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 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