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Tips to ensure you never get stuck in a creative rut again

Masterclass trainer Arif Haq shares three ways to have innovative ideas

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

Being creative can be hard work. Arif Haq, Director of Brand Learning at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, often sees people stumbling at the first post. “Self-censoring: that little voice that says, 'That's not really a good idea or you’re not very good,’ is a major problem”, he explains. To think innovatively, you must feel safe to air your ideas — no matter how spontaneous or far-fetched. “In the early stages of creative processes, you have to give yourself permission to have stupid or half-baked ideas, and critically, get them out and talk them over with other people,” he adds. “An idea might come out of someone's mouth and sound ridiculous… but then someone else comes in and builds on it or challenges it, and magically this process happens.”

Haq’s three-hour masterclass Creative Collider is a fast-paced workshop over Zoom designed to enlarge and encourage your creative capabilities. Here, he explains why the collision of seemingly unconnected ideas will boost your innovative thinking, ensuring that you’ll never get stuck in a rut again.

Disrupt the familiar

“Your brain is a pattern-making machine,” Haq explains. “It wants to do the thing it did yesterday. It just wants to repeat things, because it's trying to conserve its energy and its power for things that really matter, like running away from a sabre-toothed tiger.” This autopilot mode might be useful at times — tigers or not — but it’s deadening for creativity. “The brain’s general bias when you're thinking about creativity is to think about things that have already been done before: what ideas you already have, or things you might have done in the past that that failed and compare it against that,” Haq says, adding that because the unfamiliar is harder to benchmark, it’s all too easily dismissed.

The answer, he thinks, is to introduce something that disrupts the usual order of things. “A random provocation or something new, thrown in like a grenade, can have the ability to reboot your brain creatively. You're so lost by it, all your references for how you should think about this are forced out the window.” He likens the process to that of a river that runs through the same channels, deepening year after year as the route becomes entrenched. What these provocations — these “sticks of dynamite” do — is open up new tributaries, diverting your thinking along new avenues.

Find new lenses

What exactly do those grenades or sticks of dynamite look like? How do you go about the tricky business of disruption? For Haq, it’s all about introducing unexpected stimuli. “Our brain craves binary thinking, to see everything in the world, ideally, in black and white or… this box or that box.” One of the downsides of this is the number of blindspots it creates: “our assumptions, for example, about people, like how people talk, what colour they are, what gender they are, what types of clothes they wear…Those assumptions can make fools of us in our personal lives, for the reasons that we know. But in our creative, professional lives, they make us less creative too.”

When it comes to briefs, he says, often the person delivering the brief will be bringing in their own formulaic stories or assumptions too. “Our role as creatives is to challenge those assumptions; bringing novelty into the familiar forces us to look at things in a different way.” Adding in more viewpoints will aid this.

Absorb something unfamiliar to you

A good way of introducing randomness or elements of unfamiliarity is through the way you consume media. Haq suggests that an initial, easy way to do this is to change the way you approach reading the daily newspaper. When you pick it up, he says, make yourself turn to a section you’d normally skip. Find sport boring? Read that section forensically. Not into fashion? See what you can learn from a trend report. “It will provoke a thought, or a reaction in your mind that you wouldn't have otherwise had, that will be useful in terms of introducing a new way of thinking,” Haq says. Often these ideas will then be simmering at the back of your head. Sometimes they might even provide unexpected solutions. Other similar exercises involve listening to podcasts you’d normally ignore, watching a film you think you’ll dislike, or trying to reach beyond your own ‘filter bubble’ by following people on social media whose views you disagree with.

All of these approaches boil down to something fundamental about how you view the world. The more absorbent you are, and the more interest you take in disparate ideas and approaches and perspectives, the more source material you have to draw on. “The creative mind is one that isn't childish, but is childlike,” Haq adds. It’s a way of existing where your antenna is always twitching, or your aperture is wide open.” If you’re still struggling though, there are all sorts of tools that can help too. Haq recommends Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: a set of 100 cards featuring prompts and questions (e.g. “do the words need changing?” or “question the heroic approach”) designed to disrupt stale thinking. After all, if they worked for David Bowie, who worked with Eno to encourage his own creativity, they might just work for you too.

D&AD’s three-hour Creative Collider Masterclass (conducted over Zoom) is a carefully curated brainstorming workshop to help build brilliant ideas through the power of collision. Sign up here. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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