Home / Tricks of the Trade / Better than brainstorming

Finding time to bond as a creative team isn’t easy. With two office locations and a whole lot of Bay Area traffic keeping us apart, we decided to establish a Creative All-Hands meeting in which we can get together and learn something new on a regular basis. We team up in twos to come up with the topic and content, and recently we decided to tackle the idea of ideation.

What’s the best way to come up with new ideas? Being a team of writers and artists, we decided to look for inspiration from what inspired other writers and artists. And that little tangent brought us to Surrealism. (Trust us: it’ll all make sense soon.)

Let’s start with Surrealism!

Just in case you’re a bit rusty on your art history, Surrealism was a 20th century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind through the irrational juxtaposition of images and words. All kinds of artists and writers would play surrealist games to provide them with inspiration and entertain each other at parties. (Probably a lot of booze was involved, too, but we have no actual proof of this.)

One example that we actually played in the office is a drawing game called Exquisite Corpse. A LOT of artists played it, like Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, to name a few.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Fold pieces of paper into a trifold.
  2. Each person takes a turn drawing sections of a body on a sheet of paper that’s been folded into a trifold (or more if you want), folded to hide each section except the one in play. We recommend the first and second players extend their lines slightly past the bottom edge of their section to indicate where the next player should continue drawing.
  3. The first player adds a head to the top section.
  4. Without knowing what the head looks like, the next artist adds a torso.
  5. Without knowing what the head or torso look like, the next artist adds the feet.
  6. Then you unfold it and marvel at your exquisite corpse!

Here are a few famous examples:

Surrealism examples

And here are a few of the ones we created in the office:

A few Exquisite Corpse examples we created in the office.

Working together, it’s amazing what kinds of ideas can come together—particularly as you build on each other’s talents and perspectives. In a way, these types of games are the predecessors of creative brainstorming.

The brainstorming backstory.

Originally called “think up,” the activity we now know as brainstorming was developed in 1941 by ad executive Alex Osborn (the O in BBDO) as a way to stimulate the creation of new ideas in business meetings. The founding rules probably look familiar:

  • The goal is to produce quantity over quality of ideas
  • No criticism allowed—encourage wild thinking
  • Build on each other’s ideas

These rules were intended to help reduce inhibitions and any fear of sharing ideas that could be “wrong” or “stupid”—because, as we all know, even silly ideas can spark very useful ones.

But brainstorming has its drawbacks.

Only a few people do most of the talking—so only the most outspoken people get heard. And that makes it easy for others, who may be reluctant to compete with the loud talkers anyway, to hide in the shadows and never participate.

Rather than sticking to the rules, people start filtering the “good” ideas from the “not-so-good” ideas too early. So, the first few “good” ideas tend to get more attention, people get stuck on them, and suddenly we’ve got a bias for the first ideas. Those “good” ideas may also be coming from a subject matter expert or a person in an authority position, too—further discouraging anyone from speaking up.

So what do we like better than brainstorming? Brainwriting.

The goal of brainwriting is to generate ideas, not evaluate ideas. It’s not that far off from the original concept of brainstorming, but it helps keep us from breaking the rules or overpowering the meeting.

And it works a lot like those surrealist games we talked about earlier. (See! We told you it would make sense eventually.) Here’s how you do it:

  1. Start with a topic/problem to solve/question.
  2. Rather than asking everyone to yell out ideas, everyone writes down ideas on cards for a few minutes—one idea per card.
  3. Then, each participant passes the cards on to someone else, who reads the ideas and adds to them—again, one addition per card.
  4. After a few minutes, do it again.
  5. After about 10–15 minutes total, you collect the cards and post them for immediate discussion.

We came up with some random problems to solve, picked one, and decided to give it a whirl.

Our topic? Ideas for a start-up company with an online fitness program for fat dogs.

Why? Because we love dogs. And we also care about fitness.

The resulting ideas? Well…we’re sworn to secrecy. But we can tell you that they were hilarious and prolific. Once we got started, it was hard to stop. If the goal is to come up with a lot of ideas, we scored big time.

What was immediately clear to all of us was how much more inclusive brainwriting would be for different types of people. You know, this might be a shocker (hello, sarcasm), but not all creative types are alike. While some of us enjoy public speaking, some people don’t want to be at the center of attention, shouting out their ideas for others to judge.

And here’s another shocker (not): the hardest part of ideation is getting started. Sometimes all you need is a spark of inspiration from someone else and then the ideas start flowing. This type of exercise levels the playing field, creating a safe, productive place for all kinds of creative thinkers.