· Reading Time: 4 minutes

Many of my projects have an obvious direction, either because of the direction of a patron or because of the need for accuracy. But for most projects – both scientific and creative – there’s a need to go beyond the obvious. This means we have to break free of common ideas and think outside the box.

Some of my favorite art pushes beyond the obvious in innovative ways.

But it can be difficult to find those less obvious paths for your projects. There are certainly techniques to help, a few of which we’ll talk about today.


Get out the obvious

Before you can think outside the box, you often need to determine what’s inside it. The most important thing to do when I approach a project is to get the obvious answers out first. Write down or sketch your ideas. Try literal interpretations of your topic. Drawing a cell? Use a circle. Drawing a workflow? Squares and arrows are an obvious choice.

Generally, the first 2 or 3 ideas are the same things anyone might think of when approaching the project. I often find it difficult to identify what’s obvious, and it’s hard for me to move past these initial ideas until I get them down on paper.

This step is essential because these obvious ideas can block better, more original ideas.


Go beyond brainstorming

In my past collaborative work with colleagues and clients, I’ve noticed that people tend to rush the brainstorming step. They think that getting a board or page full of ideas is enough to move forward.

As I said above, my first chunk of ideas are so obvious, they border on boring. Although brainstorming is important, it’s only the first step! After an initial brainstorm, I try to really get my mind working. This is often when I get lost in thought and others in the room start to worry about my sanity, but hear me out!

My process is this. I assume that my early ideas are okay but not perfect and then push myself to try to come up with something different. For writing projects, sometimes that means thinking of the story from a different angle. For art, it can mean changing the focus of a piece or altering the highlight color.

This is not easy! It’s a challenge, but one I find incredibly rewarding.

Move elements around. Change the size or emphasis of things. Make a mess! Sometimes this means taking it too far, and that’s okay. It means you’re starting to get outside of your usual comfort zone. Take a step back, and keep going.


Mix early ideas

You’ve done a lot of work by this point, and maybe you’re starting to get frustrated by your project. All the work you’ve done may seem useless, but this is the point where all your hard work allows you to really think outside the box! This is the point where things really get interesting. Look back at your research and your brainstorming and your brain racking. And let’s have some fun.

Try answering the following about all your possibilities. Go on. I’ll wait.

  • What do you like about each idea?
  • What do you hate about each idea?
  • Choose your top 3 favorites.
  • Do your favorites have things in common?
  • What things did you consistently like about those that didn’t make it into your top 3?
  • What ideas were really far out or absurd, but interesting, funny, or just stick with you?

Now I want you to look back at your original prompt, the original project you are working on. It’s important at this point to remind yourself of any requirements or important points that may have slipped through the cracks while you were working.

Then I want you to start brainstorming again. Maybe you’re thinking, “Not again!” But this time it’s different. This time you should brainstorm how to mix your ideas.

Many great revelations of art and science came from the integration of more than one field or technique. Often, innovation doesn’t appear from thin air, but from the realization that a specific combination of already existing ideas yields really interesting things.

Make magic

Bring creative is often brushed off as simple or easy, but for me, creativity is about challenging my own ideas of how things work. I love pushing myself to ask interesting and absurd questions, thinking up ridiculous creations, and making myself laugh.

I often take ideas too far. I’ve learned from these experiences and each time, pulling myself up and out of the box becomes easier and more exciting.

I hope these tips help you to innovate on your next project. I’d love to hear more about it. Tell me more in the comments or catch me on social media. I can’t wait to see what you’re creating.