8 Techniques to Push Your Creative Boundaries


Creativity spawns meaningful satisfaction and value in life and work. Sadly, people habitually scurry to “what’s worked in the past” for the quickest path to limitations and boredom. Fear of failure is often the toothy gremlin that encourages us to recycle old ideas that have worked rather than risk new concepts. But repeatedly pushing your creative boundaries is like any other activity that we do again and again — over time, it becomes less scary and more rewarding.

The late American writer Kurt Vonnegut said about creativity: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” So we bring you a series of techniques to help jump off the cliff and soar.

Try Role-Playing

One way to approach a project more creatively is to take yourself out of it. We spend so much time self-focused that we sometimes forget the obvious: not everyone thinks like us. International Business Advisor Mark Wardell stated: “Role-playing is a highly effective way to develop new solutions to current problems by putting yourself in the shoes of your customer.” Imagine you are your clients working at their respective companies. What are their challenges? How do they want to be regarded by people who know nothing about them?

Try an exercise that fiction writers use: write down what you know about your client, then flesh out a quick character sketch. A character sketch describes what your character looks like, what they do, how they feel and what they want. It helps the writer understand the character better so when they sit down to write their novel, the character feels more like an authentic being rather than two-dimensional. Role-playing can help you to better understand and empathize with your client’s needs and can shift your thinking about what your creative should look like.

Take a Creativity Test

In 1967, American psychologist J.P. Guilford created the creativity test Guilford’s Alterative Uses Task. This test can help you break out of old ways of thinking by encouraging you to consider new uses for common household items.

Try these examples as a warm-up: Name as many uses as you can for a paper clip and then jot them down. Then try the exercise again with a brick as your object.

Turn an Accepted Idea Inside Out

Giovanni Corazza, Founder of the Marconi Institute of Creativity, gave a talk at Tedx Roma about what it means to ‘think outside the box’. Corazza explained that thinking outside the box means looking at convergent ideas (ideas that everyone knows) and creating divergent ones. In order to do this, you need to be open-minded and accept there’s no ‘right’ answer.

Corazzo said, “If we want to go out of the box, we need to add something more, a little spice, something which goes beyond the convergent information. We need a little of that divergent information to cross the borders within our minds from what we know to what we haven’t yet thought about.”

Watch the video to see Corazzo deliver an example of divergent thinking using Tedx conferences as his model.

Study Some Surreal Art or Poetry

Need help summoning divergent thinking? It can help to look at something nonsensical. Blogger Gregory Ciotti recommends, “embracing the absurd.” “Research suggests that reading/experiencing something absurd or surreal can help boost pattern recognition and creative thinking,” wrote Ciotti.

Reading poems by Gary Snyder or looking at art by René Magritte can help you upend your conventional way of looking at the world and inspire you to try something dangerous.

Jot Down Ideas While Waiting in Line

According to some recent studies, the state of being bored is actually the ideal time to brainstorm new ideas. At the University of Central Lancashire, two such studies were conducted. In the first, 80 participants were tasked with engaging in a boring writing activity (while a control group was not) followed by a creative challenge. In the second study, 90 participants undertook a boring writing activity, a boring reading activity or no activity at all (the control group) and then completed a creative task.

The results suggested that the groups who engaged in the boring activities first came up with more creative ideas than the control group, and that the participants who were tasked with the dull reading assignment displayed even more creative thinking than the ones who completed the dull writing task. Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman concluded that “boring reading tasks facilitate more daydreaming than boring written tasks — and it is this daydreaming that leads to an increase in creativity.”

Pennsylvania State University researcher Karen Gasper, who did her own study on the effects of boredom on creative thought, told Fast Company: “Boredom encourages people to explore because it signals that your current situation is lacking so it’s kind of a push to seek out something new.”

Master a New Skill

This may sound like a procrastination technique rather than a way to push your creative boundaries. But if you’re going to be jumping off cliffs, you’re going to need some exposure to the unknown. And what better way to live in uncertainty than to regularly seek out new experiences?

Not knowing how to do something and then mastering it is one of life’s most satisfying (and self-esteem boosting) pursuits. It also expands your knowledge of the world so you’ll have more points of reference in your creative work. Knitting or dark-water diving anyone?

Take Your Laptop to the Coffee Shop

Did you ever wonder why people tapping away at their keyboards take up so many tables at Starbucks? How can they get anything done with all the noise around them?

It turns out that ambient noise is actually beneficial for creative thinking. Belle Beth Cooper, a co-founder of Exist, wrote, “Silence, in fact, actually helps us sharpen our focus so it’s useful for intense problem-solving or detail-oriented tasks. Creative thinking, on the other hand, requires the kind of ambient buzz of sound that you might find in a café to promote broader thinking and new ideas.”

So go ahead and claim that corner table at the local cafe and see if a few hours surrounded by fellow caffeine addicts and ambient noise inspires new concepts.

Learn to Value Your Ideas…Especially the Risky Ones

Abandoning the safety of your conventional ideas to pursue something new can be terrifying. You worry the client won’t get your idea for a new layout of their website or a strategy you wrote will get returned to you with nothing but red cross-outs and “Please see me” scrawled across the top.

But remember that plenty of new (and great) ideas end up tossed in search of the right one for the particular campaign. Even if one of your ideas is rejected, it doesn’t mean all of your other ideas will be too. Maybe the rejected idea will be right for another project in the pipeline.

Or maybe you just need to push a little harder. I recall, just two years into my communication career at a national airline, I pitched an idea to help boost employee morale. The concept comprised a spoof tabloid, mimicking the Enquirer, poking fun at ourselves with silly photos and ridiculous headlines to inject humour and lightness into the workplace. My superiors joked they were worried about my state, and were swift to dismiss it. About a year later, British Airways launched a very similar publication, and the initiative was a major success. In fact, it won the airline recognition and awards.

Keep in mind when you feel like copping out with a ho-hum creative nothing new and exciting results from the same old same old. Ad campaigns are a perfect example. With the introduction of the DVR allowing viewers to fast forward through commercials and paid streaming subscriptions offering commercial-free options, ad agencies have to work harder than Don Draper and his crew trying to save Sterling Cooper one more time. Ads have to be relevant, interesting, often funny and most important, not register in viewers’ minds as just another annoying commercial — all of this while still achieving the desired result.

When Dove decided to ditch conventionally beautiful models and hire plainer models for its Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, doubtless there were some naysayers in the boardroom who wondered if people would buy beauty products from less than glamorous women. But 11 years, multiple ad awards, and billions of dollars in profits later, the risk has paid off. Although the campaign was not without its critics, you can’t deny this concept captured people’s attention (and their imagination).

So, if you want to push your creative boundaries, it’s vital you value every idea you come up with — even if it seems risky. It’s true that some may turn out to be untenable, or need to be developed, or simply won’t work. But when you value all of your ideas it encourages you to keep creating them until you hit one that fits the project. That idea you scrapped for being too “out there” may be the one that develops wings.


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3 responses to “8 Techniques to Push Your Creative Boundaries”

  1. Karla says:

    Funny, I always thought of creativity as something you have or don’t have. But to actually exercise creativity, that’s a novel idea. Neat article. I’m going to try spending an afternoon in a coffee shop and see what happens to my work. :)

  2. Rick Sloboda says:

    Perhaps we have the ability to ‘bulk up’ our creativity with daily exercise. Creative brains are an increasingly important asset to succeed in the accelerated-change climate of the 21st century and beyond. I believe ideas will be the new currency.

  3. Derek S says:

    IDEAS the new currency?! Let’s see how they hold up to the US dollar. :P

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