Randomization Can Be Your Friend

How many times have you encountered a truly astonishing new idea, story or creation and thought, “Wow, I would never have imagined putting those two things together”? The random can be understood as a well of possibility—and systematic randomization is a powerful way to generate new, unexpected, deeply creative ideas from this well.

You may have heard about techniques such as free thinking, free writing, free association—all strategies that attempt to unhook the mind from what it already knows, take it out of its usual ruts and invite it to run loosely through concepts that might not ordinarily find themselves in one another’s company. Being deliberately and systematically random is a way to access and generate new ideas and think far outside of the box. But how exactly do you do this?

Creativity has a lot to do with tapping the resources that are already available around you—be it objects, places, or people, among others—and discovering gems that may be hidden in them. To do so, you’ll need to compel yourself to consider the common in unusual ways and combine ideas in a random fashion to give you the most chances of uncovering interesting connections. This is why another way you can generate ideas quickly is by forcing yourself to sample varying things and ideas, as well as experiment with connections randomly. There are a number of techniques you can use.

Play shiritori. This technique utilizes the Japanese game of shiritori to get your ideas flowing. Shiritori is a game where you start with a word, then think of another word that begins with the last letter of that first word—and on and on it goes. Say you’re trying to conceptualize the theme of your next office party. If you start with the word “retro,” next come up with another word that starts with an “O,” such as “opera.” To boost your brainstorming, simultaneously come up with ideas while you think up the next word. For instance, consider how “opera” may be applied to an office party. Would you consider having a party inspired by the feel of a 17th-century opera house, complete with a musical ensemble playing classical music and partygoers in theater play costumes?

Note the thoughts associated with that second word, then keep going with the shiritori technique by next coming up with another word that starts with the letter “A” (the last letter of the word “opera”). Again, think up how that word may apply as a party theme. Don’t be critical of each idea as it occurs; just let the words flow one after another and allow them to inspire you. Keep this up until you have generated a good number of ideas, then later evaluate each idea to figure out the best one.

Try random input. Spark a fresh flow of ideas in your mind by opening a book to a random page, selecting a random word from a dictionary, or reading a random article on Wikipedia. If, for example, you opened the dictionary and your finger landed on the word “exhibit,” think of how that word may apply as a party theme. How about having a party featuring an art exhibit of works relevant to your company or your employees’ preferences? That’s just one application of a random word, and you may consider many more applications of the same word, or select another random word as a starting point for another slew of ideas.

Use the alphabet. Think of ideas beginning with each letter of the alphabet, and by the end of this exercise, you’d have twenty-six new ideas. In trying to come up with your party theme, for instance, you may run down the alphabet and churn out ideas for each letter: Aztec, Bohemian, countries, dinosaurs, elements, fantasy, Greek, heroes, India, jewels… and the list goes on.

Combine random objects. Pick out two random objects and force a connection between them. Say you see a colleague’s pearl earrings and take “pearl” as the first object. Then you look out the window and see a poster of a punk rock concert. How might you connect these two to create an interesting party idea? Maybe you can consider a “concert under the sea” theme. How about when you try to connect “photo album” and “cars”? Forcing a relationship between them, you may think of the photo album as representing memories throughout the years and cars as a method of traveling, leading you to a “journey through memories” party theme.

As you can see, this technique can help you directly by facilitating the flow of creative ideas applicable to your current task. Moreover, it can help you indirectly by training your mind to make random connections and thus exercise your creative brain muscles and boost your creativity in general. You’ll practice spotting similarities and differences and constructing a logical story involving two unrelated elements. Sounds creative to me.

Use Harvey cards. Harvey cards are a set of cards you can use to generate ideas. They contain cues, instructions, or questions you can ask yourself to stimulate creative thinking, such as “Animate – How can you imbue your subject with human qualities?” and “Symbolize – Convert your subject into a symbol.” Write or print them out with one cue per card, shuffle them, and randomly pick one card from the deck. Brainstorm how you can apply the principle of that card to your creative task. Repeat this process over with the other cards and avoid skipping cards even if you find them hard.

Aside from these two, other cues you may have in your Harvey cards include the following:

Contradict (reverse the original function of your subject)
Superimpose (overlap dissimilar images or ideas with one another)
Transfer (relocate your subject to a new situation or environment)
Add (expand or supplement your subject)
Substitute (replace an image or idea with another)
Distort (twist the shape or meaning of your subject)
Transform (put your subject in a state of change, akin to a caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly transformation)
Sympathize (put yourself in your subject’s shoes)
Analogize (identify similarities between dissimilar things)
Subtract (remove an element or break a rule)
Isolate (disassemble and use only parts of something)
Disguise (hide or camouflage your subject)
Change size (enlarge or reduce your subject or alter proportions)
Repeat (duplicate a shape, color, or idea)
Mythologize (build a myth involving your subject)
Fantasize (think of your subject in surreal, outrageous, or bizarre ways)
Combine (merge or connect things)
Parody (ridicule or make fun of your subject)

This technique forces you to consider the subject of your creative task in a myriad of different ways, thus stretching your mind to think of possibilities you may never have considered before. Say you’re thinking of ways to make a bookshelf more interesting. Using the cue card “Animate,” imbue the bookshelf with human qualities, such as having arms and hands to “hold” the books. Or if you pick out the card “Symbolize,” consider symbolisms related to the bookshelf, such as “doors to learning” or “vessels of knowledge.” Use these symbolisms to reimagine the bookshelf, possibly reconstructing it to incorporate a doorway or evoke the look of a barrel.

Finally, give clustering a try. As you well know, people can get stuck in cognitive ruts, failing to explore an idea fully or looking at possible connections to other ideas they haven’t taken the time to appreciate. Clustering is like loosening, dissecting and unravelling old ideas to make way for new ones. Much like Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud would have asked you to lie back and randomly say whatever comes into your mind in therapy, the clustering technique is all about associations—and the juiciest ones are often hidden or unconscious.

The idea is to let go of linear thinking, and surprise yourself. Draw links. Scramble or invert your preconceived ideas or assumptions. Expand your thinking to include feeling and non-verbal information like sounds, images, intuitions, smells, tastes, or weird mixes of all of these.

The best way to understand the process is through concrete example. Perhaps I am “brainstorming” from scratch an idea for an ad campaign for a beauty product. I start quite randomly with the word “water.” I relax and let my mind wander to whatever it wants to, and notice I think of other words: cool, blue, quiet, pure. My mind is drawn to pure. I let it make its own leaps and jumps, not stopping to question whether my associations make sense. I might see the image of an angel, smell a bar of soap, imagine the face of Grace Kelly, or hear the sound of a crisp, clear-sounding bell. I see a color palette of blue and white.

Perhaps I keep track of these associations and connections on paper, and they may well look like a sprawling mind map, with the central idea branching off into other related ideas. Perhaps I decide to divide the angelic branch and explore this idea further, splitting it off into two ideas—beautiful, and childlike. Of course, in the example, these particular associations are very personal and unique to the person having them, and it’s important not to censor them as they emerge.

I keep going, pressing further out. I don’t question that the first thought that pops into my mind when I dwell on “childlike” is “round.” I draw smooth circles and ovals on my mind map to cement this association. Somehow, my unconscious mind is making connections to something womblike, spherical, full, even amoeba-like. Quite a far-cry from my original “water” idea!

You’ll notice that each node or jump is an indiscriminate mix of mood, thought, image or sensation. There are no rules, except perhaps to note down what pops into your head quickly before you have time to second-guess yourself. The strength of this process is the almost infinite potential paths it opens up to explore. Any one of these ideas could split and sprawl out into an entirely new direction. With just a little time, a single idea or thought can be exploded and fractionated into millions of tiny offshoots.

I could use this example to generate the beginnings of a print ad for a new face wash—can you picture an amorphous, silvery-blue image of a beautiful round, angelic face hovering over a clear pool of water? This image itself could serve as a springboard for a copywriting team to devise just the right words to conjure al the moods and images uncovered in the clustering exercise. But there are other ways to use this freeform idea-generating technique. It’s also great for shaking loose writer’s block, for generating novel solutions whenever you feel stuck with a problem, or even for engaging more deeply with material you’re trying to understand and learn. Finally, clustering is a great way to “brain dump” and process what’s in your heart and mind, showing that creativity, self-knowledge and our innermost experiences are all connected.

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  • Rapid Idea Generation: Practical Everyday Creativity for Idea Generation, New Perspectives, and Innovative Thinking By Peter Hollins
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  • Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://www.PeteHollins.com to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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