Unlocking creativity

How to help ideas and innovation flourish

Unlocking creativity

First of all, let’s clarify a few things about creativity: Anyone can be creative.

Definitions abound – it’s variously described as a skill, a mindset, a practice, a perspective and a belief. It supports all sorts of other skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and learning. According to New York Times bestselling author George Anders, it sits somewhere in the middle of the continuum between “very teachable skills and…practically unalterable traits.” Creativity happens across all fields of endeavour. And the idea that it’s a gift – is nonsense.

Perhaps most encouraging of all however, is the fact that ‘creatives’ are no more creative than anyone else. They’re perhaps just more comfortable with expressing the thoughts that come into their heads.

Training that creative muscle

Creativity lies at the heart of so many things, from the development of world-changing innovation, to helping us understand ourselves and the world around us, better. But where do ideas come from? How can you become more creative?

And how can you get better at cultivating the sort of conditions that will help you tap into your creativity on demand?

Do deep work

This goes much further than the concept of diligently applying yourself to a task or “doing the work.” Getting under the skin of whatever you’re working on, reading and researching around it, and becoming fully immersed creates something Cal Newport, in his 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, referred to as “cognitive depth.” Ideas may come to you during this immersive research stage or, as is so often the case with me, all the various strands you’re taking in at this time will, once ruminated upon, and when the time is right (in the shower or when walking the dog, for example), result in breakthroughs.

Damian Newman’s The Process of Design Squiggle illustrates this process beautifully – conveying the journey from research and discovering insights (the messiness and uncertainty) through to the design solution (focus and clarity).


Co-creation is central to how The Co-Foundry works, so I’m a big fan of this idea of coming together with others in a bid to fuel creativity. It’s a concept that runs through ad agencies’ long-held tradition of pairing creatives from different disciplines, such as copywriters and art directors, so they can spark off and support one another. And it doesn’t even have to be as formal as that. Collaborations, particularly if you tend to work solo, can be much looser and more ad hoc. Joining something such as a networking hub or an initiative like the Content Writing Club can provide much-needed inspiration and support.

Gathering, discussing and comparing perspectives is a powerful way of getting the neurons fizzing and recognising how and when patterns emerge. Even when it doesn’t seem that productive, co-creation feeds the Research & Synthesis mêlé, so it’s never a waste of time. Although brainstorming also falls into the collaboration category it does tend to favour the loudest and most dominant voices, and the pressured environment can make some people freeze.

Seek solitude

Although very few of us have a lodge in the Outer Hebrides that we can escape to, making time for ourselves, quieting the internal and external natter, and disconnecting from technology is an important element of any creative work. Fine artists in particular, argue it’s vital and when solitude is a conscious choice, that distraction-free time when you’re alone with just your thoughts, should feel more nourishing than lonely. I find that building quiet periods into my week enhances other areas of my creative practice.


Being able to navigate and manage the stresses of life – large, small and everything in between – plays more of a role in creativity than you might think. It’s well documented that stress, the very opposite of relaxation, kills nerve cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain where new memories are formed, and new memories are what help us make connections with other things, fuelling the creative process.

Relaxation through practising meditation, mindfulness, yoga or breathing exercises, in fact anything that removes stress, helps us think more clearly and improves our ability to pay attention – something that’s key when we’re trying to find creative solutions.


There’s a reason people say, “sleep on it.” Getting enough sleep and the very act of sleep itself plays a part in creative problem solving. Scientific experiments indicate that in REM (dream phase) sleep, the brain replays memories helping you extract meaning – patterns and lessons – from them. In non-REM (deep or dreamless) sleep, the brain then connects those more recent memories to things you already know, helping you come up with novel ways of tackling problems.

Although I haven’t consciously experienced solving problems through dreams, there are plenty of stories around that attest to this phenomenon including that of Larry Page whose anxiety dream led him to create what became Google and Dr James Watson whose dream of a spiral staircase in 1953 resulted in his developing the idea of a double helix spiral structure for human DNA.


Frontal cortex

Rather than dream states, I find the hinterland between consciousness and finally dosing off for the night and those early moments of the day before I’m fully awake, particularly lucid. It’s when your frontal cortex is free and unrestricted, and not performing its usual task of helping steer you through social norms and moral values. Uncensored and unmediated, you’re far more likely to come up with new and interesting ideas (that you then have to rush to make a note of).


Do you feel you do your best thinking when you’re out walking? If so, you’re not alone. From the days of the Greek philosophers, much has been written on the deep, intuitive connection between walking and thinking, that “curious link between mind and feet” (Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker, “Why Walking Helps Us Think”).

Moving under your own steam frees your mind and encourages creative thinking. Researchers at Stanford University (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014) found that it was the very act of walking, where you’re using multiple parts of your brain simultaneously, and not so much the environment you move through, that made the difference. Their research found that creative output increased by some 60% when people walked, either outside or on a treadmill – and the positive effects of a walk continued for a short while once the person had sat down again.

I knew there was a reason for all those walking meetings…

Be curious

Texas-based bestselling author of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age, Austin Kleon has a great take on curiosity, “Be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else – that’s how you’ll get ahead.” His weekly, Friday newsletter embodies this spirit of nourishing your mind, eyes, ears and soul.

As children we all possess an innate sense of curiosity – asking “why?” and seeking out knowledge and new experiences. Over time we may gradually lose this sense of wonder but we should make an effort to question things and ensure we’re always being open to learning because this is how advances, both big and small, happen.

Proceed with caution

It’s well known that drugs and alcohol loosen inhibitions, and have been cited as contributing to many a great idea. For me, caffeine is an everyday necessity – that morning cup is the ritual with which I start my working day. At the other end of the scale, in Silicon Valley, microdosing culture is gaining traction. The US Food and Drug Administration granted two psychedelics, psilocybin (the hallucinogenic substance in magic mushrooms) and MDMA, “breakthrough” designations, meaning they can be clinically researched after showing potential in the treatment of mental health conditions. Although there are those who strongly advocate for microdosing as a way of making you smarter and amplifying creativity, results of studies are mixed and it’s still too soon to draw conclusions on whether it’s a questionable fad, or a low risk short cut to coming up with new ideas.

Embrace constraints

The very act of forcing yourself to free up so you can get creative may sound counterintuitive. There’s a school of thought that believes you’ll be more creative (and so more effective) if you just turn away from planning and focus less on productivity and efficiency, and let things happen organically.

But structure, a sense of order and in fact, constraints (we all know how galvanising a deadline can be!), have been found to boost creativity. Maybe the relationship between doing your best, most innovative and creative work while delivering on time and within budget is more nuanced and less easy to define.

Perhaps the biggest difference comes from the fact that design, of any kind, unlike fine art, has to meet the needs of its audience. Japanese designer, Hideki Nakajima captures this idea perfectly,

If I was an artist, I could produce something for myself and that would be okay – but as a designer, I need to think about the community around a project.

Yield to the seasons

Katherine May, author of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, emphasises the importance of recognising the seasonal aspect of the various strands of your life: “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”

This is an area I find fascinating – if anything, because it explains why you should unhook yourself from that hustle culture idea of constantly being at the top of your game. Sometimes simply lying fallow or being dormant and waiting it out, is the most powerful way to prepare for replenishing that creative well.

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