How to have a big idea: 21 inspirational tips

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

So what’s the big idea? It’s a clearly-articulated concept that compels, unifies, differentiates, explains, inspires or motivates. I like Chris Wirthwein’s definition, particularly the elements of simplicityoriginality and surprise. But like the judge’s definition of obscenity, ‘it’s hard to define, but you’ll know it when you see it’. Whatever your ‘big idea’ might be, this article will help you find it.

Train your muse to find your big idea

man raising his hands as shadows on the wall

Writers have a complicated relationship with their muse. This wonderful podcast from RadioLab explores Me, Myself, and Muse, talking to famous writers about their relationship with their muse and how they train it.

Make time

Typewriter says 'make time for what matters'

IBM has ‘Think Fridays’ and Google has 20 per cent time. If you gave yourself a day a week or a week every month, could you come up with a big idea? Sure!

Interview someone

Two people talking to one another

When we’re creating personas or researching content for our clients, we love to do interviews. A good rule of thumb is one interview for every 500-1,000 words of content. There’s something magical about the way a good interview – an intelligent conversation can illuminate a topic and spark new ideas.

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Create a ‘Skunk Works’

SR-71 Blackbird skunkworks

The original Skunk Works was a division at Lockheed Martin, founded by aviation genius Kelly Johnson. Today it takes decades to design and build a new fighter aircraft. The Skunk Works went from contract to first flight on the A-12 (predecessor of the famous SR-71) in two years. Johnson had 14 rules for his Skunk Works that allowed him to streamline the paperwork and bypass bureaucracy. What could a small, focused team achieve in your organisation?

Use the Pomodoro technique to help concentration

Pomodoro tomato timer

A giant tomato could be the answer. Concentrate for 25 minutes at a time and then take a break. It’s a mind hack that helps you focus better. The Pomodoro technique, as it’s known, works for many people (although not for Articulate alumnus Toby Knott, as he reported in his article: I did it for science: Pomodoro and other time management techniques.)

Always carry a notebook

Scrap of paper

Inspiration can strike at any time. If you have a good notebook ready, you can capture it. Personally, I like Notion.

Change the venue

Matthew Stibbe working on a plane

I’ve tried writing on the Underground, coworking spaces, airport lounges and on the plane and in coffee shops. Mostly I work from home. Sometimes a change of scene is enough to produce a change of mind.

Ask for help

Reddit logo

Online Q&A forums like Reddit and Quora can be powerful ways to crowdsource answers to difficult questions.

Give yourself a deadline

I can't do anything without a deadline

Deadlines have psychological power. We find ‘sprint weeks’ helpful for tackling big, complicated tasks. You can reinforce a deadline with celebrations, t-shirts, team building and funny project names. Fear of loss is also a motivator if used carefully. For example, Write or die actually deletes your copy if you don’t type fast enough.

Use Pinterest to gather inspiration

Matthew's pinterest design inspiration board

Pinterest can be a great source of inspiration and a tool for collecting visual references. I’ve always found it a great help on design projects, for example, especially because I can’t draw or sketch and I need a way to show other people what I’m thinking.

Brainstorming your big idea

Lightbulbs drawn on a blackboard

Brainstorms can be a huge suck of energy and creativity but, done right, they can help a team do more together than they could individually. IDEO’s 7 rules of brainstorming are very helpful:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on the topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Try mind mapping

Sample mind map type of diagram

Mind mapping is a good way to see unexpected connections between things.

Go for a walk

Walking in the woods

A good long walk can be the best place for breakthrough thinking.

Meditation and mindfulness

Mindspace benefits of meditation

At Articulate, we like Calm, an app that helps you meditate, de-stress and sleep better. We buy it for all our staff.

Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog has lots about mindful change, growth and creativity, such as his article on Creativity lessons from Pixar.

Buy random magazines

magazine rack with lots of magazine covers

Occasionally, when I’m bored, for example when I’m stuck at an airport, I love to buy random magazines about unfamiliar hobbies and interests.

The new words and the enthusiasm always inspires me. This is why I like Readly, a website that does for magazines what Spotify does for music.

Learn something new

X Ray image of a skull showing gears inside

Learning a new language is good for writers. It’s like holding up a mirror to our own working language and it shakes loose our habits and conventions.

Indeed, at Articulate, we let staff use their ‘Happiness Account’ to pay for language lessons. Currently, one is learning Dutch and another Italian. In fact, learning anything is good for creativity.

Get a good to-do list

Do stuff. Be awesome.

It’s hard to be creative and come up with a big ideas if you’re stressed out with lots of little problems. That doesn’t mean doing everything else first.

Instead, a good to-do list will let you capture all your tasks so you’re not worrying about them and so that you don’t have the burden of remembering them. I like ToDoist.

Watch a random TED talk

Ted talks banner

I suppose everyone knows about TED talks now but the Surprise Me feature is a clever way of inviting serendipity.

Change your big idea strategy

Try Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards for some inspiration.

Sample card from Articulate's 'Oblique strategies' tool

Just draw the rest of the owl

Get started somehow and take care of the details later.

Draw the rest of the owl

Dare greatly

Yoda saying 'do or do not, there is no try'

Although Yoda put it nicely, Theodore Roosevelt has the last word about the value of starting, doing, trying and ‘daring greatly’. Don’t let the critics (including the one in your own head) get in the way of having a great idea.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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Banner photo by James Pond on Unsplash