  1. Don’t start with the solution. You could be wasting time and energy trying to solve the wrong problem. For example, you might say: “We need to come up with our own ‘Macmillan Coffee Morning’.” But that’s the solution. If the problem is that you need a fundraiser for a particular demographic, start there instead.
  2. Carve out plenty of thinking time. Once you’ve defined your problem, keep asking “Why?”. Make sure you have time to do this properly. So many charities are needing to deliver more for less. You can’t do that without thinking creatively about different ways to operate – whether that’s small tweaks to processes or something more strategic. Without thinking time, it’s hard to make any useful change.
  3. Allow your leaders to be vulnerable. People often say: “No idea is a bad idea”. That’s not true. There are some terrible ideas out there. However, every idea is worth hearing. The key is making people feel safe enough to share theirs. Leaders have to lead by example.

We hope you enjoyed these top tips for encouraging creativity. Why not try them out? If they work for you, do let us know via Twitter – and share them with your colleagues and networks.

Photo: Frans van Heerden on Pexels

Photo: Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

Sarah Myers

copywriter and editor, freelance

Sarah Myers is a copywriter, editorial consultant and creative manager, with more than 20 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. She has worked in-house for Mencap and Macmillan Cancer Support, and at a charity copywriting agency. Now freelance, her clients include an extensive range of charities, professional bodies and specialist agencies. Her guide to Storytelling for Impact was published by the Directory of Social Change in 2022.