1. Think in Concepts

When you are struggling through a design dilemma, start by identifying the problem. What is the goal you are trying to accomplish? Try to keep the problem as specific as possible. (For example, needing to design a website is too broad but needing to design a website to sell coffee mugs is doable.)

Now think about ways to get there. But here’s the hard part: Skip the details and think only in big concepts. Forget what can and can’t be done, just imagine everything that would provide a solution to the problem at hand.

Some of the ideas might be a little wacky or untraditional, but these sometimes odd or offbeat concepts can be the key to solving a problem.

2. Write Things Down


As you come up with ideas you’ll want to do two things:

  • Say each idea out loud
  • Write down each idea

Don’t be discriminatory. Vocalize and write down every single idea.

This practice helps make a concept a little more real and less of an off-the-wall idea as you go through the process. You’re more likely to remember ideas and the evolution of ideas if you keep a running tally of how the brainstorming process evolves.

Don’t stop yourself because something feels silly or wrong. These elements are part of what make brainstorming work.

3. Consider the Problem and Walk Away

A relaxed mind is a creative mind. This idea is why we often come up with some of our best ideas when we aren’t really thinking about them at all.

This is what I call “cooking.”

Sit down and outline what you want to do – goals, problems and concepts. Then walk away for a bit. Do something else – answer emails, go for a walk, whatever. Your brain will subconsciously keep thinking about the task at hand and you’re likely to find more focus and alternative solutions when you come back to it. (Or randomly at any point in between, so keep a pad and paper handy.)

4. Create a Toolkit


I have a little box under my desk full of brainstorming toys that comes out when I am struggling with a real design problem. Inside are items that help me think about design, get back in a creative zone and simply relax.

Items for a brainstorming toolkit:

  • Colored pens (or pencils)
  • Sticky notes in assorted sizes and colors
  • Coloring book
  • Legal pad
  • Word association game cards (make your own or I like Man Bites Dog)
  • Random design bits, such as pages from magazines you love or photos

Part of the trick to the toolkit is that every time you get it out, your brain is sparked to start thinking differently about problems and solutions. The items in the kit have two purposes – to help you collect your thoughts and to help you step away from the problem enough to think about it with a new mindset.

5. Keep a ‘Whatever’ File

Each time you come across a great idea, quote or just color swatch that you love, keep it in a “whatever” file. This personal inspiration folder can help bring back ideas from past projects that maybe weren’t quite right, help you “steal like an artist” as Austin Kleon says or just spark the right creative frame of mind. http://austinkleon.com/

Plan to keep two files – one digital and one paper – to keep up with all your snippets. (A tool such as Evernote can be great for digital clippings.) Also hang on to your design pieces – things you did not use or color swatches that a client didn’t like because you never know when these things can be used and fit a different project perfectly.

Then when you just aren’t feeling inspired break out the whatever files to jumpstart your creativity again.

6. Talk it Out


Working as a freelancer doesn’t mean you will always work in isolation. Plan a brainstorming meeting with a client – this can be particularly useful if they don’t really know what they want – or with friends or family members. (Some of my best brainstorming actually happens with friends over drinks.)

Brainstorming does not have to be a formal process. It happens organically all the time. You just need to be aware enough at the time so that you can capture those ideas for later.

7. Don’t Say No

This may sound a little strange at first: Stop saying no to yourself. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to the creative process.

Consider it:

  • How many times have you come up with an idea that never made its way to a client because you put a stop to the concept before it ever really developed?
  • How many times have you thought something would be cool to do only to stop short because the idea is a little too “out there?”
  • How many times have you ditched an entire concept because one person did not see the same vision?
  • How often do you talk yourself out of things before you present them to a client?
  • Do you find yourself using negative or undermining language when talking about ideas? These words include “sorry,” “actually,” “I’m no expert,” “just” and “does that make sense?”

You are probably saying no a lot more than you realize. Make a goal to say yes more. At least give every idea consideration before tossing it in the “no” pile. By saying yes to an idea, you give yourself time to think about it (maybe let it cook a little) and expand on the idea. Maybe the first concept wouldn’t result in the best design, but an evolution of that concept could be the perfect solution. Give yourself and your ideas time to grow and change before you start over.


Are you ready to put on your thinking cap? Brainstorming can be a rewarding exercise and can help you expand on ideas that result in better design projects.

Freelancing 101 is an occasional series to help the increasing number of freelancers in the market. Whether you are a designer, writer, developer or wear multiple hats, we will share tips, resources and ideas to help you make the most of your small business. Is there something in particular you want to know? Let me know at carrie@designshack.net.

Image Sources: Topher McCulloch, Converse College and Digital Internet.