Week 5 – Where Ideas Come From

“Ideas are basically combination of information whereby this combination is done by the human actor, enhancing his or her productivity would typically involve enhancing information acquisition and processing. Another aspect is methods. Combining the methods means essentially structuring them in a certain process … Besides this there is another design aspect: Organization.“

Iversity: Idea Generation Methods

This week is about creative concepts, about strategies and methods that can help you to develop an idea for a story out of nothing or at least a seed for a story. Some of these concepts you probably already have heard of. They are commonly used in the business world. Others perhaps will be new!

When Andrea Arnold states that “my scriptwriting always begins with the mind map … I’ll start with images and piece it together“ she is not alone.

Mind mapping, clustering, the Osborn checklist, brainstorming, random input techniques, narrative maps and narrative structure diagrams, storyboarding, lateral thinking, divergent thinking, brain writing, 6-3-5, word associations, the Disney method, the scenario method, road mapping, the portfolio technique, historical analogy, publication analysis, expert interviews, the snowflake method and the Delphi method are the most well-known methods to let your creativity break loose.

But first let’s have a closer look at the process of creative problem solving or the creative process. In general people encounter five stages: information (insight), saturation, incubation, illumination, verification.

  1. Insight – an idea shows up, a writer discovers a story.
  2. Saturation – collect and collect, the “input” stage, anything research related.
  3. Incubation – reflect upon the new information, work through the idea, share the idea and wait for inspiration.
  4. Illumination – inspiration, a solution suggests itself, muse-kissed.
  5. Verification – testing period, does my solution really work?

Sometimes these five stages are actually seen as seven:

  1. Question, problem or challenge
  2. Research, information gathering
  3. “Basta” stage – enough is enough
  4. Gestation, state of detachment (hold the question)
  5. Eureka moment (flash of an idea)
  6. Making-process (make idea a reality)
  7. Testing and criticism

But in the end these five or seven stages are more likely a cycle you have to go through several times: To finally become clearer and more precise!

When it comes to the first stage Iannis Xenakis, the famous 20th century avant-garde composer once stated: A good start for a composer is total amnesia. I.e. being able to forget everything you know, because this can become a burden. It can block your creativity, it can happen that you often fall back into the same patterns, the same kind of thinking. The goal – you could say – is to become a child again.

For Gerard Puccio creativity comes in four stages – clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing:

  • Clarifying – ensuring you’re asking the right question
  • Ideating – exploring as many solutions as possible
  • Developing and implementing – making sure the idea is practical and convincing to others

One of his ideating methods is to ask students to brainstorm a problem and then connect it with an object at random. “It’s about forcing the brain to give up old patterns and search for new ones.” (Colin Barras)

Besides the above-mentioned methods, there are some principles, so called search rules, that increase the probability to find new solutions:

  • Systematically deconstruct the problem into its single parts.
  • Abstract from the original problem.
  • Build analogies.
  • Tie on and associate.
  • Think visually.
  • Change the perspective.

As an example let’s have a short look at three different of the above mentioned methods:

  • The narrative map.
  • Divergent thinking.
  • Random input techniques.

For the narrative map all you need is a pen and a sheet of paper with some post-it notes. Start by drawing your axis, time along the bottom and location on the side. You can use whatever stretch of time and place you want. By using the post-it notes, just start to write down little mini events, what happens over time and place. So that in the end you build up a picture of the landscape and events in your story.

Divergent thinking means opening up the mind and the search space. So it‘s not about narrowing but about broadening the view in the beginning. It is about producing as many as possible insights and ideas. Later on, after broadening the view, it is then important to narrowing it, to come up with a decision: One idea you want to stick to. During this process always ask yourself: What is it really about? Above all it is important to ask the right questions: If you want to get unusual answers you first have to ask unusual questions!

There are many different ways to use the random input technique. I will show you three ways to start with:

  1. Open a dictionary at a random page. Choose the 7th word from above on the left or right side. Repeat this procedure 10 times. Now write down all the words on a blank paper. What story is hidden in these words? Move them around, change the sequence etc.
  2. Instead of words take pictures. Use the Internet, you can even google the words from above being in photo mode.
  3. Surprise promenade: have a walk and be totally aware what is going on around you. Question all the events and objects you perceive. How can you connect all of them?

The six thinking hats are white, red, black, yellow, green, and blue. The white hat is related to facts, figures, information, asking questions, and defining information needs and gaps. When one puts on the white hat, it means that he wants to have a look at the fact. The red hat takes care of intuition, feelings and emotions. When one puts on the red hat, he can express out his intuition without giving any reason. The black hat is the hat of judgement and caution. It is the most valuable hat and needs to be used most often. One puts on the black hat to point out the reason why a suggestion doesn’t fit the facts. The black hat is logical. The green hat is about creativity, alternatives, proposals, provocations and changes. The blue hat focuses on process. One puts on the blue hat to examine the process of thinking. The hats might have a sequence ‘white, green, yellow, black, red, blue’. This is the sequence for a new topic. However, the sequence is not fixed but varied according to situation. (De Bono, E. (1995). Serious creativity. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 18(5), 12)

Finally: The best book on this topic is probably James M. Higgins’ >101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques<. Get it!!!

Your turn!

1. Use Wikipedia’s random page tool 5-8 times, then try to connect the articles given to a possible story.

2. Check out Marc Johnstone‘s slideshare.

3. Get yourself a big white board and put it on a wall. Get post-it notes in different color. Now for one week write everything down, that comes into your mind, things you perceive, things that happen. Then try to organize the notes in different ways, so that different ideas for stories are unfolding.

4. Michael Erard, speaking about designing metaphors, gives the advice to make pseudo-mistakes: “Consider the thing to be communicated – a business strategy, a discovery, a new look at a familiar social problem – and then make a pseudo-mistake. Actually, create a lot of pseudo-mistakes, and test each one. At the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons. One way to create these mistakes is to deliberately miscategorize the thing you are trying to explain…“ (15) How can we use or adapt this concept for us?

5. Check out some of the different techniques mentioned in this chapter and try to adapt them for our purposes. A very good short and precise overview is -as I already mentioned – given by James M. Higgins’ >101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques<. For further readings going more into detail, check out the websites below:




Brain writing


Delphi method

Disney method

Divergent thinking

Expert interviews

Lateral thinking 1 Lateral thinking 2

Mind mapping Mindmeister

Narrative maps 1 Narrative maps 2

Narrative structure diagrams

Osborn checklist

Random-input techniques

Road mapping

Scenario method 1 Scenario method 2

Six thinking hats 1 Six thinking hats 2

Snowflake method 1 Snowflake method 2



Word association 1 Word association 2

Films to watch

Jaco Van Dormael

  • The Brand New Testament (2015) IMDB

Xiaolu Go

  • She, a Chinese (2009) IMDB

Hou Hsiao Hsien

  • The Puppetmaster (1993) IMDB

Takashi Ishii

Bong Joon-Ho

Elem Klimov

  • Farewell to Matyora (1983) IMDB

Marco Martins / André Príncipe

  • Traces of a Diary (2011) IMDB

Tian-Ming Wu

  • King of Mask (1996) IMDB

Yang Zhang