9 Ideas For A More Creative And Effective Brainstorming Process

Scribbles - Doodle - Abstract - Chicken ScratchesDo you doodle? Do you have to draw abstracts when you are talking on the phone on anything that’s handy? Does your mind work better when the idea takes form on that discarded napkin? Then take a moment with me to see how you can’t possibly live without thumb nailing.

Thumb nailing goes by many different names too. I prefer doodling, but scribbles, chicken scratches, roughs, epiphanies, or just plain thoughts come to mind. For better or worse, these instantaneous thoughts that fall onto the nearest scrap of paper can be the start of something great.

Thumb nailing is simply rough hand drawn sketches we draw out for our own amusement or the very first glimmer of a project idea. Most of us are truly embarrassed to show these to our friends much less a client, but they are the foundation to all well thought out projects. As some of you know, I wake up at all hours or just don’t go to bed when I am in the groove of a project, as I am sure a lot of you do too.

By writing these ideas down, I capture the essence of the thought I want to hone later.

I don’t usually spend a lot of time working on scheduled thumbnails. These are project ideas I need for a paying client. It has gotten to the point I can whip out four or five in about the same amount of minutes. The true misnomer is that these take time, and they don’t! However, you have to practice.

I write everything down, mainly so I don’t forget something, but I really do write lots of random ideas down for later use. You never know when something will come in handy. But how do you get started creating thumbnails? Picking up a pencil is a good start.

  • Find a comfortable work space. Find a place you can focus on the ideas swirling around in your head without distractions. For some this can be a busy restaurant and for others sitting under the shade tree in the back yard. It doesn’t matter as long as it is good for you.
  • Be prepared. Have something to write on and with. My chicken scratches tend to have lots of eraser marks so I use a couple of nicely sharpened pencils and colored pencils. I also carry and use an artist’s eraser for sketching. They are very inexpensive, and leave no black marks if you happen to get an older pencil that has an eraser that got hard.
  • Focus. Sometimes I am blessed with ideas just falling out with no provocation, but not usually. Think about what you want to accomplish for this client. Go over notes from any meetings or phone calls you might have. Many times this will spark an idea you may have forgotten about.
  • Don’t discard any idea as not good enough. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I hated an idea but included it and it was the one that got picked by the client. It is not up to you and sometimes it hits the nail on the head.
  • You don’t need to create a masterpiece. That comes later. Don’t be embarrassed by stick people and squiggle marks for location. I pre-empt my thumbnails by telling my clients I am not an artist, I am a designer. Most business people know and understand the language of doodles and fully expect you to show them a concept first.
  • Don’t touch the computer. It is a really easy fallback and can end up costing you a pile of money. By focusing the concept on paper, you will be able to define the points the client wants to draw out. It is so easy to simply go to the computer and start creating and wake up six hours later with an idea the client will hate. You don’t get paid for those hours. Wait until you know what you are creating, then start. It is a better use of time management skills.
  • Create ten to fifteen thumbnails. Remember, this is only about ten to fifteen minutes of time used. From these, choose the six strongest ideas. Which ones send a clear message? Are colors a factor? Does the message change tone if you change background/foreground colors? Does the eye follow where you want it to go? Placement of photos and slogans as well as a logo is important too. All of these will change the thumbnail.
  • Don’t be afraid to create. I have been known to be sitting in a meeting with a client and have a great idea as they are talking. By quickly sketching this out, I can show them the concept to see if I am on target.
  • Be adaptable. Sometimes, you will have a client that likes one part of this thumbnail and wants to include something from another. That is perfectly fine. Quickly sketch it out and show it to them.

By working this way, you don’t lost any time, your productivity increases, and quite possibly, you make more money. How has thumb nailing worked for you? Are you a doodle maniac or petrified to show off your talents? Please share your ideas with the rest of us! :)


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  1. says

    Hi Lois, thanks for the great brainstorming ideas! Has anyone tried using a big newsprint presentation easel and just visualize all ideas that spew out during a brain storming session. I enjoyed the interactivity this gave as ideas were viewable to all participants and a large pad allowed you to do tons of little thumbs on one page, or if you happen to hit on a real
    hummdinger of an idea, you could expand on it in a BIG way! Cheers :o)

  2. says

    I always keep paper and a pen on my bedside table. I don’t know why, but 99% of the time, once my head hits the pillow, several ideas begin to form. And, of course, I can’t sleep until I write them all down. So instead of getting up and making my way back to the computer, I jot them all down on paper. I tell ya, I think I have a book forming on my bedside table as I write this. The problem is the book really has no plot and no one but me would understand it. ;)

  3. Lois K says

    Dear Misti,
    Leave the tablet and pen there, believe me the plot thickens over time. I get my best ideas at 2 or 3 in the morning when everyone is asleep. I also carry a small tablet and several pencils in my purse. You never know where a good idea will hit. Thanks!

  4. Lois K says

    Hey Carol,
    I haveln’t tried the big presentation easel but it sounds like it could be alot of fun! I have taken classes that used that method and thoroughly enjoyed them. How practical is it though to carry into an appointment? Thanks for the great idea!!!

  5. says

    I’m the same Misti – usually around 11pm – 12pm my creative ideas flow at their best. So a handy sketchbook is always on my bedside table! Good article!

  6. says

    I always have my beatup lab notebook from Bell Labs with me whenever I travel or go to karate etc. – ideas will always spark and always flow…being able to capture them before they fade in my memory is critical. It’s amazing how the mind works when you give yourself permission to flow freely.

    Data points, Barbara

  7. says

    I tend to use a pen and pad, but not enough I don’t think. I spend most of my time trying to remember ideas that I thought up when I was out, or away from the desk that I’d forgotten. Might be time for me to get a smaller notepad?

  8. says

    I just can’t live without my Moleskine notebook (and the Behance ‘action runner‘) :)

    Don’t discard any idea as not good enough

    yep! and that goes for blog posts, design mock-ups, articles, etc… even though a client doesn’t like some of your sketches or design mock-ups doesn’t mean another client won’t fall in love with one. (provided you have the rights to re-use some)

  9. Lois K says

    Wow, what GREAT ideas!!!!
    @ Jon, you’re right, ideas never go out of style. Keeping a file of ideas to fall back on is wonderful.
    @Liam, If you have Dollar stores, go to the notebooks and stuff. Little notesbooks can be picked up very cheap!!! I buy them by the stacks.
    @Denise, I have serious issues with Sometimers. Sometimes I remember and sometimes I don’t. Therefore I write it down.

    Thanks for writing!!!!

  10. says

    I’m definitely a doodler, which is kind of ironic because I work in a field that’s very mathematical and there’s not much of a difference between one curve and another.

    I’m blessed (or cursed?) with a two-hour-each-way commute by train, though, so that gives me plenty of time to hash out ideas for my blog so that when I get home, all I have to do is go on autopilot and bang it out.

  11. says

    I carry a small notebook around with me where ever I go and I write down my post ideas for my financial blog in that book. I find that generally the best ideas come when you are on the road or doing something else. So you need to have something to jot it down in before you forget.
    Then when I have time I nut it out some more

  12. says

    Great post I have to say, I do the exact same thing as you here, even simple things like speaking on the telephone I can’t help but doodle little things. I have wasted so much paper with doodles that I do when I am bored, but I like to draw out the layout and where and what I want included onto a website on paper before I start anything.

  13. says

    I’m surprised that you guys didn’t mention mind mapping as an instrument for brainstorming and managing creative processes. They’re a pretty simple type of diagram and I find that they’re a pretty useful aid when it comes time to flesh out ideas for articles and such.

    I even wrote an article about that at one point:

    They’re pretty easy and they actually add some more structure and regularity to the process of brainstorming.


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