How to get ideas

I sometimes wonder where do ideas come from. And more to the point: How to produce better ideas? Or good ideas faster or more often? I’ve come across a short video by Kirby Ferguson, maker of Everything is a Remix, in which he talks exactly about these questions. Since some of his points ring true to me, I decided to share them here.

The central tenets are:

  1. We usually don’t know where ideas come from, as they originate in our subconscious mind.
  2. Innovation relies on three modes of operation: copy, transform, combine.
  3. In order for our subconscious to copy, transform, and combine it needs raw material.
  4. Our conscious mind is responsible for supplying the subconscious with suitable raw material, then ideas will come.

Kirby Ferguson’s approach for making these central points for ideation work as smooth as possible encompasses four concrete steps:

  1. Define the search space. The trick is not to draw the border too narrow (not to restrict yourself too much) and not to wide (not to lose focus).
  2. Consume everything within the search space. Use different senses and media: talk to people, read, watch, etc. Binge on useful information.
  3. Digest the research. Study, organise and map out your material using different processing approaches.
  4. Move on and let your subconscious take over. Ideas should pop up. If ideas don’t happen, redefine some of the constraints of your steps 1 to 3 and take another shot.

Ralph Straumann

Ralph is a world-citizen, a geoinformation specialist by profession, and interested in many topics. Here, he'll confine himself mostly to things geo-visual.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Ralph

    Thank you for your blog post. I think exchange with other people who are different than you is very important for ideas to come up.

    > 2. Innovation relies on three modes of operation: copy, transform, combine.

    Because of this, if you want innovation to happen it’s helpful to have an interdisciplinary team. For example a geographer can bring new ideas and concepts into computer science, which are familiar for the geographer, but brand-new for a computer scientist. Therefore innovation happens. But it’s nothing entirely new, it’s just something applied in a new way.


    • Ralph Straumann says:

      Thanks for your comment, Andreas. I concur: I think a diverse network and/or team is a definite asset for innovation, and there is some research to support this, e.g. for the diversity of your Twitter network (recently in HBR).

      I like that Kirby Ferguson explicitly included talking to people in the list of research acitivities. I think we often forget about this (very obvious) mode of research and bury our noses in books (or the internet’s equivalents of those).

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