14 Creative Techniques for Graphic Designers

I am always looking for new creative techniques to help come up with ideas for graphic design and I have read several books on creativity. The only downside to some of these books is that they don’t always easily lend themselves to graphic design and are far better for coming up with product or business ideas. Worst still I have read one creativity book that in my opinion was complete B.S. which included the idea that if you raise your eyebrows it helps put you in a positive frame of mind and increases your flow of ideas (hands up who’s now raising their eyebrows ;) – got any cool ideas yet?). I decided to put together my own list, to share ideas of creative techniques that I have either used, or that I think will work to help stimulate graphic design ideas. It’s as much a check list for myself as well as for anyone else who is reading this post. So here goes and please stop me if I start blabbing on about how standing on your head or Worse still drilling a hole in your head can make you more creative (yes, supposedly that works, but I prefer less painful methods).

By the side of these ideas I have put either layout or concept in brackets, to represent which element of design I think these techniques could help with.

1. Brainstorm with Mindmaps (concept)

This is the classic way of brainstorming that no doubt you will of heard of. You start with a word then create a spider like diagram with associated words, these words can be as loosely or closely associated as you want to the original word. You can create mind maps with paper and pencil or use mind mapping software – a free one is freemind (I haven’t tried it). There are several ipad and iphone apps for mindmaping too.

An interesting post on mind-mapping can be found here

2. Google Wonder Wheel (concept)

Google has its own mindmap search which can help springboard ideas by seeing what google believes to be related to your topic.

3. Brainstorm with Doodles (concept)

Instead of sticking to the classic text brainstorm mind maps the addition of doodled images can really help generate ideas. You start to see visual similarities and associations with the look of things as well as their written meanings.

4. Visual Metaphor (concept)

Moving on from the pictorial mindmap you may also start to think of visual metaphors. Is the concept that you are trying to get over that the product is as light as a balloon, as strong as an elephant etc etc. See my post inspiration for design and advertising for examples

5. Play-on-words (concept)

A website that I find really useful especially for advert concepts is rhymezone.com. You simply type in a word and decide the type of words you want to get back you can choose from many things including rhymes, synonyms and related words, all things which can help springboard new ideas. A great little feature I like to is the “match these letters” feature. I used this a while ago when I was creating brochure concepts to promote 16 cities in the UK. I thought 16 looked very much like ib and so put in to “match these letters”. From this I got the word vibrant which I used for one of the headings in this form V16rant Cities.

play on words

6. Moodboards (concept + layout)

Moodboards are a great way to get your creative thoughts flowing. You can create moodboards either with a large sheet of paper that you stick bits of graphics on that relate to your theme or have the “feel” you are looking for. Alternatively you can do this electronically, I sometimes use iphoto or you could use something like Evernote – see Creating a Moodboard with Evernote or if you have an ipad an app named moodboard.

You can see an example of some of my moodboards (below) from my post A design project from concept to completion.


Also check out Web Designer Depot’s post Why Moodboards Matter

7. Random Words (concept)

Using Random Words to boost creativity is a creative technique I heard about in one of Edward de Bono’s books.In essence you take a random word and introduce it to whatever subject you are brainstorming about. This technique would come in most useful for a graphic designer for projects such as advertising or when more out of the box thinking is required. The idea of the random word is to stimulate ideas you may never have thought about before. Say for example you were creating an advert for some new form of chocolate you might pick a random word ie. car, you then need to think how the car could apply to chocolate – a chocolate car, a chocolate that doesn’t melt so keeps your car clean, a chocolate bar on wheels, a chocolate bar which comes with a mini car journey game on the inside of the wrapper etc, etc.

8. Rephrase the question (concept)

Rephrasing a question is a creative technique I heard of recently whereby you rewrite the question you are asking of your self as a designer. So instead of – How can I create an advert for a new chocolate bar ,you instead rephrase this -

  • How can I make this chocolate appeal to men/women/children?
  • What makes this chocolate different?
  • How can I increase the sales of this new chocolate?
  • Why would someone want to buy this chocolate?

The ideas is that you take away the rigidity and limitations (ie create an advert) and open your mind to other possible solutions you may not have explored. Instead of an advert you might and up thinking of a teaser campaign or some other sort of promotion which would be more effective. Of course this is not so great if your client insists on an advert but then you probably just have to re-work some of your ideas a bit.

9. Forget Colour (layout, possibly concept)

If I am working on something like a logo quite often I will work only in black and white, this frees me up to think about shapes and how things work together without worrying about colours. This can work for page layouts too. Start by mapping out your basic layout form (after preliminary sketches) n black and white on computer before adding in colour later.

10. Mirror a Shape (layout)

If you are producing a layout based design for a company look to see if there is an element of the shape of the logo that you can echo. If for example the logo has an angular icon can you use that same angle to cut up your page in someway or to make an usual picture box shape to house your images.

11. Do an Image Search on Google (concept and layout)

Decide on several keywords which relate to your topic then search for them using google images this should throw up ideas you may not have thought of. Collate useful images from google using iphoto or similar to use as reference.

You can see how I have used google images in my post My Graphic Design Process Shown in Video

12. Look at What Else Your Target Market Might Buy (concept and layout)

Think of your target market, think about what products they like and might buy, look at the designs of those products. You can find out what type of people are mostly looking at certain websites by using http://www.quantcast.com

13. Restrict your Design (layout)

  • How could you only use typography to get the message across
  • How could you use mainly photography to get the message across
  • How could you use mainly diagrams or symbols to get the message accross

Also another idea is to try concentrating just on an element of your design.  Try for example restricting yourself to just creating great looking headings (sketching first). This immediately takes the pressure off yourself. Once you have a strong heading see how you can apply elements of that to the rest of your page – is it smooth, rough, spikey, rounded, modern etc.

14. Keep Scrapbooks and Sketchbooks

Being creative is always difficult when the pressure is on, so keep a sketchbook and scrapbook to hand. Use the scrapbook to collect interesting design material together. Use a sketchbook to keep your design ideas and thoughts in one place.

See my post A Personal Record of Design – The Designer’s Scrapbook


Other ways to help Creativity

Don’t forget how much it can help to talk through a project with a friend to help springboard ideas.  If you are really stuck, move onto something else allowing your mind to think about the creative project in the background. It is amazing how the best ideas often happen when you don’t realise you are thinking about your design project – in the car, in bed, walking the dog etc.

Further Recommended Reading – Books

Any books by Edward De Bono
Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius for Business and Beyond
The Business Playground
Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck

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  1. Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a great list of creative ideas and as a Mind Mapping enthusiast, it is great to see it appears at the top of the list. I don’t know whether you have considered the use of Mind Mapping software to help generate (and then capture your ideas) or whether as an artist you prefer the more hands on approach but a good software will have a speed mapping mode that will allow you to do this really quickly.

    I will be biased and suggest iMindMap which is the Buzan Mind Mapping software and my favourite but in reality other good ones like Mind Manager and Novamind also do the same.

    Now that I have got the mind map bit out of the way there is one key thing I think is missing from your list. After your comment on raising the eyebrows I am not quite sure how this will be received LOL, but here goes…

    Our subconscious mind is a powerful beast and is the source of all your great ideas. What is missing from your list of ideas is one of incubation….letting the mind mull over the ideation (I think that is a proper word) processes you have tried. So a day of using one or more of your list and then a good night’s sleep will give your subconscious time to incubate and then you will find some really great ideas springing to mind as you slumber in the morning or perhaps whilst having a shower or taking the dog out for a walk. This is how Edison used to “sit for ideas”.

    Of course if you don’t have a dog then this suggestion falls flat on its face :-)

    I hope you get the idea (if you forgive the purely accidental pun)



  2. Posted September 7, 2010 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michael

    I totally agree about incubation of an idea – I did put near the end of the post how stepping away from the idea and doing something else can help, but perhaps I should have made this more prominent. The shower is a great place for ideas and I frequently scribble ideas in the steam on the shower screen (how sad is that!).

    Remember a dog is for life not just for design ;)

    Thanks for your input Michael.

  3. Posted September 7, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s nice to see that someone else actually uses mood boards, I thought I was part of a dying breed! They really help me find common threads in design and the look and feel. I also find that clients can generally focus on what might be a complete departure from their identity – if they see it from a target audience perspective.

    Nice post – thanks for sharing.

  4. Posted September 7, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharping ideas of creative techniques. What should we keep in mind to design anything…. The Concept or The Content…????

    Waiting for your reply…. :)

  5. Posted September 7, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Great post, it’s good to be reminded of all these things. Thanks for sharing the google wonder wheel, it should come in handy.

  6. Posted September 8, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Hi Simon

    Thanks for your comment. For me there are two areas in design – the concept (the big idea) and the layout (the style and layout of execution). I think some projects such as advertising, logo design etc use both, but then you also get projects such as magazine page layout and some brochures where it is more about asthetics – layout and design than concept. For instance if I was working on an advert I initially would scribble out conceptial ideas – the theme, perhaps a copyline, metaphor etc, etc. Once I was happy with the idea I would then move on to try and think the best way to present (layout) the advert. Perhaps you work differently?

  7. Posted September 8, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tara,

    I’ve recently started out in graphic design and some of these tips are a massive help for when I’m stuck on ideas. Speaking from personal experience I found keeping a sketchbook/scrapbook a great help for when I’m stuck for inspiration.

  8. Posted September 9, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    When I’m trying to brainstorm for ideas, the number one easy tool for me is Google Images. Whether it’s logos, icons, concepts, it really helps to see in a flash what other people have done. I would never steal anything outright from images, but sometimes an image can lead you to your own take on the idea.

  9. Posted September 15, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I positively support brainstorming using doodles. they are really effective and a lot of times when you piece the doodles they become a great idea

  10. Posted September 17, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I too really like the technique of using doodles whilst brainstorming for a project. I find that a simple rough sketch is often enough to show if a concept will work well visually or not, before spending lots of time at the computer creating it so it is a great time saver too. Some really great techniques and an excellent post. Thanks very much for sharing Tara.

  11. Posted September 22, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Great Post ! these creative techniques are awesome!

  12. Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    There are some really nice techniques mentioned here. I personally use brainstorming but I will definitely be bookmarking this page and giving some of the other techniques a try. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Posted September 26, 2010 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Love these! Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve image searched on Google on a number of occasions for ideas and inspiration, works well!

  14. Posted October 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous blog.

    My personal favourite, and most heavily used by me is Mood Boards :) I open Adobe Ilustrator and paste images onto it to make my mood board.

    I sometimes use Mindmaps as well.

  15. Posted October 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Amanda
    I love moodboards too. I have never tried using illustrator for it before though.


  16. Posted October 18, 2010 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Tara,
    thanks for all of your great examples and mentioning our article

    The Graphic Design School Blog

    We teach idea generation techniques to our design students. You will notice that any well known designer sketches techniques. We link to some of these in our article so I wont mention here again. We love a solid dependable design process. Thanks for sharing your process, it’s great to get different perspectives.
    I have linked to your article in our student forum.
    Kind Regards

  17. Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    No problem Simone and thanks for linking back

  18. Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Really good post – thank you Tara.

    An alternative form of scrapbook is a folder with pictures on your computer.

    You can then just run a slide show and see what you react to best to give you a hint what direction you want to go in.

    If you use this technique, then it’s good to look at some of your oldest images from time to time (as they are the things you are most likely to have forgotten about).

  19. Posted October 23, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Oblique Strategies © 1975, 1978, and 1979 Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt. Take a moment to familiarise yourselves with these. Quite simply the most insightful series of random comment designed to unlock ideas and refresh your perspectives. Designed for making music they are universally applicable to graphic design. I have used them many times over the years.

    Some samples from my memory:
    A line has two sides.
    Go back two steps, what were your choices then?
    Humanise something free of error.
    Honor thy error as a hidden intention

    There are around 120 of these gems all there to incite creativity from a genuine master of process.

  20. Posted December 14, 2010 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    A really great post. I personally use this methods whenever i’m stuck for a concept or idea. I also think just talking with other people about a project/idea can help you to think of the project from a new perspective.

  21. Posted March 18, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Love these kinds of posts – thanks so much. Nothing worse than having a total creativity blog. These tips would work for a lot of creative services, definitely some of my favourites in there. If I haven’t done anything creative for a while I find it hard to even fathom it all, but stuff like this always helps

    Cheers Tara!

  22. Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Interesting post…..

    We find in many cases that time is our greatest restriction…..working alone must be a nightmare…..in many cases we do not have time to create mood boards or mind maps….our team sits around and discusses the problem and it is the age old interplay of different mind sets and ways of thinking that always leads to a resolution…………now and then we do employ a piece of paper…and when in real trouble…always get out of the office and go for a walk

  23. Posted September 8, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    “working alone must be a nightmare”

    Working alone CAN be a nightmare at times, as you describe, true. I definitely miss the collaboration and camaraderie that comes from working with and around like minded people. On the other hand though, compared to working with and around negative, poisonous people (as was the case for me before) is far worse!

    Some of the same tactics you mention work for the solo folk too, namely a piece of paper, mind maps, and of course… walks! :)

  24. Posted October 9, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Mind mapping is becoming more and more important as websites become more complex with more functionality and usability. Brainstorming sessions are the logical answer to explore those ideas on the fringe of a concept that can add value to your overall website project

  25. Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey Tara , You done a great job , Really useful Techniques for Graphic Designers

  26. Posted October 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Brainstorming is definitely the technique I use more often than not. I personally try to avoid keeping scrapbooks of work as I personally end up trying to pull everything I like from various designs and to be honest end up overdoing what I set out to do.

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