Concepts & Communication — January 5, 2018

Decoding creativity: think like a child, act like an adult

Dorian Derežić Copywriter

If you’re interested in building yourself as a creative professional, I’m sure that, at some point, you’ve been told you have to put yourself in the mind of a small child in order to be creative or start thinking in a creative way. Well, let me tell you something – thinking like a child is great and all, but it’s not even close to being enough!

I could start this text by saying that, ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to produce heart-stopping TV commercials, awesome print ads, innovative billboards and never-seen-before digital campaigns, and use those platforms in a way that’s creative and jaw-dropping. And that would be an all-out lie.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really care about all that stuff until I joined Degordian some 5 years ago. I mean, yeah, when I stumbled upon a cool commercial, I was like “goddamn, that was awesome”, but I never really drilled deep into it. Only when I started being completely surrounded with mind-blowing campaigns on a daily basis did I say “man, that’s the kind of shit I wanna make”. That’s when I began exploring the stories behind campaigns as well as the processes all those creative directors followed to create ideas and execute them. During my explorations, I constantly stumbled upon one thing— if you want to boost your creative potential, you need to think like a child!

When I just started working on creative concepts, this totally made sense, but when I began developing my own creative process that would be more in tune with my way of thinking and the types of projects I usually worked on, I found out that thinking like a child is only a part of this large creative puzzle. Let me tell you what I mean!

Keep asking why

This is just like those typical scenes from the movies. You have a kid and he sees something completely random, something adults don’t even bother thinking about. Because he’s a kid and kids are curious by nature, he asks his dad why is that completely random thing the way it is. Dad answers and the kid counters with another why, dad answers again and once again the kid asks why, and now we’re stuck in a loop that goes on until dad flips out and tells the kid to go bother his mother or something.

All jokes aside, the process of thinking like a child, which could be described as constantly asking why and being continuously amazed by everything that surrounds you, is one of the crucial parts of the creative process. This infinite why mindset will force you to find answers that explain the inner workings of different variables of the project you’re working on. In addition to that, it will also enable you to really understand how you can connect those variables to real-world elements, and use those connections to come up with creative ideas and stories.

As I believe that every part of the real world can be used as an advertising platform, infinite why mindset became my standard way of operating and my primary researching tool. Whether I’m exploring the way rain hits a billboard on a windy day, the shape of shadows cast by street lamps or the speed of escalators, continuously asking why has enabled me to gather incredible amounts of knowledge, but also improve my storytelling skills.

“Infinite why mindset will force you to find answers that explain the inner workings of different variables of the project you’re working on.”

When it comes to working on projects, this mindset allows me to enter the idea-generating part of the creative process with a strong basis of information upon which I can build my ideas. You see, instead of working off some boring creative template that’s all about rehashing old ideas or dragging and dropping elements that fit the brief, I like to freestyle a bit and do things without a 100% defined plan. To do that successfully, I use this acquired information, and a couple of extra things we’ll talk about in the following sections.

This is already becoming a big-ass post so I’ll just quickly sum this part up. Having an infinite why mindset is an excellent researching tactic. It will help you discover how different elements of the project and of the real world work, and how you could use them to come up with creative ideas, stories, and innovative solutions. But that will only take you so far!

Embrace the “why not” mentality

As I’m never content with only going so far and coming up with ideas that are good but not great, I decided to add one additional element to this basic understanding of thinking like a child. Asking why not!

You see, when given a brief with clear limitations stated in it, such as the deadline, the budget, the technology that has to be used or any other type of constraint, a lot of creatives usually tend to come up with ideas that fall within those set limits. They do it right from the start, without even giving themselves some time to think of all the other possibilities that could be achieved or envisioned.

By itself, placing yourself within the set limits is OK – you came up with an idea, did your job, the client was content and ultimately, everything was good. But do that a couple of times in a row, and you start feeling like a goddamn vending machine, an idea dispenser — insert brief and a budget and an idea comes out. You, as a creative can’t really be fulfilled by doing things that way, as you never have the chance to really go all in with your creativity.

“Why not mentality is all about ignoring the rules and limitations, and really taking some time to go all in with your creativity.”

To counter that, I like to embrace the “why not mentality” during the creative process. The easiest way to describe it is like a part of the creative process during which you ignore all the rules and limitations, and really take some time to go all in with your creativity. There is only one you have to follow while you’re in the why not part of the process – every idea you come up with has to be in some way connected with the brand you’re working on. Everything else doesn’t matter.

For example, if you’re working on a digital campaign, but during the process, you get a killer idea for a billboard, or a PR stunt or even an entire TV commercial— write it down, as this might just give you the inspiration you need when you start crafting your final ideas and concepts in the later stages of the process.

The goal of embracing the why not mentality within the creative process is to really let yourself and your team go creatively all in and come up with ideas you’d probably never think of if you placed yourself within the limits of the brief right from the start. In addition to that, it gives you a solid base of elements you can use during the later steps of the process, and most important of all, it enables your team to avoid ever feeling like an idea dispenser.

Know when to hit the brakes

Now that we’ve explained two primary components of thinking like a child, it’s time to jump to the other side of the equation and see what’s this acting like an adult thing is all about. And the first thing we’re going to cover is knowing when to hit the brakes on your creativity during the creative process.

In the previous part, I talked about the importance of having a why not mentality and really going all in with your creativity, and if that means disregarding all the rules, so be it. But let’s face it, just going at it with your full creative force won’t make your ideas good or doable, it will only give you a basis from which you can start forming your real ideas, concepts and solutions. That’s why you need to know how and when to hit the brakes, or to define it more clearly, to know how to turn your ideas and concepts from impossible to possible.

Like I already said, not putting any limits on your creativity will enable you come up with various ideas, solutions and concepts— some of them will be good, some not so much. And when all is said and done, you probably won’t get that ultimate idea or the solution that you’re looking for, but what you will get is a plethora of single elements that can be connected, mixed and matched to create your core concepts. And that’s when knowing how to hit the breaks comes into play!

“Know when to stop and how to turn your ideas and concepts from impossible to possible.”

During the creative process, you need to be able to determine when you need to stop just generating ideas and start crafting them. You need to be able to determine when you and your creative team came up with enough initial ideas and, through them, gathered enough materials so you can really start preparing for the endgame.

It’s a skill that comes with knowing your creative team and what they’re capable of doing when their creativity is limited by time, budget or any other type of constraint. Being good at it will enable you to go through the creative process more smoothly and avoid speed bumps along the way, as well as minimize the need to do rollbacks and constantly redo previous steps as you try to reach that final solution.

Don’t hesitate to rollback

Knowing when to hit the brakes and how to take your ideas from the impossible to possible is a very important part of acting like an adult in the creative process. It’s something that will enable you to push the entire process forward, and help you avoid speed bumps along the way.

“To consistently create great ideas, you need to be able to objectively look at your idea, see which elements aren’t up to standards and cross them out.”

But what if, instead of speed bumps, you hit a real obstacle that makes your idea unusable? That’s when you’ll need to learn to accept the second important aspect of acting like an adult — the ability to do a rollback and eliminate entire elements of your idea without any emotional baggage. I’ll elaborate more on it in the final part of this blog, but for now, you just need to know that emotional ties to your ideas can effectively cloud your judgment and prevent you from seeing the weak spots and inconsistencies within your idea.

In order to consistently create great ideas, you need to be able to objectively look at the situation at hand (in this case your idea or solution) and say when something really isn’t up to standards or completely misses the goal you’re trying to achieve. And then cross out those elements from the final solution. There really is no special way to do that, just leave your ego at the door and analyze how each element of the idea fits into the story you’re trying to create.

There are three possible results for each element:

1. If it fits perfectly and you know exactly how to explain it – keep it

2. If you have to force it and add new layers to explain it – see if you can fix it

3. If it doesn’t fit and you can’t explain why – remove it

And that’s all there is to it. Now let’s see how all of this fits into the creative process itself!

Incorporate the buildup and the drill-down

When it comes to using these four elements of thinking like a child and acting like an adult in the creative process, it all boils down to the technique I call the buildup and the drill-down. The buildup part is the combination of the two aspects of thinking like a child (infinite why mindset and the why not mentality), while the drill-down is all about the adult side (hitting the brakes and rolling back). A mix of these two is what I incorporate into every single step as I go through each phase of the creative process. Let me show you what I mean by it and how it works!

Most creative processes consist of a number of different phases that build upon each other, like the briefing, initial research, strategic positioning, idea generation, aftermath etc. Each of these phases, in turn, consists of smaller steps that guide each phase from start to finish and the entire process from the initial brief to the final product. During those single steps is when you’ll use the aforementioned buildup and the drill-down.

“There are no rules but two, you mustn’t follow a template and there has to be a way to connect every idea with the brand.”

Let’s take the idea-generating phase of the process to explain this in detail and let’s, for the sake of the argument, say it consists of only two steps. To successfully incorporate this technique into the creative process, begin the first step with the buildup. Following the principles of the infinite why mindset and the why not mentality, allow your creative team to come up with as many different ideas as possible. During the buildup part of the process, there are no rules and no limitations but two — you mustn’t follow a template and there has to be a way to connect every proposed idea with the brand.

Everything else is fair game — the ideas can be completely ludicrous, impossible to achieve and even downright wrong. The goal of the buildup is to let your team go wild and propose anything they can come up with because you will then use specific elements of all those ideas for the drill-down. When the buildup phase is done, you should end up with dozens of different ideas — from the simple ones that can be executed in the blink of an eye to the complex ones you’re not really sure if there would ever be a way to execute them. All those ideas are your basis for the drill-down.

The drill-down phase is all about thinking like an adult and following the principles of hitting the brakes and the rollback. To start the drill-down, take all of the ideas from the buildup part and extract specific elements from them. These elements can be different platforms that should be used, creative themes, stories, taglines, technology etc. As creativity is all about finding ways to connect seemingly unrelated things, these single elements will be the building material for your ideas and solutions.

After you’ve split the initial ideas into single elements, see which of them fall within the limitation of the brief as well as the limitations of what’s physically possible. When you define the set of elements you want to use, start building your ideas around them. As for the rest of the elements, don’t discard them as they may provide inspiration during the second step of the idea-generating phase. By the end of the drill-down part, you should have a clearly defined idea or a solution that could achieve the goal that was set in the brief. This idea/solution will be the basis for the second step in which your goal will be to further upgrade the idea you just created. If at any moment you feel like the ideas are not good enough or that they aren’t done according to the brief, rollback and start again.

“After you split ideas into single elements, see which of them fall within the limitation of the brief.”

As we said in the beginning, every part of the process builds upon the previous one, so during the second step of idea-generating, you will again start with the buildup, but this time you will put the idea created during the drill-down as your basis and form all other ideas around it. The same is true for the drill-down phase that follows. Make sure that new ideas you’re forming are all based on the latest iteration you created – that will enable you to go successfully pass through the creative process and reach the optimal solution.

And that’s that, when you’re finally satisfied with the idea/solution you came up with, you’re ready for the next phase!

Take your ideas through the gauntlet

You finished the creative process, you have the idea or the solution the client wanted, and it’s not just great and creative, but it’s also completely doable within the constraints you got in the brief. Time to send it to the client and call it a day, right? Wrong, there’s still one crucial step your idea has to go through. Something I like to call the dreaded gauntlet!

Look here, you and your creative team have been working on this idea for weeks, maybe even months. By this time, you’re so emotionally invested in this idea that you can’t be considered objective anymore. You want this idea to work so bad, there’s a good chance you’re failing to see some of the weaknesses or small chinks in its armor that might bring the whole thing down. That’s completely normal, and that’s also why we have the gauntlet.

The gauntlet is the final part of the creative process and its goal is to detect all of the weaknesses in your idea/solution and to find alternatives, ways to fix them or completely discard weak elements. Once your idea passes through the gauntlet, it should be practically bulletproof and you should have solid arguments for every single of its elements.

So how does it work? It’s actually quite simple, but before you jump into the gauntlet process, there’s one extremely important thing you need to do — leave your ego at the door. A lot of creatives, myself included, have a hard time accepting that someone’s going to be dissecting their ideas, but that’s exactly what you need to accept if you want your ideas to be bulletproof. Now let’s get on with the process!

As I said, the technical part of the gauntlet is quite simple, all you have to do is gather a completely different set of people than the ones who worked on the project and place them all into a room. It’s extremely important that they haven’t worked on the project and don’t know what your solution is beforehand, because they will have to dissect your ideas and ask questions to see if you have valid arguments to defend your choices. Also, let them know you want them to be ruthless, as sugarcoating won’t help you bulletproof the ideas.

“Before you jump into the gauntlet, leave your ego at the door.”

OK, now that you have all of them in the room, show them the brief and explain what you needed to achieve with your ideas. After they’ve familiarized themselves with the brief, present your idea to them just as you would present it to the client, and then let them bombard you with questions. Write down any question you can’t answer with a valid argument or explanation— you’ll need them after the gauntlet.

When the questioning stops, you’ll have a couple of choices:

1. If it was really bad – you can completely discard your idea and start over

2. If there are some weaknesses – you can start working on them

3. If there are no weaknesses – who are we kidding, this never happens

Let’s assume that your idea survived the gauntlet with just a couple of cracks that need to be fixed before you send it to the client. Get the questions you wrote down, the team that worked on the project and also this new team you brought in for the gauntlet and work together to find the solution to make the idea bulletproof. Your old team is here because they know what the main goal you’re trying to achieve is, and the new team is here to give you a fresh perspective on the project and shake things up creative-wise. When all is done, you can be sure that your idea is bulletproof and that you can safely send it to the client!

TL;DR version

If you just skimmed through the text or you just want the gist of it, let me summarise it all into a single sentence. A single sentence that allowed me to develop a creative process that manages to consistently produces results that are not just creatively a step above everything else I used to do, but that can also be executed and implemented within proposed budgets, time constraints and any other limiting factor. Here it goes!

“Ask WHY when you research and WHY NOT when you generate ideas, but before you sign off on any one of them, make sure you have bulletproof answers to SHOULD I and COULD I.”

Just one more thing before I wrap this up. If you use some of the elements I’m talking about in this blog in your own creative process or you have some other great ways to boost that creative potential, you know I wanna know all about them, so hit me up in the comments section below or on that social media stuff.